A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for Epiphany 5
“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
It has been said that a preacher should preach about two things: About the Gospel, and about 10-15 minutes. That old quip came to mind because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time. Maybe it’s the turning of the new year. Maybe it’s the imminence of Lent so quickly on the heels of Christmas, leaving us with no breathing space. Maybe it’s the fact that Malcolm and I updated our wills this past week. Regardless, time has been a thing lately.
It’s not a major revelation that time’s passage is puzzling. It purports to be steady and measured; marked in precise intervals by atomic clocks—and on our cell phones. But anyone who has lain awake at 3:39 in the morning and contemplated the endless sleepless and usually worry-filled hours ahead, and then compared that to the fleeting seconds of cozy sleep that pass so quickly after you hit the snooze button— anyone who has had that experience knows that time is fickle. It even varies from person to person; I read recently that the past year has gone by either painfully slowly or relatively quickly depending upon how we respond to current events.
As Einstein demonstrated, and as we all know, time has subjective qualities that render it at once measured, steady and relentless, yet also ebbing, flowing, and mysterious.
I wonder if that’s because time is so tightly entangled with mortality. How much time do we have left? How much time for our friends and loved ones? And not just on a personal level—a few weeks ago the entire state of Hawaii thought it had twenty minutes left on earth. Monday’s Providence Journal had a front page article
about preparedness for nuclear attack. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists clock,
that measures how close the world is coming to nuclear war, moved thirty seconds closer to midnight. Things haven’t been this tense in decades. And it’s bound to affect our outlook on the future. How do we look toward tomorrow if we don’t know if there will be tomorrow?
Well, that’s depressing.
I know, but it’s a serious conversation that I was having just a few days ago.
There’s a country song that’s called “Live Like You Were Dying” that posits what we would do if we knew we had just a little time left, and the idea would be to cram all the fun and excitement and love into a short span, and not waste a minute on ‘the small stuff’. But to live like you’re dying also risks a mentality of the heck with responsibility, do what you want because it just doesn’t matter anymore.
So what’s the alternative?
Perhaps rather than living as though there’s no tomorrow, it would be better to live—and plan—in hope and faith that there will be tomorrow because really, even if everything were calm and perfect in the world we still don’t know how much time we have on earth. We have as much as we have; that’s the case now, just as it has always been. The question is not how much time we have left, but what will we do with what we have?
And that is what gently weaves its way through our scripture lessons today, including Isaiah. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” This gorgeous passage from Second Isaiah is a reassurance and reminder to the people not to despair;
that their time will come, and that the unsearchable God of Creation who has numbered and named the stars has every creature in God’s hand, and they are called to wait faithfully for deliverance that will come.
Eventually. In time.
For Israel it was seventy years.
And during that time they would establish themselves and become a community in exile—living in faith and hope for a tomorrow that they might not see, but the generation after them would. Isaiah was calling them to wait, not in despair of time running out for themselves, but in anticipation of—and preparation for—the future for the next generations.
In Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth you see him encouraging the Corinthians to come out of their identity silos and walk a bit in the shoes of others, which indicates that the concept of empathy was apparently a challenge for the young developing church. But what does this have to do with time?
When Paul wrote this letter, late in the first century, he felt the pressure of time in a different way from the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time; rather than feeling that time was stretching endlessly ahead, Paul felt that time was coming to a close—that the Second Coming was imminent, and that the community—a diverse, cosmopolitan and fractious bunch, needed to get it together quickly. The example that he was setting was of a person who so deeply felt God’s call that he was willing to make a free gift of his ministry, not asking for reward.
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak…” The way to preach the Gospel, in other words,
is to live the Gospel; to respond with empathy, truly listening to one another from a place of vulnerability and humility. Don’t waste precious time quarreling.
Paul’s mission was to form a beloved community in preparation for the Reign of God—a time that was at once quickly approaching and yet already here. Time was short; who knew if there would be a tomorrow? The call to the people of God was to live in whatever time they had with a Kingdom mindset, not in fear but in fulfillment of, and anticipation of, abundant life.
So to Paul time was at once precious and meaningless—something to be savored and used well, and not dwelt upon as a commodity for its own sake;
In a way this helps to express the concept of God’s time—Kairos. God is in all of time
and therefore not ruled by it. To be mindful of God’s time is to be open to its fluidity and mystery; to understand the Incarnation of Christ as God entering into time
in the person of Jesus, who embodies the intersection of time and eternity.
In the Gospel today we see time moving quickly, and distinctively. More than in the other Gospels Mark expresses urgency. Like Paul, he was writing very early after the Resurrection and felt the pressure of time—the awareness that Christ’s return was imminent. And his narrative shows this urgency. Things move quickly—the word, ‘immediately’ is used over 40 times in this Gospel. And today we see Jesus moving from pillar to post, dogged by Simon Peter as though he was some kind of a handler with a clipboard and an itinerary—“…after the synagogue, Jesus, you have a healing appointment at my house, followed by teaching, healing and deeds of power in the evening, and we have an early start tomorrow for spreading the Good News, so you’ll want to rest up…” When Jesus escapes long enough to pray—he has to wait until everyone is asleep to manage it—the disciples hunt him down. It’s exhausting.
So Mark has squeezed a lot into a relatively short amount of time, but what does this tell us? What is the invitation of this story in our pondering of time’s mystery?
It lies in resurrection.
In returning to time—getting it back. Jesus came to Peter’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever, took her by the hand and lifted her—in other translations, raised her up. “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” For years I saw this passage as an excuse for getting snarky about patriarchy, or mothers-in-law, but no; this is actually a pivotal expression of Christian identity by Mark, who had an almost Pauline understanding of what a kingdom life should look like for someone living in the now-and-not-yet.
The Greek term for “lifted up” or “raised” is the same one Mark uses for Jesus’ resurrection. And he uses it in six healing stories in his Gospel—six instances of people being restored to their families, to wholeness, and in a way to time itself—
lifted up from the suspension of time that can mark pain or illness and returned to the flow of daily life. From Mark’s perspective the healing grace of Jesus is a form of resurrection.
And the response of the healed is what?
“…and she began to serve them.”
The word he uses is a form of the Greek for deacon—one who serves. So this story is not one of patriarchy as usual. Rather, it’s telling us that in response to Christ’s healing grace and renewal we are called to serve. That is how God calls us to spend our time—no matter how much or how little we have.
What would you do if time were offered back to you?
Sandy Buffy knows the answer to that question. In 1997 she was diagnosed with a life-threatening pancreatic tumor. Faced with the decision of whether to undergo extremely risky surgery to remove it, she was given a two percent—Two. Percent.—
chance of surviving the surgery. As a mother to three small children, twin boys and a girl, she wanted to see them grow up, so she chose the surgery. Her husband and family were advised to say their goodbyes, which they did. Can you imagine how wrenching that must have been?
And she survived.
And since then she has lived a life of daily gratitude. Sandy is an artistic person, and after her recovery her creativity went into overdrive. Beginning working from her home in Charlotte, she now has a studio and gallery in downtown Cleveland, creating and teaching and having a wonderful time. And she has given 100% of her profits to charity.
One Hundred Percent.
“And she began to serve them.”
Sandy embraced her resurrection by throwing herself into a life of gratitude, beautifully symbolized by the fact that she works with materials that have been used before—bottle caps, dryer lint, random bits of chain, roofing copper, what have you. She serves by giving things new life, and then gives again of the rewards from her creations.
More than anyone I know Sandy has taught me about the precious meaningless of time—how to live joyfully and compassionately in each moment while holding very lightly the fact that the number of moments allotted to us is a mystery, and there is no point in fretting about our inability to control it.
Chances are we won’t experience such a dramatic moment as Sandy’s in our own lives, so how can we participate in the precious meaningless of time?
Jesus experienced it when he withdrew in the dark hours of the morning to pray. Like Jesus himself, prayer is the intersection of time and eternity; a way of allowing ourselves, within the framework of our lives, to rest in the timelessness—the eternal present/past/future –of God. Or consider the Eucharist: When we partake in Christ’s mysterious and real presence, we participate in a sacrament in which the events of the past and the promise of the future meet in the present moment. That is God’s time.
(And that is why some priests take off their watches before every service.)
In prayer and sacrament we are offered sacred time; precious time rendered mysterious and meaningless in the presence of God. We are offered healing grace and are lifted up in renewed wholeness every time, and every time called to get up, to go out, serve the Lord, and be the Good News.