A few years ago the telephone company had a familiar advertisement that went, “Reach out, reach out and touch some one.” In today’s Gospel Jesus does precisely this. The need to be touched is a fundamental human need. Babies who are not touched die. Adults need to be touched, too. Some of us do a good job of covering up that need. If ignored too long, we also die. But it is another type of death. It is a death called separation and isolation, a death of our hearts, which harden and become impenetrable to the very thing we long for, need and desire–the desire to be fully and truly known; to be understood; to be accepted; to be loved. To be touched is to be in a fuller and deeper communion with the other.
As with all things human, our need to touch and be touched can be abused; and our desire to be truly known often goes unmet or unfulfilled. At times it appears safer to retreat into a tragic world of isolation and non-touch.
“[Jesus] came and took her hand, and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
In today’s Gospel lesson we are told of Jesus’ first healing–the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law–the first Markan account of Jesus and a woman. We are told that she was in bed with a fever. Jesus straight way goes to her, touches her, taking her hand. Like the unclean spirit, which Jesus only a short while earlier had cast out, the fever leaves Peter’s mother-in-law and “she begins to serve them.”
It is a bit disheartening to think that Peter’s mother-in-law was healed just to make dinner for Jesus and his disciples. Is this just another text that puts women in their place? It this yet another opportunity to oppress?
At the heart of our gospel story lies a deeper, richer truth, a truth that the translators of this today’s text didn’t quite capture. Not only was the woman’s health restored, but her relationship with others was healed as well. Not only had the fever taken away her health, it had caused isolation and separation. Jesus, the male outsider to the family, did the unusual that day, he touched her. In that touch she was known, accepted and loved. She began to serve, not as a slave, not as one subordinate and dependent, but as one who is called and empowered to serve in mutuality. The King James Version of today’s lesson says that she “ministered” to them. Like the angels who tended to Jesus in the wilderness, Peter’s mother-in-law was able to care and serve just as they did. In being known for who she was, she had something to give–the gift of self. It is this very ministry, this ministry of self-giving service, that Jesus himself claims.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus touched her. Her isolation was broken and she was empowered to serve. Jesus touched her, and Jesus touches us. Jesus touches us in a myriad of seen and unseen ways. We are here this morning, called to this place, because we, too, in some way or another, have been touched by God through Jesus Christ. For some the path that we travel is fairly visible, for others it is still dim and uncertain. Yet, all of us continually need that hand guiding us, touching us and leading us.
Almost seven years ago now, on February 26, 1993, the World Trade Center complex in New York was bombed. My sister was working on the 100th floor of that tower. Shortly after noon, there was a tremendous rumble and the lights went out. My sister and those with her were unclear as to what had happened. There was no power, no telephone. All was darkness, and a lot of uncertainty, and fear. In a short while someone found a radio; and as they heard the news reports begin to seep in, the reality of the situation became clear–the building had been bombed and the extent of the damage unknown.
Their small, rag-tag group decided to start walking down one of the stairwells. It was dark, but there wasn’t much smoke–yet. They managed to get down about twenty floors when the smoke began to get thicker. They were able to find refuge and hospitality on a floor occupied by a tenant with an internal power system and working telephones. Brenda called my mother, letting her know that she was alive and OK, and my mother called me to let me know what was going on.
They had stayed there for several hours when a group decided that it was time to try to get downstairs. There had been no information, no direction; only intuition. My sister and a friend decided to join them. As they entered the pitch-black, smoky stairwell, they encounter a stream of people slowly pouring down the stairs.
Someone had a lighter and by its dim glow they entered the flow. People slowly moved hand in hand–a long winding human chain. Down and down and down it went, in the darkness, spiraling down toward light and safety. To break contact was to lose one’s way. From other floors people entered that human chain, slowly being let in, joining, becoming part of the cooperative effort.
Hand in hand they went–hundreds of people. Barriers and differences that once separated were now broken down, unimportant. People who hours earlier would probably not have noticed each other, let alone touch each other, were now walking hand in hand, dependent on each other to find their way to safety. Brenda and her friend finally emerged from the tower several hours later; safe, but very tired and scared, and more than a little anxious to get home.
God worked in those touching hands. God was there in all those hands holding one another, guiding one another, leading one another. Hand in hand, each one of the hundreds of people moving down those stair-wells were empowered to serve; to minister to their neighbor, helping, holding and guiding each other. This is the interdependence and mutuality of the Kingdom of God.
Through the darkness and spirals of this world, Jesus touches us and bids our fevers–the fevers of isolation and separation, of resentment and hate, selfishness, oppression and greed–to be gone. Through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we are healed into new and restored relationships with God and each other. In that abundant touch of God, we are fully know, fully accepted and fully loved. Each one of us is Peter’s mother-in-law: we have all touched and empowered to serve. Jesus’ hand continues to guide us, leading us hand in hand, showing us the way through this world, into the promise of the next, leading you, leading me–all of us–home.