“And that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.” (Just As I Am, Charlotte Elliot)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” We’ll hear more about Bonhoeffer this week during our Lenten Wednesday worship service, but those blunt words in his most famous work sound like Jesus’s own words in Mark’s gospel. When Christ calls a man—or a woman, or a person who’s never heard of the gospel before, or a person who was baptized as a baby, or a person who’s memorized the Bible or a person who’s wary of organized religion—Christ bids that person to come and die. It’s that simple. And it’s that central to Jesus’ message.
In fact, in Mark’s gospel, it is literally and numerically central, coming smack in the middle, like the fulcrum of a see-saw, or the Grand Central Station of the gospel. Eight chapters before it, eight chapters after it, and all sense of who Jesus is runs through it. Or—more like a brick wall—runs into it. The life with Jesus Christ—the life we hold fast, the life extended to us by God’s grace—is first and foremost a life about dying and losing, forgetting and letting go. Just as Abram loses his name to become Abraham once God establishes his covenant with him, and just as Sarai loses her old identity to become Sarah, when we respond to the call to follow Jesus it involves loss. And this is not limited to those who hear a call to enter seminary or to serve the church in some professional fashion. The call to follow Jesus and to live as one of his disciples is issued to everyone and can be lived out in any scenario, situation, or setting. When Christ calls you he calls you to come and die.
We always hear this with a bit of shock, I believe, for we live in the midst of a culture nowadays which adores pretty much the opposite. We are raised to assert ourselves, our rights and privileges. We live in a society which loves to talk about freedom and honor, which rightly holds in high regard things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But into all of that Jesus comes and talks first and foremost about death, self-denial, and the pursuit of suffering. It’s a contrast we have to deal with. We are fixated on taking up arms, for example. Jesus says take up a cross.
Maybe it’s comforting to know it’s a shock to the first disciples, too. They’ve watched him for a while now be the center of wonderful scenes of life and rebirth. He seems to be building a kingdom on winning, because in situation after situation he defeats things—disease, hunger, angry opponents. Then he brings them to the gleaming new town of Caesarea Philippi, the town built by the high cliff near Mt Hermon and near an ancient worship site to a pagan god. Caesarea Philippi was impressive and contained countless monuments to the Emperor. With that as the backdrop, Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?”
After running through a list of names and identities that other people think Jesus might be—Elijah, John the Baptist—Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Another way to say this is “the Christ.” Messiah and Christ are synonyms—one is Hebrew and the other is Greek. They both mean “the anointed One,” or the one specially identified by God as his chosen leader.
It happens to be where we get the middle of our mission statement, worship the Christ. To make a faith statement about Jesus is to say that Jesus is the Christ, even though it often gets shortened to Jesus Christ.
So, as soon as Peter correctly confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus starts talking about his upcoming suffering and death. And whereas before Jesus has been very hush-hush about everything he does, now he talks quite openly. He once would heal someone or cast out a demon and immediately tell everyone to be quiet about it. But here, as soon as he begins talking about dying and being rejected, he becomes less secretive. The reason is because before anyone can really know who Jesus is, they have to come to terms with these crucial things about him. He comes to suffer, to be rejected, to die and to rise. His kingdom is built on those four actions, the first three of which involve losing. They are woven into the fabric, built into the foundation, baked right into the cake. We can’t really know who he is and what he’s about until we come to terms with this Grand Central Station part of his story.
And Peter’s response to this is our response to it. We don’t initially want to be a part of a kingdom or follow a leader that is going to die or be rejected, especially if it means we’re going to die and be rejected too, if it means we have to leave some things about ourselves behind.
Our almost-two-year-old was given an Elmo doll and a Cookie monster doll about two weeks ago, and he pretty much hasn’t let them loose since. He sleeps with them in the night and all day he walks around with them, one in each arm. They’ve become a part of who he is. It’s interesting, though, to watch his little thought process when he realizes he’s going to have to let one go in order to hold onto his cup for a drink. There’s always a bit of a pause, a bit of reassessing just how thirsty he is, and sometimes attempts to see if he can grab a drink while still holding on to one of them. Eventually, though, he realizes he has to lose one of them to gain the drink.
In a nutshell, that’s the call of Jesus to the disciple. Let go. Die to yourself. Change your name and move on. After the loss will come a new gain.
