Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday February 8, 2009 Epiphany 5B
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Mark 1: 29-39
Today we are offered three brief vignettes that make up “a day in the life of Jesus,” and give us a vision of Mark means by the Kingdom of God. After amazing people with his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus moves away from public sphere into a private home, where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law who was with fever. Not much is made of the healing itself but a curious detail is included in this story. The unnamed woman whom Jesus heals, immediately begins to serve the household. One wonders about this sexist detail. “Oh, good Jesus has healed the woman of the house so now she can get busy making dinner.” To be sure there is ample room for feminist critique within in this story. How is a deep understanding of partnership of shared responsibility demonstrated in our social arrangements? But the early church missed this somehow and saw within this story a different message. One’s healing encounter with Jesus was not an end in itself but rather a gateway into active service in the kingdom. All who enter the healing and life-giving waters of baptism, all those who encounter the risen one in their lives are called into active service, loving response. Simon’s mother-in-law is presented as a first servant of the church and in fact the word used for what she does is the same word from which we get our word deacon. The healing ministry and touch of Jesus enables the servant ministry of all those who know and love him.
There doesn’t seem to be much time for dinner or a rest in Mark’s breathless gospel. Jesus’ retreat into the privacy of a friend’s home, turns into a kind of revival meeting at the front door. The spare narrative of Mark does not do justice to the scene. Gathered around the door are the lame and the blind, the leprous and the lonely, the crazy and the wounded, old and young, the manic and the chronically sad, all camped out in search of Jesus’ healing touch. Immediately our modern minds start interrogating the scriptures, “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” We are skeptical of all this miraculous healing talk. We would call a doctor, a psychiatrist, a counselor, a surgeon if asked to help a crowd of sick and troubled people. We would approach it with all the knowledge and skill of our technological therapeutic age, and we would not be wrong for doing so. At the same time we are asked to consider what the gospel writer is proclaiming about the person of Jesus? What is the good news that Mark is trying to communicate? The classic way of describing this passage is to say that Jesus has authority over disease and over possession. Which is to say that in his person, through his relationship to creation, and from within his intimacy with God, Jesus was able to draw people into life, into wholeness, into healing. It does not mean that he cured everyone. In fact the gospel writer makes it clear that he cured many but not all. It is our modern mind, that is so addicted to cure, to finding a technology, an approach that will fix things. In my imagination, I have the wild image of Jesus, just bothering to spend time with each of these wounded and hurting people and their families and loved ones that had brought them. Just getting to know them, understanding some of their struggles, encouraging them, giving them ideas about how to care for one another, how to cope, how to understand themselves as a community of patient suffering with which is the real definition of compassion. For a moment just imagine this handsome, earthy, intelligent, beautiful human being, Jesus, making his way through the crowd: his intense eyes filled with compassion, his hands tenderly touching those that many were afraid to touch, his face alive with laughter and delight at the wonder of life and its resilience, his heart patient and kind, his own strong spirit moving out to restore the wounded spirits of others. This is the vision we are meant to get from this passage: that to be in the presence of Jesus, was to be in the care of a master physician in so many ways. The real presence of Christ is a healing way that cannot be reasoned away. This healing presence is not made obsolete by our technological prowess no matter how much we both need and trust it. To be in the real presence of Christ is to open oneself up to healing, to repair and this places the Eucharist we will share in a few minutes into deep perspective.
The healing-fest at the front door of Simon’s mother-in-law is an image of the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a private matter. It is meant to be shared to be taken outside the doors of the house, to the world. There is a deep hospitality to the kingdom, all are welcome to approach Jesus. All may seek healing in his presence. Is your soul in need of God? Are you in need of healing? Are there addictions in your life that seem to possess you? Do you need your sense of hope restored? Then Jesus’ kingdom is just right for you. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17).”
