Peter’s mother-in-law, Thomas Dorsey and us

By R. William Carroll

Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus 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.

Just think what it would’ve been like to be her. There she lay, sick and at risk. Almost certainly afraid. Back then, fevers were serious business. Even today, they are signs of danger. But Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. And her fever left her.

What a moving story it is. What powerful emotions those around her must have felt. Perhaps it stirs up something primal in us as well. How we long for Christ’s presence in our moments of grief and distress. How we long for him to take our hand and lift us up, whenever we find ourselves brought low.

Throughout the Scriptures, we see God doing the same. In today’s Psalm, we read that God lifts up the lowly but casts the wicked to the ground. Another proclaims that “the LORD sets the prisoners free, the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down.” God is not afraid to take the side of those who have no one else to help them. When we find ourselves at our lowest, we can depend on God.

It was thus with Thomas Dorsey—not the band leader but the African American Gospel musician of the same name. It was a parishioner at the congregation I serve who first shared with me the story of how he came to write Precious Lord. It was shortly after the death of his beloved wife Nettie in childbirth and the subsequent death of their newborn son that Dorsey penned the words to this beloved hymn. Later, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang it at Dr. King’s funeral. The first verse goes like this:

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

These words are a moving meditation on the Savior’s presence in moments of grief and pain. They exude faith that, no matter how bad things get, Jesus will lead us home. Whatever trouble we face, however beaten down we are by the world or our fellow human beings, Jesus has been there before us. In the words of the great spiritual: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” If we but call on him, he will come and show us the way. Dorsey’s words come out of the particularities of his own suffering. They are deeply rooted in the tradition and historical experience of the Black Church. But, like any classic text, they have in fact become universal. They apply equally well at a deathbed or in prison. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle–whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.

Jesus takes us by the hand and lifts us up, but that’s not the end of the story. It continues: “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” So it is with us. When Jesus heals us and becomes our Savior, we are pressed into service. There are times in our life where it is enough to be near Jesus, when it suffices to bask in his love. But Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer, so that we could stand still. Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer, so that we could stay the same. The call of Jesus is a call to serve. Indeed, he himself once said that he came not to be served but to serve. When Jesus lifts us up from low places, he always also sets us free to serve those around us.

Think about it in terms of a beloved hymn that we often sing during the season after the Epiphany. I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus. To follow him means to go wherever he may lead. He is the star who goes before us as we walk the pilgrim way. And we do so gladly, because he has set us free.

It’s not an easy path Jesus lights up before us. When he walked it, it led him through the valley of the shadow of death. His path is strewn with suffering and death. Even there, his light shines, showing death to be the gateway of eternal life. With Jesus at our side, we can face even this. Listen, once again, to another verse from Dorsey’s hymn:

When the darkness appears

And the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

The Christian hope is that we can cross safely over Jordan, over the frontier that divides life from death, without fear, resentment, or regret. Our hope as Christians is that nothing—no, not even death itself—can separate us from Christ’s love. We stand at the river bank with him, confident that he will lead us home.

In this hope, we can continue to put one foot in front of the other, day by day, and do the work of love. No matter what the cost. No matter how tired or afraid we may become. No matter what dangers or doubts may stand in our way. The love of Christ urges us onward. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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