Sunday, February 5, 2012

"It Makes a Difference To That One."

The idea that "there is no 'them'" comes from my friend Jimmy Spencer Jr., whose book, "Love Without Agenda" is a must-read. Seriously.
I think far too many people treat Christianity as a cause to be defended, rather than what it is: a kingdom to be inhabited, a restoration of community with the Creator, unconditional and abundant grace and love to be lavished about in a scandalously extravagant manner.

I've said it before, and I will say it again. God loves everyone. Jesus died for everyone. Jesus rose for everyone.

For crying out loud, let's start acting like it.

Isaiah 40:21-31
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
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.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I almost get the feeling sometimes, when reading the book of Mark, that Jesus and the apostles were running everywhere they went. Mark uses words and phrases like “immediately,” “just then,” “straightaway,” “as soon as.” The intensity and speed might just make us rush along in reading, and that would be a mistake. Because even though Mark seems to be sprinting through the ministry of Christ, there is a lot to look at as he flies by.

Our Gospel reading picks up where we left off last Sunday; Jesus has spoken in the synagogue at Capernaum, and has cast out – more like evicted – a demon from a possessed man. He leaves the synagogue with his disciples and goes to the home where Simon and Andrew live.

There is some credible evidence that we know exactly where this synagogue and house were. Archaeologists have excavated the site of the synagogue at Capernaum, and in its shadow is a place that, since at least the second century, Christians have believed the home of Simon and Andrew to be.

In that day and age, the idea of a single-family home would have been as foreign as a radio broadcast. The houses were generally quite large, with one entrance, rooms surrounding a large open courtyard where the cooking was done. Sometimes these homes had a second story, very often there were stairs to the roof, where one could catch a cool breeze in the evening. Simon and Andrew’s whole family would have shared the structure, and the fact that Simon’s mother-in-law lived there as well would not have been much of a surprise.

In fact, we can infer that Simon’s mother-in-law acted as the matriarch of the home, taking care of the day-to-day comings and goings, purchases and cooking, and all the thousand details that would have gone into keeping a house that size running. She would have been well-known to everyone in the community from the marketplace, the common well, and neighborly conversation. And it needs to be noted that it would have been not just expected, but a great honor, for her to provide hospitality to visitors.

But this day, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. I wonder if the phrase from our reading, “…they told him about her at once” came out more like, “Um, Jesus, dreadfully sorry supper isn’t ready, but, y’see, the mother-in-law, well, she’s terribly ill right now, and none of the rest of us know how to boil water. Want some bread?”

But in reality it wasn’t that simple. A fever in those days, before the development of aspirin and antibiotics and such, could have been deadly. So of course Jesus does what we expect him to do – after all, we’ve read the Gospels, we’ve heard the stories, we know what Jesus did to people who were sick, right? “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Now, I do not at all think it is a coincidence that the Greek word used where we read “and lifted her up” is the same word used for resurrection. And lest we think that Jesus simply went into her room and healed her so he could get a sandwich, there’s another important Greek word in action here for “she began to serve them.” Diakonos, which our word “deacon” comes from, is the same word Jesus uses in speaking of himself, in the tenth chapter of Mark when he says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

As miraculous as the healing is, as astounding as the earlier exorcism may be, there are even greater things at work here, you see. These are merely elements of the greater message that Jesus is proclaiming.

As far as Mark is concerned, the synagogue which Jesus spoke in earlier that day was the first one of any importance that Jesus visited. But from Luke’s Gospel, we know that this is the second such visit. Because before he came to Capernaum, he was in Nazareth, where he took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read from it these words: “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

This is where, after he read the passage and sat down to teach, he said “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – and he like to have gotten killed.

I want to suggest that, even though Mark makes no mention of the Nazareth event, the things that Jesus does in Capernaum are making the same bold statement. Jesus has proclaimed the year of Jubilee!

The year of Jubilee is first mentioned in the 25th chapter of the book of Leviticus. The children of Israel, until recently a nation of slaves to the Egyptian people, were entering into a land promised to them by God – filled with houses they had not built, orchards they had not tended, fields they had not planted, riches they had not earned. All they were about to receive was a gift from God, and it was imperative to the spiritual health and the integrity off that community that they never, ever forgot that fact.

So every fiftieth year, a ram’s horn would blow, and in that year, every plot of land that had been sold was to be returned to the original owner. Any persons who had sold themselves into slavery were freed. Any money owed was forgiven. The slate was wiped clean. Sure, fifty years is a long time, and yes, adjustments in how much land or loans cost would be made based upon how close to that fiftieth year you were, but in the end, on that fiftieth year, when the ram’s horn blew, everything reset at zero. The poor were restored to wholeness, and the rich had just enough.

