The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 7, 2021
Isaiah 40:21-21; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Today’s readings invite us to look at our lives from a wider perspective and to go from self-interest to world loyalty. Theology and spirituality are intensely ethical in nature. As Archbishop Oscar Romero asserted, spirituality is not just about hearing God in our inner life, but in the suffering of those around us, especially the poor and vulnerable. If we don’t hear the cries of the poor, we may, as the prophet Amos notes, experience a famine in hearing God’s word, despite our elaborate liturgies and well-crafted sermons. Our individual lives are part of a greater story, the universe and God’s story, adding by our decisions beauty or ugliness to our communities and implicitly to the whole.
The prophet Isaiah asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” that God is both transcendent and immanent, that the God of the universe is also the God of finite and fallible humans, that the God whose eternity dwarfs our imaginations, is also concerned about our suffering and our behaviors. God supports all things, energizes all things, and also relativizes all things. We may think ourselves the center of the universe and ourselves God’s gift to our nation. We may cling to falsehood and conspiracy theories, placing ideologies over truth and provoking violence.
God is God and Trump is not. No president is divine. No ideology reflective of divine wisdom. Presidents and corporate moguls are but grass, having their day and then perishing, before divine eternity. Their pretensions are unmasked by mortality. Their narcissism is undermined by divine providence that has the final word in relationship to every institutional structure. Those who wait for God will, in contrast, experience divine energy, grace, and power. They will have the fortitude to persist and to outlast the challenges they face. In waiting for God, they open to healing and wholeness, to new visions, and the dream of a new world.
The contrast between divine infinity and human finitude enables us to take our tasks seriously, but not too seriously. Our work is important, but not all important. What we do makes a difference! We leave our mark, are remembered by God, and shape the future, but we gain solace by being partners with the cosmic God who sustains and guides us. We can work hard, knowing that we are part of a much larger story. Much depends on our agency, but not everything. God is the beginning and end of all things; therefore, we can work hard and also rest in God’s abiding care. Patiently waiting on and trusting in God’s providence renews and restores our spirits so that we might lovingly and effectively face the large and small injustices of our world. As I read these words, I was reminded by the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
Psalm 147 connects social justice, the sustaining of the people, and the healing of the broken-hearted with God’s grandeur. Awe in God’s grandeur inspires us to bring beauty to the earth and support God’s creation. The microcosm is sustained and guided by the energy and wisdom of the macrocosm. The force that guides the heavens also insures justice and well-being in human life. God is at work in all things, healing and transforming at the human and non-human world alike. Embracing God’s energy of love energizes our lives and transforms the world.
Paul’s words in I Corinthians 9 also invite us to larger perspective. The gospel of salvation and wholeness relativizes every theological and ideological position. The grandeur of God’s good news inspires flexibility in our presentation of the gospel and our relationships with others. There are many ways to share God’s good news, and our good news sharing needs to mirror the needs of those whom we address. We need to listen for the revelation of God, coming from those we serve. We need to address human condition with the gospel message and we should also listen and mirror the experience of those to whom we preach, speaking the gospel in ways diverse persons can understand. In Paul Simon’s poetry, “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Paul can with integrity identify with Jews, Greeks, law abiding and lawless, weak, and strong, because Christ, in the spirit of John Cobb’s vision of creative transformation, is the way that excludes no authentic way. What matters is not our parochial viewpoint but God’s vision of healing and wholeness which embraces all the diversities of life.
Mark 1:29-39 describes a “day in the life” of Jesus. Jesus teaches, heals, and exorcises the demonic. Jesus is going from dusk to dawn. No healing is too large or too small for his attention. The story concludes with Jesus going to a deserted place for prayer. His time of prayer connects him with God and gives him a clear sense of mission.
Many progressive and mainline Christians polarize action and contemplation. They see the mission of the church as either political or spiritual or activist or contemplative. In contrast, throughout Mark’s Gospel, action and contemplation are interdependent. Jesus is always on the move, constantly responding to human need. Yet, Jesus regularly retreats for prayer and reflection. Moments of quiet, such as the one described in Mark 1:35-39, enable Jesus to connect with his Spiritual GPS. In the case of today’s reading, Jesus’ quiet time fortifies his sense of calling to all Israel and implicitly the world and not merely the village of Capernaum.
Wise pastors join contemplation and action, prayer and productivity, and sabbath and political involvement in their messages and counsel to their congregants.
Recognizing the grandeur and intimacy of God inspires patience with tasks undone and gives us faith that the moral arc of history aims at goodness, despite many setbacks on the way. Contemplation enables us to have a wider perspective on our lives and work, and trust divine providence despite the challenges we face in our personal and institutional lives. (For more on preaching Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly, Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B and Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.)
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS IN ACTION; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR PEACEMAKERS AND JUSTICE SEEKER; HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.