I was only in the LCMS for about six months of my entirely Lutheran life, but my family’s experience there helped define my call. I preached this sermon in 2006 at PLTS while I was pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Berkeley, CA. [Pastor Katie is now Senior Pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale, Illinois. Watch Pastor Katie on YouTube discussing Lent.]
Mark 1:29-39, Isaiah 40:21-31, 1st Corinthians 9:16-23
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, February 8th 2006
Chapel of the Cross PLTS, Berkeley CA
Last night at council meeting one of the members of Shepherd of the Hills asked Kelly Ayers, our new teaching parish student what brought her into the ministry. Kelly took a deep breath, “Ah, the call story…” and she graciously began. But I knew what was in that deep breath. I am not so far removed from seminary and from candidacy committees and from call committees. And I know how it feels to share that story that’s supposed to contain so much meaning, to have some magical spark, over and over again until any life is sucked right out of it. I did it, and am still doing it too.
Today I’d like to offer a little ray of hope. Today I would like to tell you a little bit of my own call story and how, even after telling it for so many years that there is still new meaning for me to find in it, and still something new to share. I hope your call stories will prove similar.
In 1985 when I was ten years old my father and mother decided to move the family to Washington State from Illinois so that my father could pursue an advanced degree in theatrical design. My mother supported our family on her salary as a director for refugee resettlement for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. We used to say that God would provide my father a job wherever God needed my mother to work. It was true then too. My mother did good work, important work, and work that wasn’t very well paid. Needless to say, my family was very poor. Poor enough that I got discounted lunches at school. Poor enough that my parents could in no way afford child care after kindergarten for my little sister Allison.
But my parents were enterprising people, and after searching around they found a private kindergarten with after school care at a very low price. But there was one catch. You had to be a member of the Missouri Synod Lutheran church to which the school was attached to qualify. My mother sucked up her LCA pride and we joined that church.
It worked pretty well for about two months. But a great deal of my mother’s job involved working with Episcopal parishes and preaching in their pulpits. And she found that she just couldn’t stand having her little girls raised in a church where one of them could never even stand behind the altar. And so my mother quietly let the preschool supervisor know that she would have to start charging us the full tuition rate because we would be leaving the church.
The preschool supervisor was intrigued. Could she learn more? My mother was sure she had won a convert for the cause. My mother invited her over for a cup of coffee the next day.
And the next day came. But instead of the preschool supervisor, who should come to our door but the church pastor, the council president, and the church treasurer. Three men come to have a little chat with my mother, come to set her straight about a woman’s place in the church. They told her that she could work in the Sunday School or help in the kitchen, but she had no place preaching.
It was the first step for me down the long road of feminist theology. The witness of these men, the witness of my mother standing up to them ignited years of study of scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Mary Daly and Rosemary Radeford Ruther. Watching my mother stand up to those men lead to years of suspicion about what the powers and principalities teach. It made me very conscious about what a man says a woman’s place is.
And then there’s our gospel message for today. It’s one of the messages that at first glance just kills me. Jesus is traveling with his new disciples, with Simon, Andrew, James, and John. He’s preaching and teaching and healing, and now he’s off to take a break. He goes what Mark names is “Simon’s mother-in-law’s house.” She doesn’t even get a name, this woman whom Jesus encounters. Which I guess shouldn’t surprise us too much because her daughter, Simon’s wife, doesn’t get a name either. Just women in the background.
So at the disciple’s insistence Jesus goes and takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up. She’s made whole, she’s well, finally healed after an untold number of days on a sick bed. Fevers were nothing to be trifled with in the ancient world. Perhaps Simon’s mother-in-law thought she wouldn’t be able to help support the family anymore, all the more problem now that Simon has left honest work to follow some Pied Piper. Perhaps she thought that she would die. But Jesus comes and makes her well. And what does she do? Does she go at Jesus’ command to preach the gospel, to heal others, to join the disciples in their quest. No, none of these.
No, once she is well Mark writes, “She began to serve them.”
Its enough to make you want to pull out your hair. Its enough to make a good feminist scholar want to take a pair of scissors to her Bible and make some amendments. Are we to believe that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law just so that she could get him a cup of coffee? Couldn’t the disciples have managed a few sandwiches on their own? Isn’t there more than service for a woman of the church?
