Over The Line
by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
Mark 1:29-39, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“Hi Sarah,” the e-mail began, “I hope this finds you well. And I hope this request isn’t out of bounds. I know that I am not a member of your current church. (But) My Dad passed away this weekend and I was wondering if I could request a prayer mention in your Sunday service; with a special request for a prayer for my mom as she moves forward? I am (at home) with her this week. We are having trouble getting a prayer mention in the local Catholic Church, which is why I am asking you… Thank you and again I hope this request was not inappropriate.” Tom
There are some days when being a pastor damn near breaks your heart, and not just because you love your people and hate to see them hurting. It breaks your heart because sometimes the church – this great institution that we serve – only makes that hurt worse.
My former parishioner did not turn to me for help easily or lightly this past week. You can tell from his language: “I hope this request isn’t out of bounds…” or “inappropriate,” that he was hesitant to reach out at all, and for good reason.
Before I left my last church I was very clear with the congregation that I would no longer be their minister. I would no longer be there for them to love and support them, pastor and pray for them – not because I don’t still love them, I do and I always will – but because those are the rules.
I needed to make a clean break with them so they could turn toward whichever pastor is present with them now and open their hearts up to that person’s ministry.
But in this case when Tom tried, when Tom’s father died and he needed someone to pray for him, he went to the church and the church turned him away. He was turned away from the church of his upbringing, the church in his parent’s town, the church that could and should be there for him now in his time of need, but isn’t.
And that breaks my heart. And that makes me angry. But I want to be very clear about where that anger is directed, because in truth I am not really angry with the Catholic priest or whatever other church official carefully or even callously explained to Tom that prayers could not be offered for his dad.
I have some sense of how little leeway my brothers and sisters have in the Catholic Church when it comes to situations like these. They are bound by vows of obedience to centuries of tradition and Biblical interpretation that are highly resistant to change.
In their refusal to pray for my friend’s father they are actually doing their best to be faithful. I know that.
What makes me angry is my sincere belief that so many of the interpretations they are faithfully adhering to are wrong from the start, a misrepresentation of the gospel, a misreading of the very Bible they are trying to honor.
And I bring this before you today, not because I have any desire to rag on the Catholic Church or fundamentalists or traditionalists of any denomination.
I bring this before you because on our side of the fence, over here in mainline Protestant land, I think we’ve over corrected this tendency to privilege scripture to the point where we think we do the things we do because we no longer really care what the Bible says; and that can be just as harmful.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few of you here today who suspect that the A.B.C. and the U.C.C.
-ordain women and gays because we believe that we’ve somehow moved beyond what the Bible says,
-that our celebration of communion is open to all because we don’t really care what the Bible says,
-that we’re Open and Affirming no matter what the Bible says.
I’m afraid we think, “you are welcome here, whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey, be you a believer, a questioner, or a questioning believer”- welcome in this church and welcome at this table – not in light of scripture, but in spite of it.
And that breaks my heart and that makes me angry, because if you read the scriptures carefully – that is if you read them with care not just for the word on the page but the people around you– I don’t see how you could ever turn anyone away.
Look at our story for today. I mean you want to talk “out of bounds,” you want to talk “inappropriate,” than let’s talk about Jesus. Jesus, who in this story, over steps the bounds of his religion like no one else in order to reach out and touch someone
he has no business touching,
in a place he has no business being,
in order to accomplish something he has no business accomplishing,
before going on to welcome people he had no business welcoming.
Allow me to break it down for you.
Jesus should never have touched Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. First off, because she was, well, a she. Peter’s mother-in-law was a woman in no way related to Jesus, and men were not supposed to have any contact with women to whom they were unrelated.
Add to this the fact that she was sick with a fever and therefore unclean and then compound it all with the detail that she was lying in her own bed, presumably in her own bedroom – a place Jesus had absolutely no business going – and you can see that he is way over the line here.
I don’t think I can even begin to describe how taboo this whole situation would have been in the culture of the ancient near east, but maybe I don’t have to.
Cultural mores and historical details aside, just go ahead and remember the last time you were sick in bed with, say, the flu.
I’m serious, I want you to take a moment and remember, in detail, how incredibly gross you felt. You all with me? You got it? Remember? Good.
Now imagine your son-in law coming home from church with a bunch of new friends all spiffed up in their Sunday best. Do you want them in your bedroom right now? No! I don’t think so.
But Jesus not only comes in, he rushes to her side. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up – literally “resurrects” her – and she is healed…healed of her fever so completely that she can now turn around and serve them.
All of which sounds lovely, if not a little sexist in its implications – except for the fact that this whole exchange was taking place on what day of the week? Did anybody catch that? The Sabbath, that’s right.
Friends, Jesus didn’t just touch a women, he touched an unclean woman. Big no, no.
And he didn’t just touch this unclean woman, he touched this unclean woman on the Sabbath. Even bigger no, no.
And he didn’t just touch this unclean woman on the Sabbath, Jesus healed her. We’re talking Double Decker Taco Supreme no, no.
