Stories/Histories

Epiphany 5

Mark 1:29-39

Marian Free

In the name of God who knows all our stories . Amen.

I’d like to begin with a poem that was read on Radio National’s Poetica in January.

The young Alexander conquered India.     Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.     Did he not have even a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his Armada went down. Was he the only one who wept?
Frederick the second won the seven year’s war.     Who else won it?
Every page a victory.     Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.     Who paid the bill?
So many reports.     So many questions.

Who cooked Caesar’s food? Did Frederick win the seven year’s war on his own? Who else featured in the great events of history? Could battles have been won without the thousands of foot soldiers conscripted to fight or the cooks to fill their bellies?

Gill Scott-Heron raises different questions in his poem Black History. He illustrates the way in which history is recorded can be very one-sided. Speaking about the way in which he was taught about the colonization of Africa he writes:

“ And another way they knew the folks were backwards

well at least this is how we were taught

is that unlike the very civilized people of Europe,

these black groups actually fought!”

These two poems illustrate the well-known point that history is mostly written from the point of view of the victors. Those who have studied ancient history may know the story of Alexander the Great, who though young achieved great military victories. The stories of those who fought for him and those whom he conquered – their lives and loves are less likely to make it to the history books.

History has, by and large, been written by those with the leisure and education to be able to research and write.  History is also written from the point of view of the writer which is one reason why for example accounts of war can be so different – each side sees the atrocities committed by the other, but is less like to see the harm which they deliberately or carelessly inflicted.

In recent times, many different groups of people are reclaiming their histories and sharing their own stories. Women are looking for their voice in the past, minority groups are ensuring that we learn history from their point of view, those who have been colonised or oppressed seek to tell the story from their side. People whose past has been filled with trauma are overcoming the shame they have felt in order that the rest of us can learn about a past that has been buried or forgotten. I think for example of the brave women who told their stories of being forced to be “comfort women” during the second world war and of the adults who have finally found the courage to name the abuse they experienced at the hands of those who should have protected them.

In our own nation, history has been re-written over the past two decades. The momentous Mabo decision in 1992 put right the notion of Terra Nullius, that obvious fiction which suggested that Australia was uninhabited when our forebears settled here. As a nation and as a church, we are getting better at acknowledging that our past behaviour does not always stand up to scrutiny. At the same time movies and documentaries are unearthing and sharing some of the horror stories of our past: Leaving Liverpool and Oranges and Sunshine remind us that our history is not consistently one of which we can be proud.

The Bible has not escaped this tendency to write history from a particular point of view. It is not, nor was it ever intended to be an impartial record. The Gospel writers, as we have seen, write the story of Jesus for a particular situation and time and so tell it in a way that is meaningful for those for whom they write.

Beginning with the feminist movement various sub-cultures and people who are marginalised have begun to look beyond the biblical text to see if, in what is not being said, they can find their own stories.  In this way, women, refugees, the disabled and other disadvantaged groups have found their own stories and drawn conclusions about the way in which their stories have been suppressed or included.

Over the last century we have re-discovered the voices of women among the disciples and the leaders of the early church. From the records that we do have it is possible to chart the way in which the early gradually silenced and excluded the voices of such leaders. In the past decades we have been able to take Martha out of the kitchen and Mary off the floor and to place them among those who held places of authority in the Johannine community.

All of which brings me to Simon’s mother-in-law. This little snippet is fascinating.  Jesus goes to the home of Simon whose mother-in-law is sick. He heals her and she gets up and serves them.  It is such a small story and yet it is sufficiently significant to be included in all three synoptic gospels. The language used in telling the story is tantalizing and intriguing – the word “to serve” is the same language that is used in Acts 6 which describes the setting apart of the first deacons – diakonew from which our word deacon comes.  The inclusion of the story in the gospels begs a number of questions: Why is it included? What are we meant to learn from it? Did Jesus heal Simon’s mother-in-law simply so that she could get dinner for them or is she in fact a Deacon of the early church – one who served?

It is impossible to give definitive answers to any of those questions.

Perhaps today the most important thing for us to take away, is that Jesus frees us all from fear and doubt, indecision and lack of confidence, so that we may rise up and serve him, by serving the world around us?

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