Rev Sue gave this sermon on Wednesday 1 September 2021. Here it is for you to reflect upon. You can also listen on Spotify here.
In 1989 Stephen Covey published his book the seven habits of highly effective people. It sold more than 25 million copies and has become a “Bible” among self-help books. I have a feeling that, in fact, everything he wrote about could be found in the actual Bible, which has been offering practical wisdom for two millennia. One of the themes of Covey’s book is an abundance mindset versus a scarcity mindset. The abundance mentality believes that there are enough resources and successes to share with others. The scarcity mindset results in destructive and unnecessary competition because the belief is that if you are successful, and in some way “win”, I will lose. It is exemplified by the “Keeping up with Jones’ mentality” that is based on a fear of being seen as second best.
Put in Christian terms abundance means that we have everything we need, and that God’s love and power are unlimited. We need not live in anxiety for the future, nor do we need to fear that we will upset God once too often and try his patience to the limits. The mindset with which we read the Bible colours the interpretation we give to stories and can make the difference between our faith being life enhancing and something that drags us down.
Two short verses at the beginning of today’s gospel give us a snapshot of family life. Simon welcomed Jesus into his family home, but his mother-in-law was lying ill in bed. She had a high temperature, and in the days before paracetamol or aspirin that was not just inconvenient, it could be fatal. So, the family asked Jesus whether he could help her. He stood over her, spoke to the fever as though it could respond to his words, and it left her immediately. She responded by getting up and serving the lunch.
The interpretation I grew up with was this. It was a disaster. Simon’s mother-in-law, the senior woman in the house was ill. Very probably Simon’s wife had died. There was an important guest and there was no one to act as hostess. Simon, and the other men, could not be expected to help. Naturally, they turned to Jesus for his help. He healed her, and she immediately shook off any aftereffects of the illness and returned to her duties. Order was restored and the lunch went as planned. The moral of this story is that it is very important to do one’s duty in serving God. If illness gets in the way of that he can heal us to allow us to continue in our work, and to remove the shame of failure. The subtext, was, of course, that a woman’s duty is to serve men.
The interpretation I prefer is this. Jesus came to Simon’s house and was told that his mother-in-law was ill. Jesus loved his friend Simon and had compassion on his mother-in-law, so he healed her straight her away. Her response was to immediately jump up, and in gratitude to this young man who had cured her life-threatening illness, she went about her household duties with a cheerful heart and did everything she could to make his lunch break pleasant and relaxing. Moral: God acts in our lives and in the lives of those we love with his healing power. We should respond to his love by loving him in return and serving him with gratitude and joy. There is no subtext, because the social structures 2000 years ago were very different and are not necessarily an example of how we should live today. The story of Mary and Martha clearly makes that point.
In modern terms, the first interpretation is the scarcity mindset. It talks of duty, and obligation, and the feeling that we need to earn God’s love and fear his rejection. The second interpretation is about the wonderful abundance of God’s love and mercy, and the gratitude that inspires in us. We are free to find God’s will in our lives, and while that may be in accordance with the expectations of others, sometimes it will be an unexpected vocation of our own.
The words grace and gratitude are from the same root. God invites us to live in a world where we marvel at his amazing grace and respond to his love with a thankful heart.