And then this woman has the audacity to follow suit. She begins serving others on the Sabbath as well, in response to what Jesus has just done for her because apparently this kind of irreverence is contagious.
But that’s not all! The word Mark chooses to describe what Peter’s mother-in-law does right after she is healed is, “diakoneo.” Does that word sound familiar to anyone – “diakoneo?” It’s where we get the word deacon from and it literally means “to serve.”
The Latin equivalent, interestingly enough, would be “minister.”
Peter’s mother-in-law is the first person in this gospel to minister to others in response to what Jesus has done for her. We don’t even know her name, but if you ask me, I’m saying she is the first minister in the gospel of Mark.
Which is cool, because as I said before, she was a she. And where does she do this ministering? She does this right in her own home.
Friends, where were the first Christian churches located? That’s right, the first Christians met in people’s homes. The first churches were house churches.
I think you can make a very strong case that this house we are reading about right here in Mark is the first manifestation of Christ’s church on earth, presided over by an un-named but clearly female minister.
But wait, there’s more! What is most beautiful to me about this story is the fact that their very first act as a church is one of radical hospitality. As the sun is setting on this most miraculous Sabbath day, what do they do? They throw open the doors and welcome everyone in – “the whole city,” – but most especially all those people in need of healing.
Friends, “those people in need of healing,” – “those people,” – please understand that “those people” would have been turned away from the temple had they tried to go there that morning. They would not have been allowed in the synagogue because they were sick and therefore unclean.
But here…here in this little house, here in this very first church, no one is judged invalid… in-valid. No one is deemed inappropriate. Everyone is invited to step over the line into this place.
Friends here in this church, this very first church, all are made welcome that all might be made well.
We are still only in the first chapter of Mark, but already you can see that Jesus’ gospel message – “it’s time to repent, turn around, do things differently, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” – Jesus’ gospel message is taking hold and transforming the world.
It is upending the social order.
It is re-framing the way people look at one another.
It is re-arranging their ability to serve one another,
expanding their capacity to welcome one another,
strengthening their willingness to cross the line for each other.
Jesus’ gospel is amazingly inclusive, which is wonderful.
Jesus’ gospel is completely inappropriate, which is fantastic.
But the very best part, the part I really want you to get this morning, is that Jesus’ gospel is remarkably well documented right here… in scripture.
It’s true. That whole story about Peter’s mother-in-law… I didn’t make any of it up. And friends we need to know that here in mainline protestant land.
We need to know that here in the UCC and the ABC. We need to know that and we need to claim that; and not just for ourselves. We need to know that and claim it for people like Tom and for people like my dear friend Anna.
I got Tom’s e-mail this past Monday. On Wednesday, I received a call from Anna. Anna grew up and served for many years in a branch of the Swedenborgian church that does not ordain women. This past summer she was ordained in the branch that does, but she called me because she was on her way to a dinner with some of her former colleagues, all men, all ordained, who had gathered for a clergy meeting on the West Coast.
Now Anna is one of the brightest, strongest, most amazing ministers I know, but she called me on her way down to this dinner and asked me to pray for her and bear witness for her because she was about to walk into a room full of men who, officially at least, were not allowed to recognize her calling.
And yet Anna went anyway, because party line or no party line, she knows that many of these men see the need for change, they just don’t know how to bring it about in good faith. Anna went in hopes that she might help them.
“I just need to say out loud that I am Rev. Anna, and that is a good thing,” she said on my voice mail, “and I’m not apologizing for that.
(Pray) that I can just approach each person as a colleague… And I want to… I feel compelled to speak up tonight – colleague to colleague, and say that this (whole question of women’s ordination) is not just some interesting doctrinal theory.
There are very real people experiencing spiritual harm because of the culture (denying women this call) and I want to call on them as fellow clergy (to recognize this)…to be a voice of spiritual integrity… (to find the courage and conviction to do something about it). ”
Can you feel her pain, because I can?
Can you feel Tom’s?
Dear ones, my friend Tom needs the church right now to recognize him in his time of need and surround him with the love and prayers and healing that Jesus offers.
My friend Anna needs the church to recognize not just her calling, but the calling Jesus has been laying on women from the very beginning of his ministry here on earth.
And here’s the thing: Anna and Tom are just the beginning. They are just the ones who happened to call this week. There are so many people out there right now who need people like you and people like me to stand up and be the church the Word is calling us to be – not just the word on the page but the Word made flesh!
Our world needs:
a gospel centered church,
a church of radical hospitality and gracious welcome,
a church that proclaims that God’s kingdom has drawn near
and there is room in it for everyone,
a place at God’s table for everyone,
a place in God’s ministry for everyone:
be they male or female,
Jew or Gentile,
slave or free,
clean or unclean,
– boundaries be damned –
God’s love is for everyone.
God’s healing is for everyone.
God’s peace is for everyone.
Will you be that church?
Will you be that church for Tom and for Anna?
Will you be that church for Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world?
Will you be that church?
Thank you and thanks be to God. So may it be! Amen and Amen.