Much of the nation was moved this week by the death of Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century. His body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week, only the fourth private citizen in history to receive that honor. Like many strong, religious leaders, Graham had both ardent followers and people who really didn’t care for him. Depending on who you talk to, his legacy is mixed—but then again, all of our legacies are somewhat mixed, aren’t they? I came along after his most influential years, but I do know of the crusades that he popularized where people would be offered a chance to come forward and respond to Jesus’ call, to commit their lives to God’s kingdom and, in their language, “be saved.”
To say having that particular kind of religious experience is required in order to follow Jesus is wrong. Quite simply, not everyone is built to experience that kind of emotion in that way, nor is God limited to reaching people in such a setting. Nor is there a set formula for receiving and confessing the Christ, as if it is a once-and-done affair. However, it does sound as if Graham’s crusades did evoke that sense of leaving one thing behind, risking change, risking rejection in order to gain what Jesus offered, and that was powerful and true and meaningful for many people.
But for many others, the life of baptism that Martin Luther talks about is also powerful and true and meaningful. Baptism, itself, is a death. Paul talks about how it’s a drowning. It’s a losing of self and gaining of Christ that is a daily event, once begun at the waters and ever continued. It is a realization that each day, in each moment, we are called to let go of the Elmo and grab the sippy cup…that God’s grace is ultimately so powerful and so good we let loose of ourselves and gain the life the Christ is.
When our self, for example, tells us we’re priority numero uno, to die means heeding the needs of those around us. When our self tells us to shout so that others can hear, to die means to listen and observe. When our self is sure it is right about something, to die means to entertain the thought we may be wrong. When our self says that we are sufficient on our own, to die means learning how dependent we actually are on each other. It goes on and on like this. The crusade, as it turns out, isn’t an event in a stadium. It is a life of handing ourselves over and taking up the cross.
People in recovery from drug addiction and substance abuse can articulate this better than I can. Maybe better than anyone, in fact. Their lives are wonderful examples of losing and gaining. I certainly got a better understanding of this last night, in fact, as we gathered with dozens of people for the candlelight vigil for people who’ve lost their lives to addiction. Going into it, I was unsure of exactly where the most suitable spot for the vigil would be. I had offered the flat area in our grass by the thousands of crosses, but then thought perhaps they needed solid ground to stand on. Maybe the parking lot and sidewalk in front of the church would be better. But as the vigil began, the crowd naturally gathered right under the cross, without any direction from me at all, and the person leading it stood on that little stone marker right at its base. So fitting. And there, under the towering sign of God’s great loss in order to gain us, with candle-glow reflecting off of teary cheeks and glistening eyes, we heard the woman speak openly and bluntly about her own losing and gaining, about the hellish life she had to let go of eleven years ago and what freeing life of recovery she is gaining. It was clear that it was not a once-and-one event, that her salvation from addiction was not something finished, but, like the life of baptism, it is ongoing. Each day she’s learning to set her mind on divine things, not on human things. The life she knows now—her recovery—is a life she holds fast.
I think that’s what Jesus is going for there at the base of Caesarea Philippi, with all his disciples standing around. He’s getting them to see they’ll be in recovery once they follow him, recovery from an old life they’re losing and a new life they’re gaining. We could learn a lot about ourselves by listening to their stories and their descriptions of what recovery means to them.
And we’d learn a lot just by listening, period. Like Jesus wants Peter to listen to him. We could learn a lot just by listening. To others. To the Christ who suffers. To the One who loves us unconditionally, life without end. We can do that—we can listen and follow—as we die ourselves. And know that the God of steadfast love always has us, always calls us. Just as we are, without one plea.
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some day I will die
And so will you.
Roses are red
Ashes are black
Tell me I’m dust
And I’ll tell you right back.
When Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide, you might as well take advantage of it!
I ran across a couple of other possible holiday cards for today’s occasion:
“Won’t you be my valentine, you miserable offender?”
“Remember you are dust, but awfully loveable dust!”
And, for Roman Catholics:
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I don’t want chocolate. It’s fish fries or bust.”
