Sermon Archives

Sunday, February 4, 2018
The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Spiritual Integrity

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the Church, claimed that reading and interpreting Scripture was not complete until it had reached its final destination. As a newly consecrated Bishop, Augustine wrote a treatise on Christian education for new clergy, called De Doctrina Christiana, or, Teaching Christianity. He wrote: “you should take pains to turn over and over in your mind what you read, until your interpretation of it is led through to the kingdom of charity.”[1] Augustine argued that any interpretation of Scripture that does not lead us to the two great commandments in Christian life - the love of God or love of neighbour is incomplete.[2]

So keeping that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel passage today.

The story tells us that when Jesus got back to Peter’s home, which served as a gathering spot for his growing movement in Capernaum, Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. The rabbinic rules would have prescribed that visitors were to stand or sit on the floor near the bed, probably to keep some distance between the rabbi and the sick person[3]. In his characteristically boundary crossing way, Jesus reached out, took her by the hand, and healed her. And what is the first thing she does once she’s healed? She begins to serve them.

That’s where I get stuck.

It’s hard to read this passage without hearing echoes of the news about gender relationships swirling in and around us. We, as a society, are in the midst of the important work of revisiting gender relationships. The most recent additions to this conversation include: the trial of Larry Nasser, the renowned sports physician sentenced for decades of sexual abuse; the women’s marches that took place all over the country and, just a few days ago the Canadian Senate officially approved the change to make Canada’s national anthem gender neutral.[4]

The Episcopal Church is participating in this conversation too. Last week, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, wrote a letter inviting the Episcopal Church to a conversation to determine how to proceed in atoning for the church’s past and shaping a more just future for women in the church.

They wrote: “As our societies have been forced into fresh recognition that women in all walks of life have suffered unspoken trauma ... we have become convinced that the Episcopal Church must work even harder to create a church that is not simply safe, but holy, humane and decent. We must commit to treating every person as a child of God, deserving of dignity and respect. We must also commit to ending the systemic sexism, misogyny and misuse of power that plague the church just as they corrupt our culture, institutions and governments.”[5]

In light of this conversation, it’s hard for me not to read Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law as a restoration of this woman’s subservient position. Deborah Krause, a biblical scholar, says that when she teaches this story, “many women snort under their breath at the detail [in the passage] about her ‘serving them.’” They see that Jesus “healed her just in time for supper!”[6]

However, this interpretation does not lead me to greater love for God or neighbour. Part of my work this week has been to try to find another way into this story.

In this passage, the word used for ‘serve’ is diakonia, which is the origin of our word “deacon”, the order of ministry whose calling is “a special ministry of servanthood”, acting as a bridge between the church and the world, serving all people, especially the marginalized.[7] Mark offers us Peter’s mother-in-law as the first instance in the New Testament of a deacon.[8]

In Mark’s gospel, diakonia is used only in conjunction with women, angels and Jesus. Jesus was served by the angels in the wilderness, and this is the word that Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry later in Mark when he says: “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mk 10.45).[9]

When I was in Toronto, I was part of a small research team exploring the role of faith in partnerships working to address social issues in their local communities. One of the case studies was a food bank located in one of the most culturally diverse inner suburbs in Toronto, designated by the city as a “priority neighbourhood”, called Flemingdon Park.

This food bank was originally supported by a ministry of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. This ministry had been in Flemingdon Park since the 1960s and had earned the trust and respect of the local community and places of worship.

As funding patterns and commitments to this food bank changed over time, there came a moment of crisis, when funding and human resource support were significantly reduced. At the time, this was one of the largest and busiest food banks in the Greater Toronto Area, operating 5 days/week for a registered 3900 families, an estimated 60% of which were Muslim.

Local partners and community leaders agreed that they should form an independent board. The independent board comprised representatives from the Anglican Diocese of Toronto - including the female Anglican priest who was the Executive Director of the diocesan ministry, a local Presbyterian church and 4 Muslim relief organizations - representing various Muslim denominations including Sunni, Shia and Ismaili groups - from many countries and cultures that comprise the Muslim population in Toronto.

At the beginning, time and effort was spent discerning a vision together which consisted of serving the whole community, rather than an ethnic or religious segment of the population. One Imam on the board said: “The Qu’ran says you should help your neighbour. It does not say you should help only Muslims.” The board members were proud of its multi-faith composition and saw their partnership as a model for Toronto and beyond.

However, not all onlookers were on board with this approach. A Muslim agency from another city, made plans to set up a food bank for Muslims only in a nearby neighbourhood. Board members of the Flemingdon Park food bank tried to dissuade them, saying that this new group did not have the necessary experience to run an effective food bank and that it would duplicate efforts in the area, spreading resources more thinly. The rival group went ahead and shortly thereafter, ran into trouble. The Flemingdon Park food bank saw that they were in trouble, and offered help in the form of shopping carts and other material support, to build bridges of trust with the other food bank.

Even though this situation could easily have been set up as two rival food banks with opposing visions of who and how to serve, the Flemingdon Park food bank chose not to define their role in terms of rivalry. They found the freedom to operate out of spaciousness, graciousness and generosity, without losing their identity and without imposing their vision on another party that chose to adopt a different vision. They prioritized the health of the relationship and stayed true to their call to serve those who needed the food bank services.

Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who passionately advocates for the spiritual renewal of our planet, says: “Every major religious tradition speaks of some kind of enlightenment. To the Christian, it is union with God; to the Hindu, nirvana or freedom from all things; to the Buddhist, desirelessness; to the Muslim, submission to the will of God. They all recognize the tension within us of two opposing poles. At one level we seek only the gratification of the self for its own sake. At the other level, we achieve the transcendence of the self to the point where no external changes can disturb the balance of what we call the soul. We can each come to enlightenment, but only by virtue of the choice we make from moment to moment, from situation to situation.”[10]

In other words, we all have facades to our life - things like our age, gender, race, class. They are real and shape who we are and what we do, sometimes in ways that are challenging and unfair. And the Gospel affirms that we are more than that. We are children of God, blessed with souls that resist societal definition and constraints, souls that whisper clues to us about choosing life.

Perhaps Peter’s mother-in-law was serving because that was the social expectation for women in the household.

Or perhaps this story tells us that the fullest expression of our wholeness, our spiritual health and our gratitude is service. That it is in serving that we begin to achieve union with God, because that is what Jesus, God incarnate, did in his life, death and resurrection.

This union with God can happen in the everyday, in the house, in the ordinary responsibilities of serving meals, of providing hospitality, of caring for others. We can serve in ways that transcend the power struggles presented to us, with service that emerges from the freedom of our souls eager to guide us in the ways of spiritual integrity.

May we live each day
compassionate of heart,
clear in word,
gracious in awareness,
courageous in thought, and
generous in love.[11] Amen.


[1] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, intro., trans., and notes Edmund Hill, O.P. The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., vol. 11 (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1996), 3.15.23.

[2]  http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/agapic_reading.pdf

[3] http://www.womeninthebible.net/women-bible-old-new-testaments/peters-wif...

[4] http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/anthem-bill-passes-senate-1.4513317

[5] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/letter-episcopal-chu...

[6]  Mark: A Theological Commentary, p. 39.

[7]  https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/deacon

[8] Feasting on the Word: Exegetical Perspective, Gary W. Charles.

[9] Mark: A Theological Commentary, p. 39.

[10]  40-day journey with Joan Chittister. P. 24.

[11]  John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space between Us, Matins, p. 7.