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One cannot help but notice all the movement in today’s readings:
Lift, cover, strengthen, spread, lower, raise, heal, bind, cast
As Jerry Lee Lewis would say, “Seems like there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on!”
Mark’s gospel goes at a breakneck speed – opening immediately with Jesus’ ministry. We get no warm up scenes with vignettes from a birth in a stable or a childhood in Nazareth helping Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, no heavenly hosts in the Bethlehem skies. In fact, Mark’s account of a day in the life of Jesus is frequently punctuated with the adverbs “suddenly” and “immediately” – in the Greek “eutheos” “xanifka”! In fact, these show up so often that English translations have used several other words in their place to keep the book from sounding quite so “jerky”.
A colleague of mine who teaches theology and theater at Augustana College wrote a musical about the Passion Narrative in Mark’s gospel and substituted the English word “Bam!” (if that’s even a real word) for the Greek eutheos/xafine, choosing to emphasize rather than smooth out Mark’s “bam, bam, bam” tempo.
In any event, what we have today is “Bam! Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon and Andrew and Bam! Simon’s mother in law lay sick with a fever and Bam! Jesus touched her and healed her and Bam! She got up and began serving them.
In full view of a house filled with men, while it was still the Sabbath a day on which healing was prohibited unless a person was literally dying, Jesus lifted up an old woman who then began to serve, diakoneo, the same word that Jesus uses to describe his own ministry, serving others, NOT being served.
This distinction between being served and serving others is one that the disciples will not understand until the Resurrection. They are in fact at this point not interested in serving each other much less strangers. Yet, this elderly woman begins immediately upon being healed to contribute what she can to the many moving parts so essential to ministry, those hundreds of details behind the scenes.
Some of you might be wondering how I can miss what many feminists might balk at, that the woman did little more than what would be expected of her in a patriarchal society.
I didn’t miss it, because in this case that is NOT what is happening. Note that, as an elderly woman living in a household as the mother in law, she would have been accustomed to be waited upon, would in fact be entitled to be served.
So, in a much truer sense, what happens here is that – Bam! — once healed, she set aside her privilege of being cared for and opted instead to do the caring for others. I believe Jesus must have counted this unnamed, first deacon of the Church as one of his real soul friends.
It will take some time for this counter-intuitive understanding of privilege to become established in the church’s theology. Yet, by the time Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, it is a core teaching and Paul uses his own story as the example. (Perhaps he hadn’t heard the story about Simon’s mother in law.)
“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it for the sake of the gospel.”
On Wednesday night at our annual meeting, we voted in four new members to serve on Vestry, then proceeded directly from that meeting where the congregation had lifted them up to a vestry meeting. Each vestry person focuses on one of the five clusters that we have identified in our common life together – liturgy and worship, administration, compassion, participation, and formation. Within each of these clusters are many smaller working groups. And praying groups, and imagining groups, and groups that put things together and other groups that take things apart. There are folks who bring things down and others who raise things up. Some folks cover things and others turn them into art. It’s a community with a “whole lotta shakin goin on.”
It works best when we use whatever privilege we might have to influence others to join in and set aside any sense of entitlement in service to what we can do to help make things work better for everyone.
During the week, visitors walking through the Church office wing will hear “Hey, can somebody help me here?” When there’s a deadline, and there’s always a deadline for someone, you’ll hear “I’ve got some time. Tell me how I can help.” There are times when working here has a very entrepreneurial start-up feel to it, which can seem paradoxically at odds with our focus on mindfulness. We are encouraged to offer new ideas and see how they work. We fail fast, in the best sense. Stuart often has as many as 17 new ideas before noon. Not surprisingly, not every idea is still around by the end of the day. But the ones that are, end up being really good.
As I’ve studied this little verse about Simon’s mother in law, I’ve thought more and more about that style of leadership. It’s the order of things in the Gospel story that piqued my curiosity. Jesus touched this old woman and lifted her up, and then she was healed. I can tell you from my own experience and from people who’ve shared with me a moment of a close encounter with the divine, that lots of healing seems to follow a sure sense of being touched by God, and lifted up, just as I am, warts and all. I think Simon’s mother in law didn’t even think about being entitled to be served. Once Jesus lifted her up, she just saw what needed doing and did it.
Besides encouraging imagination and leadership, a collaborative atmosphere seems to bring out each person’s gifts and talents while keeping egos in check. Because according to our averages, at least, we each have 9 things that don’t work for every one thing that does. Those odds don’t give your ego much time to puff up.
I think this model of life together has some precedent from our biblical narrative and our theology of the triune God. After all, the Spirit blows where it will, with blessings falling on the just and the unjust. Jesus called twelve men that we know of; but most of them we never heard anything else about, and one of them turned him in. His best press comes from a man he didn’t even chose for a disciple, but who ended up being a pretty famous apostle after he had a heart to heart with Jesus on the Road to Damascus. And God the father, the Creator, was so disappointed in how the first design turned out, that he wiped it all away with a flood, and began again with Noah, who promptly got stupid drunk as soon as he got out of the Ark.
So, where’s the take away for us? I think it is in the Isaiah passage and the Psalm. God seems to delight in us, not because we are delightful, but because delighting in us seems to be in God’s nature. God loves us, but not for how loveable we are. God knows we wear out, and fall down. We don’t connect to God because we are tall or strong.
We connect to God through our dependence on God. And when God renews our strength and lifts us up, we are healed. And when we are healed, we get to work doing whatever needs doing. Our work doesn’t always work. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that our first – and ultimately our best – response to Jesus touching our lives is that we set aside our sense of individual entitlement to make room for doing whatever we can as part of the body of Christ. God has answered our Collect for today: He has set us free from sin’s bondage, and given us liberty in Christ Jesus, not for our glory, but for God’s.
Clearly, ours are not the best feet and hands that God could have, but for God’s own reasons, they are the ones God chose. Some might say ‘there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on”; others, like our presiding bishop, might just say “looks like the Jesus movement to me.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018