We’ve all had those days or those weeks where nothing seems to go right. All the things that we had planned just did not pan out. Sometimes there were things we could have done better, mistakes that we made; sometimes the day just began to unravel, and we were powerless to stop it. It’s that feeling of watching an accident happen in slow motion. When we have days or weeks like this we often feel like we’ve unraveled, like we have begun to disintegrate into little pieces. When we feel this way it is very hard to make wise decisions, act with kindness, show love and respect towards others – including ourselves. And when we have a string of weeks, or months, or even years like this we can forget who we are; we lose ourselves, as fragments of what we value, or who we know ourselves to be, seem to skitter away beyond our grasp.
Now, I don’t want to be too depressing here, but no one is immune from having events in life take pieces out of them, whether that is a momentary experience or a more long-term prospect. This isn’t just an emotional or a psychological issue that we can re-frame with an attitude adjustment. The disintegration of our identity is a spiritual problem. We get battered by life, and sometimes we forget who we are, whose we are, and what our purpose is.
The Gospel passage today gives us some examples of losing identity (or heading in that direction), and then being restored. The first part of the passage presents Peter’s mother-in-law. We don’t know her name, or anything about her, other than she was sick in bed with a fever. And of course in the days before penicillin and other antibiotics a fever could be very serious, even life-threatening. Jesus arrives at Peter and Andrew’s house, along with James and John, having just been at the synagogue where Jesus taught publicly for the first time, and had a run-in with a man who was possessed by a demon. Right away members of the household tell Jesus about Peter’s mother-in-law, and he goes to her, and heals her. And she, in turn, serves them; not because she was grateful (although I’m sure she was), but because it was a sign of her being restored to herself, and her role in the household. She was offering hospitality to guests - a very serious and important business in the ancient Middle East – and her ability to do so was part of her identity and dignity.
Word of this got out pretty quickly, along with the news that Jesus had also healed the possessed man in the synagogue that morning, and by evening when everyone’s work day was finished the neighbors and the townsfolk brought to Peter’s door a huge swath of their family and friends who needed some kind of healing. And Jesus healed them. He restored them to health, well-being, in some cases to their rightful minds, enabling these people to return to their places in the families, their work, their community life.
Then Mark tells us that the next morning, very early, Jesus got up and went off by himself to pray. We don’t know exactly what he prayed, although there are set, specific morning prayers in Judaism. They include thanksgiving for the new day, psalms of praise, the canticle that the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea and being freed from slavery in Egypt, as well as a recitation of the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. No doubt Jesus prayed these every morning; and added to that was his own prayer and meditation, a connection with God that was necessary for him to maintain strength, clarity, peace, composure – restored to a fullness of his identity and mission. It would be too easy, after the kind of day that Jesus had, where everyone wanted a piece of him, to feel pulled apart, unsure, lulled into a sense of being so needed there in that place that he might be tempted to stay put, and not press ahead with what he knew to be the purpose ahead of him. Jesus goes off to pray so that he does not lose himself and his purpose.
That is so easy to do – to lose our self, and our purpose, and our connection to God – as I outlined just a bit earlier. And so much of the world around us send us messages that what defines us is what we wear, or what we buy, or how many hours we over-work, or whether we have the right hair, or body shape, or whether our child has a winning season on his or her sports team or what college he or she gets into. In short, we let the world define us by measures that are external to us, that don’t take into account character, faithfulness, fidelity, love, kindness, or mercy. Two weeks ago when Bishop Beckwith was here he mentioned how often we Christians fall into “functional atheism” – going through life saying we believe in God, but then acting on our own, without relying on God’s power and wisdom.
To depend on God is risky, and counter-cultural. If we depend on God then we have to acknowledge that we are not in charge, that our lives belong to someone else, and that Someone has a purpose for us that may not always match up with the plans we have made. To depend on God is counter-cultural because it says that we are not complete and perfect within ourselves, that we are not free agents, invincible. And yet the paradox of faith says that when we depend on the mercy and love and grace and wisdom of God, then we will know ourselves most fully, we will discover depths of our identity that we could not know otherwise. Faith lets us know that our identity and value are God-given, rather than something our culture assigns us, or something we have to struggle to achieve ourselves.
One of the clearest signs of our dependence, and most important resources in life, is prayer. Prayer is a way of collecting up all the fragments of our self, and putting them in God’s hands. Prayer is both the words we say and sitting or standing or walking or running deeply in God’s presence – allowing ourselves to “be” before God without any need to justify or explain ourselves. Another way to think about the kind of prayer that helps to integrate body and soul is to think of it like sunbathing – a very welcome prospect in the middle of winter! When we sunbathe we stretch out and lie in the sun, enjoying the warmth on our bodies, the feeling of being completely relaxed and at peace. Prayer can be like that, letting God’s love and mercy and wisdom and peace wash over us -- S-o-n bathing. And we emerge from this sort of prayer feeling renewed, restored, more whole than when we started. We remember that who we are – beloved children of God, followers of Jesus, members of the Body of Christ. And we remember that we belong to God, we were bought with a price; and that our purpose is to love and serve the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
In your prayer during this coming week, may you know the power and the strength of God’s presence and connection, as Isaiah described so beautifully: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 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. ~ Isaiah 40:28-31. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 8, 2015