Saturday, February 7, 2015

Living on the Periphery of Ourselves (February 8, 2015)

Homily:  Yr B P5, Feb 8 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  Isaiah 40.21-31; Ps 147.1-11,20c; 1 Cor 9.16-23; Mk 1.29-39

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Shame on you Simon!  Don’t you think you could have let your mother-in-law rest a bit after having been in bed with a fever?  Couldn’t you have offered to do the serving that day?

For a 21st century feminist like me, it always strikes me as a bit outrageous when I read about the patriarchy of past cultures, the gendered roles in the public and private spheres, and the obligations of women to serve men.  It’s even more outrageous when I see the same things continue to be perpetuated in our own, supposedly more enlightened, era.  For those of you who find scripture texts like this disturbing, I acknowledge your annoyance.

But now I’m going to ask you to set it aside.  Because if we’re going to get anywhere with this text we also have to acknowledge something else.  And that is that in the gospel of Mark, to be recognized as one who serves is the highest possible praise.  Simon’s mother-in-law, and yes I do wish we had been given her name, she is being held up as a model not just for women but for all of us.  Just a few verses previously in this chapter, when Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, we are told that it is the angels who serve Jesus.  Simon’s mother-in-law is being put in this category, she is being put in the company of angels who served Jesus.  But that’s not all.  Later on, when Jesus is trying to explain his mission to the disciples, he tells them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant of all . . . for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

As it turns out, the twelve, the men don’t really get it.  By the time Jesus is being nailed to the cross, his male disciples have all fled.  But there were women who remained with Jesus until the end.  Mark tells us that there were also women looking on, those who used to follow Jesus and serve Jesus when he was in Galilee.  We’re not given many of the names but I expect that Simon’s mother-in-law was one of those women who served and remained with Jesus until the cross, and who were held up as model followers of Jesus.

The highest praise that can be given of anyone, male or female, in the gospel of Mark is to say of them that they serve.  The Greek word used in all these instances is diakonei, from which we get our word “deacon”.   It is a word that is so important in our faith tradition that the church has used it as a title for ordained ministers, calling them Deacons since the first century.  Which of course makes me think of Peter, who is our Deacon, ordained in 2013 as a Deacon of the Anglican Church of Canada.  Peter is on leave from us for six months writing his thesis for his graduate studies, so that gives me the opportunity to talk about him a bit!

Peter joined our initial visioning and planning team for the new St. Albans in the spring of 2011, when we were meeting at the Royal Oak pub, getting ready for our first service that summer.  When we moved into this church, it was a mess, especially the grounds outside.  Part of the garden was being used as a storage area for the construction company building the condos next door.  People were sleeping overnight, doing drugs and leaving their needles scattered on the ground.  The grass looked like it hadn’t been cut for months.

Peter took one look at the situation, and he turned to me and said, “We need to do something about this.  I’ll look after the cleaning of the church and the maintenance of the grounds.  Now, out of the members of our visioning team, Peter was the senior person in our group, with the most experience in leading music and the highest level of theological education.   He could have offered to do any number of things in our community.  But out of all of us, he was the one who volunteered to do the cleaning and grass cutting.  He went out and got training on how to dispose of contaminated needles safely.  He got out the lawn mower and crunched his way through the needles, the weeds and the little bit of grass that had survived in the garden.  He took out the garbage for the first two years that we existed as a new congregation. He became the chaplain for Centre 454.  He served.  He was a deacon long before the church ordained him.  He and Simon’s mother-in-law, I think that they would have got along just fine.

I believe that God has created each of us for a unique purpose, a purpose which will be our unique way of serving God and serving our community.  That service can take many forms, from cutting grass, to providing a meal, to running a hospital.

But there are many things that can get in the way of living out that life of purpose and service.  Last week during our Open Space we talked about the things that can challenge us and possess us and enslave us, forces that prevent us from being the people we were meant to be, burdens that can stop us from living fully the lives we were meant to live.

In today’s gospel story, Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever.  Illness can be one of those things that stops us from living as we would like, and is also symbolic of all the other forces we talked about.  Not only did a fever in the age before antibiotics carry a significant risk of death, but it was also isolating.  When we are sick, in body or in mind, it can be extremely isolating.  Simon’s mother-in-law is apart, in her bed, removed from community.  We too set people apart, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in their rooms.  For many the most difficult part of being ill is the isolation, because we are meant to live in community.

When Jesus hears that she is in bed, he goes straight to her, he takes her by the hand and he raises her up.  And just as diakonei, serve, is a loaded word in the gospel of Mark, one that we need to pay attention to, so is egerei, to raise up.  It is what God did for Jesus when he lay dead in the tomb.  Jesus was raised up.  It is the word of resurrection.

Jesus raises up Simon’s mother-in-law, not just so that she can feel better, but so that she can be restored to community and serve within that community, living out the purpose to which God has called her, raised up to be the person that she was created to be.

What about you and me?  One of the theologians that I was reading this week as I studied these texts said the following thing which has stuck with me:

“I think a lot of us spend a good part of our lives living on the periphery of ourselves.”[i] 

For whatever reasons, for reasons of sickness, of expectations, of time pressure, for reasons of all the forces and problems we talked about last week, we either don’t know, or have trouble being who we really are.  We are, symbolically at least, lying in bed with a fever, unable to live into and live out the things which God created us for.

Thankfully, God is in the business of raising us up.  God is in the business of restoring us to who we really are.  Jesus went to Simon’s mother-in-law, took her by the hand and raised her up.  Then the fever left her and she began to serve.

God will come to you, take you by the hand and raise you up, enabling and empowering you to do the things that you were meant to do.  To serve.  To minister.  To deacon.  There all the same word.  Here’s another translation too, one that we’ve used already this morning:  To wait, as a waiter waits on tables.

Have you not seen?  Have you not heard?
They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength.  Run and not get weary, walk and not fade.

He raised her up, and she began to serve.


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