Sermon: The Power Within – Jesus, the Super Bowl, and My Inner Feminist

This is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, in Milwaukie, Oregon. The texts was Mark 1:29-39. You can read the text or watch the sermon below.

Today is a special day in our culture. In a few hours, many of us will partake in a cultural ritual that extends back many decades. It’s a ritual that captures the American imagination. It unites Americans, and really the world, together on a level that rivals Christmas and Easter.

Today, I will be participating in a ritual that’s known as the Sunday afternoon nap. But many others will be participating in the ritual known as the Super Bowl.

Alright. After my nap, I will join with people across the United States in watching the Super Bowl. But I must say that I have an increasing sense of guilt when I watch football. Football players sacrifice their lives as they crash into one another at literally breakneck speed. We’re all just learning about the horrible concussions that have debilitated many players in retirement. Then there’s the connection the NFL makes with patriotism and our endless wars. And I could preach a series of sermons on why it’s actually patriotic to kneel during the national anthem in the name of liberty and justice for all. Despite what any president might say, kneeling is a patriotic reminder that we still have work to do to achieve our ideals.

So, I’ll have some guilt, but I’ll watch the game. And, like I do every year it seems, I’ll root against the Patriots. If you are a Patriots fan, that’s okay. I believe in universal salvation, so I think you’ll be alright. But I’ll justify the fact that I’m watching the Super Bowl by saying that I’m not really watching the game. I’m really watching the commercials.

Last year my brother came to our house to watch the game. My oldest son, Brayden, asked him which team he was rooting for. My brother, who has no interest in sports whatsoever, replied, “The commercials! Go commercials!”

Of course, we could criticize commercials for being part of our culture of consumerism that tells us we lack something and if we just purchase this THING we won’t lack anymore, until another commercial tells us that once again we lack and we need to buy something else.

But there was a commercial a few years ago that really struck me. My beloved Seahawks were in the Super Bowl. Incidentally, they lost to the hated Patriots. Anyway, Duracell ran a commercial that year about a Seahawk’s player named Derrick Coleman.[1] Coleman has been deaf since he was three years old and he’s worn a hearing aid ever since. As a child, he was teased. He was always picked last on sports teams. His football coaches told him he would never make it and that he should just quit. Nobody believed in him. Coleman says in the commercial that he responded to those messages by saying, “But I’ve been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.” And there he was, playing in the Super Bowl. Duracell ends the commercial with the statement, “Trust the Power Within.”

To be honest with you, I’m tempted to be cynical about this commercial. Yes, Duracell wants my money. But if I put my cynicism aside for a minute, there’s something profound about this commercial. Part of my admiration for the commercial is that I like a good underdog story. The person who overcomes all kinds of obstacles to achieve their goal warms inspires me and my heart.

But I think there’s more going on here. Trusting the power within can be so difficult. I think on some level, deep down, we all have a sense of who we are and of who God calls us to be.

But like Coleman, we live in a culture that often tells us “No, that’s not who you are. Don’t trust the power within. Quit now.” I think of the countless women who continue to know deep down in their bones that God calls them into ministry positions, but many churches have claimed throughout the centuries that God doesn’t call women to leadership roles in the church. In essence, churches have often said, and some continue to say to women, “Don’t trust the power within.”

That’s one reason why we can take some amount of pride in being members of the United Church of Christ. You might already know this, but our denomination was the first church to ordain a woman into ministry and she was possibly the first woman in history elected to be the pastor of a church.

My inner feminist is so proud.

But my inner feminist kind of bristles against our Gospel passage today.

Last week, we heard a story about Jesus in a synagogue teaching when a man with an unclean spirit came to him. Jesus healed the man from that spirit by essentially telling him and those around that he was still a beloved child of God. Today the story continues. Jesus leaves the synagogue with his friends and they go to Simon’s house. Simon is one of Jesus’ disciples. In this house, they discover that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick and in bed with a fever.

Jesus went to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up.  The story tells us that, “Then the fever left her.” The woman was healed and now empowered to live her life. And it would be great if the story just ended there. Another miracle story of Jesus healing and empowering someone. But the story doesn’t end there. It tells us that after Jesus healed her, she used her newly found power and, “she began to serve them.”

And there you have it. My inner feminist is bursting out of her seems! Really? Is that what Jesus healed this woman for? Was Jesus simply a battery that empowered this woman to make him and his buddies some sandwiches? That was trusting her power within? I mean, Simon could have at least said, “My dear mother-in-law, you’ve been sick for a while. Why don’t you sit down, rest, and leave the tuna sandwiches to me?”

You can see how some might use this text in a misogynistic way. Some could claim this as biblical evidence that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. There are scholars who explain this away by stating that in the ancient world, the matriarch of the household would have found great honor in serving her guests. So, the woman was healed and in serving her guests she would have received great honor by being brought back to her social status.[2]

I think that’s probably true, but I also think there’s more to this story. You see, the Gospel of Mark portrays the male disciples in a really interesting way. The disciples routinely mess up. They misunderstand Jesus. They never get what he’s up to. Jesus tells them to follow him, and what did Jesus come to do? He came to serve, not to be served. He said those who want to be first in following him will look like the last according to the standards of this world. He told his disciples that they were to live a life of service. Jesus wanted them to use their power to be for others in the spirit of service, just like Simon’s mother-in-law used her power to serve.

But instead, the disciples wanted to trust the power within themselves in a way that wasn’t for others, but that was over and against others. They argued with one another about who was the greatest. They started a rivalry with one another about who would hold more power when Jesus’s kingdom finally came. They debated who would sit on Jesus’ left side and who would sit on his right, which is essentially debating who would be his Vice President and who would be his Chief of Staff. The Gospel of Mark is very clear that the disciples routinely misunderstood what Jesus was about.

But Mark shows that Simon’s mother in law was the first person to get it. She is the first person in the Gospel to understand Jesus’s message. In the same way that the angels served Jesus in the desert, in the same way that Jesus told his disciples to be servants, she was empowered to serve. She was the first follower of Jesus to understand what he was about.

We often think of the male disciples as models for how to follow Jesus. And in some ways, they are good models. The male disciples do a lot of good things in the Gospels, but more so, they are models for helping us understand that even when we get it wrong, even when we mess up, Jesus comes back and loves us just the same. And as a male who has gotten it wrong many times in the past, I can tell you that the grace shown in the Gospels is life changing and empowering.

But for the most part, the women disciples, especially Simon’s mother-in-law, are models for how to get it right. Our mission is to be like Simon’s mother in law, to follow Jesus in love and service.

And the good news is that you already do this so well. You are already empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life of service. And you already trust that power within yourselves. I see the way you minister to one another when someone is sick. You drive one another to and from the hospital. You visit our elderly members who can’t make it out of their homes. You provide dinners for one another in times of need. You volunteer at shelters and soup kitchens. You care for family members in the most beautiful ways. You volunteer time to help this building look warm and inviting. And I just have to say, I’m so proud to be part of this church because you all live a life of love and service in this community. Like Simon’s mother in law who got it, you get it. You understand what Jesus was about. You inspire me in so many ways. And I am grateful.

So may we continue following the path of Jesus.

May we continue to love and serve one another and our community.

And may we rest assured that Jesus is always with us, taking our hand and empowering us with his love. Amen.

[1] Thanks to David Lose of “in the meantime” for making this connection in his article “Empowerment Marketing and Theology.”

[2] See Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 546.

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