February 8, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Epiphany 5, Year B
February 8, 2015

I thought all week about last Sunday's Super Bowl. No, not so much the play in which the Seattle head coach practically handed the Lombardi Trophy to Emperor Belichick and Darth Brady (UGH!)

No, I've been thinking about the other great reason we watch the Super Bowl: The Commercials!
There were some really good ones. Fiat and Doritos really delivered. Nationwide Insurance, not so much. But there were also a string of commercials, none of them from the same company, that all seemed to buck a trend, to call on people to break out of "normal" expected patterns of behavior. There was the "Like a Girl" commercial which says that the phrase "like a girl" should never be used as an insult or a put down, but a chance for praise of excellence. And there were several companies that called on fathers to be more active in the lives of their kids. "Be a dad," they said.
Those sentiments, "Like a Girl" and "Be a Dad," have been on billboards and bumper stickers for years, but for companies to pony up the $4 Million for a 30-second spot in the Super Bowl broadcast says that the bumper sticker slogan is ready for the big time, even if our society isn't ready to hear it. (And if you're wondering if it's really worth $4 Million for a 30-second spot, Forbes Magazine says it's a pretty resounding "yes.")

So I was thinking about those commercials as I listened to a a podcast from RadioLab (one of my favorites!) all about the history and future of American football. (http://www.radiolab.org/story/football/) The basic premise of the episode is that American Football began in post Civil War America as a reflection of our society, and as our society has developed and changed, so has the game of football. Those original players at Harvard and Yale and the Carlisle Indian School would have hardly recognized the game if they had watched the Super Bowl last Sunday night.

With these things in tension, the unorthodox commercials last Sunday evening and a conversation about the evolution of the game, I began to ponder the scene from today's Gospel, and how Simon Peter's mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and the others when she was healed of her fever. Most of the story is pretty typical of Middle East culture in Jesus' day, and now, too. A male family member intercedes with Jesus on behalf of the unnamed Mother-in-Law. And having one's Mother-in-Law living with you was not unheard of. In fact some say it was a sign of Simon's financial success that she lived with him. either way, Jesus breaks convention when he reaches out and takes her hand. We don't know who else saw it outside of those mentioned, and we don't know who may have been scandalized.
But this brief encounter (it is all of three verses) has major implications. And much like those unorthodox commercials in the Super Bowl, those implications are going mainstream whether society or religion or anything else is ready for it or not. It is fascinating to note that the word the Gospel writer uses for "serves" is from the same Greek root we have for "deacon" and the same word that is translated as "waited" in Mark 1:13 when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and "the angels waited on him."

Simon's mother-in-law could easily have said, "Who is this strange man!" or "Simon, what have you done this time?!" Instead, she responds to Jesus by ministering to them, waiting on them, serving them. Her's was a response of gratitude to Jesus stepping outside of societal norms.
This isn't some menial women's work in a male-dominated society, either. This is messianic ministry where people respond to Jesus' healing touch by serving Christ and those around him. In fact, the mother-in-law displays true discipleship to Jesus, while the original four who were called by Jesus from their fishing boats just a few verses before, stand idly by and don't really realize what they're supposed to do until after the resurrection.

The season of Epiphany calls us to see how Jesus is revealed in the world around him and around us. I would contend that what is revealed about Jesus is his willingness, if not eagerness, to break from societal norms to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

Those who should have most readily seen the Messiah often miss out because Jesus doesn't fit their expectations. We expected the ads in the Super Bowl to makes us laugh or get our attention in order to buy a product. Instead, many of the commercials got our attention to give us a message we didn't expect. And it happened to be sponsored by a company or two whose products I might buy.

Those looking for a Messiah expected a military leader to usher in the Kingdom of David and usher out (to put it nicely) the Roman oppressors. Jesus introduced a new vision of the Kingdom, and it had nothing to do with military or force. It had to do with love and extending God's grace and mercy to those on the outer edges of society, those who civic and church leaders said weren't good enough to be loved or even recognized by God. What Jesus is starting in his encounter with Simon's mother-in-law will his modus operendi throughout his ministry. We hear it in so many of his teachings: "You have heard it said do what you've always done, but I say to you break the mold!"  In both subtle and overt ways, Jesus is teaching a new way of encountering God, one that says, it's not as hard as you make it and yet, it's more complicated than you think.

What does that mean for those of us striving to be followers of Jesus? Surely there are societal, and dare I say religious, norms that Jesus is calling us to challenge or question? Norms that have pushed people to the margins, that we can help pull them back in and restore their dignity and humanity as people created in the image of God?

Jesus didn't come to protect the status quo, but to shake things up and do the unexpected, to get people's attention. If we strive to be the light of Christ and let that light shine through us and work in the world around us, we might need to shake things up and do the unexpected, too.

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