- First Reading Isaiah 40:21-31
- Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
- Second Reading 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
- Gospel Mark 1:29-39
My first Sunday in this church was Transfiguration Sunday, which, last year, fell on February 22. The church and civil calendars do not always line up perfectly. The beginning of the church year, Advent, can fall either the last Sunday in November or the first Sunday in December, depending on the day of the week of Christmas. The latter part of the church year hinges around Easter, which is based on a lunar calendar. As a result of these variations, this year, Transfiguration Sunday is next week, the 14th. That means, following the liturgical calendar, today marks the close of my first church-year with this congregation.
It feels like we have gotten here very quickly, and not just because the quirks of the liturgical calendar. I remember, a bit under a year ago, when we first moved to online worship thinking about whether we would be back for Easter. I remember delaying decisions about virtual communion, thinking we would be back in person before we really needed to consider that. I then bought a package of six small bottles of grape juice, thinking that would carry us through. We used the last of those bottles last month. The bread was in an eight-pack, so next month is the last of that.
Back in the spring, I think I preached about taking the time of social distancing and cancelled events as an opportunity to slow down. I think I preached that sermon again even at the beginning of Advent.
I hope some of you listened and were able to follow that. I was not. This year has, at least for me, felt like a year of jumping from one crisis to the next, one urgent decision to the next, except, as I look back, I realize it was really just the same urgent decision popping up again and again.
When will we be back together and indoors? How will we adapt the next church event, the next liturgical season, the next marker on the church year to remote worship? What is going on with the schools? When can we visit family, or have family visit us? How do we best care for each other?
Over the past month, I have been mostly preaching from the Hebrew Bible scriptures, but those who were also paying attention to the Gospel texts noticed, I am sure, that we have been telling the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as depicted by Mark. Much like this past year, Mark’s Gospel is relentless.
The other gospel writers open their accounts with some preliminaries. Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth, and relay some information about the historical circumstances of Jesus’ time. John, not content to tell us about Jesus’ human time, takes us all the way back to the beginning—writing of Jesus’ presence in the initial creation described in Genesis.
Mark does not have time for that. Mark’s gospel is filled with urgency, peppered with a Greek phrase, “kai euthus,” which most directly translates to “and immediately,” but Mark’s Gospel uses it so often that translators paraphrase, finding a variety of other ways to connect passages and imply haste.
I bring this up because I want to emphasize the pace at which everything is happening in the story. Over the past month, we have read about John the Baptist recognizing and baptizing Jesus.
We then jump forward, past Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, to read about Jesus beginning to preach, and calling first Simon and Andrew, and then James and John. Last week, we read about Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, a city on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, and the home of at least Simon and Andrew, but likely also James and John. Listen again to what happened:
“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
I want to emphasize, again, that while we have read these stories over a month, they have just taken place over, at most, a few days. At the time of this story in the synagogue, the disciples had not yet been with Jesus a week. This was their first Sabbath together. This is still very new to all of them, and none of them yet know who Jesus is.
As those in the synagogue are processing what they have just seen, this stranger teaching with the authority of a prophet treading new scriptural ground rather than a scribe interpreting what others already said, this stranger who, with a word silenced a demon and drew it out of a man who likely had been a long source of disruption in the community, and even as some are leaving to tell others what they have seen, I imagine Jesus took advantage of the congregation’s surprise to gather his new disciples and slip away.
I imagine even Simon, Andrew, James, and John, the first four disciples are themselves taken aback: after all, it is not like they have seen anything like this before.
So, in shock, they take Jesus to the one place they feel safe: Simon and Andrew’s house, hoping both that Jesus can heal Simon’s mother-in-law and that they can take some time to understand what they have just seen.
Any time they get is short. This has all taken place on the sabbath, so the spread of news is perhaps a little slower than usual, but at sundown, as soon as the sabbath limitations on work and travel were lifted, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
This must have been a long night, and I certainly wonder what Simon’s mother-in-law thought of this crowd gathering outside the house while this stranger her son-in-law brought home was performing miracles and healing people, starting with her.
But I think most about what happened next. Jesus and his new disciples were up late in the night, the disciples, I assume, serving as crowd and traffic control while Jesus healed people until finally, the crowds abate and the disciples go inside to get some sleep.
Jesus, though, needs more than just some sleep. Jesus slips away to a deserted place, a place away from not only the crowds, but also the disciples. Jesus finds some isolation so that he can pray.
Mark’s gospel is relentless. The pace is rapid, filled with urgency, but three times, Jesus forces Mark to pause, even if briefly, so that he can go, find some solitude and pray. Three times in Mark’s gospel, Jesus says “enough” and takes a break to pray and recharge. The world keeps moving around him. The disciples go out hunting for him as, perhaps, the crowd is once again building up around Simon’s house with more people for Jesus to heal. But Jesus found and took time to himself. Jesus knew that he needed to practice that self-care. Jesus knows that we all need that time.
In our Wednesday book group, Harold Kushner, the author of the book we are finishing this Wednesday, recounts a story about sabbath rest. A group of tourists have hired local porters to help carry their gear on a trek through the wilderness. They have been making good time, and after three days the locals demand a day to rest, not, they say, because they are tired, but because they have travelled so far and so fast that their souls need time to catch up.
Much has happened so far in Mark’s gospel. Jesus soul needs time to catch up. This past year, for all of us, may have felt still, in terms of physical movement, at least, but has been filled for anxiety. I urge you all to find some time to yourself, some time to pray, to reflect. Find some time to process whatever it is that you are feeling, whether it is anxiety over illness and safety, grief over lost time, lost opportunities and yes, loved ones who have passed, whether fear of the future and financial insecurity, or, more likely, some combination of all those and more. Jesus took time for himself. You can too. Thanks be to God.