The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5, 2012
Some of you know that I was out of the country this past week…and some of you thought I was just being rude by not answering your emails! But I was actually on a cruise ship with 50 other clergy women from all over the world. All different denominations, it was fascinating, and because of the large group, it was also very affordable. We sailed from New Orleans to Mexico over the course of 5 days, and I promise there really was a continuing education seminar onboard. Every morning a facilitator conducted a preaching class which focused on the upcoming Gospel lessons, and I attended the class faithfully…most mornings…OK, twice.
But my friend and traveling companion Kelly, a marvelous preacher from Ohio, and I did discuss the upcoming Gospel lessons often, sometimes even setting down our umbrella drinks to make a point. And though I did partake in some delicious umbrella drink concoctions, the real thrill was the non-stop Diet Coke fiesta. On a cruise ship you can get unlimited Diet Cokes…in cute souvenir cups…I think God might really be calling me to cruise ship ministry. Plus on a cruise ship my sinuses and lungs were fully open and functional all at the same time…that never happens. So between the Diet Cokes and the nonstop breathing, and the interesting discussions, I have developed a whole new image of heaven, and I’m hoping we can start a St. Thomas at Sea satellite congregation soon.
But whether or not you have ever been on a cruise ship or to Mexico, I imagine that all of you know the power of a good group discussion. Whether the topic is football, or politics, or the Gospel of Mark, there’s something quite energizing in hearing other people’s points of view…hearing ideas…and background stories. With Bible study in particular, there’s a richness in hearing how a particular passage strikes someone else…a richness that’s less attainable in private Bible study…though I’m a fan of private study, but there’s just something powerful in hearing how a passage of Scripture affects another person. Seeing what images another person conjures up…images that never would come to my mind all by myself.
While life on a cruise ship with a bunch of women and umbrella drinks is a far cry from life in the 1st century Marcan community, people studying together, wrestling together, asking what does this mean for us ---rather than simply asking the uniquely 21st century question of what does this mean to me…that kind of communal study has much in common with the first audience.
In one of the sessions my friend Kelly and I managed to attend, today’s passage from Mark was the focus.
There are 1000 sermons that could spring from these 10 verses…and we would need a lot more than an umbrella drink to wade through all of that. Certainly the Gospel of Mark lacks some of the beauty and poetry, and fleshed out stories of the other Gospels, but this shortest of the Gospels packs a powerful punch with its starkness and straight to the point storytelling. Each verse full of meaning….and to grab hold of the Gospel of Mark you’ll have to get up from your lounge chair, put down your drink, and get ready to run. Mark moves at breakneck speed.
We’re still in Mark chapter 1 and we’ve had the baptism of Jesus, the temptations of Jesus, the arrest of John the Baptist, the call of four disciples, the healing of a demon possessed man, and now we’re at Simon Peter’s house, who apparently was married because he has a mother in law, and it’s still chapter 1. Whew. Be careful…the Gospel of Mark boat will knock you over with its rocking and moving so quickly. But that’s the heart of the Gospel. The reason this Gospel moves along at such breakneck speed isn’t about poor grammar and unimaginative writing. It’s about life and death.
For Mark’s community there is an urgency that’s lost on us. For Mark’s people, there was a real sense that the end time had arrived….waiting breathlessly to see what would happen as the Romans took more and more from them….including, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. The very center of all religious, political, and cultural identity. Mark’s community imagines that the end is very near…the destruction of the Temple must surely signal the end of time. Like when we in our country woke up the day after the terror attacks in 2001 and wondered, now what? That’s the state in which the Marcan community lived. A whole new world…a whole new kingdom was coming, and you better get on the right side of that kingdom before it’s too late. As was made abundantly clear to me on the cruise ship, when the boat sails the boat sails…and it doesn’t wait for anyone so you better be onboard.
The urgency and choppy sentences in Mark aren’t about poor writing, instead, it’s the kind of writing that takes you by the shoulders and shakes you in order to save you. That’s why in only the first 29 verses we’ve had about 29 stories. Hurry! The author of Mark cries…hurry and get on the boat with Jesus, because you don’t want to miss this. And that’s why we in our time and place have to be careful how we read this fast paced Gospel. Because if we aren’t careful we’ll either skip right over important details or we’ll read too much of our 21st century experiences into the stories and miss the deeper meaning.
When the cruise girls and I first read the story of Peter’s mother in law, we--in all of our empowered women in ministry I can lead a church while I’m getting my nails done glory--, we made fun of this passage. O sure, we joked, Peter’s mother in law has a fever, and then Jesus heals her, and the first thing she does is get up and serve a bunch of men who came over to the house unannounced. Heaven forbid anyone should fix this poor woman a drink…. thanks a lot Jesus. Some mothers in our group said that even when they are sick they still have to get the lunches ready, and sign the school permission slips, and fill the kids’ backpacks. This story at first made us all nod and think about those modern mothers, but upon closer inspection….after reading the story over more carefully, and uncovering meaning in the original language, we began to see something more amazing at work here.
In 1st century Palestine of course women did not have the role in society that women in 21st century America have. There is an element to this story the woman serving the men, no matter how long she’s been laid up with a fever, but the phrase used in Mark, “she began to serve them” carries with it far more meaning than, she went into the kitchen and got them a sandwich.
This is true service like the work of the church, the work of community, this is the same word we get our word deacon from, and it’s the same work all followers of Jesus are called to do in every time and place. Jesus heals this woman so she may serve the kingdom. This unnamed woman is the first minister of the church in Mark’s Gospel. And that’s amazing. Here we are still in Chapter 1 and Jesus is already mixing things up. Already breaking boundaries and doing shocking things…he’s touching a woman…something not done in public in the 1st century…touching a sick woman at that…and then healing her…not just getting rid of her fever, but healing her for service to the Kingdom, service to the Community.
Jesus heals all of us…so that we may serve and be part of the Kingdom. You and I will end up with fevers and cancers, and some day, like Peter and like his mother in law, we will eventually even die. But we are healed from being separated from God, we are healed from being isolated, we are healed from being abandoned…but healed… not just for our own private pleasure. We are healed so that we might serve.
All of us, the well known and the anonymous…the rich and poor…all of us…taken by the hand, lifted up out of our own private self…and healed…healed so that we may serve God…God who still breaks boundaries, God who still chooses us, God who calls each of us into service now and always.