Friday, February 06, 2015

February 8, Fifth After Epiphany, The Mission 10: Freedom for Service

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

(This Sunday we are ordaining and installing new deacons and elders.)

Flora belonged to my church in Hoboken. Flora was an elderly immigrant from India. When she wasn’t working in a sweatshop she took care of her granddaughter. One day on her way to work she got hit by a car, and she was in a coma for a week. She came out of it confused and unable to speak. One day Melody was with me at the hospital, and Flora looked at us and then she spoke. She said, “Have you had anything to eat?” She had begun to heal. Taking care of people was her deep desire.

Apparently like the mother-in-law of Simon. When Jesus healed her, the first thing she did was get up and serve them. Was it because she was now free to care for other people or because she was entangled in a traditional sex-role of servitude? They may look the same. How can you distinguish?

The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is the first healing in the gospel of Mark. We take it for granted that Jesus healed the sick, but that’s not what they were expecting of the Messiah. They wanted a chief, a brave, not a medicine man. When Simon told Jesus that his mother-in-law was sick it was not a hint for Jesus to heal her, but why the guys will have to serve themselves, and why Jesus should avoid the back room.

Jesus could have stood up in the front room and shouted out, “Be healed.” We know from last week that his voice has that authority. But he goes in to her, and touches her, and lifts her by the hand. He violates a social boundary and he breaks three rules: he does physical work on the Sabbath day, he touches a woman, and he touches someone unclean. He is making a point, but more deeply he’s expressing the desire of his heart. He’s expressing the desire of God.

He can express his desire because he is free. He is not entangled in the net of expectations. You could call him “unattached”. Not detached, but unattached. Not absent, but very present. As one of you said last week, he is remarkably comfortable in his own authority. He is untangled in order to be invested. In the words of First Corinthians, “he is free from all in order to be a slave to all.”

St. Mark tells us that at sundown the people brought to Jesus all the sick and "demonized". The physical and the spiritual are not separated out because the effect is the same: the people are in bondage. But they have been taught that God will not forgive them or return to liberate them from the Romans unless they first strictly keep the laws of kosher and the Sabbath, so they have to wait till after sundown. They are entangled, they are not free. To give them some of his own freedom is why Jesus heals and cleanses them, and the purpose of his freedom is manifested in Simon’s mother-in-law, it is the freedom for joyful service. What love does, what love loves to do.

St. Mark says the whole city was crowded around the door. Jesus could have stood on Peter’s rooftop and commanded, “Let the diseases all be healed and let the demons be cast out.” But he deals with the people one by one. He’s making a point, but more deeply he’s expressing the desire of his heart. He’s expressing the deep desire of God.

And God’s desire is the reason for the strategy of the Incarnation, one of the reasons why God became a human being: to be in physical contact with each person one by one. I have told you that God is on a mission for the salvation of the world, but God intends to do it one by one.

If God remains pure spirit, then God is detached and everywhere at once. But a human being is in one place at a time, and touches other people one by one. God wants to touch you one by one, so a working Incarnation is God’s own mission strategy.

The Incarnation has its pros and cons. Jesus is both more connected and more limited. He can’t be everywhere at once. And there’s only so much of him. He gets exhausted. So even Jesus needs to take a break. He goes off to pray. He hopes it’s true what Isaiah wrote, that "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength." And his Father does for him what he’d just done for Simon’s mother-in-law, God takes hold of Jesus’ prayer and lifts him up and gets him back in service.

The crowds will be back at the door when he gets back. He could be there for them. That’s what his disciples assume he will do. The disciples are excited. This is great. Hadn’t he told them they would be fishers of men, and look how full their nets are now. “Come on Jesus, you’ve got to come back.” They feel the pressure of the people’s neediness. But he tells them they’ll be moving on.

The disciples are enmeshed, they are not untangled from their nets. Don’t we know it. We set our agenda by the people’s expectations, to give the people what they want. It’s really that we are afraid of human need. We fear the neediness pressing in on us, and we want Jesus to relieve it. “Relieve the symptoms here, O Jesus.” But he is not compelled by what people seem to need.

Jesus was being tempted here. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke the temptations come from the devil. In Mark the temptation comes from Jesus’ ministry, to stay there healing everyone. If he moves on, he will disappoint the people there. To be free of them will be criticized as detachment, or that he doesn’t care. To keep himself from enmeshment and entanglement he must remove himself to pray and keep centered on his deepest desire, the desire that he shares with his Father.

Elders and deacons. This story is for you especially today. You will feel like the disciples here. You will feel the need and the pressure of the need. But you can act like Jesus, caring and loving, not detached, but unattached, so that you can really care and love. The people have elected you, but this is not really a democracy, because it is Jesus whom you elders and deacons represent, which is why we not only install you but also ordain you. Ordination means you are taking on the office of Christ.

The Reformed Church is the only Protestant denomination which ordains deacons and elders along with pastors. A Reformed Church consistory messes up the familiar boundary between the clergy and the laity. Intentionally so. We do not distinguish between offices which are spiritual and offices which are practical. We do not separate the spiritual and the physical, their spiritual work as elders and deacons and their down-to-earth concerns as the board of trustees; indeed, the spiritual directs the physical. Our model is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and our elders and deacons are first and foremost representatives of Christ, and their first obligation is the Mission that God is on.

So elders and deacons, you listen to the voices of the congregants, their desires and opinions and their needs, and their voices will keep calling you back to them. Listen to them in love, attend to them, and keep in touch with them, but then you must turn around and pray and wait upon the Lord, and listen for where Jesus is calling you to, which may be beyond where the people feel their need. If you do not pray for them you will not be able to lead them. If you don’t hand them over to to God, you will be enmeshed with them and you will not be able to keep on rightly serving them. You are free from your people in order to be free for your people, and you get that freedom in prayer.

So here’s the vision of the mission. The elders and deacons expand the working Incarnation in the church. The reason they work in pairs or in groups is because they spread out the contact, they spread out the one-by-one, they expand the Incarnation. That’s also why they are not called away from their day jobs; they are fully among you to touch you one by one. Just by their offices they express the mission of God coming into the world, not to take you out of the world, but to save it.

Their roles are different but never separate. The elders are responsible for you who come to the door, and for bringing you through the door, and bringing you to Jesus’ table, and laying hands on you when you are down, and telling you how to behave in Jesus’ house. The deacons lead you back out from Jesus’ table, and they gather your gratitude into service like Simon’s mother-in-law, and they help you take the healing out the door and into the city, extending the lifting-up of God.

Together, and with me as pastor, we forge a small community of Jesus. We do all five of our missions with each other. We worship together, we learn from each other and enjoy each other, we offer each other sanctuary and we offer each other hospitality, in order to maintain this historic congregation we have inherited. There is no separation between the spiritual and physical, and that’s because of the Incarnation, and the motivation of the Incarnation is God’s great love for us.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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