Thus far in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been baptized and sent into the wilderness for 40 days, he’s enlisted disciples, preached, been shouted at by some demons, and healed some folks. And we’re not even out of the first chapter!
Thank goodness they’ve been in Capernaum, where Peter’s family lives. They head to Peter’s house for a bit of a rest. When they arrive, though, they learn that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill in bed with a fever. Jesus heals her, too.
By evening, we’re told, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” News had gotten out about Jesus healing all those people. So many others also were desperate for that healing.
Do you ever wonder why so many people needed healing when Jesus started his ministry? Had those people not been in need before Jesus began his ministry? Or had those people’s communities not seen their need for healing? Before Jesus, had those who needed healing simply given up and suffered in silence? Did those people come to Jesus because– finally!–someone had seen them?
For whatever reason, they were coming in droves. Jesus healed all of them.
The next morning, Jesus “gets up and goes out to a deserted place, and prays.” At last! A bit of quiet, restful prayer. Yet, even in that deserted place, the disciples find him. “Everyone is searching for you!” they say. That’s when Jesus shares what, perhaps, was an insight that came to him while he was praying: “Let us go on to the neighboring town, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
As Kirstin reminded us so eloquently last week, the need for healing has racheted up in the last year–the need for physical healing from covid, the need for the healing of divisions caused by politics, the need for healing for myriad families who are experiencing food and housing insecurity, the need for healing in our own cities and communities.
Sometimes it feels like the whole city, our whole country, the entire world is gathered around the door. On Code Purple nights, they are literally gathered around our door. People seeking shelter from the cold line up–sometimes for hours–to make sure they can get a place.
We can house 40 people. I suspect if we opened it up to even more–which we are not able to do–we’d still have a line out the door.
The needs are significant. We who are Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, we, too, can get overwhelmed by the needs we see all around us. What do we do? How do we decide where to spend our resources? How can we stay engaged and encouraged when we realize that no matter what we do, there will always be more to do? That, no matter how many people we house, there will always be a line out the door?
Were we asked which part of today’s Scripture story resonated with us, I suspect some of us would be drawn to Jesus’ healing work, the work of meeting the needs of others. Others of us, perhaps would be drawn to Jesus’ stepping away from the noise and the need to pray. In our own FCUCC community, some folks are drawn more to social justice or benevolence work, while others are drawn to our contemplative ministries. And some folks do all of it!
If we learn anything from today’s Gospel lesson, it’s that both contemplation and compassionate action in the world are vital. If contemplation doesn’t lead to compassionate action, it becomes self-focused. If compassionate action isn’t grounded in prayer and contemplation, the results can be disastrous.
Here’s a story from Wayne Muller, author of the book, Sabbath. In a chapter titled, “Doing Good Badly,” he relates his experience working with other therapeutic professionals to return to their homes juveniles and psychiatric patients who’d been institutionalized. “If we returned them to their community,” they reasoned, “they would need less public money, and they would be free to be cared for by their families, back home where they belonged.”
In their eagerness to do good–that is, to get people who were living in institutions back to their families and their communities–this group moved too quickly. They didn’t pause to ask why the people had ended up in institutions in the first place. They didn’t ask if those they were sending home had support in those homes, or if the families and communities had the resources to support them. Muller writes: “Without stopping, eager to be useful, we just let them go…We were in a terrible hurry to do good, but there was no rest in our decisions. And just as speech without silence creates noise, charity without rest creates suffering.” (157-159)
“Charity without rest creates suffering.” I wonder how the story would have gone if Jesus hadn’t taken that moment to pray. The insight from his prayer seemed to be, We need to move on. Had he not prayed, had he not gained that insight, would he simply have stayed in Capernaum, healing people there? Would his personal resources–and those of his disciples– have diminished? Would he ever have moved on to preach to and heal others? If he had stayed in Capernaum, would we be worshiping as followers of Jesus today?
Contemplation and compassionate action are of a piece. One without the other leaves us limping. A steady gait while following Jesus requires both contemplation and action.
Here’s one of the wonders of the pandemic: During the pandemic, some of our ministries haven’t shrunk, but have expanded! Contemplative ministries are stronger, like the Artist’s Rule, Stir the Soul, Sacred Pause, and weekly prayer. (Feel free to join us by Zoom for Noon Prayer on Wednesday). Our benevolence ministries also continue to thrive, at least the ones we’re able to do during the pandemic–the refugee ministry, feeding Homeward Bound clients who are staying at the Red Roof Inn, feeding people at Battery Park Apartments at the beginning of the pandemic, hosting Code Purple nights.
As I’ve thought about our next steps as a congregation, I wonder if it is our benevolence work and our new Social Justice and Arts ministries–which has begun during the pandemic–that will guide us. I suspect the spike in needs created by the pandemic will not subside any time soon. The world needs followers of Jesus to help. And our Social Justice and Arts ministry already has propelled us light years ahead in our work to end racism. (Stay tuned for exciting news on that front!)
Here’s another story from Wayne Muller’s chapter, “Doing Good Badly.” It illustrates well the close link between benevolence work and artistic engagement, the close link between contemplation and compassionate action.
When Muller “worked as a community organizer in the poorer Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester,” Muller writes that “we often had meetings with local teachers, parents, clergy, and social activists, trying to listen for the healing that would be possible in the lives of the struggling families who lived there.
“One day, we were meeting in Old South Church, one of the fine, traditional houses of worship in Boston. One social activist was particularly enthusiastic in criticizing the great disparities of wealth in the city. In his evangelical fervor, he used the church we were sitting in as an offending example. ‘Take this church. It is obscene, all this stained glass and gold chalices and fine tapestries. If the church really cared about poor people, they should sell all of this and give it to the poor.’
“This argument is not new,” Muller writes. “It was made by Jesus’ disciples themselves, and it clearly has some merit. But a woman from the neighborhood, who had lived there all her life, said quietly, ‘This is one of the most beautiful places in the city. It is one of the only places where poor folks can afford to be around beauty. All the other beauty in this city costs money. Here, we can be surrounded by beautiful things, and it all belongs to us. Don’t even think about taking away what little beauty we have.”
Muller concludes by saying, “We are a nation of hectic healers, refusing to stop…In our passionate rush to be helpful, we miss things that are sacred, subtle, and important.” (161-2)
In a recent conversation with Mandy Kjellstrom, coordinator for our Social Justice and Arts Ministry, she marveled at her new passion for social justice, especially anti-racist work. “Until now, I’ve been all about contemplation! Now, suddenly, I’m all in on social justice. What happened?” I suspect what has happened to Mandy is that her deep commitment to contemplation and prayer–and to the cultivation of beauty through her artwork–have led to a new commitment to working for racial equity. Based on what I’ve seen of Mandy, her commitment to the contemplative life hasn’t wavered. It still grounds all her work for racial equity. It’s just that now, Mandy’s not limping. She’s following Jesus with a steady gait. Contemplation–action–contemplation–action.
Now, I want to share with you a conversation I had with Beaver about some of the action our congregation takes on behalf of those who are hungry. (Insert video with Beaver.)