Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Is anyone else tired? I don’t mean a little beat from one late night or early morning – I mean really tired- constantly tired, always having to dig deep for just enough energy to do what you need to do without ever feeling completely refreshed. If so, then today’s scripture readings are for you. This morning’s gospel is a continuation of the story we heard last Sunday; the actions of both readings take place over the course of one day. To recap: Jesus started the day with some fabulous preaching in the local synagogue where he exorcised a particularly rude and nasty demon, then walked across town to a friend’s house where he healed his friends’ sick mother-in-law. After a brief break, his “friends,” started to bring him every sick or demon-possessed person they could find so that he could heal them too – which he apparently did all night. In the morning, when his friends were sleeping, he tried to sneak off to pray – which was how he recouped his energy – but they hunted down and berated him for taking time for himself, reminding him that more people needed healing. “Get a move on Jesus; your public awaits.”
Jesus didn’t bite – because Jesus knew how to stay focused. In his excellent sermon last week, our Seminarian Columba commented that one of the most prominent words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately,” as in “Jesus went immediately.” Mark’s is the oldest and shortest of the gospels and, as Entertainment Weekly might put it, “the plot really moves.” Faced with a double-talking, fear-mongering demon, Jesus has only seven words to spare: “Be silent and come out of him.” Later in the day, confronted with Simon’s suffering mother-in-law, he doesn’t even bother to use words at all – he simply takes her by the hand and heals her by his touch. Jesus never refuses when asked to heal, but he does it quickly and without fanfare, because he never forgets that such small miracles are simply by-products of his primary reason for existing: to spread the Good News – to be the Good News – the news that God is with us and will redeem her people.
How different this focus is from that of his disciples, who are so diverted by his divine abilities that they often don’t understand a word he’s saying. They are thrilled with the powerful reactions to Jesus’s teaching, excited by his spreading fame, and overwhelmed by how people respond to his healing abilities. No one wants to help him and support him more than they do. They have given up everything to travel with him. They work hard to find food and lodging for him. They love him. And yet they are also the ones that welcome “the crowds” – crowds that will later turn on Jesus and demand his crucifixion. The disciples are the ones who deny Jesus the anonymity he repeatedly asks for. They are the ones who are so distracted by the trappings of Jesus’s ministry that they are prone to forget the message that God has come near.
It is easy to get distracted, especially when we are anxious. When I was pregnant with Nicholas, my second child, we were given the choice of moving right before he was due or right after. We chose after (two weeks, it turned out) so we spent the latter third of my pregnancy packing and Gary wanted to have a tag sale before the baby was born. On the morning my water broke, I told Gary that I thought I might be in labor. He said, “You can’t be. You just went to the doctor and he said two more weeks.” I said, “Well, now he says to go to the hospital and get checked.” So, I went and finished packing my bag, which was 90 percent ready as prescribed, and then packed Gary’s empty bag, and went ahead called someone to sit with Katie in case I had to stay at the hospital and then called my parents to tell them they might want to move up their flight, and finally I went to tell Gary I was ready. I couldn’t find him. I looked all over the house. No Gary. I looked in the driveway. The car was still there, so I knew he hadn’t tried to escape. Finally, I went out to our detached garage, which we used mainly for storage. I had no idea why he would be there, but I was out of options (and experiencing contractions) at that point – and there he was, busily shifting boxes from one spot to another. “What,” I asked, “are you doing”? “I’m getting ready for the tag sale,” he said.
Gary is not the only person in the world to completely lose focus under pressure. We work so very hard, putting in hours of overtime and cursing the length of our “to-do” lists only to realize that we are in a “lather-rinse-repeat” cycle of questionably meaningful work. Even our leisure activities seem unfulfilling when we arise from our couches no healthier, wealthier, or wiser than when we sat down. This seems wrong – and unfair. Surely, we should feel more accomplished if we are working so hard.
Maybe the problem is not how hard we’re working. Maybe it’s that we’re working so very hard on the wrong things. Maybe we, like the disciples, are focused on the wrong things. This is the message that Paul was trying to get through to the Christians in Corinth when he reminds them that proclaiming the gospel is not grounds for boasting. It appears that his community has, like many Christians since, decided that simply proclaiming themselves believers means that they can sit back and “be blessed.” Not so, says Paul. Of course those who choose to follow the way of Jesus the Christ are blessed – but our blessing has nothing to do with bragging rights. Our blessing is our ability and our obligation to spread the good news, to do the work of God. We do not experience the fullness of Christ’s love when we smugly or anxiously hoard it for ourselves. We only truly enjoy it when we freely and joyfully share it with others, especially with those who are different or weaker than we are. “True Christian [blessing] expresses itself [not in receiving but in performing] service.”
Simon Peter’s mother-in-law understood this. Over the years, many people have expressed dismay at the part of this gospel story where this woman, having been healed by Jesus, immediately starts serving the disciples; but if you read the text carefully, you will notice that at no point do Jesus or any of his disciples ask her to serve them. She makes that choice. She chooses to serve – and she is empowered by her choice. She is the first deacon of the Church.
We too receive power when we choose to serve – when we focus on the right work. Think about it. We know the difference between pushing papers and doing good work. Teachers place different value on helping students pass a standardized test and seeing a child’s eyes light up with understanding and eagerness to learn. Nurses can feel the moment when a patient truly begins to believe that she will be okay. Musicians intuit the vibe in the room when diverse souls join together with the love of song. And this congregation knows the difference between an annual meeting where we argue over tax codes and when we jointly envision the possibilities of what might happen if we take a leap of faith to try to truly welcome, support, and serve all God’s people.
There’s even better news – because God’s gift to us is that when we are focused on the right work, we find that because God has no limits our resources are also unlimited when we are doing God’s work. Last week Columba asked us how we would know Jesus if he showed up at Grace. The answer was that Jesus is easy to recognize because he is the one who is quickly and unpretentiously doing the work. This week our scriptures tell us how Jesus will know us when he walks into Grace. The answer? He will know us because we are focused on doing the work of God. And how will we know that we are doing the work of God? We will know, Isaiah says, because our exhaustion will disappear – because those who work for the Lord shall fly with the wings of eagles, walk and not faint, run and not be weary. Have you not heard? AMEN.
V. Bruce Rigdon, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 330.