There is actually a hashtag trending on Twitter for today: #AshWednesDate, as in, “Won’t you be my AshWednesDate?” That reminds me of the time when I was studying abroad in Germany after college and I liked this one young woman and finally asked her to go on a date with me one day. She said “yes,” and since we both had an interest in the local history and culture, I took her on a tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Turns out that’s not the most romantic place for a date. My buddies never let me live that one down.
So maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t really go together all that well after all. Death kind of clashes with sweet reminders of love, at least the kind of love that Hallmark envisions. But it does strike me as interesting that while school kids across the nation will be taking scissors and cutting out millions of construction paper hearts today, priests and pastors throughout the world will be tracing millions of ashen crosses across foreheads young and old.
And on the same day many people will be rushing to the florist or the candy shop at the last minute to purchase something that will remind their significant other of their love, as many more of us are somberly shuffling into worship services to be reminded of their mortality.
It is as good a time as ever, then, to remember that love is what draws us here. But this is no frilly, cutesy, chocolate-covered love. This is the enduring love of the Creator. As the prophet Joel announces to the people of God, it is the “slow-to-anger, aboundingly-steadfast love” of the same God who first fashioned us from the dust.
Joel inserts this important reminder of what God’s love is actually like into his call to repentance. Joel is calling them to return to God because death itself is staring them in the eye. The Day of the Lord that is storming onto their horizon is not going to be the party atmosphere they had expected. It is a day of gloom and thick darkness. Like an army, a massive infestation of locusts will wipe out their crops and lead to a famine and thousands may die. Their situation is not due so much to the fact that God has deliberately sent the plague to punish them as it is that their thoughtless living has left them vulnerable to these kinds of calamities. Joel speaks to a people of God who have essentially forgotten their responsibility to one another and to the poor in their midst. They’ve lived as if they don’t need to worry about the damage their selfishness can do to themselves and others. They’ve lived as if they have all the time in the world. The prophet sees this this impending disaster as a kind of wake-up call from all of that.
That is the purpose of the ashes today. It’s an impending disaster, a reminder that though we are beautiful and good, we are neither as beautiful or good as we should be. We have wandered from our holy calling to be examples of God’s righteousness in the world, and it grieves God. And yet God invites us to return to him, to change direction and face that fact not in a sense of fear or doom, but in the hope of love, of steadfast love. We are given the opportunity by a gracious God to rend our heart—to rip that carefully cut Valentine heart—instead of our clothing. That is, to let this reality of death shake us to our core, not just on the surface through platitudes, and know there is nevertheless forgiveness and cleansing and life in God’s care.
And therefore a Valentine’s Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to come to terms with the two messages that enable us to truly live as God’s people: “You will die,” and “You are loved.” The two statements which, when placed together, free us to be who we are created and redeemed to be are “Remember you are dust,” and “Remember you are loved.”
Just as in Joel’s prophecy, both are vitally important, and nothing more really needs to be said. Knowing we are going to die reminds us we don’t have all the time in the world. We make mistakes. We aren’t perfect. The ignoring of death leads us to make all kinds of harmful decisions to ourselves and others. Hearing we are dust reminds us of our need of God’s eternal care and, just as importantly, forces us to come to terms with our common bonds with others, of our responsibility to live as God’s fragile people together, aware of our needs, not to live as God’s individuals who are out to get what they can while they can.
But hearing that we are also loved lifts us up. It reminds us of another aspect of who we are—that we still have worth through God’s steadfast love. It reminds us of the great lengths God has gone to have us return to him, to make us God’s own.
And that’s why the shape of love on our foreheads tonight will not be a heart, but a cross. It is a symbol that manages to encompass both: a sign of where our brokenness takes us—of the place human sinfulness always leads—but also a sign of what true love looks like. This love is selfless…it is for the other…it gives its life. It says “You, child, are dust, but you are my dust.”
We live in a world that offers few healthy perspectives on death or love. It tends to glorify the one through violence, a sick fetish with weaponry, or through a self-loathing that thinks of death as a solution to problems, and it sentimentalizes or oversexualizes the other. In this midst of all this, the follower of Christ stands somewhat as a fool. We are God’s funny Valentines to the world, honest about our own shortcomings, and honest about what death does to God’s creation and our relationships.
But we also get to be honest about the love that has been given to us for the sake of others. We are freed to live our faith in ways that hold those two things in tension. We confront the darkness in ourselves and others, but we also proclaim that God has reconciled it all to himself in Jesus.
