Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
Epiphany 5, Yr. B.
February 4, 2017
Holy Guacamole; the Importance of Story
So, this week my friend Miranda, a wonderful priest serving in Madison Wisconsin, shared a game with me which involves taking the last four numbers of your phone number and choosing the corresponding phrase assigned to each number from four different lists. These phrases, when combined, are supposed to form the headline of a story you have to write. So, I took the last four digits of my phone number and got this: “Spiritual avocado urban farming will change the way that we see the future.” I not only thought it was funny but wondered, too, if there wasn’t something there. A story to tell.
You see, I love avocados. I would guess on Super Bowl Sunday there are a lot of armchair avocado lovers out there too. Folks who will be eating the requisite chips, salsa and guacamole while watching the game. But, I really LOVE avocados all the time. I am not talking just about guacamole or the hipster-favored avocado toast. No. Some people got a teddy bear? Well I have Avi Cad the avocado here….I really love avocados.
And here is the thing, almost anything can serve as a symbol of something deeper. So, while it may seem odd, there are ways in which avocados have a lot to do with our spiritual lives. For example, as any avocado-lover knows, avocados have the briefest of shelf lives. With avocados, it seems like you spend all your time waiting for them to ripen only to find that they have gone bad. As Sarah Hutto humorously shared in the New Yorker , “Avocados become ripe for a brief period between every third harvest moon and the onset of praying-mantis mating season. The ripeness period lasts for approximately four hours, during which time the avocado is edible. Immediately after the ripeness period, the avocado ceases to be food and should be cast into the same void to which you banished your youthful idealism.”
And so, I could say that the short life of the avocado is a good way to consider the importance of mindful living and its impermanence. An avocado could remind us, in an innocuous way that, indeed, we are but dust and to dust we shall return…
So, what does this rather lengthy consideration of an avocado have to do with our lives as Christians or the gospel story of Jesus’ healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law? Well, two important things actually. The first is that just as this silly game reminds us, we all have stories to tell and while sometimes, in the eyes of the world, these stories might seem to be rather odd, or silly or unimportant, our stories are important to God. And secondly, in our lives as Christians, we are called to question the stories that are told and, even more importantly our way of telling them.
Most biblical scholars now agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written. Various references to the destruction of the Temple, the wars, and the refugees of those wars lead many to believe that it was penned during the Jewish War; thirty or forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. “Mark probably utilized a number of different sources for the Gospel: a passion tradition (that is the account of the days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus), stories of healing and conflict, parables, and other teachings …[including] collections of favorite passages or testimonia [and oral tradition] .” This is all to say that the gospel of Mark – that all the gospels—are made up of many different stories of believers which have been collected, written down and, in our case two thousand years later, translated and re-translated. When some of our Christian brothers and sisters talk about a literal translation of the Bible and advocate the God said it, I believe it, that settles it approach to Bible study, they do not seem to remember that the Gospels are composed of the many stories and experiences of Jesus’ followers that were shared believer to believer for over thirty years before being written down. They don’t seem to remember that Jesus didn’t walk around Nazareth speaking the King James Version of English. They don’t seem to remember that we continue to learn more about scripture through recovered sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So, while I see myself as a rather live-and-let-live/each to their own person, this approach does not seem to remember what stories have been left out or only partially told. One good example found in Mark is when Jesus tells his disciples of the woman who anointed his head with ointment, “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world what she has done will be told in memory of her.” That her action has been remembered, but her name forgotten tells us something. Jesus’ words tell us that he found her action both kind and meaningful even if it was met with anger and scorn by those around him. He says, “…She has performed a good service for me…. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” While the others tried to shame her and came up with a whole list of reasons why she should not have anointed him, she alone honored him in the days preceding his death. Yet in the telling of the story, her name is lost. We cannot remember her as Miriam or Mary or Sarah or Teresa or April when we tell this story.
In today’s reading from Mark we find another example of woman whose name we do not know. While her story is the first ‘healing story’ of the gospel, we only know her as Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We have all probably heard a lifetime’s worth of jokes about mothers-in-laws even one or two that might have found their way into sermons preached on this text. But as Cynthia Briggs Kittredge notes, “Preaching that minimizes the significance of this story with jokes about mothers-in-law misses the importance, beauty, and resonance of the episode. In Mark’s healing stories, the details matter — who it is, where it is, what the ailment, the symptoms. ” And, while we do not have her name, in Mark’s gospel, this woman matters. This woman’s story matters.
