Year B Epiphany 5: Starry, starry night

A sermon for Epiphany 5 and Healing Eucharist at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio.

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

Have you ever been in a really dark place before the dawn? The kind of place where you can see the stars? There are more of them than you can count, more always than you remember seeing the last time, because there are too many for our memories or our imaginations. They stretch out for an incredible distance, light years from one another, yet crowding into view on a truly dark night.

That, I imagine, is what Jesus saw when he rose before dawn and went out by himself in the dark to pray.

On a normal night, the light of the stars is hidden from us. We shield ourselves from them with the city lights and airport beacons and twenty-four hour gas stations serving twenty-four hour traffic. We see a few stars – the ones we can name and order into patterns – and between them the fluttering, shaky lights of the satellites, of the space station, our attempts to enter and order the realms beyond our reach.

The prophet Isaiah asks,

“Who do we think we are kidding?”

Haven’t we always known that we are tiny pieces of the creation of our God? God spreads out the heavens like a tent. In God’s time, our days are as short as the season of corn, our beauty lasts as long as a cut flower. Isaiah uses the language of Genesis, the language of creation to describe how everything that is owes its existence to God alone. We are put in our place and shrunk into our proper perspective by the all-seeing eyes of the Creator.

And yet, in the same breath, Isaiah affirms that God cares even for each one of us, in our brief, small lives; we are each God’s own creatures, beloved and affirmed by God, strengthened to do great things even from a small place, to mount up on wings like the eagles, if only we trust in God, because it is God from whom the strength to do anything comes.

The Psalmist says something similar. God names every one of those stars that appear high in the sky on the darkest night, yet God stoops low to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted, treating each crying child of God with tenderness.

Jesus, of course, encapsulates that paradox, the way in which God is with us and yet beyond us, our judge and our saviour, our creator, sustainer, redeemer, and the end of our being.

Jesus speaks with authority to demons, heals the sick, has a command of the crowd. He serves all of those who come to him seeking help, and he allows himself to be waited upon by his friend’s mother-in-law. He draws all people to himself, and he will not wait but goes out to find them. He is God with us, and he does not neglect to pray alone to his God. He knows from whom he has come, to whom he belongs, and he shares himself with us.

This Gospel passage that we read today has been titled by one of my pastoral colleagues “A Day in the Life.” It is a Sabbath day, a holy day. In it, Jesus heals, casts out demons, teaches and prays, and moves on. It is a summary, perhaps, of his ministry. But there is something else to be noticed.

Jesus spends time with family and friends. He shares food and fellowship with Simon’s family. He meets strangers and welcomes them. He seeks out those whom he has yet to bring the good news of God’s kingdom drawn near. And he spends time alone with God. He does not neglect to seek out God in the darkness, when he can see most clearly the stars which God has named, the glory of creation, the sign of God’s greatness and strength from which all of our strength is derived. He does not forget to rest in God, in the darkness, without distractions, without demands. It is God who binds the wounds of the broken-hearted, and it is God with us, Jesus, who demonstrates that love and care to the people of Capernaum, and goes further, and eventually sends out his disciples to share that love and care with all the world, with all nations, even ours.

 In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen describes the dilemma of the minister, of which we are each one, this way: “Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest. This is very difficult, since we are preoccupied with our own needs, worries and tensions, which prevent us from taking distance from ourselves in order to pay attention to others. …Paradoxically, by withdrawing into ourselves, not out of self-pity but out of humility, we create the space for another to be himself [or herself] and to come to us on his [or her] own terms.”[1]

When we bring our troubles, our sorrows, our distractions to God, we are better able to share them and to share God’s generous response with one another.

In his work on Christian community, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a warning:

“Let [the one] who cannot be alone beware of community. … Alone you stood before God when [God] called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out …

But the reverse is also true: Let [the one] who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community your were called; the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.” [2]

The work that happens in this community is vital, is important, is blessed. The work of our healers this morning in prayer is work given to them by God. The work of us all, to pray with them, to draw on the strength of God in order to share it with them, is work given to us all by God. The work of the food pantry and the community meals, the choir and the acolytes, the altar guild and the ushers, and so much more: all together it makes this community more than the sum of its parts, it extends the prayers and presence of the parish.

At the same time, that work, that outreach, that extension of God’s blessing comes from God’s call on the heart of each one of you. Only in God do we find strength to bring together, to support one another, to love one another with a healing love.

During my ordination last week, the Bishop asked me, “Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others, offering all your labors to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?”

Both in public and in private, both for yourself and for others. Let me tell you, just saying, “I will” doesn’t make it so. It takes discipline, it takes the grace of God. Still, it is a charge I am offering to share with you.

Whether you seek out the stars in the dark night sky, or look out across the lake into the empty horizon, or lose yourself in a piece of art or music, or simply retreat into silence, I invite you to make a habit of seeking out and finding God, the God who names the stars and knows each hair on your head, who spreads the heavens like a tent and touches the broken-hearted to bind up their wounds; to be alone with God, not to escape from yourself, since God has singled you out, but to be truly yourself, God’s child. Allow yourself to confess to God your sin, so that you may know God’s forgiveness; your weakness, so that you might know God’s strength; your joy, so that you might know God’s embrace.

Then share with all of us the message of love, of mercy, of peace that God has given you, so that we may work together, to proclaim it to those who have not yet heard, who do not yet see, whose wounds still need binding up and demons casting out, those other children of God whom God knows and loves and names, and sends us to serve.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 89, 91

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 77

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2 Responses to Year B Epiphany 5: Starry, starry night

  1. Scoop says:

    I remember lying in the back of the station wagon on the way home from Grandma’s house and looking up into the prairie sky above western Oklahoma and seeing millions of stars– really seeing what the Milky Way looked like. And I thought of each of those stars and thought about the unlikelihood that all of this exists through random chance and praised God for those miracles. You have made me remember those moments with God again so many years later. Thanks for your beautiful sermon.

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