On Wednesdays this Lent we will explore the lives of some notable fools in Christ, people who have been particularly outstanding examples of that reconciliation between God and humankind, people who strove in their unique witness to remind others both of the world’s sin but also of God’s steadfast love. As a bridge of saints connecting Valentine’s Ash Wednesday and an April Fool’s Easter, they will inspire us to give thanks for the people who have gone before us. As people who share our baptism—Harriet, Dietrich, Francis, Oscar, Catherine—they will encourage us to live into our own baptismal call as fools in this dying world…and into the message of tonight’s ashes…that (hmm, how shall I say this today?)…
Roses are red
Violets are mauve
Both broken and beautiful
We’re marked by God’s love.
A sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year B]
2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
St. Mary’s Hospital down the road here has a beautiful chapel that happens to be under renovation at the moment. I don’t know what they’re doing to it or how long it will take, but they’ve got that whole area around the doors boarded off. There’s no telling what’s really going on behind there. In the meantime, however, the hospital authorities have taken a plain-old, ordinary board room, and fancied it up a little with some religious decoration. They’ve set up chairs in rows all facing one direction sort of like pews, and there is a table in the front that looks like it is standing in as an altar. They’ve got a sign on the wall outside the door that welcomes people in and lets them know that although at first glance it appears to be a plain-old ordinary board room, it is actually the place where daily mass and the prayers of the Rosary occur. Clearly someone has gone to some lengths to make it feel like a place where someone could connect with God.
The hospital calls it—get this—the Temporary Chapel, and all over the first floor of the hospital there is very well-placed and easy-to-read signage that points you to it in case you find yourself needing a moment of solitude and prayer. But they want you to know it is just the Temporary Chapel. It’s not the real chapel, but it will do for now. It’s not anything close to what the final version of the hospital’s chapel will look like or feel like, but it is a promise they are working on it. It is nice enough for the purpose it needs to serve, but it is also a reminder that not too far down the road there will be something better.
The transfiguration of Jesus is like a temporary chapel. Jesus is changed before the disciples’ eyes into something glorious, but it is not the final version of his glory. The transfiguration is a powerful moment where the disciples connect with Jesus’ divine identity but it is not anywhere close to what they will eventually experience in him. And it is a nice enough gathering for now, this dazzling moment of wonder and awe, but the transfiguration is never meant to be the end of the journey. It is only meant to be temporary, a plain-old ordinary mountaintop briefly transformed into a holy space for the disciples to be reminded that there’s going to be something better.
And that’s why Peter’s idea to stay there, to build some tents and camp out there, ultimately makes no sense. No one is going to set up shop in the Temporary Chapel at St. Mary’s or change the official floorplans and the blueprints of the building because they’ll eventually be moving back into the renovated one. Likewise, Jesus does not bring the disciples up the mount of transfiguration as the final stop on his journey as the Son of God. It is a moment of glory that somehow points to the final one. Just like people often go to the top of a mountain in order to get a better lay of the land, to see farther afield, Peter, James, and John are brought to the top of the mountain to see what lies in Jesus’ distant future.
Of course, then, the whole point of the transfiguration is to look at it. It’s not clear that they’re supposed to understand it when it happens, but they disciples are supposed to use their eyes and see it. Jesus’ clothes become bright white, his appearance changes, and there’s the arrival of Israel’s two all-time greatest historical figures, the prophets Moses and Elijah. These are all things that they pick up on through their sense of sight.
I often think that for modern folks like us this event, which is told in three of the four gospels, sounds a bit too much to believe. The other night we were watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and I kept having a hard time believing that what I was seeing on my screen was real. At one point, the announcers even slipped in that people in the stadium were actually not seeing everything we were seeing on our televisions. Some of the graphics and computer animations were designed to be visible only through the camera and broadcast this to those in their homes. The announcer had a word for it. She called it “augmented reality.”
