February 5, 2012
Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2012
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1st Corinthians 9:16-23
“How good it is to sing praises to God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise!” [Psalm 147, verse 1].
So says the person who composed the psalm we recited/sang this morning. But honestly, sometimes I don’t feel like singing songs of praise. Sometimes I wonder if God hears us, and if God even cares about what’s happening all around the world right now. According to Mark Jesus healed people – lots of people. Well, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on my knees begging God to help members of my family, friends; whole countries of people who are going through very hard times. I know my judgment’s flawed but I don’t believe all of these people deserve the painful things that overtake them. And the lack of response from Heaven leaves me wondering what - if anything - God is doing to help us?
We’re told that God loves and cares for us, but that’s hard to believe when we get no response to our earnest supplications. In fact some people seemed singled out for suffering and tragedy – the Lakota, the people of Haiti. Life isn’t fair! And Heaven doesn’t appear to be running any rescue missions these days.
I remember a bright-eyed, red-haired, freckle faced, little girl named Vicky – “Ticky Runner” she called herself when she was very young. Both of her biological parents were afflicted with the disease of addiction. So she was adopted by a couple who weren’t able to have children of their own. No one realized that her adoptive mother also had the disease; that would become evident later. It would also become clear that Vicky had the disease as well.
Everything was fine, for a while. But addiction is a very cruel disease; it is incurable, selfish, deceptive, and relentless. If left untreated it will devour the soul of its host, and wreak havoc on everyone who lives, works, or associates with the addict. Vicky was one of its victims. Her adoptive mother became abusive – physically and verbally. Vicky was constantly getting into trouble. She was expelled from three high schools, married a young man who beat her up, took her money, and was never seen again – all while she was still in her teens. And she walked with a limp for the rest of her life.
She had a series of menial jobs, none lasting very long because she was so unreliable. She earned enough to buy what she craved and was eating her alive. She eventually married again, and had three children. Her second husband hung in for a long time, but he realized their children weren’t safe, so eventually he divorced her and took the children away.
Her adoptive father put her in a treatment center, twice; both times she checked out. She stayed in a Salvation Army shelter occasionally, but she was homeless. I think at least sometimes Vicky wanted help but she didn’t know where to find it.
She drifted into a Church one Sunday, desperate I think, and hoping God would grant her one of those miracles Mark said Jesus handed out quite generously: not this time, and not in that Church! The preacher noticed her and singled her out; she was the only woman wearing make-up. He made her stand in front of the congregation, while he berated her, calling her a Jezebel, a painted harlot; a hussy. God knows she already believed the worst of herself; the last thing she needed was a self-righteous, mean-spirited, holy man telling her she was no good.
Every time she turned around she got knocked down. She never had a chance.
It wasn’t long after that ugly Sunday morning that she was found dead on the side of the road. She was forty-four years old.
Ironically, it wasn’t her addiction that killed her – not directly. A seventeen year old boy guzzled a six-pack of beer, got into his car, and went for a joyride. When the case finally came to court he swore he never even saw her.
The Medical Examiner said the boy was driving so fast Vicky never knew what hit her; she died instantly. It was the only bit of mercy in a very tragic life.
Her second husband and three children refused to attend the funeral. Her cremated remains were buried in the cemetery of a small Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina.
Where was God for Vicky?
In the portion of Mark’s Gospel we have this morning Jesus is in Capernaum. After worshipping in the synagogue, where he probably also taught and preached, he walked a very short distance to the house where Peter lived with his mother. Hearing that Peter’s mother is sick, Jesus healed her. It was a very nice thing to do of course. But there are some discomforting elements in what follows. Mark wrote “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Of course women all around the world – sick or not – have babies, do laundry, make meals, and serve men. It would’ve been nice if one of those men gave her a break and brought her a good hot meal to enjoy while she recovered from a fever. Jesus did turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana. He fed thousands of people, miraculously multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish. He preached about compassion and sharing one another’s burdens. Providing a meal of wine, fresh bread, and baked fish for Peter’s mother was well within his ability, and it would have been a nice thing to do for a women who has been sick and has served others almost all her life..
Word spread that Jesus was a healer so at sundown every sick and possessed person for miles around starting lining up at the door. Mark recorded the event “He cured many who were sick . . . and cast out many demons.” Note: Mark used the word “many”; he did not use the word “all.” And for good reason.
The next morning – before anyone in the house or the town was awake – “Jesus got up and went to a deserted place” . . . meaning, he went to a place where the crowds of sick and wounded miracle-seekers could not find him.
How many people had he helped the night before? How many sad stories had he heard? And how genuinely grateful were any of the individuals who walked away with no pain, no deformity, no disease? Of course he needed to take a break, get away; reconnect with God. We understand. He suffered all the limits of our humanity. The world would drain him dry; use him up, if he let it.
But the truth is, there was no place to hide. His new friends found him and let him know exactly what they thought of his dereliction of duty. They protest “[What are you doing out here by yourself?] Everyone is searching for you.”
More sick, wounded, and hurting people were lined up again that morning; and his friends clearly thought he should get back to Capernaum as fast as he could, and start healing folks again. They could not see a more urgent mission than that. And when we hurt, or when someone we love hurts, neither can we.
But, erasing our pain is not what Jesus came to do.
His response must have rocked them to the core, “I’m on my way to other towns” he stated flatly, “to proclaim the Good News, because that is what I came to do.”
Mark ends this periscope with the assurance that Jesus continued to heal and deliver people on his journey about Galilee. But the Gospel is clear: he didn’t heal everyone, or fix everything – that wasn’t his mission.
He came to preach and teach the love of God, to die on the cross to prove God’s love, and rise again to open the doors of God’s Kingdom. Jesus came – not to make us feel better – but to save us.
There’s a great deal more to the love of God than curing our ills and fixing our problems. From our very limited perspective Vicky’s sad life and untimely death seem tragic; it causes us to question God’s love, God’s very existence. But the prophet Isaiah reminds us that “The Lord is an everlasting God.” God sees everything from an eternal perspective. God operates in the realm of forever, in the Kingdom of unlimited time and unlimited possibilities. So, Isaiah proclaimed “Those who wait for the Lord – those who trust, who choose to believe - shall find their strength renewed, they shall sprout wings and fly like an eagle, they shall run and never be tired; they will walk with the saints and angels in paradise, and never again feel weary.”
No matter how much we or people we care about hurt today, no matter how long the hurt lasts, the Gospel reminds us that there are endless, blissful tomorrows in the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, the worst tragedies, the most severe wounds are completely and eternally healed. And our hearts will overflow with joy!
“It is good to sing praises to God! It is good to honor God with praise!”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cry out to God for help. It doesn’t mean we dismiss or discount the suffering we all have to endure in this life. Indeed, it means we can offer comfort, we can offer hope, we can offer refuge and compassion.
If only Vicky had walked into a Church like St. Timothy’s! If only she’d heard and experienced the love of God that is so evident and powerful here!
I invite you to go into the parish hall this morning; displays and information about the ministries of this Church are all around the room. Talk to other members of St. Timothy’s, learn about our ministries, be an agent of love and grace, for all of the hurting people in the world and in this community; for everyone who walks in the door.
It is good that you and I are here. It is good for us to invite other people to be here with us. Together we discover and share the love of God who is everlasting.