Leadership, Community, and that Neighborhood Mom that Becomes Your Other Mom

This sermon was first preached for an online service of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on February 7, 2021.

Relevant lectionary texts here.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The woman in this story doesn’t have a name.

This isn’t uncommon, unfortunately, with scripture. Women in the Bible are often erased from the narrative entirely or else left unnamed. When women are included at all, they are often known only by their relationship to men. Like in this case, Simon’s Mother In-Law.  We don’t know her name.

This woman is remarkable, and we will talk more about why. But first I want to give her a name. Because I am not going to spend the next 10 minutes talking about Simon’s Mother In-Law.

It’s not hard for me to choose a name. One came to mind immediately actually. I am going to call her Bonnie. I’m calling her Bonnie because I have a Bonnie in my life. Maybe you do, too. Bonnie is the mom of my friend, Kayla. As teenagers, our group of friends would thunder down the stairs to her basement to practice dances or make prank phone calls. And every once in a while, Bonnie would poke her head through the door and bring down some scotcheroos or some other snacks she knew we liked.

Growing up, if you’re lucky, there’s always that friend who is more like family, whose mom becomes like another mom to you. Now that I am grown up, allegedly, and a parent and a spouse, Bonnie showers my whole family with love. Every time she hosts us, Bonnie sets aside a little bit extra of her famous pickle wrap dip for my spouse, Adam. She knows it’s his favorite. She always remembers things like that.

So I am going to call Peter’s mother in-law Bonnie. Because she deserves a name. And because I can just picture Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James and John thundering down her basement steps, sitting around a table, playing cards, planning the revolution together.

Sometimes we read these stories and forget that they are about real people with real relationships. The people in this story knew and loved each other deeply. They had personalities and inside jokes and little squabbles and all the other hallmarks of people who spend a lot of time together.

Jesus had just begun his ministry. Just before heading back to Andrew and Simon’s house, the disciples had decided to abandon their normal lives, to go on an adventure, to follow Jesus and build God’s kingdom here on earth, to be a part of God’s movement of Love and Liberation. And after this crew got together and committed to one another and this mission, they went their house of worship, the synagogue, where Jesus teaches and teaches and casts out a demon.

I imagine that felt pretty wild and exhilarating and terrifying. I bet they were chattering as they entered the house about what might happen next, what the plan was, strategizing the preaching tour of Galilee Jesus would go on to continue to gather people and build the movement. And, also, the demon that Jesus cast out in the synagogue did not go quietly. Maybe Jesus worked up an appetite. Maybe he was hoping for some of Bonnie’s scotcheroos.

But when they got to Bonnie’s house she was…not ok. She was not herself. She was lying down and sweating with a fever. They told Jesus right away. They knew how much he loved Bonnie. Revolution or not, there is no way he could go on this preaching tour without making sure she was ok. For two reasons, really – 1) Jesus would spend the whole time away totally unfocused, worried about Bonnie and 2) Bonnie was an essential part of his ministry. She was one of the women who was the backbone of this entire operation. He couldn’t do the work without her.

Jesus goes to Bonnie’s room and sees her, feverish, in bed. He grasps her hand tenderly and then gently helps her stand up. And she is healed. The fever is gone.

What Bonnie does next is a classic Bonnie move. Scripture says she “began to serve them.”

There is a lot of gross, patriarchal baggage with phrases like that. “She began to serve them.” But this isn’t some weird display of subservience. The Greek word here for “to serve” appears only two other times in Mark. One of those times is in reference to Jesus himself, who came, “not to be served, but to serve.”*

This is a statement of Bonnie’s discipleship. She committed herself, here, to Jesus in Galilee. And later on, in Jerusalem, she and the other women would stand by Jesus when others failed. All the way to the end.

This was the moment that Bonnie joined the movement.

Bonnie and the other women funded Jesus’ ministry. They helped out, behind the scenes. In fact that Greek word here, “to serve,” has the same root as the word “deacon.”

Bonnie was a leader in Christ’s church.

This is not to say that Bonnie’s discipleship didn’t continue to include making snacks. Deacons to this day often participate in food justice work and run feeding ministries. Jesus is very into food, in a very radical way. Serving food, in God’s eyes, is holy work. That’s why God serves us all dinner, feeding us around God’s table with God’s own body and blood.

So I’m imagining that before Jesus left to travel around and heal and liberate people and build power within his movement, Bonnie probably did wrap up some snacks. To go. But it’s not that Jesus healed Bonnie so that she could make him boxed lunches. Jesus could find anyone to make boxed lunches, he could make his own boxed lunches. He needed Bonnie, in particular. Because she was like another mama to him and he loved her.

It’s strange sometimes to think of Jesus needing something or someone. We think of God as all powerful and unlimited. But Jesus was born as a human being. God was born as a baby, which means God needed mom to care for him and nurse him. I don’t know if you have spent time around a baby or toddler lately, but they have a lot of needs. Without that care, Jesus wouldn’t have made it.

Perhaps we don’t like to think of God needing someone because we as a capitalistic culture, look down on being in need. We like to pretend that we are self sufficient, independent. We value lies like “rugged individualism.” Capitalism tells us needing others, needing help, is a moral failure. Needing someone feels like a weakness, weakness feels like a fault, and we have trouble reconciling that with our view of God.

But God – Jesus – did need people. Jesus is counter-cultural in that way. Jesus is all about community. Jesus didn’t go out and start the revolution alone, he called disciples on purpose. He needed partners in the work. Jesus gathered together a community and provided what they needed – healing, exorcism, food.

Jesus gave people what they needed so they could be free to join him in the revolution.

It reminds me a bit of the medical clinics and free breakfast programs that the Black Panthers used to put on. They called these programs, “Survival Pending Revolution.” Because what good is the revolution if the people are too sick or too hungry to join anyway?

That’s what Jesus does. Jesus frees us from our bondage to sin and death. And when we are free, we have a job to do. We find our place in God’s kingdom, our role in the revolution. We are free to live into our identities as disciples, we are free to serve one another. 

Maybe you can think of your own Bonnie. A person in your life that builds up the community, behind the scenes. Who is there when you need her. Who holds things together. Maybe we should send that person a note, say thanks.

Maybe you’re that person sometimes. Maybe it feels like no one notices, or like it doesn’t matter. Maybe your name is erased in the narrative even though you housed the architects of the revolution.

Your work serving and loving those around you does not go unrecognized by God. 

Whoever you are, I hope you leave today knowing that Jesus is about love and setting people free. And that it is community that is the tool that makes that happen.

Beloveds we all have our part to play. Even today Jesus is calling us towards more costly, risky discipleship. We are called to this work in the midst of God’s ministry, casting out demons like white supremacy, in a time like now, during COVID, when people are crying out for healing. Jesus is continually bringing each of us, individually and as a community, closer and closer to wholeness, so that we can be free to serve one another.

It is God who heals and God who casts out demons and God who makes things new. That all happens by God’s power. But God is empowering us to be partners in that work. God is choosing to need us in this grand plan of liberation.

You have a role to play in God’s kingdom. We have a role to play.

And we do this work, together.

Thanks be to God. 

*With gratitude to Ched Meyers for inspiring these ideas.

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