I'm sorry to have to tell you that I live with an uncomfortable truth. It's something I'm a little embarrassed about...and its something that is only too plain for everyone to see. The fact is, I am a fat man. There, I've said it.
Whose fault is this? Am I fat because I eat too much chocolate? Or is it because I would rather eat cement than take any exercise? No. Those things may be true. But in my house, the blame falls fair and square on Clare!
You see, before I was married, I was as thin as a rake. Seriously. I was like a golf-club...a long thin stick with feet sticking out at the end! You see, my approach to life has always been to live life at full pelt. My father-in-law once observed that I have only two speeds...stop, and go-go-go. Before I was married, I would sometimes go for days without stopping to eat. Eating was a chore...something that got in the way of all the other exciting things I was trying to get done. But Clare put a stop to all that. She takes the trouble to prepare delicious food, and to put it in front of me...telling me to stop working and have dinner. So, you see, it can't be my fault that I'm fat. It has to be Clare's!
She does this, of course, because she is a brilliant wife, partner and friend. She looks after me - and tries to moderate my tendency to be a workaholic. In many ways, Clare reminds me of St Peter's mother-in-law...whom we just heard about in our Gospel reading.
Did you notice what happened, as soon as Jesus had healed Peter's mother-in-law? According to Mark's account, 'the fever left her, and she began to serve them'.(Mark 1:31) Clare would do that. She takes such pleasure in hosting people in our house, that if Jesus healed her of a fever, I honestly believe she would immediately get up and start serving tea and biscuits too.
Now...a cautionary note. When we read about women like this, especially in the context of Jesus' time - the world of Roman-occupied Palestine - we need to understand the context in which what we read is taking place. What we mustn't do is assume that what worked for that culture automatically works for ours. We certainly shouldn't take this story - of Peter's serving-mother-in-law as some kind of biblical warrant for all women to be chained to the cooker. For a start, (in Luke Chapter 10) Jesus clearly didn't believe that. Remember the story of Mary and Martha? Remember how Jesus declared that Mary, the sister who had taken time out from domestic chores to listen to him, had chosen the better way?
Instead, let me invite you to see beyond the battle of the sexes, and into the underlying story. The important thing to note here, I think, is not that it was a woman who set about the task of serving the men... but that this particular woman, in this particular time and place, saw that serving was an honourable, noble and worthwhile thing for her to do.
This is quite simply because the notion of 'serving others' is absolutely at the heart of the Gospel. And that Peter's mother-in-law clearly found fulfillment in the act of serving.
Let's move on to look at the rest of this reading. You will remember, I hope, that after the event at Peter's house, Jesus went on to heal many sick people, and to cast out many demons. But as he did so, he commanded the demons not to speak...the text says, "because they knew him" or "because they knew who he was".
This is actually a recurring theme of St Mark's gospel. Time and time again, after Jesus has healed people, he commands them not to tell others. Then, when Peter confesses his belief that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus immediately warns him not to tell anyone. Later, after some of the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus again tells them not to tell anyone.
Why would this be? Why would Jesus repeatedly tell people not to talk about him - not to tell others what powerful miracles they have seen? Why would he command the demons not to declare who he is? What was Jesus hiding?
The answer comes perhaps in the only time during Mark's gospel when Jesus willingly says who he is. It comes when he is before the 'Sanhedrin' - the court of the Chief Priests - just before he is led out to die.
You'll find the story in Mark chapter 14. In verse 61, the high priest asks Jesus "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus replied, "I am..." Why now? Why does Jesus wait until this moment to publicly declare who he is?
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gives us a clue. In a fascinating book called "Christ on Trial" he says, "This...is where we see what truth is is that this trial establishes. Jesus before the high priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power, and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is." A little later in the same book, Williams says, "If we are prepared to listen for a moment to the extraordinary idea that this is indeed the very self of God standing before the court, it is we who are silenced, we who have our careful and exact expectations [about power, and about what real power is] overturned."
What can these two stories teach us? What is that Peter's mother-in-law, and Jesus' refusal to be called the Christ until his very weakest point have in common? I believe that it is here that we discover the very heart of Christianity. It is here that we meet a God who is not interested in power and domination...but instead we meet a God whose entire being is consumed by the notion of powerlessness, and service. Through these stories, and through so much of the Gospels, Jesus shows us that the way to happiness, the way to being blessed, the way to heaven is through serving and loving one another.
The meek shall indeed inherit the earth - because it is the meek who have discovered that there is freedom to be found through the loving service of others.
And if we think about this for a moment, we know its true. Each of us knows the sheer pleasure that comes from serving someone else. One of the things that astounds me about our parish is the sheer amount of serving others that goes on. Servers at the altar. Singers, serving us with their voices in the choir. Chris, our new organist, serving us with his fingers. Pat and Brenda, serving us each week by collating the Pew News. Brenda serving us by always ensuring we have clean linen. Flower arrangers serving us by providing beautiful displays. Cafe staff, serving their community. DCC and PCC members serving us through sitting on committees. Jim Booth and Philip Brombley serving us through gardening and repairing our churches. John Cozens keeping our computers, our heaters and our organ motor running. Parish Wardens, church wardens, treasurers. Christine Watkins serving our administrative needs by working many more hours than she is paid. Individual congregation members serving one another through times of sickness and need. The list is endless...and impressive.
And it's all godly. It's all rooted in a fundamental understanding that it is through service that we find freedom. It is all based on the principle that Jesus himself established...that human notions of power are worthless and transient. Wealth, power, riches and authority...as the world understands them...are all fleeting and temporary. Instead, we build up treasure that will last...treasure that transforms lives. Treasures of service that will last for eternity.
Let me finish with a story...sent to me this week by one of our parishioners: A holy man was having a conversation with God one day and said, ' God , I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.'
God led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles, that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, 'You have seen Hell.'
They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, 'I don't understand.' It is simple,' said God. 'It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other.'