Homily for Epiphany 5 2009
Isaiah 40:21-31 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre. He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. Praise the Lord!
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Mark 1:29-39 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Mark’s Gospel is distinct in having a “let’s get down to business” approach. There is no elaborate build-up or introduction, just an urgent summons to the world that it’s time to turn things around, because the kingdom is at hand. The word “immediately” occurs repeatedly (“kai euthus …”), creating an impression of Jesus bursting upon the world. It seems to be a Gospel totally oriented toward dramatic action.
The first disciples and people like St. Paul were young men who “immediately” gave up everything to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and it doesn’t make any sense unless there was about Jesus something dramatically distinctive, a person so compelling that people would leave jobs and homes, and eventually sacrifice their lives, in order to be with him.
Mark’s Gospel is never afraid to reveal the human side of the equation, whether it’s the doubtful side of Jesus, the incompetence of the disciples, or in the case of today’s Gospel, an out-of-commission mother in law. Mark’s Gospel makes no attempt to offer a perfect image. I am always amused by those church advertisements which display a photograph of the shining and perfect ministry couple beaming out at you – their grinning positivity meant to suggest that God’s blessing is upon them (and could be on you). One might picture the apostle Peter’s family portrait quite differently: his wife perhaps looking overworked and sad, his children unfocused and out of control, and his mother-in-law perhaps scowling at the camera. Today’s Gospel, significantly, focuses on Peter’s mother-in-law, which may seem strange. Certainly it reveals something about the healing ministry of Jesus. But there is much more between the lines. One obvious implication is that Peter was married, so it suggests these young men weren’t just a bunch of lone rangers – they had families, homes, people who loved and needed them.
Today’s vignette is very revealing, because Mark chooses to show something of the impact of the coming of Jesus on the ordinary lives of people like Peter, and Andrew, James and John, etc., who prior to meeting Jesus were ordinary working people – fishermen, tax collectors, etc. They were also Jews, but in a whirlwind span of three years they became spiritual leaders, preachers, church officials, and virtually abandoned the religion of their ancestors. That had to create anxiety somewhere! And, as Mark relates to us, Peter’s mother-in-law is ill – maybe from an anxiety-induced problem.
Maybe her illness was an unconscious attempt to get the disciples to reconsider their enthusiasm – to pay attention to their families – to heed the warning signs already forming around the ministry of Jesus – that this would lead to major conflict with the authorities. How else might a woman of her day draw attention to something that seemed important to her? Maybe this is a woman’s wisdom sounding, between the lines, as it were — after all, where would their families be without them?
That is a question most men – and today, many women – avoid.
An ancient prophecy was applied to Jesus: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17) I have known many clergy and people of other professions, and commitments, who have ignored warning signs within their families and within themselves, and have paid a heavy price for it. I remember as a university chaplain being advised by an older pastor, who was also a university chaplain, about the risks of ignoring the signs, and how many people he had met who at the end of their lives were burdened with regret. I am sure now he saw in me signs of a gung ho workaholic, and was trying in a gentle way to warn me about myself. When you’re young, you’re propelled by your ego, but you’re usually not aware of it. So I ignored the warnings.
I have enjoyed having my daughter Catherine (22) visiting here this week, whose own life was deeply affected by my choice to be grossly over-committed in the work of ministry. In one parish, I worked long stretches (often weeks on end) without days off, often working 70—90/hr weeks. It was typical of most days that I left before the children were up, and got home after they had gone to bed, and was often stressed and distracted when I was at home.
This was in good part my own fault, but it was a mentality that was certainly encouraged by the Church as well. I recall that one Friday in a previous parish, I had got up about 5:00 a.m. in order to work on my sermon, and had been working on it for about 3 ½ hours. The children were off to school and I was sitting there in my pajamas at 830 in the morning with a coffee, when suddenly the doorbell rang. It was one of the wardens of the parish. Without apologizing for the unannounced intrusion, she immediately began scolding me for the fact that I was not dressed at 8:30, like people who actually have to work for a living!
I realized (all too slowly) the fact is that if you are not a healthy person – if you don’t have balance and integrity in your own life, then what you have to offer is compromised, maybe even useless anyway. For a long time, I chose to run and not count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, in some frantic and vain attempt to satisfy …. (whom)?