For us the transfiguration has this quality of being augmented reality, something that is told to us that may not have been experienced exactly like that for the people who were there. Regardless, the early Christians took this seriously. It was a key event for them because they were fighting against a distorted form of Christianity known as Gnosticism (which we’re still fighting now) that taught and thought that God could only be experienced through things like meditation and reading certain secret books and learning special sayings. As dreamy as the transfiguration may sound to us nowadays, it was actually a sign that God had a visible representative here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Looking at him, no matter how perplexing and overwhelming it may be sometimes, will be vital to understanding God.
That’s similar to what Elisha goes through as he forces himself to watch his mentor and companion Elijah leave him. It’s clearly painful and uncomfortable for him to go through with it, even though it is ultimately to his benefit. He will gain a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. It’s often how we talk about the difficulty of watching a loved one die. Sometimes we’ll even say we don’t want to go visit grandma or our parents in the hospital or nursing home because we don’t want to see them in that state. We’ll say, “I don’t go visit much because I can’t bear to see her like that,” or even, “I don’t want to look at her because that’s not my grandma anymore,” as if she’s somehow left a look-alike there in the bed and slipped out to another room. I know that when I went to visit my 99-year-old grandmother back at Thanksgiving she was very different from the sprightly woman I grew up knowing. She didn’t even know who we all were gathered in her nursing home room. But it was no less her. It’s painful to see someone leave us, painful to think of being left utterly alone, painful to miss the old times and yet there’s something deeply healthy for us about watching that transformation occur, even as we lose them. God still teaches us and speaks to us even in those final moments that are so hard to live through.
And that’s exactly what Peter, James, and John are going to have to go through, too. As important as it is for them to look at Jesus on during that transfiguration and learn that God’s own Son can actually be seen and therefore followed, the most important part of watching Jesus comes after they’re down the mountain. The disciples must watch as Jesus slowly, gradually, leaves them, involving himself more and more in his mission to suffer and die.
Everything up until this point has been winning for Jesus. He’s cast out demons, he’s healed sick people, even those on the edge of death. He’s won arguments with his opponents, he’s exercised miraculous power over nature. Now he begins what looks like losing. He will lose himself to the powers of darkness and evil. He will lose himself to the visions of grandeur and militaristic discipleship that the disciples have. And he will lose himself completely on the cross. Everything he is and everything he has will be snuffed out like a candle.
And so this is a temporary chapel, right here on the mountain. We cannot stay here, but we learn it is good for us to look at Jesus now because it will not seem to match with what comes next. Maybe that’s why the voice from God says to listen to him. When we don’t know what to do, like Peter, when we find it hard to watch God or even find him in the story of our lives, we can at least listen to him. When we find it too difficult to see the glory of God in our world because things are too broken, we can always hear him speaking. We can hear him in the words of Scripture. We can still hear him calling to us in the lyrics of hymns. We can hear him as we gather around the table: “This is my body, given for you.” Given for us…even as he loses himself for us.
When Elisha finishes watching Elijah disappear into heaven and the sweet chariot swings low to carry him home, Elisha is left alone. He tears his clothes in sorrow and anguish. But the disciples are never left alone. After the glory of the transfiguration fades and the cloud disappears, there he is: only Jesus. He walks down the mountain with them into the valleys and towns below. And on to Golgotha, where it’s only Jesus. And even on the Sunday after he is crucified, after the clouds of Good Friday roll away, there he is…only Jesus!
As disciples, we are called into the service therefore of one who never really leaves us. Although the road can get rough and wind its way through scenes of endless renovation, the Spirit calls us to stare into the dark places and not avert our eyes, to venture into the struggle of the human condition and not despair. Jesus calls us to address the needs of the world without short-circuiting the work that God’s Spirit can accomplish in suffering.
For one day the real chapel will be finished, fully renovated according to God’s design. Oh, you, who are walking through the dark, meandering hallways of life, you who long to see your dear ones’ faces and not just in your mind’s memory…one day the gleaming Chapel will be finished, and he will gather us there. The one whose blood and tears have put it together will call out, and we will hear his voice and listen. The light that shines in our hearts now, that light which pierces the world’s shadows through our acts of love and mercy and kindness—that light is his light and one day it will be all we see.
And it will be good for us to be there. So good. Best.
A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 5B]
Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
The National Football League’s season comes to an end today. The Philadelphia Eagles will face off against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, which, lucky for the players, will be held indoors. It is supposed to be 6 degrees in the host city of Minneapolis today.
