A sermon preached at St. John’s in Kingston NY on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018. Click here to read the scripture. Click the play button below to listen along.
Isaiah paints for us a picture of God – a God of comfort, renewal , redemption:
God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. (Is. 40:28)
There are several feasts we celebrate this time of year on the Christian calendar – the Feast of Saint Brigid, Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation) feasts which appear here in order to mark the mid-point of winter.
It’s mid-winter when we start to see a shift in the light, when we can see, perhaps, a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. I have several of my lamps on automatic timers in the Rectory and I’ve noticed this past week that, as they come on, the light they offer is not yet needed because the sunlight is still filling the room. And I feel a sense of delight and relief that the light is lasting longer.
I think this is a wonderful metaphor for healing. There are times in our lives when we are called to put forth a little more effort, keep the light on just a little bit longer, moments when we need to pay closer attention to the light in our lives, to cultivate it.
There is a list of the most stressful events that typically cause illness if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not taking the time to take care of ourselves: Death of a family member, moving, change in job, major illness, additions to the family or the or leaving of partners/spouses, being incarcerated… and the list goes on.
These are the moments in our lives when it can be difficult to tend to our light because we’re so focused on taking care of the crisis or so shaken by it that we lose our self for a bit. This is understandable. Life is sometimes quite difficult.
It’s during these times when, if we’re not able to kindle our own light, we may need to rely on our friends and family members just a little bit more, so we don’t get completely lost in the darkness. So we learn to be of service to one another to be one another’s hope, to be one another’s light in the darkness.
And Isaiah says: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… but those who wait for God 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.”
This part of Isaiah – chapter 40 – starts out with the words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
It’s the announcement of deliverance, the promise of imminent redemption. This chapter is one of the most quoted of all of Isaiah’s words because this message of God’s Love is so easily forgotten, yet so desperately needed:
Because the light will always return. Even when we lose our way, especially when we lose our way, in the darkest moments of our lives, the deepest dream in our hearts, is that God’s light will return.
There are times when all seems lost and it’s so hard to remember God’s Love, when we believe we might just be beyond redemption, beyond hope. In those moments, we think our heart is shattered, irredeemable… broken beyond recovery.
And there are some for whom this is a nearly constant experience. The ones on the margins. The ones whom we would rather ignore.
What we often forget is that healing depends less upon what we do ourselves and more upon what God does. Taking care of ourselves often means giving God the space to do what’s needed… through prayer or silence, through quiet walks or simple activities. Allowing time. And allowing space, usually the space to welcome others in.
I believe I’ve mentioned the movie Groundhog Day in a sermon here before. Well, since Friday was Groundhog Day, I spent Friday evening watching this funny but poignant movie.
Bill Murray plays a weatherman in Pittsburgh, PA. He’s someone who is convinced of his own greatness and puts forth enormous effort in shoring up his own self-esteem. Like all of us, Murray’s character is a flawed human being. But he’s someone who is so disconnected from himself and the people around him that each person he meets is just an object in his world – he either gives them attention so he can get what he wants from them or he ignores them because they have nothing he wants.
From this worldview, everyone moment looks the same – on the lookout for objects that I can use. Every interaction feels the same – did I get what I needed or not? Every day seems to be a repetition of the day before – get up, get what I need from the world, be disappointed by what I didn’t get, go back to sleep.
In the story, Murray’s character actually lives the same exact day over and over again. At first, he panics and tries to fix the problem. Then he decides to relax and just enjoy himself, using each day for his own personal gratification. Then he realizes just how empty that is and dives deep into despair, successfully killing himself over and over again only to wake up to the same Sonny and Cher song on the radio again and again.
Finally, he begins to surrender and starts to see the beauty in the world, beholding it with awe in the simple, little things. He decides to use the time to study, learn ice sculpting, and the piano.
But the last step in his healing is when he realizes there are ways he can help other people – he shows up to catch a kid who falls out of a tree everyday, even though he never gets thanked. He cares for a homeless man he sees everyday, trying to save his life. He changes a tire on a car he sees everyday. He saves someone from choking everyday. He buys tickets for a honeymooning couple he meets everyday… and on and on and on.
In other words, he’s fallen in love with the world, with these people that he used to see as only objects in his world. Which is to say, he’s fallen in love with God, the Creator, and made himself God’s servant, showing up to serve the others in his life everyday. Welcoming them into his life as creatures of God, instead of just objects from whom he might be able to get something he wants.
When he finally wakes up on a new morning, the evidence of this healing is found in his genuine question: “How can I be of service to you today?”
And this doesn’t come from a need to be needed, or some desperate craving to be seen as good. This question comes from a simple desire born of awe, as if to say, “I see you, beloved child of God. How can I be of service to you today?”
When is the last time you turned to someone in your life and simply asked, “How can I be of service to you today?”
Think about it for a minute. Imagine yourself asking someone that question, someone you love or someone you don’t even like…
Does it make you feel vulnerable? Does it make you wonder if they will ask it back so you’ll be taken care of too? Do you think that, if someone needs you they will let you know so you don’t ask? You don’t risk being laughed at or rejected?
These are typical human responses.
I think you’ll find if you ask it, people won’t know what to do with that… at least at first. I’ve tried it before and so I know that people find it more than a bit disarming. But what if we asked anyway and meant it? What if we kept asking and eventually started getting answers? How would that change our world? How would that heal our hearts?
This theme of healing and service is the point of today’s gospel message from Mark. When Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, she began to serve them, healing and service going hand in hand.
Like last week’s gospel, Jesus, the Wounded Healer and Welcoming Stranger, is able to reconcile the community… “the whole city was gathered around the door…” by helping these people find their hearts again they can once again be in service to one another and be a part of healthy community. They begin to welcome one another again.
Welcoming instead of needing. Allowing God to heal what needs to be healed within us and through us, surrendering ourselves in service to God’s Holy Creation.
The whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole of the Old Testament, has a simple storyline to it. God gets angry when we forget that we are responsible for one another, not as a tribe, but as the whole Creation. As a matter of fact, tribalism is identified as the exact causes of the divisions in the first place.
And so, if this is why God gets angry, because we are so focused on ourselves and our own tribe, then salvation must come through the healing of the larger community by the restoring of those on the margins – and this is exactly what Jesus comes to tell us – through the care of the poor, the destitute, the oppressed… the ones who Murray’s character in our movie would ignore and deem unworthy of his time and attention.
The ones who live their lives in the darkness.
The ones who we would rather ignore.
The ones who Murray’s character learns to, not only see, but to serve and to welcome… as if he’s welcoming those parts of himself.
As Isaiah reminds us, 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?
This is how God works. This is how God redeems.
This is how God reconciles us to Godself.
The restoration of Jerusalem occurs through service to God, in service to one another which is the healing of the whole community.
May we all offer one another healing, as we offer ourselves healing. May we all welcome the one we would rather ignore, especially those parts of ourselves. May we all offer ourselves in service to one another and learn to ask, “How may I be of service to you today?”