Sermon - February 4, 2018 - The fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

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February 04, 2018

If you read the Gospels like I read them, by putting yourself into the story and imagining what it would be like, what it would feel like, to BE one of its characters, then, the Gospel of Mark can be daunting in its quick, sharp movements from scene to scene. You might want to say to Mark something like:  wait a minute, slow down a bit so my heart can catch up with my feet.

We haven’t made it through chapter one yet, but already, John the Baptist has shocked us awake by telling us that someone else will be plunging us, not into water, but plunging us in the Holy Spirit. We have stood by the river Jordan as witnesses of Jesus’ baptism, and if we were listening, we’ve heard a heavenly voice proclaiming a heavenly vision. In the space of two verses, we have been whisked away to spend 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus. We’ve heard the bad news that John the Baptist has been arrested, and we’ve heard Jesus tell us that He brings Good News. In a flash, we’ve witnessed Jesus’ calling four disciples to follow him, and we’ve seen how quickly they respond without question. We’ve followed Jesus and his companions to Capernaum and sat with others, in awe, as Jesus, we are told, speaks with authority. 

There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s writing. And chances are, if we don’t take the 50 minutes it requires to read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, we will misunderstand this sense of urgency as a rushing through too much too soon. If on the other hand, we know the rest of the story, and we take the time to pause at key moments, we will better glean the sense of an urgent need for faithfulness. We will be able to see the quickness in Mark’s steps, not as a rush through life, but rather as an urgent need for our faithfulness to a life filled with service to one another, with Jesus at our center.

There are two scenarios in this morning’s section of Chapter 1 that gives us a much-needed pause to allow our hearts to catch up with our feet.

The first pause involves touch; the second involves prayer.

Touch.

Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and Jesus touches her hand with his hand, and she suddenly becomes a model of faithfulness to service. Imagine that, a hand touching another hand, and someone unexpectedly has the strength to be of service to others. Pause to picture the other stories in the Gospels that speak of healing by touch. Pause to picture yourself reaching out to take Jesus’ hand into your own hand. Pause to remember when someone in your community reached out to touch you, and the touch gave you strength you didn’t know you had. Pause to remember someone you know who needs a loving touch.

There are myriad ways to touch one another.

Henri Nouwen has said that a friend’s touch often gives more life than words. [i]  Think about that—touch gives more life than words.  And folks who are deeply touched with love, like Simon’s mother-in-law, seem to experience a liberating kind of healing that causes them to want to pass it on to others. There is a natural rhythm to touch, like breathing. A loving touch given is a loving touch received.A loving touch received is a loving touch given. 

Prayer.

Mark does not tell us the content of Jesus’ prayer, only this: Jesus comes out of it with a renewed sense of his own mission so clear in his own heart that the expectations of others can not distract him. The next thing we see in Mark’s Gospel is Jesus, the living, breathing God in our midst, on the move to extend God’s grace to others. Let us go to our neighbors to share the good news with them, too, says Jesus. Imagine Jesus saying those words to us. Imagine allowing that invitation to stir a response from us, a response from the deepest part of our being. It is what we Christians have promised—to seek, to serve, to proclaim the good news, by our example, that God loves us, AND that God loves our neighbors, too.”

There are myriad ways to think about prayer.   

In his book, More Than Wanderers, James Fenhagen describes a theology of prayer that our Gospel reading this morning exemplifies because it makes clear the link between prayer and ministry. Fenhagen’s thinking about prayer “emphasizes our need to get in touch with what God is already doing within us. In this way, we can begin to experience the rhythm of the Spirit which pulls us inward to listen, and then pushes us outward as persons with a renewed capacity to love.” A life that shares in the ministry of Christ, Fenhagen says, is a life in touch with that deep rhythm that is at the heart of all life. [ii] This view of prayer is about our listening and responding to God—a God who reveals himself to us in our innermost selves, AND through our interactions with others. It suggests that when we are in touch with ourselves AND in touch with our neighbors, we are one with God.

Again, there are myriad ways to touch; there are myriad ways to think about prayer. 

Touch and Prayer. Prayer and Touch. I can’t seem to separate them, and it seems, neither can Mark when he tells us about Jesus—in fact, one of his first stories about Jesus. Jesus pauses to touch; Jesus pauses to pray. Both touch and prayer contain the potential for encountering God, and that encounter, like a pebble thrown into a pond, enlarges its circles outward in a visual, faithful harmony—one circle, two circles, three circles, spreading wider and wider and wider out from the original source.

Jesus paused to touch someone, and she moves out into service. Jesus paused to pray and moves out with his disciples to love and serve others.

May we be willing to pause to allow our heart and our feet to move as one. May we all touch the deep rhythm that is at the heart of life. May we live with a sense of urgent faithfulness. May we faithfully give a face to Jesus’ mission and our own baptismal promise. May our prayers open for us a sense of clarity about how we can be a healing presence. May we reach out to touch one another, to encourage and build one another up with God’s good news--in faith, in hope, and in love. 


[i]Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, Henri Nouwen, (HarperCollins, 2006), page for March 25.

[ii]More Than Wanderers: Spiritual Disciplines for Christian Ministry, James C. Fenhagen, (The Seabury Press, 1981), pp. 25-26.

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