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Good Hunting

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Feb 04

Texts: Mark 1: 29-39

Some of you have heard me share a bit of preacher’s wisdom that was passed on to me from my mentor and friend, the late Rev. Peter Gomes, who was minister for over 40 years at Harvard’s Memorial Church. “Find the stone in the road,” he would tell his students. In other words, find that word, phrase or idea that will trip people up the most. “Hang a lantern on it,” Gomes would add. As in, let them know that you see it too and then help them navigate their way through or around it. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell us what to do when there were a whole string of stumbling blocks but I’m gonna guess he would say to light up the whole road.

First, a word about Mark. He doesn’t waste any time as he introduces the road of the gospel in this first chapter. We’ve already heard a quote from Isaiah. We’ve learned about the appearance of John the Baptist, about Jesus coming from Nazareth and being baptized, about his time in the wilderness. We’ve heard about him proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near and about his calling the first disciples. And he’s already well into the beginning of his public ministry around the Galilee -- teaching, preaching and healing. No wonder Jesus is ready for a break and some time alone by verse 35! But first, he stops off at Simon Peter’s house where he encounters Simon’s mother-in-law and where we encounter the first stone in the road of our passage. Did you hear it?

After Jesus realizes that she too is sick and after he offers her his healing touch, the next line is, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Ouch! The abrupt language of her seemingly automatic shift from having a fever to her serving the men in her presence is a problem. We could chalk it up to context…sure, we’re getting a window into the place of women in first century Palestine. After all, since Mark doesn’t even give her a name…why would he give her the time to rest before jumping up to resume her domestic labors? Still, we might expect Jesus to say to her “No, it’s ok, you rest. We’ve got this. We can scrounge something up.” No such thing.

There’s a stumbling block here for sure, and it matters a lot how we translate the word for serve. Interestingly, given what we just did in our service, the Greek word here is “diakon-ee-o.” Sound familiar? It’s the verb form of the word that gives us “deacon.” It’s true this word could mean “to serve,” as in, to serve tables and to offer food and drink. It’s true that the Deacons of this church are charged with doing just that, serving at this table, serving up this food and drink. But the word can also be translated as “to minister,” as in to be a minister of. In the King James Version, of all places, verse 31 reads: “Then the fever left her, and she began to minister to them.” This has a decidedly different ring to it, don’t you think? Seen in this light, many scholars have understood this passage as elevating the role of Simon’s (albeit unnamed) mother-in-law. It’s as if when Jesus touched her, he was, in essence, ordaining her and installing her as the first Deacon of the very first church. If only the early church fathers got the memo two millennia ago. Can we imagine how much different the world would be today? Surely the passage invites us to confront the horrendous role the church writ large has played in subjugating women over the centuries. And yet here, in the first chapter of the gospel, a woman is among the first to be touched by the healing power of Jesus and among the first to hear the gospel message of love and service, and the first who seems to genuinely practice her faith, all in her own home. And the home here is key. As the Cuban feminist theologian Ofelia Ortega has said of this passage. “Christianity began being affirmed socially, not in a sacred space [as in a great cathedral], but rather in daily life, in small communities, and there in that basic social structure of the home, that woman’s figure appears, a mystic revelation of what true Christian discipleship means.” Amen. One who had been ministered to and cared for by Jesus in turns ministers to and cares for him and others!

Let’s keep on moving. In the next line, we learn that on that same evening, all who were sick were brought to Jesus! In addition to extremely succinct writing, Mark also had a gift for hyperbole. He says the whole city was gathered around the door! Ok, maybe there was a big crowd! But then check out what Mark doesn’t say next: He doesn’t say “then Jesus healed the whole city” or that “Jesus healed everyone!” The text clearly states that “Jesus healed many.” Miracle stories or not, this line for me raises the question of the limits of Jesus’ powers and of God’s! We seem to learn here that Jesus will do some amazing things but he can’t do amazing things for everyone. Hold that thought.

And now we come to the biggest stone in the road for me! Just when Jesus tries to step out for a time of solitude and prayer, a chance to refuel his God-given energy after a long day (and a long chapter!), the disciples literally come after him. Did you hear Mark’s choice of words this time? Again, the translation is key. The text says: “And Simon and his companions hunted for him.” This time the translation is spot on. It’s not that they “went looking” for him, or that we were kindly “checking in” to make sure he was ok. The Greek here carries a connotation of an almost hostile pursuit. Another scholarly translation is that they “tracked him down!”

