First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “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.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
My church in Manhattan was situated on a very busy corner of Broadway, with lots of foot traffic, by lots of people of every race, creed, and station in life. In fact, the sidewalks around the church were often so busy that one had to be careful when pushing open the side exit door, or you might knock someone over!
One day, as I was leaving the building, I pushed on the side door, but nothing happened. Thinking that the door was likely swollen from summer humidity, I pushed harder only to be suddenly startled by someone yelling: “Knock it off!” Well, I was having none of this. Just who did they think they were talking to? And so, I went out another door and by the time I rounded the corner to see what the trouble was, I ready to do battle. But what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks.
There, against the door of the church, was a large red velvet sofa, with a woman rather elegantly reclining upon it. Despite the summer heat, she was dressed in layers of colorful clothes and had her head wrapped in a turban. And the sight of it all left me momentarily speechless.
I looked her over, trying to take it in. She looked me over rather imperiously. Finally, I found my voice and said: “Hello, my name is Reverend Campbell, and I am the pastor of this church.” She looked me up and down in silence before finally extending her hand rather regally, and saying simply: “I am Mama Dew.”
Well, what does one say to that except, “It’s nice to meet you, Mama Dew”? And what followed was a polite, if at first tense, conversation between this woman on the outside and this man from the inside; separated, or so it seemed, by so much more than a door.
I finally convinced her, ever so diplomatically, that we needed to keep the doorway open so that people could come into the church. That seemed to make sense to her and she agreed to move her sofa… later. I decided not to push the issue anymore and hoped that she would do what she said by the time I came to work again.
The next day, the sofa was gone. And so was Mama Dew. Later that summer, I heard that she had died by falling or jumping in front of a subway train.
My ministry in New York was like that a lot: face-to-face interactions with people from very different worlds from mine; people who lived on one side or the other of a door called “privilege” or “money” or “status” or “identity.” But over the years, I came to understand that the differences between us, while real, could not overshadow the commonality of our human longings, generously seasoned with desperation.
Henry David Thoreau recognized this universal human condition when he wrote: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The mass… not just the Mama Dews of the world, but also the James Campbells of the world. Not just the folks in New York City, but the ones in Cheshire, Connecticut. Because desperation doesn’t respect zip codes or average household incomes or levels of education, even though we pretend these things are like doors that protect us.
Desperation is the watchword of this week’s Gospel lesson. Our story picks up immediately from last weeks, when Jesus had delivered a man from an unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum. Right after this dramatic event, Simon and Andrew invited Jesus to go to Simon’s house, which was literally right around the corner. Archeologists believe that they have found the remains of this ancient house right next door to the remains of the synagogue. In fact, the two buildings actually shared a common wall.
Simon, whom we know better as Peter, had a mother-in-law who also lived in that house. Perhaps she was a widow who had gone to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Whatever her story, this unnamed woman had taken ill with a fever. -- Now, in our world, we just take a couple of Advil and go to bed. But in the ancient world a fever was often an indication of something far more serious. And without antibiotics, simple things often killed people. And so, the whole house was filled with a sense of desperation. What if she died? What if she was contagious? What if we die?
Jesus had no sooner entered the house than he was informed of this urgent matter. And despite the threat of contagion; despite the fact that a fever made her ritually unclean; despite the fact that Jesus was forbidden from touching any woman he was not married to; despite the fact that it was the Sabbath when no work, including healing, could be done, Jesus went into her room and sat down beside her bed. If he said anything to her, it is not recorded here. But we do know what he did. He took her hand in his and gently lifted her to a seated position. And as he did, the fever left her.
Now what happens next raises concerns about the place of women in an ancient patriarchal society. Mark reports that when this restored woman got out of bed, she immediately went to the kitchen and began to cook and serve them.
There are all kinds of things that could be said about this; that perhaps should be said about this. But this morning, I will say just this one thing. When Peter’s mother-in-law served them, the Greek word used to describe her action is the same word used to describe the work of a deacon. Deacons are, after all, people who serve. And that means that whatever else might be said about her actions that day, the fact remains that she is the very first deacon of the Christian church, and someone Jesus would later imitate, when at the Last Supper he served his disciples.
Well, the news about the exorcism in the synagogue and about this woman’s healing spread like wild fire. And by sundown, a large and desperate crowd had gathered outside Simon Peter’s door. In fact, the Gospel writer rather dramatically reports that “… the whole city was gathered around the door.” A door that was closed.
Imagine, if you can, the great crowd of all of those on the outside, pressing to get inside to see Jesus. Imagine the shouts and murmurs of desperation coming in from the street and wafting through the windows. I wonder what it was like to be in the crowd that day. I wonder what it was like to be in the house that day. And what assumptions did these two groups make about one another - on either side of that door? And how did all of that change once Jesus opened the door?
Because it did change. The separation was gone. The people were now face-to-face. And the mother-in-law’s story began to spread through the crowd. And the crowd’s stories began to fill the house. And suddenly, instead of two disparate groups of insiders and outsiders, they were a community, with the same needs and hurts and longings. And it was in the midst of that new community that, as Mark reports, Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”
When I stormed out onto the sidewalk all those summers ago, I was suddenly face-to-face with Mama Dew. She was no longer just an obstacle to my exit, a bother to my day, a symptom of the city. She was a person, with a name, and a story. And all those desperate things we shared: a longing for acceptance; a sense of self-worth; maybe even the fact that we were both hanging out at church – became a tie that binds. And for a few golden moments, we were community. We were lifted up. We were healed by the One who opens every door.