Texts: Isaiah 40:28-31, Mark 1:29-31
Few things in life compare to the sensation of falling in love. The intensity of that experience is such that it creates hot spots in the brain that remain forever. Any time we are in the presence of our love, these hot spots flare up and we feel elated. Yes, KaKi, this is the safest way I know how to say “you still make me hot.”
But our love stories are not just about people. We fall in love with all sorts of things: songs and sunsets, poems and places, flora and fauna. And when we see or hear or smell one of our love objects, the hot spots flare and the memories flood over us. This has already happened for me in this morning’s service.
I fell in love with Isaiah 40:28-31 in a movie theater in Austin, Texas, when I was sixteen. The movie I saw that day was Chariots of Fire, which won the Academy Award in 1982 for best picture. The film is based on the true story of two British runners trying to qualify for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. One of the men, Eric Liddell, played by the late Ian Charleson, is a Scottish minister who has returned from the mission field in China to focus on his track training. He was the ideal of a robust Christian: strong and gentle, competitive and devout, and he could run like the wind. He was the perfect hero for a sixteen-year-old zealous Christian.
Liddell did indeed qualify for two events at the Olympics, but on the way to Paris he learns that one of his heats is to take place on a Sunday. Being the committed man of faith that he was, he could not possibly run on the Sabbath. No amount of persuasion from the British Olympic Committee could change his mind, so he was forced to withdraw from that event.
Here is where my love story begins. The movie shows Liddell on that Sunday not at the Olympic stadium, but at a church in Paris reading a text from the pulpit. It was Isaiah 40, of course, and as he reads the words “Have you not known, have you not heard, the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth…” we begin to hear haunting music in the background. All great love stories have a soundtrack you know. As Liddell continues reading the text we see images of athletes competing at the Olympic stadium, some falling, some coming up just short of victory, all of them hanging their heads in defeat. And at that very moment we hear Liddell say the words: “but those who wait for the Lord 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.” That was it. I was head over heels in love with a passage of scripture for the first time in my life. Now, granted, it was scripture enhanced with visual images and a synthesizer, but nevertheless the hot spot in my brain was permanently established. And, to this day, when I hear this text read, I hear it with a Scottish accent and see men running around a track, and chills go down my spine.
But, alas, we have read two scriptures this morning not just this one. And as much as I would enjoy going on about the beauty and wonder of the Isaiah text, I should say a word about the Gospel lesson from Mark 1. Though it is hard to think of just what word that would be. You see, I’ve never cared much for this story about Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I have always interpreted the first chapter of Mark like this: Jesus starts his ministry by calling two sets of brothers to become his followers, the five of them go to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus casts a demon out of some poor soul, and then they head over to Simon Peter’s house for lunch. Only when they get there, the mother-in-law is sick in bed instead of making lunch, so they send Jesus in to fix her up, which he does, and then she gets out of bed and makes lunch. I’m not saying that’s exactly what the text says in the original Greek, but in my mind it’s pretty close.
So, you can see my dilemma today. I have my favorite passage of scripture to preach from, but I also have this pathetic tale of a sick mother-in-law and a bunch of guys who are too lazy to make their own lunch. Talk about trying to weave majesty and mediocrity into some kind of whole cloth. It’s hard to know even where to begin.
So, I’ll try to begin with a little honesty. Experience has taught me that loving something intensely can make us blind to certain things. We may miss the flaws in our love object or the beauty in all the things that seem to pale in comparison. Knowing this tendency in myself, I decided to give these texts a fresh reading this week, especially the Mark passage that irritates me. And I’m glad I did.
If the first chapter of Mark describes the start of Jesus’ ministry, which it does, and Mark was the first of the Gospels to have been written, which it was, then we should pay close attention to the details in this story. For what we have here is the beginning of the church, or at least the building blocks of the church. Jesus calls his first disciples, he reveals his gifts to the people, and he establishes some of the basic values that his ministry will be based on. And one of the things to take note of is that from the very start of the Jesus movement it is a family affair. Two sets of brothers are the first disciples; one of those brother’s mother-in-law is featured in the first healing story; we even know that some of Jesus’ own family would become prominent leaders in the early church. What does all of this mean for us? Maybe nothing or maybe something crucial.
