February 7, 2021 The Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany

The Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany
February 7, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:    Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

From the Prophet Isaiah, “… 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.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I realized the other day that we have now entered the 47th week of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 47th week prohibiting face-to-face gatherings as a community. The 47th week where worship services have to be conducted online and then viewed only from the remote safety of our homes. It is the 47th week of disruption to daily routines and our daily work. As I pondered that reality, I began to understand weariness. A weariness that many of you, like me, are experiencing right now. Whether we are weary of being separated from one another; weary from the absence of human touch and connection; weary from the news of yet another death in the parish; weary of the political rancor dividing our country; weary of people choosing to vilify their neighbors and causing any sense of shared community to slip away, we understand why, in deference to Isaiah, it takes all that we have right now to just walk and not faint.   

     You can imagine then why I find today’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah so timely. See, Isaiah proclaimed these words to Israel at a time when life had become so difficult her people had lapsed into thinking God was separated from everyday life and unaware of the deep-seated feelings of despair that had crept into their hearts and minds. They were not only saddened and worried about their circumstances but wearied from trying to make sense of it all, trying to stay true to their faith and way of life, trying to just keep their heads above water. And yet, the timeliness of this text goes beyond its similarities to our circumstances. Once again, our readings invite us to consider more deeply what it means to be and live as people of God.

     Some of you may remember the movie Chariots of Fire: The story of two young men - both them outstanding runners - competing in different footraces at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. One of the runners, Harold Abrahams, is very much a driven man, a fierce competitor, who says he must win gold in the 100-meter race because he says, “Those 10 seconds are all I have to justify my existence.” The other runner, Eric Liddell, runs for a different reason. A Christian committed to daily prayer and the observance of the Sabbath, Liddell refuses to run in a Sunday morning race forgoing any hope of Olympic glory. When asked why, he says, “because when I run, I feel (God’s) pleasure.” As the story goes on, we realize that Abrahams runs even to the point of exhaustion just to prove himself. In contrast, Liddell runs -also to the point of exhaustion– because he finds enjoyment in running. Two different men: two different ways to run; two different ways to live.

    Isaiah reminds us that in the midst of all the complexities, fears, frustrations, and weariness of life we may face, God’s people always have a choice. We can rely upon our own strength hoping to justify our existence. Or we can rely upon the Lord’s strength entrusting our justification and life to God. Isaiah says that when we choose to rely upon the Lord, to wait on and for the Lord, our strength is renewed – renewed like an eagle.

   St. Paul, in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians shares how he tried to become everything to everyone: striving to meet not just everyone’s needs, but their demands as well. I am sure he was exhausted. And yet, Paul tells us he struggled to be all things not so that he could boast or brag, but rather, to proclaim and demonstrate the message of redemption and wholeness offered in Jesus Christ. Now, I am sure there were those present who heard Paul say, “I did this, and I did that” and thought, “Well, good for you, Paul. But we’re tired.” I believe Paul would have been honest and said to those hearers, “Yes, I’m tired too.” Thus, he goes on to remind not only the church and us but, perhaps more importantly, to remind himself that ministry is never about me or you. What we do as a community of faith to meet the needs of our neighbors at its heart is always about proclaiming the good news of God in Christ; proclaiming it in word and action; for Christ is the light and hope of this world. Ministry is never about us. It is about God and our relationship with God.  

Still, as an active parish that has tried to do everything throughout this pandemic to maintain some sense of normalcy and ensure no disruption to our mission and ministries, it is tempting, it is easy, to think that we have to do everything ourselves and, in the process, exhaust not only our bodies, but our hearts, our minds, our souls, as well.

    You know, our reading from the gospel according to Mark suggests that Jesus faced a similar dilemma in his ministry. Wherever he went, people thronged him and begged him to heal their sick and relieve their suffering. The work was great, the depth of the people’s needs astounding, and demons, Mark says, were abundant. Even when seeking rest in the home of Simon, one of his new companions, Jesus found Simon’s mother-in-law sick with fever: in other words, another needy person to heal! And Jesus does heal her. And so, just as in last week’s gospel reading where he demonstrated his authority over the demons and dark forces of this world, now, in today’s story, Jesus shows his power and authority over sickness and suffering. But there is even more to this story.

See, the gospel according to Mark tells us that Jesus was able to cope with the demands and needs of the people by rising up early to get away for some quiet time with his Father, our Father, in prayer: to, in the words of Isaiah, wait upon the Lord. In so doing, Jesus remained focused on the purpose for which he came. In a later exchange with his disciples, he will remind them that his mission and ministry is not about meeting everyone’s needs, but rather, proclaiming the Kingdom of God is at hand, to show the world a different way of living, God’s way of living. A way of living where people find not only their strength, but their bodies, hearts, minds, and very souls, renewed.

    Our scripture texts this morning affirm that every act of service offered by this parish community – and I thank God for our continuing service together – nevertheless, our texts remind us that our work together, our service together, our life together is not because we’re nice people  – and we are – but the result of our relationship with God. A relationship that must be nurtured every day.

     Now, I am sure some of you thinking, “Oh, great! Something else to do. My plate is already full, Father Allan. I’m … too … tired … to … pray.” I have felt that same way. The needs of this community, our state and nation, are so great, it is easy to get caught up in doing Christian ministry and, in the process, exhaust ourselves, and forget why we choose to serve.

     Our lessons this morning offer that in communing with God, in prayer, - even if all we can do is take one minute at the start of each day to acknowledge and give thanks for God’s presence in our lives - we can find direction and strength for the journey before us so that we do proclaim the good news of God. Like the athletes in Chariots of Fire, we can choose to serve relying upon our own strength as a means to justify our existence, or in relying upon God’s strength, entrust our justification to God. Once again, our scripture lessons present us with a choice.

     Beloved, sometimes our journeys of faith are like eagle’s with wings wafting above basking in the presence of God. Sometimes life itself is like running a race and running it with endurance. And sometimes, life’s realities are so wearisome it takes all we have to just walk and not faint. Regardless of where we are in our journeys of faith, regardless of where you are this morning in your relationship with God, regardless of our understandable weariness and concern for the future, God is present listening and promising to renew those who will remember that our life together is not about what we do or how we do it, but stems from our relationship with the very heart of God, for whom, the Psalmist has said, “our souls in silence wait” (Psalm 62:5). What a timely message for us as the pandemic continues and we draw nearer to Lent. A message that proclaims, They that wait on the LORD shall renew their strength.”

     May God grant us the grace so to do. Amen.