Alarming as the language may be, it makes some sense when we think about it. Setting aside the foreshadowing of Roman authorities hunting down Jesus, maybe the disciples were just worried they were going to lose him. Or, maybe out of that fear, they were judging him. Can’t he see that people are dying here? Or, maybe they were so pressed upon themselves by the demands of the crowds they couldn’t help but crowd in on him. After all, they were mere middle-men, desperate to offer the help that they themselves did not have the power to give.
You may be wondering whether I’m going to take this for a ride to justify my up-coming sabbatical -- Jesus needed a rest and so do I. No thanks! Besides, the fact is I find myself relating far more to the disciples, especially given the past week. There has been a particular crowd of sorrows profoundly pressing in and making me turn to God with an almost demanding sense of urgency.

On Tuesday, I went with some Muslim colleagues to speak with the regional director and other high level officials from the US Customs and Immigration Services at the Federal building downtown. Given recent policies and how we know they are being executed, I went in pretty much expecting to meet anti-Christ. But after sharing a prayer, going round the room and each sharing our own immigration stories, after having three Muslims share their heart wrenching stories of pain and struggle with the current system, I found these public officials- many of whom were career middle-men themselves- to be deeply compassionate public servants. They intently listened to the stories, shared in our frustrations, and were willing to help in ways that they could. We came away from the meeting with an odd feeling. On the one hand, we felt good that we had been able to move the dial on some of the concerns we presented, albeit on a case by case basis. But I also felt as though I totally prejudged and misjudged the director and his colleagues. We came away with a profound and humbling recognition, that some problems are truly intractable given a host of factors, and though we may be able to help a few people, we wouldn’t be able to help everyone who came to us.

In another meeting this week, I sat down with a small group of close interfaith colleagues most of whom I’ve been in deep relationship with at for at least 10 years. We finally – finally – had built up trust enough to begin to a frank discussion amongst ourselves about Israel and Palestine. We passed around a talking stick. We shared stories, some of historic pain and oppression some of current pain and oppression. We listened deeply and intently to one another, Jewish leaders and Muslim leaders especially, learning new things from each other’s perspectives, saying things which we had previously been afraid to say in such mixed company. I walked away with that strange feeling again, of having deeper relationships but at the same time a humbling awareness of the intractability of the situation and the limits of what any of us could do.

And there were a few pastoral conversations as well, about the intractability of illness and grief, and the hard facts that people get sick and people die and there is sometimes nothing any of us can do about it but to pray and perhaps offer whatever solace or comfort we can.

Thinking about these stories this week, in light of our gospel, I wonder if, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this ….that immigration official I met this week was like me encountering Jesus as the disciples met him in our story. His dedication to the people he served was unquestionable! He had been doing it long enough to know there were times when he could help people and times when he couldn’t. His honesty about that tension was heartbreaking, but this and the fact that he stayed the course for decades, that he was the bureaucratic middle man who could hear our stories as opposed to that anti-Christ who would discount them, proved to be a remarkable gift!

The fact is people do get sick. The fact is the system is rigged. And no matter how powerful and pressing our faith in God may be, no matter how much tenacity we have as we hunt Jesus down, or seek out those with power to make a difference, we can still hit a wall. We will still encounter those intractable facts! Maybe, just maybe that is what drove Jesus to prayer, to taking that time alone, to restore himself, so that he could come back the next day to keep fighting the good fight knowing that he couldn’t heal, help or save everyone, at least not in a day or even a lifetime.

Friends, the good news of our passage may be that there is a gift and grace in recognition of our limits, and in recognizing the intractability of our all too human lives and world. Simon’s mother-in-law did what she could do in that moment, and may the church bless her for it. She ministered to Jesus and she may very well have helped him to catch his breath, or even encouraged him to go take a break. What a remarkable thing!

But how often are we more like Simon Peter and those disciples, driven by daily demands, driven by fear. How often are we looking ahead to the next case, the next item on our to do list, pressing and hunting for Jesus and for anyone who can do something to heal us or save us?

And when that crowd of sorrows swells at our doorsteps, how often do we, even unwittingly, turn to God with frustration, or disappointment, or with ever higher expectations of improved performance? Can we imagine instead coming to God in humble prayer, ready to hear an invitation to pause for a moment, to rest up and ease up and take comfort in what we have accomplished already and the fact that there will be another day for fighting the good fight? Do we trust as Jesus did that God will give us the stamina to stay in it for the long haul?

In our scriptures, the disciples who had found him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He answered them, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." The message is that he and they have done enough for now and that he is always keeping at this, never stopping for good, never turning away from the crowd of sorrows, even and especially when he takes a moment to pause to renew and connect with God. Friends, he sets the table of grace for us even now, with blessed help from our newly ordained and installed Deacons who share in his ministry to us. Taste the invitation to rest and healing and wholeness. Trust that many will be nourished by it, that we too may be empowered to continue to proclaim the message of God’s love, despite of and because of the facts, day after precious day.

Amen.

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