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Joy of Serving
a sermon based on Mark 1:29-39
by Rev Tom Hall

I love to eat out. So do most of you according to the latest statistics about American eating habits. Recently my family took me to a restaurant for my birthday. The custom at this restaurant is that the waiters and waitresses sashay out clapping and carrying a birthday cake. Personally, I’m not one to make a big deal about getting a few more wrinkles. But their noise alerted every dinner guest in the restaurant that someone was celebrating a birthday. So once they’d embarrassed us, they placed a sombrero on my honored head, snapped a picture and sang a beautifully off-key rendition of south of the border "Happy Birthday." As they wove their way back caterpillar-like to the kitchen, I vowed that I’d never turn a year older.

Being a waiter or waitress is no easy task these days. They work for less than minimum wages in the hope of making it up in gratutities. Tips. These modern servants try to make the diner feel comfortable, take their order, serve their meals, and act civil throughout. The payoff, of course, comes at the end when the customer leaves a tip for them. If the dining customer is pleased the tip may be sizeable. But if the tip is meager-someone better improve their serving skills.

I have a special place for food-service servers. Worked my way through college working tables. On one occasion I was doing a grave-yard shift when a huge, drunk cowboy stumbled in for some coffee. One of his friends teased him, pointing to me and telling him, "That waiter over there just called you a big, drunk cowboy!" I knew I was in trouble when he hoisted me heavenward. I once took some karate, but I had never practiced on a big drunk cowboy before. Only with great encouragement and a lot of intervention did the guy lower me back down to planet earth. I discovered that night that being a server can sometimes be the most dangerous job in the world. So I entered the ministry. And that’s where we enter the gospel lesson this morning.

No inebriated cowboys here, but an incredible story about a waiter and a waitress. The young preacher is a celebrity. News about his sermon and healing of a deranged man fans the flame of rumor throughout the neighborhood. But the young preacher moves from the synagogue to a private home. Like most of the peasants of Palestine, this dwelling is an extended household. A young married couple share a small house with both their parents and lots of brothers and sisters. Now the preacher enters with the young man who with his wife has just moved in.

"Why’s everyone whispering?" the preacher asks. Peter nods to an entry way closed off by a thick blanket. "My wife’s mother is down bad with a fever. Never seen anyone so hot. Please take a look at her.

The young preacher picks the corner of the blanket that walls her off and enters. A small oil lamp flickers in the draft of a crack in the wall. Its light reveals an womyn lying motionless on the floor mat. He squats down near the womyn. Carefully, slowly, he moves his fingers across the length of her forehead. Beads of sweat, like large raindrops that splatter and form tiny rivulets, runs off her forehead into the streaked hair along her temples. The heat pulsates and throbs inside the old womyn’s head. Her face contorts as if someone had reached down inside her head and was squeezing and twisting her brain like a sponge. The young preacher’s forehead wrinkles and his eyes narrow, yet he speaks no words and she hears nothing.

Her eyes are open but register only pain. She wishes death. But he reaches his hand and takes hers in his own. Blistering heat passes between hands. Yet the presence of the one seems to seep into the other. Their hands are locked in fever and healing for longs minutes uninterrupted. Heat passes out of one and into the other. One hand critically hot, the other warm yet not fevered. More heat passes and the fever finally breaks.

A sturdy hand pulls upward never once letting go of the womyn. The womyn rises. Still no words. But an intense gaze holds his face in her memory. She will remember the grasp of his hand. How can she explain this? How can she be up? And well? And where does this new surge of energy come from? She leaves the room. And while the young preacher resumes conversations, the clattering and clanging from the adjoining room announce that the supper hour is at hand.

This story is what someone has called the gospel of Mark in miniature. For Mark’s gospel is about servants and service. About being healed and healing. About being formed into a chain: one hand grasped by God and the other hand grasping another human being. In this gospel, Jesus says:

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,

and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus invites us to join his team of waiters and waitresses in the restaurant. People of all types are sitting around the tables. Some even on the floor. Some leave hefty tips, others have nothing to give.

Jack over there, for instance, has been at that table for over twenty years. He dies a little each day. At first he tried to get up and leave to find another job after he got laid off. But now he just sits there with his coffee mug and watches people come and go. He needs a waiter that serves more than coffee. Jack needs new hope, a new life, a fresh start. He needs to know that in Jesus Christ our end is God’s beginning.

And beyond Jack is that table set for two. Two place settings, but only one person sits there. Her name is Roberta. She’s tried to get up and go on with life. She’s longed to become a giver rather than a receiver, but ever since her husband died . . . well, she just sits there. She needs a waitress to bring her a bowl of hot soup and the gospel of healing.

There’s Sandy. Been married for forty-two years. Two years ago John died. So she sits and wonders what to do next. Sandy waits for a server who will bring her in the healing presence of a small group.

What? Several servers sit over in the corner of God’s restaurant. Why are they sitting in a booth instead of serving? Maybe they’re just burned out serving. They’ve marched out singing happy birthday, passed out menus, taken orders, and cleaned up long after the other servers and clients have left the restaurant for so many years that they are exhausted. But just a minute. The restaurant owner has just stepped out of the kitchen. He’s coming over this way. Hush, he’s taking to you, can you hear him?

Those who wait upon 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.

Mark’s gospel calls all who follow Christ to rise up and to let him transform us into "little Christs," as Luther was fond of describing Christians, so that we too will discover the joy of serving. Amen.