Asbury First United
Text: Mark 1:29-39
Jesus meets us today in the wee hours, before breakfast. Before dawn, in fact. He has healed. He will preach. Just now, however, he wakes in the dark. Sleepless in Syria. You know that moment, long before the birds begin to sing. You stir, then you rise. You pad your way to the kitchen. You tune the radio for some company. There is the teapot. It is time for a morning prayer. Jesus meets us today in a morning prayer. By grace, four clues to healing prayer lie before us, in the four most intriguing words of our passage: lonely, Galilee, forbade, came out. Like a harmonic quartet, these moments in Scripture may heal and save us yet.
Lonely is the place of Jesus’ prayer, such an interesting adjective. For one thing, we may assert, prayer means quiet. It means being quiet. Prayer may simply be a certain sitting silent before God. Pascal said that our problems arise from our inability to sit quietly in our room. You may sit. Or walk. Or read. Or write. In the stark simplicity of the cruciform gospel, our passage says only that he went to a lonely place, and prayed. We could do worse than to set aside a few minutes every morning to be quiet. Is that not what Sunday worship is meant to model? By the still waters…
You need a quiet space to lift the prayers, real prayers, that come with real life. How could she betray me like that? How could she? Who does she think she is? How could I have been so foolish? How could I? What is wrong with me? How could we have made such a blunder? How could we? How will I ever get out of this? How will I?
What did Jesus pray? And how? And for how long? Was his prayer attendant upon his healings? Or caught up only with his pending decision to itinerate? Where was this that he went? What did he wear? Did he kneel? Is this history or theology in Mark 1?
There is a strong argument to be made that we really know very little about Jesus, including about how he prayed in Capernaum. James Sanders gave us a list of 8 things we could know about Jesus, one of which was that he died on a cross, and the others of which were not much more startling. Norman Perrin wrote recently, “This material had a long history of transmission, use and interpretation in the early Christian communities, and when it reached the hand of Mark any element of historical reminiscence had long been lost….The Gospel of Mark is narrative proclamation.” Yet this scholarly sobriety hardly slakes our curious spiritual thirst.
We want to know about Jesus, as much as we can! When you love someone, you want to know them, root and branch, hook, line and sinker. Every Christian at every time has known this desire.
My father at six asked his aunt, hounded his aunt, assaulted his aunt with multiple forms of the question, “where was I before I was born?” To which, after nine inquiries, and shaping a pie crust, she pointed her rolling pin and offered, “Down in Canada, boiling soap.” Sometimes our desire to know outdistances our ability to know.
Regarding the matter of prayer, though, one may suppose, surmise, and speculate a little. That is, there is a pervasive pattern in the Gospels that pictures Jesus in prayer. The church had no marketing motive to remembering him as he is here, sleepless in Syria, awake, brooding, troubled, wrestling with a demon of a decision. Nor had the church any similar motive to recall his bitter garden lament, “Take this cup from me”. Nor his admission of powerlessness, “this kind is driven out only by prayer and fasting”. Nor, especially, his shriek in agony, “My God, why have you forgotten me!” Dr Sanders notwithstanding, it would seem fair to see Jesus in prayer, in quiet, in the wee hours. Even the most cautious among us could affirm this. Listen to this sweet voice from the back roads and rivers of memory: Jesus prayed in silence. You can too. It will do you more good than you ever can predict. Be quiet. Take along some measure of the temperament in Howard Thurman:
"How good it is to center down!
To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic
What is the end of our doings?
Where are we trying to go?
Our spirits are refreshed and we move back into
The traffic of our daily round
With the peace of the eternal in our step.
How good it is to center down!"
Will your morning prayer be quiet?
Galilee is the destination Jesus discerns in prayer--such an intriguing region. Our reading today, and the many passages like it in the Bible, were formed, formed in the life of the early church. Therein lies their greatest power. As our liturgical emphasis this past decade, noted on January 15, has been incarnation, and our homiletical emphasis, noted on January 29, has been transformation, our exegetical emphasis, noted today February 5, has been church formation. Form. These sentences are formed in the life of the church. They speak from faith to faith, from pew to pew. This stylized memory of morning and evening healings, followed by morning prayer, was crystallized in the many decades following the cross, in the life of the primitive church. Imagine a borrowed room, in Rome or Caesarea. There sit Greeks and perhaps some Jews. The profound significance of the New Testament is first that it is composed in Greek, not Hebrew. They listen again for the power, in Jesus, that they have known, a power to heal and make new. They warm to the preacher’s quiet restatement of the good news that brings healing.
