Reading: Mark 1:29-39
Miracles. While I don`t want this sermon to be about miracles, or the lack of them, because I think the reading from Mark today says so much more to us about Jesus than a mere miracle worker, I feel that I might start with that.
Because I have heard and seen lots of miracles this week, but maybe not the ones that you immediately think of.
Like the people in Bangladesh who are helping the Rohingya population who have fled Myanmar, people from a poor country themselves, now having to support over a million refugees who have suddenly appeared in their country. And while that is a challenge, there are those in the community, so worried about the children that they have given some of their land away so that they can have a place for a school and meeting area. Land they themselves really need.
Like the people who were nominated as Australian of the year, the WA candidate, Tracy Westerman, who is determined to improve the mental health of indigenous Australians by offering her expertise in clinical psychology and research and her passion for justice. Or the winners, Professor Michelle Simmons, a leader in science in the crazy world of quantum computing, and for women in science, or the young man who took out the local hero award, Eddie Woo, a teacher, who could do anything but has chosen to be the best teacher he can be, to help our young people.
What about closer to home, those that support the Boab network in walking with and beside both the kids and adults from the Mowanjum aboriginal community in Derby. What about Gail who chose to go and teach in the community, even though she is supposed to be retired and has a beautiful house in Karridale, where she could be spending her time growing vegies.
Or those that live simply so others can live, or fight for the environment because we know the people who will suffer the most from climate change are the poor.
Or people who speak up and fight for the rights of refugees, who strive for reconciliation with all members of our society, those with money and power and those without, those black and those white, those gay and those straight, those employed and those unemployable. We have many people like that in our congregation who even in their post retired years are still working against injustice and for peace.
What about Nazar Hussein, who is with us today. After being in detention for 2.5 years, he is sitting here in our congregation, a free man, well supported by people in Melbourne. Isn`t that a miracle!
I was listening to an interview with Brian Cox, the other day, the famous physicist and cosmologist who has made the universe accessible to us all. A miracle in itself, with its trillions of stars in billions of galaxies. But he said something that made me stop and think, although a lot of what he says makes me stop and think. He said the enormity of the universe can make us feel we are just a mere speck in the process, a meaningless speck. Yet the idea that humans, yes us, can contemplate ourselves, can observe these stars and planets, is conceivably quite rare in the universe. We may be the only species that can consciously view ourselves and the world around us. So rather than a meaningless speck, we are an amazing product of the creation of life. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, if you want to put it different way. We are a miracle ourselves.
So when we think of miracles, it is enough to see the human miracles, love, forgiveness, compassion, the things that can transform people and situations, can turn them around, can give new life. When we look at Jesus we are to see the human Jesus, the Jesus who like us is a revelation of the creative spirit present since the beginning of time, rather than a miracle worker, who can change the laws of nature at a whim. Even though that would be great, it is wishful thinking rather that a faithful response to the Jesus call to follow him.
So I want you to hold that thought while we turn to Mark`s gospel. Because while miracles appear in the gospel, it is not the miracle which is the main message.
Mark`s gospel was written at a time of great upheaval for the Jewish people, during the mid 60s CE. During that time Roman was the centre of power. By the year 60 Rome had 2 million people, 30 to 40,000 of whom were Jews. While only a small minority they seemed to attract the ire of Rome, being evicted in 139 BCE and again in 19 and 49CE.
In the year 41, Emperor Claudius came to power. He immediately restricted the Jews by prohibiting the use of public spaces for worship, which shut down the synagogues. They used private homes, but in 49 after some disturbances Claudius responded by decreeing the expulsion of all Jews from Rome. This included both traditional Jews and Jews who believed in the Christ.
After Claudius died and Nero became emperor in the year 54, the Jews returned. Paul and Peter both lived in Rome during this time of Mark`s gospel but had different ideas about what the Christian Church should look like. But that`s for another day.
On July 19, in the year 64, an immense fire erupted in Rome. It blazed for over seven days and ruined the city. While Nero was initially blamed he quickly turned the blame on the Jews, whose quarter was largely untouched. A small group of Jews who were Christ followers, went to Nero and confessed to starting the fire as a way of saving the rest of the Jews from certain persecution.
Immediately Nero called for the traditional Jews to collaborate in identifying the Christ followers. They did and what followed was a genocide. Roman soldiers would knock on the door, demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone in the house. Executions and seizure of property followed using within the circus maximus, by terrible means. If the head of the household denied being a follower, he would have to name another, or else they would still be killed.
In the end the Roman Jewish Christ followers were totally destroyed, including Peter and Paul. Peter did flee, but it is believed he returned, not because the Romans stopped him from leaving, but because he had a vision of Christ, who asked where was he going! Chastened, his faith and conscience were reawakened and he returned to Rome. He was immediately arrested and executed.
This reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor, who was also an underground organiser during WW2. He initially fled to America in 1939 to escape the war but soon realised that he had to return to Germany. He asked himself how he could minister to Christians after the war if he was not with them during it. So he returned on the very last ship to cross the Atlantic. He was arrested and killed for treason just 2 weeks before the allies freed the Frossenburg concentration camp he was in.
Takes your breath away doesn`t it! Such faith and commitment.
But back to Mark`s time.
As Alexander Shaia puts it, and I thank him for the historical summary in his book `Hearts and Minds`, what could be worse for the believers in Jesus as the messiah? They identified themselves as faithful Jews. Their community had totally betrayed and abandoned them; their families, their children, their elders had been gruesomely murdered. We can only imagine the overwhelming extent of their isolation and pain, and undoubtedly there were times when the promise of the Christ, the prophesied messiah, seemed hollow and empty. Terror, shame, abandonment and death are the context of the gospel of Mark.
So while the gospel of Mark is the earliest, it is short and without the flowery language of the others because of the setting in which it is written. But while it depicts wilderness, deserts, and a difficult and at times horrendous journey, Mark never leaves us without hope. For the Jesus written in Mark never leaves but travels with the disciples and his followers throughout the story. Not as a magic worker but as an ongoing living presence. While the gospel of Mark does not have much joy, it does have a continuing and resounding message of strength and faith. The God of Jesus is always with us. We are human and God is with us every step of the way.
So with all that in mind let us now return to the actual gospel reading for today. I know we are getting smaller and smaller in our focus yet larger in our understanding or a confirmation of something we already know. Life is a journey, being human is not easy, but God is ever present, to give strength and love for us to continue to be strength and love to others. Sounds like the Isaiah reading written a fair number of years before Mark.
So the reading has four parts –
The healing of Simon Peter`s mother-in-law
The healing of many people who lived in Capernaum
A brief solitary prayer
And the transition to Jesus public ministry in other towns of Galilee.
(Rex Hunt, `Against the Stream, 2012`)
From these four movements or life experiences, Mark is creating a story of a person, the historical Jesus, the Jesus who is constantly on the move, inviting others along to a new way of living, a new life.
Forget what you think of the healing in the story, for that is not the point. In Mark`s day, healing and healers were everywhere, and there was an obsession about exorcisms, so much so that ceremonies were held to celebrate the act. The point here is that Jesus is present, amongst the people, caring, loving, in a small house, with no fanfare, no celebration. He is there relating with an intimate group and his help seems rather low key. Jesus then continues the caring and loving and healing with others around Capernaum and further afield which gets slightly crazier as people hear about him.
As I have said previously, this is not a supernatural hero who jumps in, rescues everyone, and then leaves, without expecting anything from those that follow. In the story he doesn`t touch everyone, just those that happen to be around. This is a human Jesus, travelling the dusty roads, dealing with the crowds. We hear in the reading that at the end of the day he is worn out, and perhaps because of that he sneaks away, and the next morning does some meditation or prayer to energise himself. Jesus is seen showing some of the limitations and weaknesses we all face. Which I find very comforting!
I would like to think Jesus here is human, just as we are human, and the journey is one of life here and now with the God that is being revealed. Jesus is not a different substance to us, just a different degree.
As Walter Wink writes, this has profound implications for all faithful followers –
`We are freed to go on a journey that Jesus charted, rather than worship the journey of Jesus. We can take Jesus out of the ghetto of the churches and offer him to anyone looking for a guide to true humanity.` As Tom said last week, Jesus was human so we can become more human.
Going on a journey ourselves rather than worshipping the journey. Taking Jesus out of the ghetto of the churches. Harsh, but maybe with a bit of truth added in.
Following Jesus rather than worshipping Jesus.
We are signing up for a journey not a magic show. And I know you know that, even though sometimes we hope otherwise!
As Wink says again . . .
`Jesus was not God in a man suit, his every step predetermined from all eternity but a human being seeking the will of God in the everyday decisions that shape life and living.`
We could do no better, as Rex hunt says, than to continue to share in that same journey and in that same discernment, in our own time and place. Now.
We would then see that that the spirit moves in the most amazing places, and that love and life are the most amazing miracles. We are not alone and never have been, but we are neither allowed to sit on our laurels and dream or pray for a better life, almost wishing things would be different without doing anything. Prayer is about discerning the spirit, communing with that spirit, and then acting with that spirit to transform life. We are to live it into being . . .
So we may not be able to cure cancer, or walk on water or still a storm but we can offer friendship and support and love and compassion. We must help where we can, when we can. For this is the pathway we choose when we choose to follow the God revealed in Jesus.
Let me end with a story, a Rabbi story (from Bill Peddie) as it turns out.
The Rabbi was asked by his disciple, `When should I make a decision to follow God?`
The Rabbi thought for a moment. `Exactly one moment before you die.`
`Hold on master,` protested his disciple. `How could I possibly know when I am going to die?`
`Exactly,` said the Rabbi. `Do it now while you still have time.`
Let us not wait for a miracle - let`s be the miracle ourselves.