There is one NFL player who will be watching from the warmth of his home, and not just because his team didn’t advance through the playoffs. He will not be playing, and he is still not playing football because he was just released from the hospital this week from a spinal injury he received in a game on December 4. It is Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Ryan Shazier. Those who follow him on Instagram know that he has been very tight-lipped about the details of his injury and his progress. What’s clear is that he lost feeling in his legs, had spinal stabilization surgery, and now it appears he spends a lot of time in a wheelchair. He’s only 25 years old, and while his injury is by all accounts severe, his hope of returning one day to the football field is undimmed. Shazier doesn’t just want to get better; he wants to play again. Shazier doesn’t just want his legs to work; he wants to workout his legs in football.
It occurs to me that’s actually our hope whenever a football player gets injured on the field. There’s a moment of shock and fright whenever a player goes down, and everyone hopes he’s OK—“quick…how many fingers am I holding up?”—but the real joy comes whenever a player picks himself up, checks out with the medics, and returns to the formation immediately. For Shazier and for others, that healing is just taking a little longer. The hope of purpose is no less there, which is why when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law she jumps right back to work. They’re all like “Quick, how many fingers am I holding up?” but she brushes their hand out of the way, pops out of bed, and wheels in a cart of stuffed grape leaves and pinot noir.
This is not a statement about proper gender roles in first century Judaism or now. It’s about what it means to be healed, to be restored to purpose. It’s the hope of everyone who’s ever been knocked down, who’s ever been wounded in an accident, gotten a diagnosis, been in recovery, had their name on the transplant list. It’s the deep desire of everyone who’s struggled with a demon of any kind, everyone whose livelihood has been warped by society’s hurtful labels. Full healing, you see, is not limited to physical remedy—to having the fever go down, as in Simon’s mother-in-law’s case—but allows one the chance to re-engage in community as one of its members. It is, as Shazier knows, to get back in the game.
And there’s a whole city of people now outside of the house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying who think there’s a chance they can get back into the game. Those who’ve walked have come there themselves on foot, but many have been brought and carried by friends and relatives. Jesus has, at this point, performed just one healing, not counting Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s hard to get a handle on that because we read Scripture in little bits and pieces throughout the year, but we’re still in the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has had one seemingly unplanned encounter in the synagogue with a man who has an unclean spirit and within one day he’s a celebrity. By night-time they are there on the sidewalk, on the road, dropped the door. Simon’s house looks like a Wal-Mart parking lot in the wee hours of Black Friday.
In this crowd we see a whole humanity that is held back from the game of life. They’ve stopped whatever they’re doing to find this man who releases people from their burdens. There’s a sense of desperation, like they’ll do whatever it takes to see the person who can restore hope and purpose to them.
The wife of one of my colleagues was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of cancer a few years ago. The two of them have two young children and are living overseas. She’s in constant treatment now to beat back the tumors in her body. This week I just happened to hear on the radio a report that scientists in Boston had announced a very promising new hope for a cure for her type of cancer. I actually haven’t had any direct contact with him in years, but I found the article on-line and sent it to him anyway, thinking that surely he’d already heard about it. He is always super on-top of things in all aspects of life. To my surprise, he hadn’t heard about it, and within a couple of hours he had responded to me, saying, “I can’t thank you enough for this. It looks like they have not moved to clinical trial yet, but I will be contacting them and we’ll be first on the list.”
Jesus has a list by the morning of his second day of ministry, and he works and works, never letting up. I imagine the size of the crowd never decreases. With every healing, another two or three new people show up. What is he in all of this? He is living, breathing proof that God wants to heal his people, to set them free from whatever is holding them back. He is a strong clue, right here at the beginning, that God is about restoring people to life.
If you think about it, there are so many characteristics and qualities which people ascribe to God. People will say things like, “God will only give you what you can handle,” as if God is handing out maladies and challenges. Or we’ll hear things like, “God has a plan. Everything happens for a reason,” as if God is primarily about knitting together some secret story for every individual’s life and we’re supposed to decipher it and lucky for you if you figure yours out! God even gets looped into political party agendas and platforms, leading some of us to believe that if we vote one particular way then we’re voting against God or the Bible itself. Some aspects of those thoughts and theories may be helpful to some people, but generally-speaking it’s best we leave them alone. When he opens the door of Simon’s house that morning and sees the mass of humanity there, he doesn’t shout out, “God only gives you what you can handle!” or “Vote Democrat—or vote Republican—in the next election and this will all take care of itself.” Here, right at the beginning of Jesus’ story we get a clear description of what God is truly about, the fundamental character of God’s kingdom. It is to restore people to life—to give power to the faint, as Isaiah says, to lift up the lowly.