Then they listen as Jesus is depicted in the throes of a great decision. In struggle, in hurt. This is what keeps people up at night. Decision. It is meaningful to them, and to us, to hear that Jesus knew this 3am trouble. All the details in the world about where the cave was, in which he prayed, or whether he took along a Psalter, or whether he sang—these mean nothing compared to the great, saving recognition that Jesus was sweating out a hard choice. He chooses.
What does he choose and why is it so meaningful for the early church?
He chooses to leave home, and to go out all through Galilee! And whether Galilee represents the Gentiles, the Greek world, or just a bigger world view, this choice on Jesus’ part meant for the early Greek church that they were included! Jesus left the familiar, and the successful, to go on to other towns. He decided to itinerate, as wrenching as the choice apparently was.
He could have stayed. Healings morning and evening. An adoring home town crowd, hunting him out, finding him and imploring him--all before breakfast. He chooses to leave the success of healing for the foolishness of preaching, the way of glory for the way of the cross.
He went on out to Galilee of the Gentiles. Ah! So the early church is deeply grateful. They are included! Not Jews, still included. Not Jerusalem, still included. Not part of the original family, still included. Different—even, uncircumcised—still included. “He went throughout all Galilee”.
You forget, most of you, what it is like to live without a church family to love, a church home to enjoy, and church gospel to savor, and a church horizon to explore. You forget what is like in the cold. We scouts tented one February, near Eatonbrook at 20 below zero. We came back on Sunday morning, to attend church. That church pew, so warm, never felt anywhere near so good, nor the 50 minute snooze so salvific, as it did after a night in the snow. You forget. Galilee! This is a huge, new horizon! This community is meant to include you! The real church is not only a big church, but also a great church! You can be big without being great. What a tragedy that would be. Our ministry now is an investment for inclusion. Big is physical, great is spiritual. Great includes. It includes difference of view, Jew and Greek, Jerusalem and Galilee. It humbly admits that truth emerges in contest and conversation. How tempting it is to think: I am going to worship only with those who agree with me. I am going to worship only where the preacher says what I think. I am going to gather only those predestined elect who have exactly the right view of personal, social or political issues. You may. But that will still not be great. That may be big, but not great. And over time it is destructive. The Protestant reformation was just that—a reformation not a rejection, a reformation not a repulsion, a reformation not a refusal.
A theology of space ought to consume our theological writing for this generation. The first prayerful decision that the early church remembered of Jesus is one about space. About where. About horizon. About range of motion. About inclusion. About who gets face time with Jesus. You do! You are included, and with you many others! Beware the temptation to avoid the exercise of difference for the coziness of similarity.
Bishop Roy Nichol’s wife died last week in Los Angeles. He presided at our conference some years ago, his dark skin resplendent against his white clerical collar. He quietly talked about a rainbow world for the 21st century. Galilee. All. How grateful we feel to be included!
Will your morning prayer be thankful?
Forbade. He did not permit the demons to speak. We do not believe in demons. Not at least in the ancient apocalyptic sense. The African church and some others around the globe are much more at home with the first century worldview of the New Testament than are we. Oh, we do make some admission of reality beyond our understanding or control. Mental illness. The corrosive power of addiction. Systemic exclusion and generational impoverishment. A specter of nuclear holocaust. But demons? No demons.
Why is Jesus forever shushing others in Mark? You can find a dozen places where the writer has Jesus muffle, silence any report about who He is. Here is the first, read today. He did not permit the demons to tell people what was really going on, that he was the Messiah. Why? We really do not know. This may though be a clue for us to the message Mark wants to convey. He is an author writing a certain version of the Gospel that differs from others. There is no shushing in John. What is Mark’s point?
As one great scholar has carefully shown (T. Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict), Mark—not Jesus now, nor the early church now, but Mark---has an axe to grind. Here it is. Jesus was powerful but crucified. Christian life will involve glory but also pain. Jesus was not only a wonder worker whom demons could celebrate or denigrate. Jesus became a Messiah who disappointed his disciples, to the point of their choosing betrayal. Jesus died on a cross, toward which in prayer this morning he chooses to itinerate. Christians suffer. Mark may want firmly to teach his generation that hurt is part of the walk of faith. Nero’s persecution may lie in the background. The Jewish war may lie in the foreground. A strongly competitive version of the gospel may be in his sights. Regardless, this gospel is about resolute discipleship. To be a Christian means to know how, and why, to pull up your socks.
