“Lifted Up”

(Recording of Mahalia Jackson singing:

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.)

Ann Powers, critic and correspondent for NPR music, wrote an illuminating commentary on this Gospel song after it played a starring role in the film Selma. She explains that its composer, Thomas Dorsey, lived a kind of double life, writing and directing gospel music and, to pay the bills, creating blues compositions. In those days, blues music, with its earthy sensuality, was considered “sinful,” so Dorsey wrote these songs under a pseudonym. Precious Lord came out of his experience of a terrible loss—the death of his wife and infant child. Powers writes:

“Dorsey used the possessive, glittering adjective ‘precious’ to step away from transcendence and to live fully in a complicated private moment, in pain and the desire to stop that pain. As both Jackson’s and Franklin’s versions prove, Precious Lord requires a singer to stay within her body while reaching heavenward, calling to God as a bereft blueswoman calls to a straying lover…. The writing of Take My Hand, Precious Lord showed how a believer like Dorsey could find, in music, a passageway reconciling the separate realms of flesh and spirit.”[1]

            Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is a simple story: he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. It makes me wonder if Dorsey had this text in mind when he wrote his song. The word that Mark uses here, egeiro, “lift up,” appears in many of Jesus’ healings. Sarah Henrich explains: “The word suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world.”[2]

God’s healing does not take away all pain, does not erase our wounds. But it gives us the strength to live toward the fullness of who we are and who we are called to become. It reconciles us to the God who is with us in flesh and spirit.

“Jesus came and took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Matt Skinner asks, as we might also, “Why is the healed woman’s first response to serve Jesus and his four disciples? When we learn that ‘serve’ translates as diakoneo, most likely indicating food service, and means she ‘waited on’ them, it doesn’t help. Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made sandwiches this time?”

It’s true, Skinner points out, that “in that culture it would have been shameful for a woman in a household to neglect a guest. To feed Jesus would have honored him, but it would also have restored the woman’s own honor and dignity.” And yet, as Skinner concludes, the whole idea that the woman’s appropriate role is to serve, and serve in that particular way makes this story “indelibly gendered, and gendered in ways that veer too close to the stereotypes we know to be tired and destructive.”[3]

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, since the Green Bay Packers weren’t playing, but I did notice the social media buzz about the commercial, “Like a Girl.” Let me play it for you…

It’s clear that some of the same tired and destructive stereotypes that ruled in biblical times still bind the self-image and behavior of men and women, boys and girls alike. The question to the boy about his sister, and his confused response strikes with piercing power: “So do you think you just insulted your sister?” “No!” “I mean, yeah, insulted girls, but not my sister.” Jesus, his male and female disciples, and those who wrote about their ministry, were bound by the prejudices of their time and culture. But scripture is a living word that points beyond itself. We have a responsibility to use our imagination, in partnership with God’s spirit, to proclaim its meaning anew in each generation.

In a longer version of the “Like a Girl” commercial, the director interviews one young woman who appears in it. She says: “If I asked you to run like a girl now, would you do it differently? The young woman replies: “I would run like myself.” Perhaps we can imagine another version of our Gospel story as well, a version in which Simon’s mother-in-law gets her own name, and rises up to take her rightful place in the world not limited, or defined by her gender.

Maybe we can also envision how it would look for the community around her to become reconciled to her liberation, and to embrace a new vision of what it means to be a woman, or a man, or a human being. Jesus takes her hand and lifts her up to serve. Mark uses diakoneo to describe both the service of Simon’s mother-in law and the essence of Jesus’ own ministry. She was in fact, the first person, female, or male, in the Gospel of Mark to take up the mantle of discipleship. Can we hear Christ’s call to serve is not as an oppressive “should” but as a call to joy and fulfillment, a call to become whole, completely and powerfully ourselves?

            After Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, people came to him from far and wide—at one point the whole city was gathered around the door. Early the next morning, Jesus withdrew to a deserted place for prayer. I wonder if in those moments alone, he faced up to his dilemma: the needs were endless and there was no way he could meet them all. When the disciples found Jesus, they told him: “Everyone is searching for you.” But he replied, “Let us go on to neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” In those hours of prayer, it seems that Jesus himself was lifted up by God’s healing hand, and he realized the purpose of his own life. His role was not to heal every hurting person himself, but to invite others to join him in proclaiming and living toward the reign of God’s healing wholeness.

This week, I came across an essay by Jeffery Jones called “New Questions for a New Day.” He argues:

Many of the questions we have asked for centuries in the church…need to be replaced with new questions that lead us into new ways of being and doing—ways that are attuned to the time in which we live. Rather than asking, ‘How do we bring people in to the church,’ we ought to be asking, ‘How do we send them out?’ Instead of ‘What should the pastor do?’ a more important question is ‘What is our shared ministry?’ In place of ‘What’s our vision and how do we implement it?’ We should ask, ‘What’s God up to and how do we get on board’ ‘How do we survive?’ ought to become ‘How do we serve?’ And instead of ‘How do we help people?’ A better question might be: ‘How do we make the reign of God more present in this time and place?’”[4]

Today, the congregation will meet to consider changes to our constitution that will allow us to formally conduct a trial year of our new organizational structure. I know, the mere mention of the word “constitution” could put many of us to sleep. But honestly, I see this reorganization as the single most important factor that is making possible the exciting, inspiring and energizing things going on at First Church right now. I believe that these changes make it possible for us to ask, together, new questions for a new day. These questions may not have quick answers, or any answers at all, but in the act of asking them, praying over them, and proclaiming them, we will be lifted up, reconciled and healed. We will be called to serve with joy and with power. May it be so!

Amen.


[1] www.classicalmpr.org/story/2015/01/21/how-one-of-gospels-essential-songs-gave-selma-its-soul

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1200

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344

[4] https://alban.org/2015/01/30/jeffrey-d-jones-new-questions-for-a-new-day/