Saturday, February 07, 2009

Epiphany 5 - the long day at Capernaum

One of the greatest privileges in my life is that, from time to time, I am invited to share with people an experience of great joy, or of great sorrow.  You might think it strange that I include both extremes of the human condition in the same breath.  I’m speaking, of course, of great transition points in human life, the imminent birth of a child, the joy of preparing for a baptism or a marriage – and those other overwhelming experiences, the experience no parent should ever have to endure, the losing of a child, or the waiting by the bedside of a dearly loved spouse.  As a priest, I count it as a great privilege to be invited into this most intimate human space where words are always inadequate and our wisdom is always insufficient, and I understand that I am not there to give advice, or to offer shallow formulas, but just to wait in solidarity, to bear witness to the mystery of life and the mystery of God who so often is silent to us.

And it seems to me that when these times of transition happen around us, there’s often a sense of being caught unprepared, of not being ready, not knowing quite what to do, a feeling of having been left alone to deal with an anxiety or a loss that nothing in our lives has ever prepared us for, a concern also that our expressions of care for one another might be inadequate.  A feeling of having come adrift from our moorings, the solid supports that keep our lives on an even keel.  A feeling of tiredness, of being overwhelmed. 

And in our life as a community we go through other experiences of dislocation, when the direction of our lives seems unclear, and the security we took for granted evaporates.  Governments struggle to come to grips with a global financial crisis that seems to have no real cause, and to which nobody claims to have real answers, but certainly has real consequences in the loss of retirement savings, the tidal wave of job losses that we can see heading for us.  We feel overwhelmed.

Of course we know that we will get through these things, and we are reminded of the importance of caring and praying for one another.  But maybe we are also reminded how our faith in God and our faith in one another may have become weak or habitual.  The fabric of our community of care may seem to have frayed.  Where is God for us today?  How does God help, in times when everything seems to be falling down around us?  Or even – as the people of Israel seem to be asking in the background of our reading from Isaiah - does God care?

Isaiah is writing here to a community who have survived war and captivity, a community on the edge of being released from exile but who are tired and dispirited.  After 70 years of exile Israel no longer sees God’s promises as trustworthy – against the cruel realities of international politics and being tossed around as a minor trophy between the great powers, Israel no longer has the awareness of God as being in control or even caring much about them.  God has come to seem remote and uninterested.  And against this background, in Isaiah chapter 40, God himself speaks – the prophet dares to speak in God’s own words.

It’s a message that’s more awe-inspiring than cosy, isn’t it?  God reminds the people of their difference in perspective – don’t you get just slightly the feeling that God is talking to the people as though they were schoolchildren who have forgotten something they should have learned back in grade one?  ‘Don’t you know?  Have you forgotten?’  Our best efforts to understand the ways of God or of the world around us seem pretty feeble, nothing we do is permanent, none of our achievements will last – our plans and everything we build are transient, gone in a moment from God’s perspective, we hop around like grasshoppers.  We get distracted by success, and we get distracted by grief.  God points out the stars in the sky and reminds us who created them, who holds them in place.  You might be reminded here of God’s answer to Job in his sufferings.  ‘Just remember who created you, buster – don’t expect to see things from my point of view’.  You might not be feeling a whole lot better at this point.  But does God care?

But then comes the rest of the answer.  ‘Why do you suppose that I don’t care?’, God asks – ‘because my strength is your strength, my infiniteness is what holds you up’.  That’s more or less what God says here.  All you need to do is wait on me – but the Hebrew word that our Bible translates as waiting is an interesting one because it’s an active thing, not just hanging around twiddling your thumbs.  Qawah which means ‘to wait for’ and ‘to hope in’ comes from a root word that means twisting or plaiting a strand of rope – but here it’s in the passive tense – so waiting on God means allowing God to work on us, to braid us or plait us into God’s own strength and purpose for us.  Even young athletes run out of puff – remember that poor young Olympic rower who collapsed in the middle of a race – and that’s how it is for us if we try to depend on our own strength.   But if you allow God’s strength and God’s wisdom to hold you up then you will soar like an eagle – I’m reminded of the advertisement for the so-called energy drink – ‘Red Bull gives you wings! – apparently it’s got about as much caffeine in it as ten cups of coffee, not to mention guarana, whatever that is - in contrast the image from Isaiah is not manic, but effortless, the way an eagle hangs in the air almost without moving.  It finds the thermals and just lets itself get carried.  Do nothing, just wait and trust and allow God to work on you

That’s a pretty strong and encouraging picture, isn’t it?  Turn to God, says Isaiah, and God will give you wings that will enable you to soar and ride out the storm, whatever happens, or wherever you find yourself in life. God will refresh and restore you, God will renew your strength and fill you with new energy.

But how do we do that?  Is that just spiritual jargon – ‘turn to God’?  Or is it something you can actually do?  In our gospel reading today Jesus shows us exactly how.

Our gospel reading today is part of the passage in Mark’s gospel that some commentators call ‘the long day at Capernaum’.  We actually started last week, with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, making some new enemies and healing the man possessed with a demon.  Then straight after church, off to Simon Peter’s house to heal his mother-in-law.  A quick break for lunch and hopefully an afternoon nap, because as soon as the sun sets, at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the whole village is queued up at the front door.  People to be healed, demons to be dispelled.  Everybody wants something from Jesus.  This is Jesus’ busiest day ever, and taken altogether it shows us why the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming is good news – because people are being healed and set free.  Jesus in his ministry is fulfilling the promise of Isaiah.

But I want to pick up just two points out of this jam-packed reading – and this is the first one, that Jesus heals people by touching them.  He heals by showing compassion, by holding people, taking them by the hand – and this is the ministry of healing with which Jesus also charges us, as his disciples.  God heals us by physical touch, by coming into our own community and touching us in the universal language of human care.  Nothing more glamorous than that, and that is how we also are called to heal one another.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law responds to the healing she receives by getting up and making lunch.  Simple acts of physical availability make us part of God’s own life, because that’s what the Trinitarian life of God is all about – pouring out God’s own self in the service of the Other.

But the gospel writer also wants us to notice the need for balance, because the morning after the night before Jesus wakes up feeling drained and tired.  We do know what it’s like to be worn out by grief, our own grief and the grief of other people.  Jesus must be feeling light-headed with it, and what does he do but go right back to where he started – straight back out into the desert to spend some time alone in prayer.  This tells us something fundamental about Jesus and about ourselves too.  Jesus needs to turn inwards, away from the desperation and demands of human need and back to the solitude that will bring him back into focus and reconnect him with the source of healing and compassion.  Take time out to let God plait you back into the rope of God’s own life.  Learn to be silent.  Wait on God.  Learn to listen.

There’s something else that often gets overlooked, and it’s that Jesus never did heal everyone who needed him.  There were always so many others, that’s the problem isn’t it? – if you’re in Capernaum then you’re not in Bethsaida – if you’re praying in the desert then there are people in the villages not getting attended to.  Can’t you imagine the clamour next morning when it turns out Jesus has disappeared – ‘but I brought my mum all the way from Sidon!’  Jesus is no exception to the reality that, on a human level, the needs that surround us are always too great.  Learn from Jesus that you can’t do it all.

Jesus doesn’t need to be needed.  He just needs to be in touch with God.  The point – for we who are called to be Christ to one another - is to be in touch with the source of what gives us life, stop flapping our wings and wait for the thermal currents of God’s own breath to lift us up.  Allow ourselves to be healed and we will be a source of healing and peace for those around us.