Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40:21-31 Psalm 147:1-11, 20c Mark 1:29-39
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
Has your ax struck honey lately? Has your ax struck honey? In Slovenia, to recognize a streak of luck, you say, “Your ax has struck honey!” This is a cultural expression that has roots in the bee keeping tradition of that country. Honey, throughout history, was a valuable commodity. Finding a load of honey while chopping into a tree was like striking gold, liquid gold. For some reason, this old saying has stuck (maybe because it has to do with honey). This saying expresses good fortune, good luck. But telling someone you hope their ax strikes honey has nothing to do with axes or honey, anymore, but the truth expressed, the sentiment shared, the good will behind words, still gets expressed through this image.
As we read scriptures this morning, they are filled with images that seek to express God’s truth. We are not the original, historic audience who heard these words in Hebrew, or read these words in Greek. Many of the metaphors and stories used to express God’s relationship with us don’t make sense to us like they would have with those first generations steeped in the near east, Semitic culture. But we can still learn larger truths shared in these scriptures as the Holy Spirit reveals layer upon layer as our faith grows and deepens.
What is happening in this text from Mark? What is the storyline? They leave the synagogue after Jesus heals someone there and the people are astounded that he teaches as one with authority and not as the scribes. So here, they have just left the synagogue and they go to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother in law is in bed with a fever. Like our Slovenian phrase reminds us, this text in Mark has lots of cultural, historical aspects that North American Christians may not catch or be able to relate to. Here’s Simon, for example, and presumably his wife, living with her parents, and, Simon’s brother, Andrew. Those are just the ones we know about! Most Americans do not live in multi-generation households. Most American families seem spread out even living in other parts of the country. This is just one example to show that we don’t have a grasp of all the cultural norms, of things like the society of honor and shame that Simon and Andrew lived in. Which means, as social violations take place right and left in this passage, we may or may not notice them.
But the plot goes on as Simon’s mother-in-law, who goes unnamed, is unable to serve them because she is ill. Jesus enters her room and takes her by the hand, which violates purity laws, gender restrictions, and other layers of societal norms. Yet he lifts her up and her fever leaves. Her getting up and serving them has less to do with submissive behavior and more to do with being restored to community. Her humble service is an expression, a symbol, of what we’re all called to embody as disciples. Receiving God’s grace and responding in joyful service. Oh, and Jesus heals her on the Sabbath. Another violation of human interpretation of the law.
As the story continues, all the people wait until the sun goes down and the Sabbath is over, then they come to the house seeking healing. All who were sick come, the whole town shows up at the door. Jesus heals many, and there are many demons cast out, not permitted to speak because they know Jesus. That is a very powerful image, if you really explore this as a metaphor. There are things in our lives that we can release to Christ, and when we truly give them over, they are removed, gone, not because we don’t remember them, but because God’s power and presence becomes the new focus.
This story has lots of drama, action all around, much of it outside the church. They left the synagogue, they were acting outside the bounds of the law. Yet God is working and lives are transformed, more so outside the church and it’s structure than inside, because Jesus, God with us, shares the presence of God. That Presence is where people resonate toward, as they gather not only around the door of the house, but the whole town is coming to Jesus. It was probably pretty exciting! The disciples were on the ground floor of this popular opportunity! This town could become famous as a global center for healing! People could make a fortune! Their luck was running high with Jesus coming to them!
But a busy storyline with healing the crowds is not the only action taking place. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” On this verse, the entire story shifts. This prayerful action becomes pivotal.
Later today I head to Spokane because early Monday morning I catch an airplane for New York State. On the west shore of the Hudson River there’s an Episcopal Retreat Center called Holy Cross Monastery and the community there is hosting a Centering Prayer Retreat put together by Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach organization. I’ve never been to a retreat like this. A few years ago, when someone would tell me they were travelling to go on a Centering Prayer retreat, I would wonder, “Why on earth would you fly on an airplane and go so far away just to sit in silence, especially with people you don’t know? I just didn’t get it.”
Centering Prayer does involve sitting in silence, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. In some ways, it seems like you’re not doing anything, just sitting there. But by slowing your body down so it’s still, that’s when you notice that your mind doesn’t slow down. We are constantly thinking, and these thoughts are often ego based as we try and make sense in our minds of the world around us, constantly judging as to whether things are good or bad. Centering Prayer is a spiritual discipline, that since ancient times, helps people to become aware of their thinking, not only recognize we have thoughts, but learning to release them, to not necessarily let those thoughts define you.