That said, it is rather easy to miss. In today’s gospel reading there is a lot going on and it is stuff that we readily recognize as important: Jesus beginning his healing ministry. Jesus modelling for us a life of prayer; Jesus reiterating the importance of spreading the Good News of God’s kingdom. With so much is going on, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We can also make lazy assumptions and discount her as just another woman who got up and “served” the men of the house. However, in the story of this woman if we take time to be intellectually and spiritually curious—if we carefully read her important if seemingly insignificant story, it serves both as a symbol of resurrection AND a paradigm for Christian ministry .
A symbol of resurrection and a paradigm for Christian ministry sounds rather grand for a three-sentence story.
So, let me read it again, in case you missed it.
Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them.
We often struggle to see the importance of something so simple. So, we might be tempted to say let’s not read more into this than what is here. We might be tempted to ask what is so important about this woman about whom we know so little? What is so And armed with our narrow definitions, we might refuse to believe that she is ‘resurrected’ let alone a model of Christian ministry. Yet, while the story seems rather insignificant, it is part of a larger story— and the way it is told gives us clues to its significance.
In our sermon review and scripture study this week, Caroline Norman referred to a phrase from this story that I have always loved and that piqued my interest in delving deeper into this truncated tale. I wanted to know more about a verbal phrase used here and translated in the NRSV as “He…lifted her up.” Something more seemed to be going on here than a quick read might reveal. That wonderful phrase reminded me, as I would find out later it should, of the phrase “he raised her up.” This is, as it turns out, a better translation of the original verb; “He came and took her by the hand and he raised her up.” The simple three-sentence story, then, isn’t just about Jesus lifting her up by the hand, but about something more –the first resurrection of Jesus’ ministry. While we are not given much background here, if we step back and think about it, this was not just a little fever. The disciples were very concerned. They tell Jesus about her “at once.” In Jesus’ time, a fever could be a symptom of a serious illness. And Jesus raised her up. He healed her. This same verbal phrase will be used again and again to describe Jesus as he healed others. But this is also the very same verb which will later be used to refer to Jesus himself when an angel tells the women looking for him in his tomb, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. ”
So, our three-sentence story with Simon’s mother-in-law begins the much larger story of the resurrected life. But because resurrection is not an end, but rather a new beginning, after being raised up, she returns to her work. In times before refrigeration or water taps, grocery stores and Whole Foods salad bars, family roles were largely organized around basic needs like providing and preparing the daily food and bread for the household. So illnesses, like that affecting the woman in today’s story, would have not only affected her but the entire household. It wasn’t just a case of pulling out a can of soup or a frozen pizza to feed the family, as she took an Advil and stayed in bed. Rather it was a real question of what the family would eat and how one could possibly provide hospitality to the whole town who were coming over to the house to see Jesus. So, when Jesus resurrects her, revives her, breathes new life into her, he not only raises her up, he also restores the whole family system. When Jesus raises her up, she begins to serve. And, this, as Jesus tells his disciples is what we are called to do as well. Simon’s mother-in-law then serves as the first human symbol of Christian ministry in the gospel of Mark. The verb diakoneo “to serve” is a key term in Mark which appears at pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry. It is used to describe the angels who serve Jesus in his temptation in the wilderness . It is used in today’s gospel. It is used by Jesus to explain his earthly life and ministry to his disciples: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. ” And finally, it is used to again refer to the women of Galilee who had served him and who numbered among the other women followers, who unlike their brother disciples, stood witness as Jesus was crucified . These women, many of them unnamed, their work—their ministry is referred to with the same verb with which Jesus describes his own ministry. It is, interesting to note, however, that this verb is never once used to refer to the work of his named male disciples. I wonder if the more spiritually certain who feel sure that they know what the Bible says would be equally as positive about what Bible doesn’t say. Not. Even. Once. Could Jesus have preferred the often-denigrated “women’s work” to that of their male counterparts, who in the gospel of Mark, never seem to really “get” what Jesus was teaching?
We are often too quick to dismiss the simple or the silly and more quickly equate portentous events with pretentious ones. But let’s welcome back our hope and youthful idealism. Today’s gospel story asks us to consider if God’s will isn’t being done in ways and through people we overlook, we discount or we don’t believe. While spiritual avocado urban farming might not change the way that we see the future, seeing how God is working in the world around us will. Seeing God working through others will. And feeling God work in us certainly will. We all have our stories to tell. My story today is silly. I love avocados all the time. God loves me all the time.
Tell your story even if you don’t think there is much to tell. Listen intently and intentionally to the stories of others. They are all part of a much larger story. And the “mundane” details of your life, while they may not seem so to you, are important. God is in those details. God is in you. And one day, maybe tonight when you throw away that blackening guacamole, the One who knows you by name will come, he will take you by the hand, and he will raise you up.