That was how it was supposed to have worked, anyway. In practice, most scholars think that this “Year of Jubilee” happened rarely, if ever. There were judges who could be bribed, and priests who could be paid to forget what year it was.

And the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.

But Jesus came to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God – freedom for the captives, sight for the blind, restoration and healing and life! And while in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus talks about his mission in the synagogue of Nazareth, in Mark’s Gospel, here in Capernaum, we see what the Jubilee year in the Kingdom of God really looks like.

In an instant, with a few words, a demon-possessed man is set free from his oppression, and restored to his place in the synagogue and the community. In an instant, with a touch, a feverish woman is set free from illness and restored to her place in the household and the community.

It’s no wonder that, as soon as the sun set and the Sabbath was completed, the entryway to Simon and Andrew’s home was clogged with people bringing others who were oppressed, others who were sick or enslaved by the demonic – men and women and children who needed release, healing, restoration.

And Jesus did what Jesus does – he proclaimed release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and set free those who were oppressed…

And when he moved on the next day, it was so he could preach the Gospel in all those poor little villages and neighboring towns.

And, you know, the whole blowing-the-ram’s-horn thing to signal the year of Jubilee, it seems like that would be a loud proclamation, something that got attention, a sound like no other. Funny, isn’t it, that there’s no horns blowing in Capernaum. Jesus simply told the demon to shut up and get out in the synagogue, and he didn’t say anything at all to Simon’s mother-in-law. He didn’t go looking for things to do, he simply did what needed to be done in the moment at hand.

But as simply and as quietly as Jesus did what needed doing, people took notice. People responded. People recognized, in Jesus, hope for those who had been decimated by illness, tormented by evil, tortured by madness, removed from their rightful place in society. And through that recognition they saw and experienced the now-and-coming Kingdom of God.

Most simply put, in being for the proclamation of the Gospel, in being for the Kingdom of God, Jesus became known as someone who was for people, and that is a lesson for Christians today.

You may have noticed that, by and large, people outside the faith identify Christians more and more by the things we are supposed to be against. We have allowed TV preachers and opportunistic politicians of all stripes to define the faith as a system by which we identify what is wrong with everyone else. All too often, the Bible is used as a hammer – and everyone and everything is a nail. People hear about an Alabama legislator (who I will not name, because I don’t want to give him the publicity) saying that the Bible opposes teacher pay raises – but is all for legislative pay raises! – and they think every Christian is like him. People see Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afganistan, and think every Christian is like that.

Christianity has become, in many people’s eyes, both inside of and outside of the church, a clique, a social class, another case of “us” versus “them.”

But as far as the Gospel is concerned – and I mean the real Gospel, the one we find in the Scriptures, not the gospel that the TV preachers and the politicians and the pundits would have you believe – there is no “us” and “them.”

Hear the Word of God from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, verse 6: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

Without Jesus Christ, no one is “us.” Everyone – everyone – is “them.” We are all alike, left to our own devices. Self-centered, self-destructive, self-absorbed. Our god is the reflection in the mirror. And God knows that, and God loves us anyway, so much that Jesus Christ came and died and rose again to bring us back to God.

And that is how we should be known – not for being against and anti and opposed, but for being like Jesus, for people. All people. Everywhere. Like Jesus – not doing the big things or the flashy thing or the attention-getting things, but doing what is needed right now, in the moment, for someone who is hurting or oppressed or afflicted or forgotten. Declare the year of Jubilee, even if it’s one person at a time.

There’s a story that’s told about a man who is walking along a beach. The tide had gone out, and had stranded hundreds of starfish. He comes upon a boy who is picking the starfish up, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. He watches awhile, and says, “This seems like kind of a futile effort, son. There’s too many to save all of them. You could take all day, and it won’t make a difference.” The boy never misses a beat. He picks up another starfish, sends it spinning into the surf, and says, “It makes a difference to that one.”

Share that pot of coffee with a grieving person. Take that phone call from the depressed acquaintance. Buy that meal for the hungry homeless person. Give that dollar to the panhandler. Reply to that email, respond to that wall posting on FaceBook, return that text message. Declare the year of Jubilee, even if it’s one person at a time.

I know there’s not enough time in the day to respond to every request for donations, to participate in every worthy cause. Mother Teresa said that if you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one!

Believe me, it makes a difference to that one.

1 comment:

  1. Yet again, you speak truth into my heart. Thank you, brother, for reminding me why I do this. I needed a re-grounding in Christ. Thanks!