What it says to me is that if the church was established with a lot of family relationships there must have been intimacy and conflict and laughter and tears and wonderful meals and silent meals all blended together. Because that is what family is-it is a hodgepodge of wonderful and painful and exhilarating and depressing things all thrown together. And if that is what the church was in the beginning, I’ve got to say not much has changed over 2,000 years. Every church I have ever been a part of has these same glorious and painful features intermingled. And you need to know this about church or you will always be disappointed. If you think your church is supposed to be a place where good people do great deeds with pure hearts, then the clock is ticking on the day you walk out of here tired of the disappointment. Because this church is actually a place where flawed people do the best they can with hearts that are filled with light and darkness. I’m not saying special things don’t happen here all of the time, because by the grace of God they do. All I’m saying is that the church universal, and every local expression of the church, is in some sense a mess. Like your family and my family are often a mess. And this is where the God part comes in. God apparently likes working in the midst of mess. Jesus apparently wasn’t afraid of the mess. Why else would he start the whole thing with a bunch of brothers and a mother-in-law?
Ah, yes, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I told you earlier that my issue with this story is the impression I have always had that this poor woman was healed so that she could get out of bed and make food for the boys. In my post-Neanderthal, comfortable-with-my-feminist-side stage of life this hasn’t felt good to me. But in looking at the story again this week I noticed something new.
When Jesus heals this woman, and she gets out of bed to serve him and the others, the Greek word used for serve in this story is the same root word for “deacon.” Yes, she is the first deacon of the church, a person who responds to the touch of Jesus by serving other people. I like that image a lot. For one thing, the office of deacon has been denied to women throughout most of church history, so it is significant to note that the first usage of that word in the Gospels is associated with a woman. And beyond that we see that from the very beginning of the church people responded to the grace and love of Jesus by serving others. What does Zaccheus do when Jesus talks to the despised tax collector? He takes Jesus home for a meal and then responds that he will pay everyone back that he has ever cheated. This is how it works. We experience the touch of Christ in our lives and we express our gratitude by doing tangible deeds of service for one another and the world beyond these walls.
Lawrence Wood tells the story of the women in his congregation who always prepared church dinners. On one occasion one of the women couldn’t be there for a dinner because she had undergone surgery. Wood goes to check on her the day before the dinner and she asks:
“They’re not using those boxed potatoes, are they? The people who come expect potatoes made from scratch.”
“They’re planning to peel potatoes all morning,” Wood replied.
“And the ham? Did they get a good dry ham, or the watery kind?”
Wood didn’t know the answer, so he tried to change the subject by asking if the woman had always enjoyed cooking. To his surprise, she adamantly replied that she didn’t like cooking at all. When she saw the shock on his face the woman said: “Young man, you should know I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.” (The Christian Century, January 27, 2009; I’m indebted to Lawrence Wood for this story and the notion that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was the church’s first deacon).
Isn’t it the truth? There are only so many ways a body can love Christ and Christ’s church. We hand lunches to people who haven’t bathed in days and have alcohol on their breath; we go to committee meetings where the debates can feel like we are arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; we anxiously prepare budgets and hope the pledges come in; we teach and we usher and we do our best to take what we learn here back into the rest of our lives. None of it is glorious; none of it will burn a hot spot on your brain so that every time you come near it you will feel chills down your spine; all of it is a bit messy. And it has always been just like this.
I need Isaiah 40 in my life. I need to be in love with beautiful poetry that makes my soul soar and carries me to places of spiritual rapture. Life would be dull and empty without those things. The trick for me is learning to embrace life in the mess-where sick mothers-in-law need a caring touch, and potatoes have to be peeled, and rarely do things turn out the way I think they should. For God so loved the world, especially the messy parts, so I’ll work on that, too.