Older sister Fiona (left) and Ian from Showtime’s Shameless.
I started watching the American television show Shameless last year. The show is kind of a re-up of a British TV show by the same name, and it details a family with six kids on the south side of Chicago who lives in poverty and has to do all kinds of things — including dealing with an alcoholic father and an absent mother — to get by.
Full disclosure: I stopped watching it when I started to find several elements of the plot line unbelievable. And now, I can’t explain why — maybe it’s just winter and I’m coming to terms with football season being really over soon — but I’ve started watching it again.
There’s a poignant moment during one particular episode that I watched recently that’s stuck with me. Ian, the bright, hot tempered red-haired brother who looks most like the family’s bipolar mother, has not come out of his boyfriend’s dark room for days. He stares at the wall. He refuses to talk to anyone. He cries a lot.
Without explanation and without warning, he won’t sit up or move.
Ian’s boyfriend, Mickey, tries to get Ian up, but he refuses. He won’t respond other than yelling at him to go away. Finally, in desperation, Mickey calls Ian’s family to help.
Mickey, a tough guy also from the south side of Chicago, guides Ian’s siblings into his house and shows them through the door where Ian is lying. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he says. “Do you know what this is?”
Ian’s eldest sister Fiona, in her early 20s but wise well beyond her years after caring for her siblings alone for so long, looks at the others meaningfully, then she looks towards Ian, still lying motionless in a heap of blankets on the bed.
“Yeah,” she says, “we know what this is.”
“This” is, of course, bipolar / depression, an illness that runs in their family. But the meaning in her voice conveys so much more than that: it also says “he is ours, and we understand him.” She and her siblings spend the next few days checking in on Ian, leaning over his body to hug him, trying to convince him to go for a run or go outside. Eventually, of course, he relents and manages to pull himself up again, as the family will then begin to go through what so many families have: trying to get Ian to take his illness seriously and get help so that he can be healthy and whole.
And it begins with that one line: “Yeah, we know what this is.”
He is ours, and we will help him.
The Gospel passage for today, just like last week, follows directly on the heels of the passage before it. Last week, Jesus healed a guy with a demon and we talked about how Jesus was getting more and more popular as people began to demand more and more of him.
They seek the same things from him as we often seek from our leaders even today: charisma, speaking directly to their lives, recognizing them, and helping them. In the process, most of them miss his point entirely. Today, they continue to press in around Jesus, exhausting him, going to find him even when he’s gone up to rest and pray.
But there’s one seemingly tiny part of this story besides people pressing all around the doors to Simon’s house to find Jesus.
They arrive at Simon’s house, and here’s the situation in case you forgot. Jesus has just picked these guys up along the seashore only days before. They’re still new at all of this. They’ve just been at the synagogue where Jesus drove some demons out of a guy as the demons taunted him. From there, they come to Simon and Andrew’s house.
As you might when a guest is entering your house for the first time, they went ahead and told Jesus that one of the family is sick: Simon’s mother in law. Like many women in the Bible, she doesn’t get named, and her episode is brief — but meaningful.
Jesus comes into her room and takes her by the hand. I imagine her, a little confused, thinking “doesn’t this guy know that I’m sick? Does he want to catch it?”
But my liturgy professor in seminary showed me something that was pretty cool as he was explaining how liturgy should work. He reached out his hand to me as he was explaining intuition. Without thinking, I took his hand, presumably to shake it.
We humans have a tendency to take a hand that’s reached out to us in a friendly way. Something’s hard-wired into us that way. In this gesture, Jesus seems to say, “Yeah, I know what this is.”
He reaches out his hand and touches her and lifts her up. The fever leaves. She serves.
Funny, isn’t it, how this is how God comes to us, often through other people: reaching out a hand, lifting us up, claiming us as their own.
You might roll your eyes a little when you think of the gender dynamics of the newly healed mother in law of Simon immediately serving the men upon her healing. But if you look a little more deeply, it’s much more than that, as a friend of mine pointed out in a sermon years ago.
The Greek word Mark uses to describe what Simon’s mother in law does, you see, is the same one from which we get our word for “deacon,” a position in the church. It’s the same one that Mark uses to describe the angels attending Jesus after his time in the desert. Jesus heals her, and she undertakes not woman’s work, but the work of the church, and the work of angels.
Nameless though she is, she is one of ours. She is significant. She is healed for a purpose much higher than the one we might give her on our first reading. We don’t know her name, but Jesus did. As he was forming his community around him, she became one of them.
It’s as if he said “I know what this is. I know who you are. You are one of mine.”
Your church council is currently reading a book by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday. The author, Rachel, is a little older than myself and comes from a similar background. She tells the stories that helped her rediscover the power of the Christian faith in her life through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments of the Episcopal church: real things like the water of baptism or oil on her forehead when she’s sick or bread and wine at communion — are what made faith real to her.
In her chapter on baptism, she tells the story of Andrew, a nineteen year old who couldn’t wait to be baptized. “Just thirteen more days!” Andrew sang out as if he were counting down to his graduation or wedding day.
Andrew, whom Rachel describes as being “a dimpled, sandy-haired college student,” went on to tell Rachel, whom he knew from her blog, about how he never thought he’d been good enough to be baptized. When she asked him what sort of church he grew up in, he pulled up an editorial on his phone that described same sex relationships as “disgusting.” Next to the editorial, Rachel saw on Andrew’s cracked screen, was a photo of a man with silver hair and a suit and tie who was described as a pastor.
“That’s my dad,” Andrew said, “and he published that right after I came out.”
But even before that, he says, “I was always denied baptism and communion growing up. My dad told me I wasn’t manifesting enough fruits of the spirit in my life. He wanted me to wait until I was good enough, holy enough.”
When he went to college, Andrew did manage to find his way to a church, but this one accepted him as he was.
When he told them his story, they said the equivalent of, “Yeah, we know what this is.”
Andrew was accepted as their own. He was baptized. That church took his hand, and lifted him up so that he could serve, too, and tell every other person, rejected for whatever reason, the same Good News that he heard. Andrew learned that he didn’t have to wait until he was holy enough or good enough; as he puts it, “God’s grace is enough.”
And that was the clearest picture of healing that I found this week outside of Shameless and the Bible.
So may we be a family that is healed to heal. May we reach out to others in understanding when they come to us in pain: yes, we know what this is. We know that you are hurting. And you are one of God’s, and one of ours. Let’s take more people by the hand and lift them up, because the church historically has, for too long, done the opposite.
Last week was Thomas Merton’s feast day. Merton was a Trappist monk born in France who would travel all over the world as a monk and a theologian. He said many amazing things, among them, “We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with [one] another.”
He also wrote about being claimed by God in this simple story with which I end today:
He says, an elder was asked by a soldier if God would forgive him, a sinner. And he said to him: “Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away?”
The soldier replied and said “Of course not — I will mend it and put it back on.”
The elder said to the soldier: “If you take good care of your cloak, and continue to use it, how will God not mend and use you, God’s own image?”
This is why we are here: to remind each other, constantly, because we need it — we are loved. We are healed. We can serve. We know what you are: you are one of ours, one of God’s own. Amen.