Father Nicholas Lang
The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright was fond of relaying an incident that may have seemed insignificant at the time but had a profound influence on the rest of his life. When he was nine years old, he went walking across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no- nonsense uncle. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him.
He pointed out his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as an arrow's flight, and then young Frank's tracks meandering all over the field. "Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again," his uncle said. "And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that." Years later the world-famous architect liked to tell how the experience had contributed to his philosophy in life. "I determined right then," he'd say with a twinkle in his eye, "not to miss the things in life, that my uncle had missed."
We have just heard a rather astonishing passage from the Gospel of Mark. It might be called “Jesus at work in the world.” There are three scenes in this story. In the first, Jesus leaves the synagogue at Capernaum and goes to Simon and Andrew’s home where he finds Simon’s mother-in-law ill, maybe with what we know as a stomach virus or the flu. Jesus cures her and she is recovered enough to get up and feed her guests lunch.
In the second scene, which begins at sunset—the end of the Sabbath—people from all over brought those who were sick or possessed by demons. I wonder if the delay in their coming was due more to the length of time it took for the word to get out or their fear that coming before sunset would violate Jewish law? I imagine hundreds of people flocking to Jesus to get relief from whatever it was that ailed them. And that expenditure of his healing energy brings us to thee third scene early the next morning when Jesus went out to a deserted place to pray and regain his strength. Simon and the others went out after him to warn him that everyone was searching for him, no doubt for more healing.
Gathering to listen to the Gospel can be like the walk Frank Lloyd Wright took with his uncle. It’s possible to miss things that can be life changing. Think about it: we are twenty-first century people who live in the most enlightened and progressive times. We have more knowledge about so many things than our grandparents did. We are conditioned to believe what we can explain logically and understand with our reason. Common sense would say that what Mark describes in this passage is little more than good fiction.
We’re sophisticated, modern people. We don’t think of illness as something related to demons. We typically look for cures to our ailments within our human resourcefulness, especially in medicine. Really speaking, for all of our intelligence and capability, we live in a world where there can be no such thing as miracle because, to allow that something could be a miracle, would be to upset the orderly arrangement of our existence. Our society is conditioned to look askance and with suspicion at fundamentally inexplicable events.
The earliest communicators of the Gospels did not to begin with the many teachings that Jesus gave about the Kingdom of God or wealth and treasure. They did not start out by writing down his lessons about prayer or radical social reform. They did not portray him first as a storyteller but as a healer. Half of the first ten chapters of Mark’s Gospel depict Jesus as the one who will heal us and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God will make people whole. What we have read and heard this morning is the result of the generations of people who wanted to know what Jesus did, how he healed, what he said, what he was like. So relying on the memory of those who witnessed it, Mark relates for us a day in the life of Jesus—Jesus at work in the world.
If it does nothing else for us, this Gospel should challenge our thinking and the way we have learned to make sense of the world. The structure of life is such that it tries to convince us that our efforts are the only efforts that matter or that produce results and that, even if only in some small way, we are able to control what happens around us. But what if Jesus—the Jesus we meet in this Gospel today—is still at work in the world doing what he did that day in Capernaum? What if he can intrude into our space with a power that is unlike anything we have ever witnessed?
Jesus offered the people of his time the opportunity for wholeness and completeness. He wanted them to know that their sickness and their demons did not have to control their destiny, that God had entered the world to heal it through the work of God’s own Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Today he asks us to put aside our reservations about the reality of this Gospel story, to admit that there are limitations to our knowledge, that unfathomable and mysterious things still happen. Like the crowds that flocked to him in Capernaum that day, are we not all searching for him and what he represents in our world today?
What we miss or get from the Gospel is the difference between the way that Frank Lloyd Wright chose to walk, and the path taken by his uncle. There is no way to argue someone into one alternative or the other. In the end, you and I have to make a choice about what we make of this. Healing. Miracles. Release from our demons. Absolutely inexplicable events.
Is it all fiction? The stuff of Fairy Tales? Or the intrusion of the Holy One of God into our very sophisticated, modern world?