However, it’s not just Simon’s mother-in-law and all those sick folks who are having their purpose restored. It is about Jesus having his own purpose restored and rebooted, right here at the beginning. At the end of that first day, in the morning, Jesus escapes somehow to pray. It takes his disciples a while to find them, but when they do, they remind him that there are more people at that door. They’ve all come searching for Jesus.
And he could have just as easily, I suppose, gone back the next day and started over. There was certainly plenty to do! And if he had, then you and I today might just be additional members of what would be called the First Church of Capernaum. Faith would perhaps consist of traveling there to see the great healer, over and over, when we needed him. But he doesn’t return there. When he hears his disciples say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds with, “Let’s keep moving.” It’s as if Jesus already understands that already this early it’s going to be easy to get the roles reversed, to flip who is supposed to be searching for whom. With so much need in the world, it’s going to be so easy to turn God into the object of our searching, the basis of our faith, when really we’re the ones God is seeking out.
It would have been so easy, I think, for Jesus to have stayed put, to have people put their name on the list, to set up an appointment, but that’s not who God came to be for us. God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is to enter our world, not make us come to his. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” And on and on through Galilee he goes, working his way into all kinds of hurt and human turmoil.
Eventually he works his way to the cross where he shows the depth of his desire to search us out to get us back into the game.
The architect who is working on our “Brighten Our Light renovations and additions is an active member of a congregation here in Richmond. He sent me an email this week out of the blue that contained a presentation he had attended at his church about the gifts and challenges of being church in this day and age. It contained thought-provoking information about the fact that Boomers are beginning to retire, Generation X is now assuming leadership roles in the workforce and politics, and the Millennials are making up a larger percentage of the workforce. It spoke of how the Internet and digital communication are creating all kinds of new possibilities but also new barriers to older ways of doing Christ’s ministry.
Much of the presentation he sent me was material our Council has discussed and digested before, but it is always good to review it again. The Building Team has been so grateful that Epiphany is working with a design team who fundamentally understands—or at least cares to understand—what churches are facing in the years ahead, how it is vital that we not just try our best to make sure people are welcome when they come to us, even changing our architecture if we need to, but also that we seek them where they are. That is, that the church is still in important ways like Jesus, on the move, going out into the world and proclaiming the message. We seek to be all things to all people, as Paul said, in order that we might win some. By venturing out there, we help make the gospel free of charge. That can end up looking many different ways, but in the end it always communicates that God comes into the world searching for his children and setting them free, emptying his life for them— for that is what Jesus came out to do.
Last weekend I was with twenty-one of our high school youth at a Virginia Synod Youth event about two and a half hours west of here. The youth tend to love these youth events of our Synod. They sing the familiar songs and reconnect with old friends. They look forward to the rhythm and flow of a weekend away, maybe like the one Jesus had outside Capernaum.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend is actually something not on the agenda, and it’s something I’ve never participated in. The last morning we are there—Sunday morning—some of the seniors have a tradition of waking up early to watch the sunrise from a hill that overlooks the broad valley down into Lynchburg. This year the tradition got cancelled because of bad weather, but I still remember the photos of past years with these high schoolers sitting shoulder to shoulder, on the brink of adulthood. On retreat in a quiet place, they look out onto the dawning of a new day. I imagine they are thinking about their friendships over the years, giving thanks for the ways they’ve been molded in faith though Sunday School and youth group. There’s also a sense of expectation as they do this, an undeniable fact they are moving on to new horizons, new challenges. They are not to stay here, frozen in the moment. The point is to go on, to grow and seek out new places where they will walk the journey and witness with joy. They remind me of a church preparing to follow Jesus into Galilee.
And as the sun rises I hope they know—and I hope we know—the Son is risen. The Son who was crucified is risen and is indeed shining, restoring us to life, getting us back into the game.