Harrowing Of Hell
February 7, 2021

Simple Stories

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Simple stories are important. And the ones that matter most to me are the stories of my family that I carry with me. But I have not always understood this. You see, I, like a lot of American folks, used to think (and if I am honest, still sometimes do) that the big stuff that really matters come in BIG glitzy packages with neon lights blinking and circles and arrows pointing to it. It is understandable. We live in a world that worships the – “Big Time” fame. We love celebrities and know more about say, Jennifer Lopez’s private life than we often know about many of our neighbors. And we raise up American idols one after another but often don’t know the incredible talents of our most beloved friends. It is as if we can’t see BIG things in our own context.

This last week, I started thinking about that. Tuesday was Groundhog Day and The New York Times had an article about the movie of that name in which the main character keeps reliving the same day again and again and again. The article mentioned that the film “…may feel a little too close to home this year.” And isn’t that true? Almost a year into the pandemic, a lot folks express feeling like they are living the same day over and over again. And while Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow might not have as much effect here in Seattle as it does on the east coast, it got me to thinking of how everyday things that are close to home affect us differently and change our perspective when they happen in our own backyard.  As I mentioned, here in Seattle with the exception of things like last year’s ‘Snowmageddon,’ Punxsutawney Phil is just a cute little groundhog in a place without groundhogs and a climate mild enough for folks to loudly proclaim “There is no bad weather only the wrong clothing.” But mention a marmot, a close relation to the groundhog, to folks in the Yakima Valley, and it is a whole different story.  Marmots aren’t cute or cuddly to them – they are problem rodents who cause major damage to property just as gophers do in Montana and groundhogs do in New York State and New Jersey.  Jeremy and I found that out when we were living in the rectory in Middletown, New York. We had a neighborhood groundhog living, I think, below our garage. And in our New York City ignorance, we thought he was the cutest little fellow…but talk about bringing out the fire and brimstone in a group of super nice Christian folks from church…. Groundhogs, it seems, had done a lot of damage to some of their homes and they came over immediately to check on what damage this groundhog might be doing.  Luckily for him he seemed happy with his little garage apartment and was staying away from the rectory’s yard and foundation. So, we city folk got to let him safely remain in his garage residence. 

In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus beginning his earthly ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching. Jesus has just called his first disciples and in verses 21-28 from last week, we read of his first public act of freeing a man held captive by a ‘demon’ in the synagogue. In the synagogue, a public place for men, those who witnessed this were astounded by Jesus’ miraculous act and that even the demons obeyed him. Back from the synagogue, Jesus goes into a house, a private place where women are in charge. The home belongs to Simon and Andrew, the brothers first called by Jesus as disciples. As they enter the home, Jesus is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. We read, “So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.”

In years past, I have heard an awful lot of mother-in-law jokes told in relation to this passage. And I have also heard a lot of jokes about how it is just like a typical man to heal a woman only to have her serve them. But this year, we can’t help but hear this story in a different way. In years past, we might have heard about the fever and thought to ourselves, “She just needs to take a couple of Tylenol and get on with it,”  a buck up little buckaroo sort of thing. As adults how many of us have, in the past, had to go to work even when we were sick? But now? Having a fever means we need to stay home – because it is a potential symptom of Covid 19 which 26.6 million other Americans have caught. That is almost double the amount of folks living in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City combined.  So, in light of our current situation, this story really does hit closer to home.  A fever now, much like in Jesus’ time, is no joke.  And Jesus’ healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is no joke either. Like many of the stories in Mark, this one is “… a symbolic story that reflects the experience of the early believing community. In Mark’s healing stories, the details matter — who it is, where it is, what the ailment, and the symptoms. Here it matters that the setting is the private home of Simon and Andrew and that the person who is ill is the ‘ranking’ woman of the house. We can joke all we want about mothers-in law, but the first person that Jesus heals from illness in the whole gospel is a woman sick in bed. We are told Jesus “takes her by the hand” a practical action to help her up – and then “lifts her up “or it is often translated elsewhere “he raises her up.” If this phrase reminds us of Jesus’ ministry of resurrection, that is not a coincidence. This private healing is a BIG TIME miracle in a private house. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is the first resurrection story in the gospel. Just as the demons do in the previous scene, the fever “leaves her.” And then, having been “raised up” and restored to health, she “serves” them. Now on the most literal level this may mean that she, indeed, gets up and prepares and serves food for them. But the verb “to serve” is a key term in Mark’s gospel. Its presence here shows that her service is to be interpreted as an example– paradigmatic response of faith. Interestingly enough, the verb diakonein meaning both to serve at a table and to do ministry, is used in Mark to refer to the angels in the wilderness who “serve” Jesus in his time of temptation in the wilderness and of the women who followed Jesus and served him. It is also is used to describe Jesus’ own ministry: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This term is never, however, used to describe his male disciples. So, say what you will, Simon Peter’s unnamed mother-in-law serves as the first example of the resurrection life and Christian ministry. And this is a huge deal because as the church would continue to grow throughout the centuries, this part of the story about women as close disciples and followers of Jesus was whitewashed over because it shows right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that his priorities were not centered on those with societal powers, prestige, and strength. He raised up all those who needed his help and would receive it with faith. He also raised up leaders from within the whole of the community.

