Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
V Epiphany – February 8, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Okay, lets get the obvious out of the way. You know you giggled about it as soon as you heard it. It’s right there in the second part of the 31st verse of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel reading for this 5th Sunday after The Epiphany.
“Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Right, you said to yourself, of course she did.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (Isaiah 40:21) What’s that old saying? “A man works from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done. “
Yes, that’s the obvious part of the verse and it does help to laugh at the obvious sexist assumptions, but let’s look at the not so obvious. There is something in the sentence immediately preceding this one that is so subtle you might have missed it. It is this first part of verse 31:
“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.”
The woman in question is the mother-in-law of Simon. She has been sick in bed with a fever. If you remember earlier in this very gospel a few Sundays ago, Jesus has been in Galilee and has called Simon, Andrew, James and John from their boats to follow him. They have all gone to Simon’s house, perhaps for a bite to eat and to talk about their great mission and the new adventure they are about to have.
I imagine that the atmosphere must have practically crackled with excitement and expectation.
We don’t know the whereabouts of Simon’s wife – she may have been fetching some water or healing herbs – but we do know that his mother-in-law is ill. Jesus went to her at once. I find myself struck by the gentleness of his interaction with her.
In the midst of all the heady excitement and commotion, as he was, no doubt, just beginning to feel the momentum of the movement to proclaim the good news, Jesus stops dead in his tracks in order to tend to a sick woman he’s never met, the mother-in-law of a man he’s just met.
“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.”
Just let your mind play with that image for a few seconds. Allow yourself to be surprised by the tenderness of his compassion and the gentleness of his care.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. We allow so much of the life going on around us to distract us from what is really important. Our hearts grow hard from the constant barrage of the violence we allow into our living room or den as the television flashes horrible sights and sounds of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Gaza strip, the continued genocide in Darfur and the civil unrest in Zimbabwe.
We cannot bear to hear the sounds of the unemployment rate inch up another percentage point, while the line at the local soup kitchen grows longer and it is announced that Fort Meyer, Florida has become ‘ground zero’ for the viral epidemic of foreclosures around the country.
We try to catch a break wherever we can find it. Did Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow? How bout them Steelers! Did you hear Britney’s got a new video? What a shame about Michael Phelps and A-Rod, huh?
Sometimes, organized religion can function in much the same way as the media – to distract rather than to engage. Our well-intended focus on ‘life eternal’ – or that which is greater and grander – can sometimes assist us in turning a blind eye to that which is right under our noses.
We rush by the more subtle good stuff to scoff at the obvious. We spot the sexism, but miss the gentleness. And when we do see the tenderness, it surprises us as unexpected – especially in the midst of the expected subtle violence of sexism.
Not to worry. I’m as guilty of this as you are. Perhaps I’ve been more sensitized to it after seeing the movie Gran Torino. In the midst of a winter bumper crop of some really good films, I urge you to go and see it.
Very briefly, the film takes place in the city of Detroit where Walt Kowalski, (surprisingly played by Clint Eastwood), a retired, recently widowed autoworker lives in a decaying neighborhood surrounded by first and second-generation immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Kowalski sits on his front porch, stewing in his beer and seething with anger at every person who passes by his property. He spews out his disdain for his immigrant neighbors in colorful, appalling, if not even sometimes comical, racist language. No real surprise here. Hey, they might call him ‘Kowalski’ but we know its Clint Eastwood up there. We know what’s going to happen.
We are not at all surprised when he brings out his rifle, a relic from his duty in the Korean War, where we learn that he killed 13 people. The memory of that torments him. There seems to be only one source of pleasure in his life – a vintage, mint condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he helped to build, and which is stored in his garage.
The previously threatened violence becomes explicit when a group of Hmong teenage gang members tries to steal the Gran Torino. The violence escalates wildly when the gang assaults Kowalski’s Asian neighbor’s house with an automatic weapon, wounding its occupants. The gang also brutalizes the neighbor’s daughter who had previously befriended Kowalski. Kowalski’s basic sense of right and wrong, haunted by his experience in Korea, moves him to avenge their assault and punish the attackers.
Again, no surprise. We’ve all seen enough Clint Eastwood films to know that this is where the shoot ‘em up, bang-bang begins. We expect a violent ending. Instead, we are surprised to see that, unlike most of our real lives these days, in this film anyway, violence does not get the final word. Justice happens, but not as retribution or vengeance.
In the unexpected end, a haunting song – written and partly sung by Mr. Eastwood – plays over the credits:
. . . gentle now a tender breeze blows / whispers through the Gran Torino / whistling another tired song / engines hum and bitter dreams grow / in a heart locked in a Gran Torino / it beats a lonely rhythm all night long.
I had to ‘google’ the lyrics to read them in their entirety, and they are as difficult to understand in the reading as they were when I heard them in the theater. However, I am profoundly struck that both the lyrics and the film seem to suggest that something gentle, something tender, is trying to break through into the consciousness of a troubled world.
This ‘breeze’ is unexpected, gentle. It is not the sound of bombs dropping or guns firing. Instead, it whispers and whistles gently past us, like that first sentence of the 31st verse of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. If we aren’t paying attention, it might float by us without our even noticing. I believe it is the gentle sound of the call to a better way to resolve the world’s conflicts and sorrows and troubles.
In my imagination, Jesus came to the mother-in-law of Simon quietly, unexpectedly, as gentle as a breeze, and ‘he took her by the hand and lifted her up.’ Did you not see it? Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
Unexpected surprises are not just the stuff of movies. Unexpected responses to age-old problems could well resolve our contemporary problems in a new way, diffusing tensions and lowering the level of the violence we do to ourselves and each other and the world.
It’s not about ignoring the problem or distracting ourselves with access to news from Hollywood celebrities or by diverting our attention with the behavior of athletes who seem to have it all – except common sense and good judgment.
Actually, it’s about paying closer attention to the world – our world – the world God has created for us. It’s about searching and seeking and, finally, finding within ourselves the absolute audacity and impudence to not let violence have the final word.
It’s about slowing down and seeking out that gentle breeze of tenderness and compassion that is, in fact, searching and seeking us out – longing and desiring to take us by the hand and lift us up to be better people, better citizens of the universe, better followers of the one we call The Christ.
And then, once we are healed of the fever of the world’s violence, to get up and serve the world in the name of Jesus – no matter if we are women or men, old or young, rich or poor, black or white, Jew or Palestinian, Iranian or Iraqi, Afghani or African, Asian or American, Muslim or Christian.
And then, having been healed, it will turn to us to take others by the hand and lift them up as well.