Back in the Game

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 5B]

Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

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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.

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Ryan Shazier at Steelers practice, January 10

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.

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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.”

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waiting room at a health care clinic in South Africa

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

 

 

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