Mark’s gospel, thought by most scholars to be the first gospel written, and a source for both Matthew and Luke makes far fewer claims to fame, if you will, than the other gospels. In today’s gospel for example, after healing Simon’s mother-in-law, we are told, “And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Even though Mark does use hyperbole here [certainly the whole town wasn’t outside the door], we are told that Jesus “cured many.” In Matthew and Luke, however, as the life of Jesus became even more distanced from the present, we hear that ALL were healed – because, well, that is how our stories work right? As our contexts change, and what we know changes, our stories also change to present and preserve the message. So, the fact that this story of Jesus’ first healing of a woman still remains throughout the passage of time tells us a lot about its veracity because this counter-cultural story was subjected again and again to redaction. Had it not been widely accepted as true in the years immediately following Jesus’ earthly death, this story would not remain. Yet, while this woman’s name is lost, her story is not. Jesus works miracles but Jesus was not like the “miracle workers” of his time who made their living doing miraculous deeds for the crowds. Jesus started his truly BIG TIME ministry doing his miracles in a private space.  

So, what are we to take away from this simple story this lectionary year B 2021? Well, first I would suggest that Jesus is inviting us to look for homespun experiences of resurrection and miracles in everyday life—in our own lives, in the lives of our families and in our community. Miracles do happen in our own backyard and, while they may seem more ‘green’ in the grass over there, if we take the time to look at our own lives, there are an awful lot happening in ours too. The healing of Peter’s mother-in law and the miracle of the Covid 19 vaccines wouldn’t have come to pass if human beings, after being raised up from within their communities, hadn’t done the work of feeding, serving, and caring for others.  What Jesus is showing us in today’s gospel is that to be restored to health means that we can once again take up our communal responsibilities to others. Caring for others and working on our relationships with our families and our communities is an important dimension of resurrection. In Mark’s gospel, healing is not about an “individual” rather it is about relationship. We all are raised up to bring the good news of the resurrection life to others.  The resurrection life is not glamourous or uncomplicated.  Mark’s gospel is honest about the opposition to and the cost of proclaiming the good news. But proclaim it we must. Not because it will gather us a following on social media or get us on American Idol, but because that is what Jesus calls us to do. The grass isn’t greener over there… and each and every day, as mundane as it might seem, is not only different but is a new opportunity to be turn away from old assumptions and self-limiting beliefs which might be keeping us from changing our world…

The main character in Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, relives the same day over and over again until he slows down and begins to really live into the possibilities of the day. There are some important truths in this old and seemingly simple movie such as : trying new things; concentrating on your own side of the street or argument or political divide if you want to change things; spending  your energy finding out what you are being called to do; and perhaps most importantly finding  how God is asking you to serve others. And I have to agree with you Pacific Northwesterners. I really want to believe there is no such thing as “bad weather.”