Sermon: Small (Jesus) Town

As soon as [Jesus and his disciples] 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.

Mark 1:29-39

My sermon from the 5th Sunday after Epiphany (February 4, 2024) on Mark 1:29-39


Two Thursdays ago, a person showed up at church wanting to drop off a gift for the Tri-Boro Food Pantry in Park Ridge. They knew I was its treasurer and they immediately handed me an envelope after walking into the building. I was, at the time, in the middle of several different conversations with several other people so it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. I ended up doing that thing where I asked questions, buying time for my brain to catch up. The person in front of me, it turns out, was a musician who organized a benefit concert with his friends. They, together, used their gifts to be a gift for those in need. It’s always cool when folks recognize how their passions can make a difference in the lives of those around him. And yet it took me a while to figure out their story because he assumed I already knew what he knew. In fact, the conversations started with the words “You probably already saw…” which, in his defense, wasn’t a terrible assumption to make. But the truth is I often don’t usually know all the happenings orbiting the pantry since I can only mentally hold so much. Assuming those around us know what we know, have seen what we see, and think like we think is a very human thing to do. And in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, we notice how the community’s curiosity about Jesus created an environment where wholeness could grow. 

Jesus, after calling his first four disciples, went to visit the fishing village of Capernaum. Since it was the sabbath, Jesus joined the community for worship at the local synagogue. Like we heard last week, visiting preachers were often invited to lead and teach when it came to participating in the service. Jesus, after reading from the Bible, surprised everyone with words that carried a lot of authority. It was then when an unclean spirit lurking in the crowd spoke out, implying that Jesus would destroy everyone he touched. Jesus, in a very public way, sent that Spirit packing which made folks wonder who – or what – he was. But when the opportunity came to bring life, Jesus did exactly that. Once worship was over, Jesus moved from that very public space to one we might assume was pretty private. Yet it’s at this point in the story when we need to remember where Jesus was. When we imagine a village, we might think of small homes scattered around bits of land – maybe even mimicking the suburban developments we call home. But villages, towns, and cities in the ancient world were incredibly dense with people living right on top of each other. In Capernaum, the homes were one story tall and only a few rooms in size. They were built along shared courtyards that ran along streets no bigger than an alley. The lack of space meant that it was assumed everyone knew your business and that you knew everyone else’s business too. This, I think, might make us feel a bit queasy, inviting us to give thanks for the privacy our homes might give us. Yet we, in this area, live a version of that life since every town in Northern New Jersey acts like a small town. We like knowing who our neighbors are even though we lament at all the gossip we find ourselves a part of. And while we might imagine how we are above it all, every one of our towns have dozens of facebook groups caused by disagreements that led to anger and schisms. We love hearing which streets in our towns are closed for repair but notice how quickly our arguments turn vicious and personal. And while “being known” and recognized by our neighbors can be the one thing we need to help carry us through all life brings, we can end up feeling completely alone when we’re holding something we can’t always share. Small town life is incredible and terrible all at the same time. And when we let our assumptions about each other be the limit of who our neighbors can be, it’s hard for us to be the kind of community God calls us to be. 

So I’m guessing folks in Capernaum knew Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. They also knew her son-in-law had left his family in a bit of a bind after leaving his nets by the seashore to follow a man he just met. The news about Jesus’ work in the synagogue probably spread faster than his walk down the street into a courtyard surrounded by buildings full of all kinds of people. He was there because, since the sabbath wasn’t over, staying at the home of his disciples made a lot of sense. But I also wonder if Simon and Andrew brought him there hoping Jesus was more than they had already seen. Up to this point in Mark’s version of Jesus’ life, there’s no story about Jesus healing someone of a physical illness. They didn’t know exactly what he could do but after witnessing what he did in front of everyone, they wondered if he could do the same in a much more private space. All they had seen was how, while in a holy place, Jesus did a holy thing. Since Andrew and Simon were still getting to know Jesus, they could have assumed that was the limit of who Jesus could be. But they, along with everyone else, brought Jesus to Simon’s mother-in-law because they hoped Jesus would be Jesus no matter where he was. 

When Jesus showed up at the home of Simon’s mother-in-law, there was no guarantee Jesus could do what Jesus did. All they had was a call, a word, and an event that happened in a very holy and public space. The people around Jesus, though, took a chance to not let their experience of Jesus be the limit of who he might be. They hoped the One who told them to “follow him” would also follow them into places where hope was needed. Jesus wasn’t one way in public and different when all the eyes turned away. He was always simply himself – bringing mercy, forgiveness, and grace to all. We, I think, are invited to not only model Jesus’ ministry – using the gifts God has given us to bring wholeness to all. We are also called to be a bit like Simon, Andrew, and everyone in the community who wouldn’t let their experience of Jesus be the only thing He could be. Rather than letting their assumptions dictate Jesus’ story, they stayed curious about Jesus, their God, and even themselves. The made the choice to not embrace the small town identity that only lets people be who we let them be. Instead, they leaned into the part that invited them to know every part of their neighbors’ story. Unlike the healing stories that were about to come, Jesus didn’t have to connect those he healed to a community that could sustain them in the life and months ahead. The community already knew who needed help because they brought all of them to Jesus. Creating and living as that kind of community isn’t easy because it forces us to not act as if everyone knows what we know or have seen what we seen or think like we think. Rather, we need to be curious about ourselves, our neighbors, and those we’re just starting to get to know. And when we think we know what someone will say or do, that’s when God encourages us to not let our assumptions be the limit of who they get to be. We, instead, will be the kind of community who is curious, who wonders, and who trusts that – because Jesus is Jesus – we get to be so much more.