A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, February 4, 2018
Proper 5 – Year B
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of the frustrating things sometimes with how the Lectionary organizes our Gospel readings, is we get a passage like this morning, which crams together a variety of scenes, making it very easy to skate right over a small but very important little moment.
It happens in the house of Simon Peter and Andrew. They’ve been with Jesus in the Synagogue, and afterward he goes with his newly-called disciples to find some shelter and rest on the sabbath.
And when they reach their house, they discover Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick she might die. Afraid for their loved one, he and his brother Andrew turn to Jesus for help. Jesus doesn’t hesitate: he goes straight over to the dying woman, holds out his hand and he raises her up.
It is an essential moment in Mark’s Gospel, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry raising people up. Jesus raises up the paralytic whose friends dig through the roof and lower him down before Jesus in chapter 2. Jesus raises up the man with the withered hand in the Synagogue in chapter 3. Jesus raises up Jairus’ daughter in chapter 5, and he raises up the boy possessed with a demon that makes him deaf and mute in chapter 9. And then in chapter 11, Jesus begins his own journey towards being raised up.
These stories of Jesus raising people up are quite intentional in the Gospel of Mark. We are taught not only that Jesus was resurrected, but that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of resurrecting others, a ministry of bringing new life.
But this is a hard message to preach sometimes; days like today when we began our service with noting three deaths of loved ones in our congregation. How do we understand this resurrection story – the first resurrection story in Jesus’ resurrection ministry, when we have loved ones who die, who suffer, and Jesus is not actually here to help them and heal them and raise them up to enjoy life with us for a little longer?
How do we preach the message of Jesus’ resurrection ministry, and proclaim the hope this passage might bring us, if in doing so we skate over the real pain and suffering in our midst; in the world?
I think the only way to do it is to acknowledge that God’s grace and God’s glory can and does coexist with pain and suffering.
When we read the stories of the early Church, the early martyrs, we read stories of terrible hardship and fear and violence and oppression. In Paul’s letters and in Acts, we read of arrests, torture, illness, the deaths of beloved members of the community, every kind of hardship. These are stories in which people would be fully justified in losing their faith from all the suffering they were put through. Yet these stories remain for us testimonies of God’s grace and glory, icons of God’s triumph, in the teeth of suffering and struggle and pain.
The early Christians knew that hardships were not signs of God’s wrath. They knew God did not create the hardships; and they knew God couldn’t resolve all the hardships either. Rather they focused with incredible intensity on how God was with them in the midst of their struggles; how God stood in solidarity with them; how Jesus continued to encourage them, and how he continued to raise them up - even if he wasn’t physically resurrecting them; not yet, anyway.
Down through the story of Christianity, Christians have suffered and struggled. Christians have died. Being Christian doesn’t, unfortunately, save us from these realities, despite what some preachers might say. More faith does not mean less suffering. In fact, the witness of the Christian heroes and heroines down through the ages says perhaps the exact opposite.
God does not cause hardship. And God does not send us misfortunes to teach us lessons. And God does not save his miraculous powers to help only those Christians whose faith is strong “enough”.
Rather, God is with us in the midst of suffering. Jesus meets us where our suffering is deepest, and weeps with us. And still God holds out hope for a world that is different; for a world in which suffering and hardship and struggle and illness and death are destroyed, and all the world lives in peace.
In the meantime, Jesus journeys with us, holding out his hand, raising us up, little bits at a time, over and over again. Sometimes so gradually and so subtly we can’t actually notice it even happening.
I look back now at the years over which God transformed my life, and I genuinely do not know how God got me from A to B: from a deeply depressed and angry young person with violent tendencies who genuinely disliked and distrusted others, to a reasonably well-functioning adult, a priest, whose passion is found in serving and giving and making a positive difference in other people’s lives. I don’t know how he did it. And yet, God did, and it only took him 20 years. 20 years during which I could barely see the changes as they were happening. Cycle after cycle of falling and being raised again, until the raising up kinda stuck.
Doubtless I will fall again. Doubtless other struggles and hardships will press me down, as they do in each of our lives. Yet Jesus continues alongside us, hand held out in invitation, waiting for a good moment to raise us up once again.
Now, back in our old church building, I hear there was this Christmas cactus; a huge and magnificent thing, I understand. But towards the end, when the struggles were intense and the congregation was losing hope, the Christmas cactus was failing. It was encrusted with dead wood; the leaves were falling off; it had stopped blooming. And when you moved from that old building, the question was, “do we take it, or is it dead?”
Well, faithful soul that she is, one of our Wardens took it. I understand she chopped it back almost to the root, and wondered if it would survive. But one day, a new shoot grew up from the stump, and the leaves started growing out. I think it was two Christmases ago, Karen proclaimed triumphantly that a few blooms had been seen upon it. And now I hear it is a thing of glory once again, covered in blooms, enormous and vibrant and magnificently alive. A symbol, Karen says, of our church.
Well, next Saturday, is our next Healing Past Hurts event. Jesus is holding out his hand, offering to raise us up, to journey with us on our journey of healing from our past hurts; offering to restore us to one another; offering to give us new life. And it’s not just a little bit of new life Jesus is offering. It’s an outpouring, an overflowing which we will not want to keep to ourselves. We will want to rise up and serve, and share the gift God is giving us.
May we reach out and take the hand Jesus offers us. May we open our hearts, and be raised up – in our parish, in our lives, in our hearts, in our world. May we see the resurrection taking place in our midst, and may our lives be testimony to God’s glory and God’s grace, even when there is struggle and hardship and pain.
May we see and feel his presence among us, and may we share our hope with others. Through Christ, our brother, who shows us the way. Amen.