February 4, 2018
Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
Isaiah 40:28-31; Mark 1:29-39
What is the definition of discipleship? One meaning is to think of it like an apprenticeship, learning from someone who is a master at a trade or who has special skills and knowledge. That is how the ancient Greeks understood discipleship. A person would work closely with a master in order to acquire practical and theoretical knowledge. Some disciples were even expected to pay the master for the privilege of learning the trade.
Around the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, a Jewish student of religion was expected to learn not only the Hebrew Bible Scriptures, but also the oral traditions, the traditions of the fathers. A man, and yes, back then they were all men, would attach himself to a Rabbi, who would serve as a guide for the student as they studied the Scriptures.
Jesus, however, has a different definition of discipleship. Rather than call the best students or the most thoughtful philosophers to apprenticeship, Jesus calls some fishermen, a tax collector, and some other rag-tag fellows who never seem to get what Jesus is really about. Rather than call the strong, Jesus calls upon the weak, and in this story, someone lying in bed with a fever. Simon’s mother-in-law may not be listed in the “official” set of the twelve, but she becomes a disciple nonetheless.
Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her…” This is one of the first healing stories in Mark’s gospel, and already the crowds begin to gather outside the door seeking to be rid of their diseases and demons. But in that brief moment, in the way the woman responds to the healing, we see the first indication of Jesus’ definition of discipleship. As the fever left her, “she began to serve them.”
She was probably still weak from the fever. Yet it was her weakness which allowed the strength of God to enter in and become her strength. You and I may sometimes feel that we are too weak or tired to serve in ministry; but in our weakness, God gives us strength for the work of the gospel. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? God does not faint or grow weary; but gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Later, in the tenth chapter of Mark, we hear Jesus say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” The disciples, especially James and John, expected that they would become great leaders. But Jesus told them the way that they must walk was the path of service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” As she began to serve them, Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrated the call of the disciples to serve others.
One of the great servants of our age was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a disciple of Jesus. He served the cause of justice, the cause of others who needed him. He is considered a great man, for what he said and did in the Civil Rights Movement. But he said that the honors, the awards, and the recognition that he received was not what was important to him. He served God with his entire life, and the kind of greatness that comes from that life is not out of reach for any of us. These are his words:
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
It doesn’t sound all that easy. And it’s not. It is hard work. But it is good work. It is the kind of work that will lift your spirits. By serving others, by helping them to bear their burdens, we find our own burdens much easier to bear. By listening to another person, we might hear what God is doing in the world outside of our own heads. When we take the time to help another, when we allow our plans and routines to be interrupted by the needs of another, we just might be able to release our own anxieties and make room for God to refocus our attention on what is really important.
I would like to share the stories of two people whose burdens were lifted by the service of someone they didn’t even know. These stories were published in the Huffington Post in 2018.
Lou had recently moved to Boston from Florida. He took the commuter rail into the city each day for work, and one stormy winter’s day the train was delayed for hours. People were cold, wet, tired, and grumpy. When he finally made it to his car, well after dark, he found it covered with snow and blocked by a two-and-a-half-foot wall of snow from a plow. Without a shovel and feeling frustrated and teary-eyed, he searched the car for a makeshift tool. He had to resort to using his hands to clear the snow.
After making a couple of passes with his arms and hands to clear the snow off the car, he looked up to see a fellow commuter not only shoveling the car out, but offering a snow brush to clear off his windows. They made fairly quick work of digging the car out and both went their separate ways. On his way home, Lou cried from happiness and the unexpected kindness bestowed upon him.
Sara was circling the block to find a parking space so she could get a cup of coffee. A woman walking by flagged her down and said she would go in and get the coffee for her. While she was inside, a spot opened up and Sara was waiting by her car when the woman came out. She thanked her went to hand her money, but she said the coffee was on her. The woman went on to explain that she had metastatic cancer and with the time she had left, she wanted to do as many good deeds as possible. Sara shared that she was a cancer survivor and the two of them ― complete strangers ― shared a hug and some tears. Ever since that day, Sara has made sure to do random acts of kindness for others as often as she can.
To serve others as disciples of Christ means that sometimes we will have to bear the burden of accepting another person just as they are. We suffer and endure one another, not so we can fix or control the other, but so that we can allow them to be free. It is a burden, it is difficult, to allow someone else to be who they are, to not judge them, to not expect them to conform, to allow them to be strange, peculiar, broken and scarred, imperfect. But, when we allow the needs of another to supersede our own, we just might find ourselves serving the one who knows us best.
In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gave a practical explanation of what discipleship is all about:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
What does discipleship mean? It means to serve one another with love. It also means that we can’t just serve one another here at Saint John’s, or only in Union or Marengo. Jesus didn’t stay in Capernaum. He said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” As disciples, we are called to serve the world, in the name and in the manner of Jesus Christ, our Rabbi, the Messiah, the one who has called us to follow. Amen.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Mark 1:31.
 Isaiah 40:28-31, selected.
 Mark 10:45.
 Mark 9:35.
 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon delivered February 4, 1968, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.
 Lindsay Holmes, “8 Feel-Good Stories of Strangers Helping Someone They Didn't Know” for Huffington Post, May 2, 2018. Online at: https://www.huffpost.com/.
 Matthew 25:35-36, 40.
 Mark 1:38.