Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Zephaniah 3:14-20+Psalm 17:6-9, 13, 15+(1Timothy 4:1-6, 9-10)+Mark 1:29-31

On Monday of this week, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, had the privilege of being invited to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Day Beloved Community Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the very church that King pastored from 1960-1968. As he always does, Bishop Curry draws on scripture from all over the bible, plus gospel hymns, plus encounters he has had. He is quite the storyteller in how he weaves his sermons together.

At some point in his message, he talked about the young lawyer – the “brother,” he called him – who asked Jesus what the most important commandment was. It’s a story that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and Jesus always ties together loving God and loving neighbor, drawing on the law of Moses found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Through the centuries, preachers and commentators have made it clear that the two, in Jesus’s understanding, are inextricably connected. You cannot truly love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and you can’t truly love your neighbor if you don’t love God, as well. And the many, many times Jesus talks about serving others tells us how he believes we show God’s love to our neighbor: we serve them. It is the vocation of the Christian life.

We show love for God by gathering – in-person and online – to worship and to learn, to praise and to be fed in the sacraments, and then we are sent out to do that second part: to love our neighbors by serving them which, in turn, is an active demonstration of our love for God.

This little story from Mark about the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law has always rankled a bit. It is also told in Matthew and Luke, so it is likely that this encounter happened, and it rankles for a couple of reasons. When have you ever learned that the disciples were married, had wives and probably children? Was that part of your Sunday School? It wasn’t in mine. Peter is the only one mentioned as having a wife, but it is likely, given the culture of the time, that these men were married. Their wives may well have been followers of Jesus, too.

Another issue with this scene is that, while we have learned that Peter had a wife, we certainly don’t know her name, much less the name of her mother. Throughout the bible, we learn very few names of women, and we hear very little of their stories, but if women make up roughly half the population, we know that they had a part to play.

The final thing that has always bugged me is that, once healed, Peter’s mother-in-law hops up and starts waiting on the guys. What, they couldn’t even let her rest for a sec?

Later in all of the gospels, Jesus says something about service to others and models the way for them.

I came not to be served but to serve… (Mark 10:44, Matthew 20:28, Luke 22:27).

Service is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. Peter’s mother-in-law apparently understood this. Her role as a 1st century Palestinian woman was to show hospitality to whomever entered her home. It brought shame on her and her household if she failed to do this, so, once healed of whatever her infirmity was, she was restored to carry out the service that was not just her duty but her joy.

Maybe serving a meal doesn’t sound like much to you. Well, if your identity is wrapped up in that, it means everything. My vocation is, first, as a baptized Christian who has promised to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Living into our baptism is a lifelong project. I’m also an ordained person, and I continue to live into that vocation of service, of loving the people God has entrusted into my care.

Conversion and baptism and vocation are not once and done: they are lifelong processes of living a sacramental life, growing in love of God and neighbor.       

My ordination anniversary is on the day in April when the Church commemorates the 14th c. mystic, St. Catherine of Siena. One of her famous quotes is “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”

Be who God meant you to be. Do you know what that is, for you?

For Peter’s mother-in-law, it was to show hospitality.

For some of you, it is to raise children.

For some of you it is to be writers and social workers and good friends and hospitality workers. There is no one thing that you have to do to live a sacramental life. Do what you were put on this earth to do, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

God has worked miracles with the tiniest of seeds.

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas