Feb. 4, 2018
1 Cor. 9:16-23
I always wonder what you hear when we read the scriptures. What are the sticking points or the questions that might enter your mind as we hear these brief snippets of the bible? I think about this question as I prepare my sermons.
If you are like me your Jesus is supposed to be super nice. Your wondering why doesn’t everybody get healed?! He heals some, and if fact, he heals quite a lot of people especially here at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, but there are plenty around him who don’t get healed. And, beyond that, there’s the healing that we so desperately want now. Why doesn’t he heal us, or heal our loved ones? Why are so many people still so sick?
In today’s passage, after healing Simon’s mother in law we’re told that he heals many more who were sick with various diseases and he casts out demons from many more who were possessed. I don’t spend time wondering if that really happened or if there’s such a thing as possession, and it makes sense to me that after all that work he needed to refuel. He needed some quiet time apart in prayer. (I’ve heard some sermons where that’s the whole message. Make sure you spend some time refueling in prayer so that you can act in faith. That’s not this sermon, but if it is all you take away today, it’s not a bad take away.)
It’s what happens next that can give me pause. The disciples hunt for him while he’s off by himself in prayer. When they finally find him they say, “everyone is searching for you!” You see, word must have spread, and when the news of healing got around the people came out of the woodwork, because, let’s be honest, everyone needs healing of some sort. Jesus, we’re so glad we found you. Come with us so that we can take you to all these people. But Jesus says, “Let’s go to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also.” A more literal translation that I have has Jesus saying, “Let us go somewhere else.”
Somewhere else?…when you have all this need right at your doorstep? Somewhere else?…when these people are just as important as the people at your next stop? Why go? Why not fix the people in front of you?
The (perhaps surprising) answer is given to us by Jesus himself. “Let’s go somewhere else so that I may proclaim the message there also.” The mission of proclaiming the message is his priority. The healings aren’t the mission. The message is the mission. …What’s the message? For that we go back a few verses. In verse 14 Mark tells us, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”
The message is that the new kingdom of God, the new realm of God, the new way of God had been made present with Jesus. The time was fulfilled, it was there and now and ready to be entered. The healings weren’t the mission; the kingdom was. The healings were a sign of the kingdom. They were a picture of what it looks like when God’s way is upon us: the sick, the hurting, the possessed, those who had lost themselves, those on the margins, the sinners, and the seekers, and the common folks (the disciples were fishermen, after all) and anyone else open enough to heed the call to “follow me” were welcome in to the new way of God.
At Wednesday’s mini-retreat we talked about a passage of scripture where Paul tells his church not to be conformed to the world, or to the ways of the world. The church was to be a kingdom people for whom there was no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. These were communities of people who were convinced, convicted of the risen Christ made present by God’s Spirit, which lived and dwelled within them. It determined their self-understanding and it determined their view of the world. No longer were they defined by the categories that the empire placed upon them, and no longer was there mission to survive obediently. In this Spirit they were mini-Christs, called to love and serve with Christ, called to visibly embody the kingdom that a world of empire so desperately needs to see.
I woke up to a religious program on my TV the other morning. I thought about switching the channel because I generally have concerns about the brand of Christian faith that you see: upper middle class 50-somethings with self-assured smiles sharing how saved they are, hoping that you’ll get as saved as they are, but not questioning a God who will send you to hell if you don’t. Sorry if that sounds judgey. Truth be told, I’m easily sucked into religious programs, and to my surprise – though I would still say that the folks on screen were of a different brand – I found that I really liked them. The woman was talking about her husband, about his anger, about his kicking holes in the walls of his house in front of his children. And, she was talking about her faith and how it led her to compassion for her husband, how it led her to pray for him, how she prayed for 2 years straight words from scripture about bringing faith to the faithless. Then the camera panned over to the husband who talked about the change he felt upon coming to faith. He talked about how his kids could see the difference in him and how they said to their mother, “whatever happened to dad we want too!” He shared more about his kids’ lives and he said, “I’m convinced that God rescued our family.” There was something so free and joyful about the couple that I just loved watching them and listening to them talk about God.
It turns out that the man was Lee Stroebel who is quite a well known speaker and author. He’d written a new book about miracles, which the host of the show mentioned and then transitioned to the point in the program where he looks at the camera and says, “And you can be a miracle too.” I was about to turn the channel because I didn’t want him to ruin what I had seen by telling me that if I just read some passages and said the Jesus prayer I could be saved too. But, again, I didn’t change the channel, thankfully. Instead I watched as they told the story of a woman from South Sudan (actually, she narrated it herself) – a woman who had five remaining children, each living in fear that they will die from contaminated water just as their two siblings had. One died on her mother’s back as she carried him to the clinic. The other was buried right where they were filming. Then, the program showed the difference that a well made – the miracle that fresh water could be to this woman and to people like her. The host invited us to be a part of the miracle, to join in the work of Christ by loving these people and giving them water.
I was reminded of the well that we all were able to almost fund entirely with Sarah Thornton a Lent or two ago and I felt good about that. But, I share the story because I had the sense that these were kingdom people. These were people on that show living in joy over a sense that God’s Spirit was alive and present in their lives, blessing their lives, making them blessings for others. These were people who had known the ways of the world and had opted for the ways of the kingdom. And, they were people who were loving their choice.
There are times when I wish that we in the mainline church, and perhaps especially in the UCC, had a little more of that. We’re big on speaking out for just systems. We want a society governed by Christlike principles of equality, compassion, and hope for the marginalized. And we tie ourselves to the political and social agendas that match our sense of God’s will. I do it myself, and I think it is important to do it. That’s why last week I spent some time writing my legislators. I wanted Ben McGorty to know that I think that a casino in Bridgeport will do more damage than good. I wanted Jim Himes to know that I’m against Trump’s trillion dollar proposal to expand and modernize a nuclear arsenal already capable of rendering the earth uninhabitable. I did this as an expression of my faith, a faith that calls me to love God and love neighbor.
But, that said, my faith isn’t in the government ultimately. And, I’m concerned that Christians are prone to demanding more of their government than they are of themselves. For instance, it’s not right for me to demand a less nuclear budget, a more peaceful budget, without heeding the call to be a peacemaker myself, without making peace in my personal relationships, without striving for a peacemaking church.
What I fear we forget is that the church is a system too, and when we work hard to make it a just system, a system alive with the joy of God and hope in a power greater than any government’s, we show the world a new kind of kingdom. We give the world a place to go where there is genuine hospitality and welcome for the stranger (as long as we’re willing to embrace the call and actually go out of our way to greet those who are new to us); we give the world a place to go to experience the transformative power of forgiveness; we give the world a place where the playing field is equal, where grace is what makes us whole, and where love (and nothing less) is what gives us purpose. When church people embrace this call to become kingdom people we give the world something it desperately needs and struggles to find. So, let’s do it!