Sermon inspired by Zephaniah 3:14–20; 1 Timothy 4:1–6, 9–10 & Mark 1:29–31 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W. Press play button ▷ above for audio.
During my internship year in Alabama, I took a few of our church-members to an interfaith forum at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The forum included a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. They were asked various questions, and so each gave their own take on a variety of topics. It was fascinating, and we all learned a lot. One of the highlights for me was when they started taking questions from the audience and someone asked the rabbi, “How do you go about converting to Judaism.” He kinda chuckled and said, “Well, the first thing I would ask someone who wanted to convert is, why! Why would you do this to yourself? It’s not that fun! It’s a lot of work! From the way we eat, to the way we dress, to learning Hebrew, worship, and don’t get me started about all the rules on the Sabbath! I wouldn’t recommend this way of life to anyone!” he said.
Not only was that a surprising
answer, believe me, nobody saw that coming, but what I appreciated about that
answer was how authentic and honest it was. It’s something we could use more of
in our own religion. We have a tendency to emphasize all the great and
wonderful things you’re gonna get if you “join us”, like love, community,
family, care, guidance, knowledge, support, and the other wonderful things that
you would add to that list. It’s a great sell! It really is! And I’d agree,
those are all things that you should be getting from any religious institution.
What I haven’t heard enough of in my lifetime as a follower of Jesus, are all
the other not-so-positive things that you get from church. And I’m not talking
about any kind of abuse, that’s for a whole other day! But the reality is, in
addition to all that wonderful stuff, you’re also gonna get a whole lot of
And, you’re not gonna get paid for any of it! Well, not with money anyway. Hopefully, at the end of the day the work is worth it for you. So, what kind of work am I talking about? Well, let’s talk about the obvious kind, the kind that’s probably going through many of your minds right now, and that’s all the volunteer hours it takes to run a church. I would love to add up those volunteer hours sometime. I think we would be amazed at that number! Just the volunteer hours to put this Sunday morning show on for you each week is a lot! But even aside from that there’s cleaning, there’s set up for coffee hour, take down of coffee hour, making the coffee, cooking, committee meetings, repairs on an old building, groundskeeping, and the list goes on! It’s a lot! And I haven’t even mentioned what our president, vice-president, and treasurer have to go through!
So there’s that kind of work that goes along with being part of a religious institution but that’s the obvious stuff. Before we get into the less obvious stuff though, let me tell you why the work of ministry is on my mind. Whenever we have a super short Gospel reading, today’s was only four short sentences, I always think to myself, “How am I gonna get a whole sermon outta that?” So I took a harder look at the other readings and at first I was having a hard time finding anything useful, and sometimes there isn’t, and that’s ok. But I read them again, and again, and again, which is probably why I didn’t finish this sermon until last night, which is really unusual for me, but something finally jumped out at me. A thread that ran through each of our readings, though very subtly.
In our reading from Zephaniah, what you heard was the very ending of a very short book, it’s a pamphlet really. And throughout it, Zephaniah is doing what many prophets did, and that was trying their best to get their people to get their act together and follow the way of God. In spite of that however, it’s a very hopeful book, because for Zephaniah, God isn’t tied down by our behavior. Halleluiah! Right? Our behavior does not dictate what God can or cannot do. God does what God wants, period. And so, Zephaniah wrote about God’s powerful, saving work, and how, at the end of the day, God will bring you home. But there was one line that stood out like a sore thumb. In God’s voice, Zephaniah writes, “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, Zion; do not let your hands grow weak, daughter.”
What a strange thing to say, “do not let your hands grow weak.” In the midst of all the talk about rejoicing in God’s power, God’s salvation, God’s protection, God says, oh yeah, by the way, keep them hands strong. Okaaay, kinda weird. What’s that about? Put a pin in that and let’s take quick look at our second reading, which was from First Timothy. Here we have a pastoral letter to a young Christian who was sort of an apprentice of Paul’s, part of the next generation of followers of Jesus. The letter was written to encourage, teach, and support Timothy, and so the line that jumped out at me was when the author said, “for this we toil and struggle.” And again I thought, that’s an odd thing to say, especially in the midst of so much love and support for Timothy. But the thread doesn’t stop there, it continues to the Gospel reading.
This is just the second miracle that Mark records. Jesus had just left the synagogue where he healed a man of what they called an unclean spirit. It was a big production, lots of people witnessed this, including the Jewish leadership. And you have to believe that was intentional. This was Jesus’ way of saying, “Heads up y’all! Your messiah has arrived.” And word began to spread quickly. Mark then writes, “Immediately they went to Simon’s house.” Whenever Mark uses the word “immediately”, and it’s often, that’s our cue to see if there’s a connection between the two stories, and there usually is. What I love about these two stories is that it goes from a big miracle with a big audience for maximum exposure, to this small miracle, in this small intimate family moment, where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law.
|'Healing of Peter`s Mother in law'|
The take away that Mark wants you to leave this story with, just like the author of Zephaniah and First Timothy, is that God’s saving, protecting, guiding, healing work on us is not for nothing. Meaning, whenever God heals us, that’s never supposed to be the end of the story. Rather, God heals us for the work ahead. And no, that’s not God pulling a fast one on us, nor is it God being manipulative. This is God seeing value in you and your God-given abilities. If there’s anything selfish about this it’s only in that God loves the world so much that God wants you working in it, to make it a better place than the way you found it. So, let’s end with what this work might look like. Other than the obvious stuff that we already talked about.
Last night my family and I were watching the National Day of Racial Healing: An MSNBC Town Hall, and one of their guests, author Nikole Hannah-Jones, was asked what racial healing means to her. She said, when I think of racial healing, the people I think who really need healing are white people. “We black people may have suffered a lot of harm, but the people who caused the harm, are the people who need the healing, the reflection, the fixing.” That is the kind of work that Christ calls us into. The kind of work that causes us to reflect on what makes us who we are, and be honest with what needs healed. Another guest, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock Central High School, said, “Activism is a life sentence.”
While many of us might call it being a social justice warrior, she on the other hand, likened it to incarceration. That is the kind of work that Christ calls us into. The kind that costs us something. Now, those are big dramatic examples, but the work of ministry that we are all called to comes in all shapes and sizes. From parenting and marriage, to being the best supervisor at work that you can be or, like Simon’s mother-in-law, serving those around you with a heart for hospitality, and everything in between. At our Wednesday evening Bible discussion, one of our college students shared a little bit of what it was like to take care of her family when everyone in her household got COVID. I remember texting with her during that time and even through my phone screen I could hear her exhaustion and frustration and fear.
So, on Wednesday I asked her, “Why did you do that? How did you get through it? What motivated you?” She said, “Love and duty.” Love and duty. I thought to myself, maybe I should have her preach this Sunday! Christ comes with healing for whatever ails us, for whatever holds us back, but Christ doesn’t heal for nothing. And no it’s not a requirement, not an ultimatum, we don’t believe in a do-this-or-else kind of God. So, how about we call it an expectation, or in the words of Marie Claire, our duty? Whatever we call it, it is Christ’s hope for us. May we be ready, each time Christ lifts us up by the hand, to be healed, and to go to work. Amen.