The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 8, 2015
You know the image. Maybe you’ve seen it with your own eyes in the Sistine Chapel…surely you’ve seen reproductions of this most-copied work of art ever…
It’s that moment. Michelangelo calls it The Creation of Adam. God surrounded by angels, carried on a cloud with a big white flowy beard, reaches down from the heavens, extending his hand, pointing his finger. And Adam, naked as the day he was…created…reaches up toward God, extends his own hand, points his own finger. And their fingers almost touch.
I hold that image together with the refrain from the communion hymn we’ll sing today: “There is a longing in our hearts O God, for you to reveal yourself to us. There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God.”
I am no expert in art. (I will say that 3:00 on a Friday afternoon was an unfortunate time for Art History class…in the basement of our library…in the dark…looking at slides as we listened to lectures…) But one concept that has stuck with me since the fall that I was seventeen and a freshman in college, is the idea of negative space. It’s the space around and between the thing, the subject, in a piece of art. And that is what fascinates me about this painting of Michelangelo’s. Not Adam’s finger, or God’s, but the space between them. I want something to happen there. Perhaps it’s theologically problematic, but I want one of those chubby angels on the cloud to nudge God just a little bit, to jostle him enough to move his elbow, his arm, his hand, his finger…just enough to close that gap. Just enough to eliminate that negative space. Because what might happen? What miracle might ensue? That’s the longing in my heart when I see Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. I want God to close the gap.
In Jesus’ time, as in our own, illness causes people to live on the periphery of who they are. In this gospel passage, a woman’s son-in-law, Simon Peter, and his brother, and two other men she presumably doesn’t know, and one other man she almost certainly doesn’t know, all come into the house where she lives. She has a fever serious enough that she can’t get out of bed. So she can’t do the thousand little things that add up to hospitality in her time, or in ours. Is she sick to the point of death? We don’t know. Is she living fully as the person she was created to be? I think it’s safe to say no.
In that spare and economical way that Mark tells the story in this gospel, Jesus closes the gap. He eliminates the negative space. The disciples tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law, about her fever. He goes to her, takes her by the hand, lifts her up, the fever leaves her, and she begins to serve them.
Now, this might sound like a small story. Certainly it’s concise in the telling. But imagine yourself into it for a moment. Imagine yourself with an illness that you don’t know the cause of, or the cure for. Imagine yourself so sick that you can’t get out of bed. And now imagine five people coming into your house, several of them probably strangers to you…and your skin burns and your head hurts and your hands shake, and you can’t even get up to greet them at the door and welcome them inside to your home, much less prepare the meal you otherwise would. And imagine, perhaps, even maybe wishing that they weren’t there, that they hadn’t come at all…or at least that they didn’t know that you were there, and would just leave you alone in the dark to whatever this thing was going to be. Imagine the knock at your door that exacerbates the knocking inside your head. And a stranger coming into your room, putting his hand on yours, taking hold, lifting you up. Now imagine the fever gone, the shaking gone, the headache gone…the fear…gone.
Archbishop Rowan Williams refers to “God’s insistent generosity,” which we see here at work. In the person of Jesus, God closes the gap between earth and heaven, between sickness and healing, between periphery and center. This is no God in the cloud, just beyond our grasp, but instead a God who responds to the longing of our hearts by becoming like us in order to be with us. Jesus comes into our most fearful and vulnerable space, takes us by the hand, and restores us to who we are.
Several bible commentaries refer to the fact that Simon’s mother-in-law (I really wish she had a name given in the text…), upon being healed, begins to serve Jesus and Simon and the others. Scholars point out that fact as problematic. They draw attention to the fact that when Lazarus is raised from the dead, he doesn’t get up and make dinner. Instead he reclines on a couch and eats food, prepared…by his sisters. I’ll confess to rolling my eyes at the thought of this poor woman being raised up from her illness just in time to do the dishes. But two things give me pause.
The first is found the Greek word diakonei used in reference to what the woman does after Jesus heals her. It can be defined as it is here, as “to serve”. It can also be translated as “ministering to.” The word deacon clearly shares the same root (and again, we welcome our own deacon, the Rev. Sue Nebel, as she ministers among us now). That word, diakonei, was last used in Mark’s gospel as the angels ministered to Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness. And that word diakonei will be used next by Jesus himself, as an example of how he calls the disciples to lead: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he will say to them. I think we’re talking about more than washing dishes here. Or if washing dishes is the vocation, then Jesus calls his disciples to do that with sacred purpose.
And a second reason for pause is that, with her intentional service, or ministry, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes the first person in Mark’s gospel to demonstrate active discipleship. Yes, Simon and Andrew and James and John have dropped their nets to follow him. Simon’s mother-in-law has served. She has ministered to them.
Afterwards, people get wind of what Jesus has done. They bring him their sick, their demon-possessed. The whole city shows up at Simon and Andrew’s doorstep. And Jesus heals them, restores them to who they are.
The next morning he goes out by himself to pray. The disciples seek him, find him. “Let’s keep going,” Jesus says. “Because this is what I came here to do.” And they go. And he teaches. And he heals.
Maybe, finally, that is what Jesus came to do – to answer the longing in our hearts by closing the gap, by eliminating the negative space. Maybe he came to find us in our most vulnerable and fearful moments, to take us by the hand, and lift us up, and restore us to ourselves; so that then we can go, too…and minister to the others.