Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.
That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.
Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”
He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.
About fifteen years ago, a young man named Brenton Brown was busy answering God’s call on his life. He had risen up to follow Christ with a vengeance, moving from his home in South Africa to Oxford, England, studying politics, philosophy, and philosophy, and getting involved with the massive Vineyard church movement. He began his time at the megachurch behind the scenes, but soon he was pastoring, leading music, and writing songs for the Vineyard praise team to record and sell. He was even signed to their record as a lead vocalist.
Brenton was young, vibrant, trendy in all the approved humble, Christian ways. Under the bright lights, in front of the crowds of thousands, Brenton lived out his call for all to see.
And it was killing him.
That’s a direct quote from Brenton. “Worship was killing me,” he said.
About six months earlier, Brenton had begun to develop symptoms that felt like jet-lag—exhaustion, nausea, muscle aches. Nothing he did could help him shake off that tired feeling, no matter how much sleep he got. Entirely by coincidence, his girlfriend was developing the same symptoms, and he said it helped that at least they were going through it together.
The energy needed to lead worship at his church, to interact with his huge congregation, just wasn’t there. Being a worship leader—the very thing he thought was his call—was running him ragged. But still Brenton pressed on, for six months, until his governing board told him it was okay to step away.
Soon after, both Brenton and his now-wife Jude were diagnosed with fibromyalgia, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Brenton said it was basically like “waking up one day and finding out that I had someone else’s body. Very strange. I wasn’t thinking as clearly. [Since then] we’ve basically had to relearn how to live life with our new bodies.”
I wonder how many of us in this room know that feeling, of suddenly realizing we don’t recognize our own bodies and brains anymore. Maybe because of an illness, or an injury, or simply because of age. All our lives we’ve been able to trust our bodies to get the job done, to help us to what we need to do, want to do, are called by God to do, and suddenly they just won’t cooperate.
It’s frustrating. It can even feel like a loss of identity, when we used to be able to do certain things, serve God in certain ways, and we can’t anymore. Our fast-paced culture, obsessed with youth and strength, can leave those of us whose bodies force us to a slower pace feeling invisible and unworthy. Unfortunately, the church isn’t always much better.
I confess my own guilt in this. As a preacher, I’m drawn to the glamorous, action-packed stories of people following Jesus’ call. The college students building habitat houses. The mission co-workers in third-world countries. The church hosting tutoring programs for dozens of boisterous children. Most weeks I get up here and I tell you all to get at it, to put your hands and feet into motion to serve God’s children in the world. To get moving, to push harder, to rise up and follow your call.
But for some of us, big, glamorous mission just isn’t an option any more. Does that make us any less important, any less faithful, any less followers of Christ?
The answer, you might guess, is a big fat no. God is not interested only in the able-bodied. God calls all of us, in big ways and small, and makes no distinction between the two.
Simon’s mother-in-law barely makes a blip in our Bible. She gets two sentences, and then she’s gone. Which tells me that she’s in there for a reason. Mark could have left her out, but he didn’t.
Simon’s mother-in-law—unfortunately, we don’t have her name—is sick. She’s confined to bed with a fever. Jesus comes to her home and heals her, raises her up.
The scripture says she served them, and two millennia of sexism primes us to think that she must be in the kitchen making sandwiches, but the Greek word there is diakonia, the root of our word deacon. It’s the same word used elsewhere in scripture for the ministry of the early church. Simon’s mother-in-law may not be able to rise up herself, but Jesus raises her up, and her response is to take some part, however small, in their ministry. To care for them not merely as a hostess but as a sibling in Christ.
Like I said, Simon’s mother-in-law disappears from Mark’s gospel after this. She isn’t recorded as traveling with Jesus, as wandering with him from town from town. Her contribution seems small. Yet she answers her call as she can, within her own home, within her own sphere of influence. And so Jesus ate that day, and had a safe place to rest, and a new disciple to his name.
Simon’s mother-in-law is healed from the fever by Jesus’ miracle touch. Not many of us receive that kind of miracle healing, where the tumor shrinks or the depression lifts or the cataracts clear up all on their own. And yet Jesus heals us in other ways, heals our souls, calling us beloved and worthy with a touch of his hand. Calls us to take part in his ministry in the smaller, quiet ways that we can, and not to listen to anyone who would call us small because of it.
Even when our knees shake so that we cannot rise to follow Christ’s call ourselves, Christ raises us up to sit with him, to know his presence, his peace.
After his diagnosis, Brenton had to step away from leadership at his megachurch. The only thing he found he still had energy for was writing songs. Being a solo artist allowed him to work at his own pace. In 2006, he released his first album, which included Everlasting God, which we sang this morning. The words come from Isaiah 40, words that were prayed over him. He wrote “the danger with suffering from a chronic illness without being healed is you grow cold to some words. But I was pretty intentional about it. This is God’s promise to us. However it works out, however [God] chooses to bring [God’s] strength. [God] hasn’t chosen the way I would have chosen, so to sing those words, for me, it’s almost a redeeming action. This is where I am at, this is the truth of God, and this is [God’s] promise. [God] will look after my wife and me, and will carry us through this time.”
It is likely Brenton will live with Chronic Fatigue for the rest of his life. He will probably never go back to the every-week leadership of a megachurch. But he has found new ways to serve, and his words touch millions. It’s a different call than he expected; maybe even a different call than he wanted, I don’t know for sure. But he has opened himself to recognizing God’s presence, God’s direction in this new, slower life. It may not be a miracle healing, but that peace seems to me like healing all the same.
I would point out one more moment in this morning’s scripture, another blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment sandwiched between action-figure Jesus throwing out demons and hiking through Galilee: Jesus goes out by himself to pray. To rest in God’s presence.
That is part of his call. To rest. To refresh. To restore himself.
When we are struck by illness, or injury, or exhaustion; when we have to come to terms with bodies that simply won’t do what we want them to do; then I truly believe that God’s call on our lives may simply be to rest. To care for ourselves. To open ourselves to God’s presence and know that we are loved and valued just as we are.
God calls us all, one way or another. Often times God calls one way and another, as we go through life. Right now you may be called to action, to pound the pavement and keep your hands busy, or you may be called to rest, to simply hold the presence of God in your heart, or both, or anything along that spectrum.
I give thanks for Simon’s mother-in-law, who modeled how to serve in small ways, and who is no less a disciple that her more famous son-in-law for it.
Jesus raised her up, raises us up. No matter our age, our health, our ability, our energy, we do nothing on our own. Whether we jump up eagerly from the pew or whether our legs are giving out on us, Jesus is there by our side, touching our lives with grace, with peace, with rest, with worth.
God’s call may change with our lives, but we are never not called. We are never not called to be disciples, to be faithful, to be part of Jesus’ ministry simply by remembering that we are loved and to love in our turn. These things are everlasting, and in them we have our strength, and our healing, and our hope.
Praise be to God. Amen.