With Peter’s mother-in-law, maybe there was resentment, maybe she was being manipulative in order to protect her daughter (Peter’s wife), maybe she was just the caricature of the overbearing mother-in-law – but maybe she was exercising influence in the only way that was available to a woman of that era. I think she speaks volumes to us in our time. And Jesus didn’t ignore the warning signs that she generated. He seemed to know this was not one of those illnesses caused by a virus, but something psychosomatic, something spiritual, that was going on. Mark portrays Jesus visiting, and addressing himself to this situation – paying attention and tending to it.
What is crying out for attention in your life? When we have a physical injury, the body reacts quite obviously – the injured part swells or stiffens, has to be treated tenderly, and needs attention, care, rest. Sometimes there are things within our personal lives, and within our families, that need to be healed – sometimes there are things crying out for attention which, if ignored, can become sources of conflict and resentment. Continued neglect brings on disease and disintegration, in various forms, and the loss of our true focus.
I remember kneeling at the altar one Sunday in the middle of the Eucharist. Having finished the Confession, I was about to rise to give the blessing to the people. A sudden thought occurred: Who blesses me? I had always believed the ministry was meant to be something mutual but at that stage I felt like I had been pouring out my life to the point where I was empty and trying to draw on a very dry well. How was I being cared for and supported and understood? Having ignored all the warning signs, I was over-committed, stressed, out of touch with loved ones and even myself, and I realized I was at a crisis point.
Mark’s Gospel tells us, that “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Interestingly, despite the apparent focus on urgent action, the first chapter of Mark goes on to suggest that Jesus wasn’t just constantly out there in a frenzy of healing and saving everyone, but cultivated significant times of retreat, contemplation and prayer. Right after bringing healing to the mother-in-law, and others, he goes on retreat. That’s interesting, considering that, according to the timing Mark proposes, Jesus has just arrived from 40 days away in the wilderness. In this again, Mark reveals the human side of Jesus – he was drained, so he replenished himself from the true Source. Like anyone else who gets pulled into over-involvement, Jesus had to count the cost – he wasn’t a robot or a super-human being who was above it all. He needed balance; he needed to tend to his inner life in order for his outer life to have any effect (or even coherence). This is a side of Jesus we have largely ignored.
We live in a hyper-active society. So many people (clergy especially) have come to believe they are being faithful to Jesus by constant activity, almost making martyrs of themselves. The irony is that, according to Mark, even Jesus himself didn’t operate that way. He withdrew to the wilderness for significant times of prayer and meditation, in order to find himself. He had a vital connection with God. And he had disciples, companions, friends, and they formed a church, and that church, in the first place, had a variety of ministries. He drew other people into ministry – into service – he didn’t do it all by himself. He wasn’t always busy saving the world – sometimes he went off to a lonely place and just sat there.
The only thing the New Testament urges us to do constantly is pray 1Thess 5:17). That is a responsibility and a wisdom given to all Christians – to make time in your life to pray, to ponder, to read, and rest. One of my seminary profs told us we had best “learn how to do nothing and do it well.” Sounds a bit Zen-like. In fact, I have a Buddha figurine, not so much as an object of devotion, but as a reminder and stimulus, because as I have said before, one of my favourite self-slogans is: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” The Buddha figurine is not an action figure; he just sits there.
We need to have times like this to be replenished, to return to the well, to be fed and healed by the presence of Christ. We need times when we step back and pay attention to the often neglected voices coming from our homes and families, and from within ourselves, telling us to re-examine our priorities, that we are pushing ourselves too hard – that we are growing apart from each other and even from our true selves.
In her sermon last week, Trudi pointed to the need for balance between the head and the heart. Today’s Gospel points up a similar dynamic – the need for balance between action and reflection, but also between male and female. Too often in our world, there has been a division, with women carrying the burden of soul, and men working almost exclusively in the realm of the ego.
Peter’s mother-in-law, whether unconsciously or intentionally, recalls the disciples, and even Jesus, to a more balanced approach, urging them not to neglect or forget their relationships or the need for community, but in turn, Jesus reveals the tremendous power given to those who put their trust in God. It is never either/or but must be a creative balance between the two, and we see that balance in the person of Jesus.
Reflect on what might be crying out for attention in your life. Perhaps you are crying out for something yourself. I hope and pray you can find that balance between action and reflection, doing and being, giving and receiving.