Our last image of Jesus in this day in the life of a messiah is spiritually athletic. He doesn’t sleep-in after an exhausting day. He rises early, a quiet-time superstar, to find the time and space to pray. I must confess that I’ve always found this part of the story fascinating. Once his new disciples had hunted him up, they told him, “Jesus everyone is looking for you, that healing service last night was great, and more folks are asking to see you and listen to your teaching. “
In response, Jesus delivers one of those stunning lines that is hard to get over. Jesus says, “We’re popular, great. Let’s skedaddle, I have more to do in the next town.” Though the text doesn’t report it, I have a hunch that the disciples had a stunned sort of look on their disbelieving faces. What? We’re liked here, the mission is going well and you want to leave?
One of the best ways of understanding this peculiar response of Jesus is realize that Jesus is operating from a different center than his disciples, the crowds and us. We juggle business commitments and family responsibilities. When we are responding to a family need with compassion and care we feel guilty about neglecting our work. It is so easy to let work take over while your family suffers your absence. And whenever we seem to have the balance right there are voices of other opportunities to serve, larger needs crying for our attention. Many of us know the feeling of trying to meet so many demands upon our time. We know what it means to feel scattered, shallow, strained, oppressed by the many good things we are being asked to do. We know how to project an outward image of confidence and control when inwardly we are exhausted and scattered, and unhappy. What we most want and desire is a way of life that is deeper than all this scattered and hurried existence. What we want is to live out of a sense of clear purpose that will give us a sense of peace and power. The fact is that this can only come if we are willing to connect to the divine center.
In the Jewish understanding the day began at sundown which has some very interesting implications for our spiritual life. The first thing one does in the day is go to sleep. The day has begun and you are unconscious. Waking up in the morning is to join the day in progress. God has already been at work while you were sleeping. The day is well underway and our spiritual task is to join the day in progress. God has already been making this day and our invitation is to join God, to become co-creators with God in what is already happening. This is what it means to live in the center, to make God’s activity the divine center of our day, to understand ourselves as partners in what God is already at work doing.
This is what Jesus was up to, rising early to pray, to listen to God, to find the divine center from which to act, to decide, to love. Jesus is not compelled to respond to every call to service, every opportunity to heal. He is connected to God. He has found the deep Center from which to live where the constant calls to action are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence, without guilt or remorse. For Jesus it was finding the divine center that allowed him to discern what was really important and what was merely urgent. As the popular saying goes, “Important things are seldom urgent, and urgent things are seldom important.” For Jesus, going out to a deserted place, was essential, if he was to live out of a sense of call, a deep center of understanding who he was and what his mission was to be. Out of this place of stillness, out of this place of quiet, Jesus can shock the disciples with his clarity. “Let’s move on for that is my mission. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by the pressing demands of this one place when I am meant to expand the kingdom.”
Just as Jesus did we too are invited into a life that embraces the divine center. We all need and desire the simplicity of moving from the periphery of the divine into the center. Moving toward the center is a process that requires careful attention, patience, and the courage to say both yes and no with confidence. It is rooted in the understanding that God desires to be at the center of our experience not on the periphery. There is no sure-fire technique for making God the center of your life but there ways of beginning to move in that direction. First, try to understand where God is in your life. If God is on the periphery acknowledge it. Become aware of the kind of movement you need to make to come to God. Give yourself permission to move toward the center, to risk this kind of intimacy. Make time for God gazing, of just being in God’s presence. Take the advice of the spiritual masters and try to bring God into every activity of your day, begin to understand God as a constant companion and confidant not only for yourself but for others as well. Experiment. Try to lift everyone you meet into the light of Christ as you move through your day. Pray for you family as you find breakfast, for the mother in the carpool line, for your co-workers as you enter the office, for the children on the playground. Allow the light of Christ to infuse your day. The truth is that God desires to be not on the outskirts, but at the heart of your life. And all of your life can be drawn into that center, your parenting, your gardening, your work-life, your workouts, your drive-time all can be opportunities for communion with God if we will open ourselves to this loving and guiding presence.
This gospel challenges us to take up a consciously chosen path that will draw us more deeply into ongoing communion with God. It invites us to escape the tyranny of the urgent by embracing what is truly important, the divine center. And from that divine center flows a life of service in the kingdom of God that is not death-dealing but rather life-giving for you and others. May each of us find this good news of the gospel at work in our lives more and more.