Well maybe, but maybe not. Because before we get too high up on our soap boxes, lets take a look around here on the ground. Let’s take a look around at what it means to be a disciple, what it means to be a follower of Christ. Today’s Epistle lesson is clear. Paul says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” And so to the Jews he becomes a Jew, and to those outside the law he becomes as one outside the law, the weak he becomes weak. Paul writes that he becomes all things to all people. For the sake of the gospel, Paul becomes a servant to all.
We are called to be servants of all whether we are pastors or presidents, whether we are teachers or administrators, whether we are students or spouses. Servants of all, as unglamorous as that might be.
I remember when I was a teaching parish student at my first meeting with my pastor, John Gorder of Augustana Lutheran Church in Chicago, I told him in no uncertain terms what I would and wouldn’t do. I was excited about preaching, and about learning about church budgets and finances. I would teach the occasional adult class. But I would not be working in the kitchen or teaching any classes for children or youth. I was not going to get caught in the trap of a woman’s ministry of service.
John Gorder is a wise and gentle man, and so instead of hitting me upside the head with the concept of service, he very gently ushered it in. Sure I would get to preach and teach when I was ready, but what if we were to teach confirmation together? Might not that work?
John Gorder knew something about a life of service. A life of being the servant of all and how a pastor has to do all sorts of unglamorous things in the course of her day. How she had to change light bulbs and call plumbers. How she has to negotiate fights over who will be Mary in the Christmas pageant. How she has to deal with left over baggage from the last pastor or from someone’s Catholic upbringing or deal with debates with someone’s atheist husband secondhand. And how she has to teach confirmation and clean up the kitchen sometimes. That’s the work of a disciple.
And sometimes the work of a disciple is to answer phones or grade papers or give one more speech about the need to donate money. Sometimes the work is reading something really boring, or staying up all night working on a piece of writing, or sitting though one more class. Sometimes it means doing the dishes or changing the baby’s diaper. The work of a disciple isn’t always glamorous.
Simon Peter didn’t know what the work of a disciple was yet in this first chapter of Mark. He had seen a lot of glory, a lot of teaching and preaching and healing and awe. He had not yet seen to loneliness and the suffering and the long road towards death for the sake of the gospel. I imagine that he spent the night after the healing of his mother-in-law and all those other people in Capernaum thinking of how great all this will be. How they could build a tent, no a church, no a crystal cathedral right here in Capernaum right here at his mother-in-law’s house where everyone could come to see Jesus’ glory. And Simon knows where this is leading. He won’t be a fisher of fish anymore, but a fisher of men. He’ll be a big man with all the trappings. And I don’t think I thought these things because he was a bad man, I think he thought them because he’s human.
But in the morning Jesus is gone. He isn’t sticking around for glory. He’s going forward into a life of service. He who had every right to claim Godhood, to do nothing but give great sermons and speak at big assemblies, and lead the congregation in uplifting song and prayer. But he doesn’t do these things. Instead goes forward, into obscure and sometimes hostile towns to bring the gospel. He goes forward to let us know that when we follow him we’ll be servants too.
I think that Simon’s mother-in-law understood that about Jesus. I think that she, like the woman with the ointment, like the woman at the tomb, knew that following Jesus means serving the world. Unlike the disciples in Mark’s gospel, these women seem to be always ready to stand up and to serve.
When those three Missouri Synod men showed up at my parent’s door my mother was there to meet them. She held her own, I’m sure, but I don’t remember much of what she said. What I do remember is how my father responded. Now my father isn’t much of a church-goer. But he believes in his own quiet way and never hindered my mother from her faith practice.
And when those men were arrayed against her my father calmly said, “Just because I can grow hair on the back of my neck doesn’t make me the spiritual leader of this family.”
That was all. In my mind’s eye they left after that. After that statement there was nothing left to say. What seems most remarkable to me today is my father’s stand of servant-hood. How his witness of support to my mother’s leadership was what stuck in my mind then and remains in my mind today.
My father was a witness to me of what it means to be a disciple. To be willing to lay down your authority, your pride, your leadership your masculinity, your all so that more might come to believe in the gospel. He did what he did so that his daughters might one day come to believe. And indeed they did.
As you approach your lives and work this week, know that your service, no matter how small it may seem, is gift to the world. I thank God for your work and I pray that we will be led to deeper and deeper servant hood each day.
Thanks be to the witness of Simon’s mother in law.
Thanks be to God.