Centering Prayer teaches the art of letting go. It sounds simple, sitting there in silence. But it is much harder to learn than one would expect, and often the struggle involved sends people running the other way. But finding a quiet place, not only in our surroundings, but in our inner life, is at the very heart of the Gospel and as our biblical witness shows us this morning, this is a core teaching and practice of the ministry of Jesus.
The Art of Letting Go is something that most people resist. Looking at others, even across cultures, such as St. Francis of Assisi, or people close to the land such as Native Americans, and Jesus himself as he tells the disciples that they can’t stay but must also travel to the other villages, we see that by holding nothing, you are connected to the whole. By letting go of the small, you are included in that which is larger. That’s why, for example, for indigenous cultures, private property makes little sense. They share all the land, and it’s God who owns it anyway.
Today as we ordain and install church officers, ruling elders and deacons, it strikes me that as we ask the Constitutional Questions from the Presbyterian Book of Order, we are lifting up the doctrinal history of our denomination. Questions like, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” Questions like this along with the other ordination questions have their place.
But they use words to try and express our trust and faith in Christ, our experience of the power of God in our lives, and our desire to humbly serve in response to God’s goodness and grace. Yet words are limited, and simply by being words they cannot express the Majesty of God or miracles we often overlook in ordinary life. Ordaining and installing church officers to the structure of institutional religion tries to give shape and order to something that has no walls, no boundaries, the very mystery of God. Indeed, trying to put into words that which is beyond words, to limit by our thoughts that which is beyond thought, to explain through doctrine that which is beyond explanation; this leads us back to very model Jesus gives us here. Silence. Prayer. A deserted place helping us become aware of our connection to Presence.
But this is hard work. We much prefer our doctrines, our measurable lists, our questions, and we go out of our way to maintain institutions and the structures and facilities around us. Yet Jesus is outside the synagogue, not held captive by interpretations of legal codes or cultural contexts that are historically conditioned, and not boxed in by the mixed motives of people who would use him, ultimately, for their own purposes, security, or advancement.
A while back, Dave Sturgis shared a quote with me, a guiding principle that I’ve kept on a piece of paper on my desk in the church office ever since. The quote says, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”
Jesus could have set up shop. His ministry could have made them all very wealthy. He would not have needed to travel around because people would come to him, just like they wrapped around that house in the evening after Sabbath was over. Word was getting out, his popularity was increasing, yet at the very beginning of his ministry here, Jesus recognizes that “creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”
Jesus, the Christ, embodies the contemplative stance: spending time in prayer, simply being in God’s Presence, quieting that monkey mind which swings from thought to thought as our ego scrambles for control and grasps for predictability. In Christ, our heart and mind join together as a new creation. Our ego is invited to wholeness and health, becoming translucent so the light of love can shine through it, and not be limited by it. Letting go of all things is so important that Jesus gets up while its still dark to make sure this prayer happens.
As Jesus lives in a contemplative stance, as he prays experientially with the Presence of God; he lives to courageously let go of certainties. This shows us the other side of prayer. Jesus takes action. Jesus engages in living his life in the world, in sharing God’s kingdom with others. But he does this by grounding himself in silent prayer. This scene is pivotal because it is rooted in that deserted place, in that time of connection with God that is uninterrupted. From that quiet prayer, that still foundation, where all other voices are silenced, Christ takes action and builds a ministry of humble service. By letting go, Jesus brings wholeness. Through giving up what seemed certain and secure, a vision of success, Jesus gives God consent to take action, and God shapes the activity of his life in creative ways that could not be contained.
What’s your struggle? What demons are you wrestling with in your life? What would have you lining up at the door along with the entire village? Curiosity? Casual interest? Social obligation? Entertainment? Tradition? Everyone showed up, and many, not all, were healed. What healing do you seek? Are you interested? What is the door between you and your experience of the living Christ? Are you willing to enter the darkness? Are you willing to let go, even of the illusion of certainty?
Authentic transformation links contemplation with action. This is how Christ changes the world. Humble service expresses and shares our trust, expands the light, and puts love into action so that others may also enter the darkness of a deserted place to become fully awake and aware of their connection to a larger whole.
May God bless our deacons and elders as they lead the way, and may God help all of us in this journey of transformation, sharing the majesty and glory of God through our ordinary, daily living and humble service. Pray without ceasing, preach the gospel (if necessary, use words), and may God be glorified, now and forever. Amen.