Chris Litman-Koon, Mt. Pleasant, SC

Warm-up Question

Working together, name some ways that the individuals of your group serve various roles within your community of faith. This could be official roles you have (e.g. acolyte, council member) or could be unofficial ways you contribute to the community (e.g. joy bearer, justice pursuer, peacemaker).

Dissonance and Resolve

Saint Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan is a Lutheran congregation with a long history. In the local vernacular, it is often called “the jazz church” for its deep connection to the New York City jazz community and for its weekly jazz service. In the grand story of the congregation’s history, the years 2020 and 2021 will stand out as acutely painful.

The congregation has not met for in-person worship since the onset of the pandemic, yet at least 60 members of Saint Peter’s Church died from COVID-19 by the end of 2020. That in itself is heartbreaking for any faith community. Then on January 4 of this year, a municipal water main broke outside the church. This flooded the entire plaza where the church is located, and it sent water and mud a few feet deep into the main sanctuary and the lower level of the church. The damage to the building was extensive, including the organ, piano, and archival artifacts which include items once belonging to legendary jazz musicians John Coltrane and Billy Strayhorn. The leadership of the congregation has expressed appreciation for the various ways the broader community has rallied to support Saint Peter’s Church during this devastating time.

Discussion Questions

  • In jazz music it is common to have dissonant notes that lead to resolution. Using that as a metaphor, Saint Peter’s Church is experiencing a time of dissonance; how might “resolve” be understood in their context? 
  • Has your faith community ever experienced a time of tremendous woe?

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

After healing a man of an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus and his four disciples (at this point) enter the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever, which was a more dire situation at that time than it is today. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up, and then she began to serve them. 

It should strike us as odd that this woman — whose life was just in jeopardy — immediately begins to serve the men. Shouldn’t they tend to her? A narrow-minded view of gender roles is at play in this story. While we today are not bound to enact the social customs of a society which existed centuries ago on another continent, an understanding of those social customs can open our eyes to God’s activity in the story. People had certain and expected roles to fulfill in their Galilean communities, and it is safely assumed that the role of this woman was to serve others in this home, namely the men who entered it. However, the fever she experienced prevented her from fulfilling her role. 

Interestingly, the verb used by the gospel writer Mark is that Jesus “raised up” her. Mark later uses this verb to describe Christ’s resurrection, and the verb is used on several occasions in the gospel to describe Jesus’ healing of individuals. In all those circumstances, the person is restored to their community or to a close relationship. When someone is brought low by unclean spirits, illness, or death itself, Mark says Jesus raises them again to fulfill their valued role in the community.

This woman serves the men after being raised up.  That “serving” is the same verb that Jesus later uses to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45. It is the word used to describe the disciples’ ministry: they are called to serve. The woman literally served the men food in her house. In a deeper sense, this woman is the first example of true discipleship in Mark’s gospel.  She has been raised up by Jesus, and that experience leads her to fulfill her valued role in the community, which is (for her and all disciples of Christ) a role defined by serving.

That deeper understanding is what Mark intends for readers to hear and apply. Christ’s activity in our lives reconnects us to a community where we can fulfill our treasured role, which always takes the form of serving others. When jazz ensembles perform, it is said that they are “in the pocket” when everyone is keeping rhythm together and the ensemble is truly one. Christ desires his disciples to be “in the pocket” with their community — listening to others and each member making contributions to the whole in their own unique way — and it is through this experience of community that our service finds its greatest meaning. 

Discussion Questions

  • When Christ raises us up and restores us to the community, do you hear that as the faith community or as a broader community? Can it be both?
  • How does or how can your service be an outcome of your role in the community?

Activity Suggestions

This activity can be done in the presence of others or it can be done virtually if everyone but the selected leader mutes themselves. 

Have the leader create a repeating rhythm in either 4/4 or 3/4 time, keeping a constant tempo. This repeating measure can consist of claps, finger snaps, thigh slaps, or table hits. (If an instrument like a piano or guitar is present, that can be used to add harmony to the rhythm with an improvised repeating chord progression, known as a vamp.)

If the activity is done in person, have people contribute something additional, one at a time, to this underlying rhythm, like a finger snap on the second beat. As more people contribute, see if your group can be “in the pocket.”

If done virtually, everyone who is muted will only be able to hear their own contribution to the leader’s underlying continuous rhythm. Although this scenario limits the communal aspects of the activity, it might allow the muted participants to be more creative, perhaps changing things up as they feel moved.

As time allows, begin again with a new rhythm and possibly a new leader.

How does this activity add to your sense of community?

Closing Prayer

Loving God, you raise us up and call us to serve. Watch over all your servants, especially those who are facing difficult times. Raise up the Saint Peter’s Church community at this time, and may their help and hope be found in you. Amen.