This lack of permission giving on Jesus’ part, confronted by demons, is a hard sell in a culture of leisure and narcissism. Christianity is a hard sell too. (Hence the inversions of it at various points.) Youth do not easily warm to the required reading of this faith. Young adults do not easily warm to the sexual disciplines of this faith. Mature adults do not easily warm to the (required) generosity of this faith. Older adults do not easily warm to the required perseverance of this faith. It is a hard sell. To transform a culture of almost life to a culture of life, prenatal postnatal non natal, this is hard. Sunday morning work. Pulpit work. Prayer work.
We have ancient, good company in Mark. My predecessor has written: The writer’s community finds itself at the beginning of the eighth decade AD faced with a crisis of faith. Forty years have passed since Easter morning. The eschatological age has not dawned…the joys of the kingdom are still only dreams…Mark’s church is beset by suffering…The focus of his spiritual reflection is the suffering life of Jesus (Weeden, MTC, 159).
And some among us are making the case for resolute discipleship. Marian Wright Edelman must pray. Otherwise, how would she have the discipline to stay on the trail for children for so many years? She said at Colgate in May:
"I want to convey a vision to you today, as you graduate into an ethically polluted nation in a world where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving, and hoarding rather than sharing are the frequent messages and signals of our mass media popular culture and political life.
"Don’t be afraid of failing, it’s the way you learn to do things right. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, it just matters how many times you get up."
This particular walk, in faith, means that you will not always be appreciated. This walk means that you will be required to be kind to those who do not afford you the same courtesy. This walk means that you will daily get nametags thrust upon you that are misspellings. You may die a Christian hero’s death and have your named misspelled in the paper. Jesus’ morning prayer had one single outcome: a resolve to take a hard path.
Will your morning prayer be resolute?
Came out: for this reason (to proclaim good news), says Jesus, he came out. The reference of the verb is not clear. Came out of privacy? Came out to pray? Came out to be incarnate in this world? Came out to Messiahship?
There is a fourth way of reading this passage. That is to see how those who first revised Mark did so. Matthew and Luke both change this passage. They use most of Mark, with alterations. Luke, for example, answers the question about ‘coming out’ by saying rather that Jesus was sent to preach, and further to preach the good news of the kingdom. Matthew, for example, instructs that the healings were to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said. (What Mark might have thought about such improvements in his character by his other younger synoptic siblings is not available to us.) Matthew and Luke did rebuild the gospel for different times and settings.
Rebuilding is hard work. We are watching our church being rebuilt, improved for the new needs of a new day. The process is absorbing, fascinating to watch. New occasions teach new duties. We learn not only to generalize, and to specialize, but also to improvise.
Matthew and Luke pick up Mark’s baton and continue the race. They must improvise along the way and, in prayer, so must we. Perhaps it is this which keeps the narrative proclamation in the life of Corretta Scott King before us, her ability to improvise, to move ahead, to rebuild. Her story holds our hearts.
At first, last week, the lingering power of her life seemed to emanate only from her loving connection to Martin. The stories returned of their Boston courtship, shared ministry, human failings, earnest struggle. His asking her to lunch with the words, “every Napoleon has his Waterloo and you are mine”. And her response, ‘that’s absurd, we haven’t even met.” Then later, still young, in prayer, they made a fateful decision to go south.
Later on in the week, as the nation continued to hold her, it seemed that perhaps her form of leadership held on for us. She was not the minister but the minister’s wife, a role, by the way, she entered, honored, affirmed, and used, in a preeminent fashion. A powerful example. A role that offers no office but that which is earned every day, a position but not a place, a voice but not a pulpit. Uncannily, a role that has not been extinguished.
Later still, as the week passed, and the eulogies were printed, something else, beyond story and role, seemed to emerge. Forgive the hope that she perfectly illustrates this last moment in morning prayer. She improvised. Jesus comes out of prayer with a decision to try something new and different. His morning prayer has the one consequence of his disappointing, dislocating, deserting his family and friends. He sets out. So did she. From youthful work in the open fields of Alabama, to a small private school, to Antioch, to the New England conservatory, to marriage, motherhood, sorrow, sainthood. She decided to move on. To improvise. Two goals: a national day to remember her husband, and a center to remember his teaching. Both done. Not bad.
Will your morning prayer be creative?
A Morning Prayer?
Quiet, thankful, resolute, creative. Will your morning prayer be like that of Jesus?
Every gospel text has four voices singing in harmony: the soprano of Jesus in history; the alto (most important though least understood) of the early church speaking and hearing he passage; the tenor of the author; the bass of later editing. Does your prayer sing in four part harmony?
Let us be specific. Tomorrow morning. Will you find a place and time where you can be still? Tomorrow morning. Will you in that stillness be glad of heart for your inclusion in God? Tomorrow morning. Will you ponder the resolution faith requires? Tomorrow morning. Will you leave a little room to improvise?