The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 4, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:29-39
We’ve been traveling with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark since Christmas. And moving quickly, as I’ve noted the last number of weeks. Jesus arrived on the scene, not as a baby with angels and stars suspended in a peaceful heaven, but as a grown man with the Holy Spirit splitting heaven as he was baptized in the Jordan. He dealt with Satan in the wilderness, announced the impending reign of God on earth, choose his first disciples, and showed his power over a demon in the synagogue before we could blink an eye.
That last, Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel, we explored a bit last week. I declared, though the declaration is not original to me, that this early telling of Jesus’ healing power through an exorcism in the synagogue suggests to us that, at least as far as Mark is concerned, there is some connection between our well-being and our religion.
Think about that declaration now. Not a connection between our well-being and our spirituality. Not a connection between our well-being and our faith, as a whole. But a connection between our well-being and our religion, our system of ideas and beliefs that attempt, however inadequately, to express the experience of the reality we most commonly call “God.”
We have of course, created institutions that “house” our systematic expressions of belief: Synagogues, Mosques, Temples, Churches. And in a time when religious institutions, including the Church, are more and more suspect, an interpretation, a declaration, such as “there is a connection between our well-being and our religion,” challenges us. After all, many of us boast that “we’re Spiritual, but we’re not really religious.” We “believe,” that is, “give our hearts to,” God, but not so much the Church.
And I get that. I do. Our church, as the carrier and transmitter of our religion, has a pretty sordid history when it comes to extending the Love of God in Jesus Christ to the world. From Crusades to witch trials, gender biases to ordination standards, and everything in between, we’ve limited God’s love in ways that Jesus never did and never intended. Add to that the reality that “the Church” as the arbiter of our religion includes so much time spent in Sunday school classes, and choir rehearsals, and worship; in making potluck dishes, providing receptions, and going to musical offerings; collecting canned goods, serving meals, and raising money. Little wonder we’d rather be more “spiritual” than “religious.” We can do “spirituality” at home, on our own time, with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate in our hand.
So … a connection between our well begin and our religion? Indeed … and there’s more.
Listen, again, for the Word of God. Read Mark 1:29-39 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It happened again this week. Mark, through Jesus’ healing, first of Simon’s mother-in-law and then of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” in Capernaum, has connected “well being” and the community where our religion is practiced. First the Synagogue and then the house, both privileged places of community where individuals, families, relatives and friends meet to deepen our understanding of one another and the mystery that unites us. The earliest Christian Communities, in fact, were house churches. The homes of the first followers of Jesus were missionary platforms, economic support centers, and safe and welcoming places for the growing movement first called “The Way.”
In fact, this early narrative in the Gospel of Mark contains the first church registry in history. One new member, the first. We don’t even know her name. She’s just the “mother-in-law.” You see, just as important as Jesus’ expression of healing, is the mother-in-law’s response. “The fever leaves her … and she begins to serve.” Jesus doesn’t command her to do so. And as much as a patriarchal society, then and now, would like to see her servitude as the woman’s duty under the dominion of lazy males, the mother-in-law’s assumes the initiative here. She’s doesn’t begin to serve because she is commanded or obligated, but because she has been made whole.
As with our miracle last week, don’t start wondering whether all this story shares actually happened, or whether it would have happened like this, as yourself what Mark means by this story. We are healed by the love, the community, the life that Jesus offers us and we respond by offering that love, that community, that life to others. The mother-in-law is the first servant in the new community forming around Jesus. (Keep in mind that the disciples haven’t done anything yet except watch!) She is the first member of the Church, as we know it, announcing in action, the Kingdom of God on earth. Healed for service to others. There is a connection between our well-being and religion. Religion …
No matter how fractious, wounded, irksome, hypocritical, or potentially destructive it can be, religion makes a difference. Not only in the lives of the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the poor, but in our lives as “practitioners” of a particular religion, Christianity. Even the anti-theist Christopher Hitchens, author of “God is Not Great,” admits that religion will never die out, “at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other” (p. 12). To his “negative reasons” for its presence, I would add that religion will never die out as long as we experience a reality “too deep for words.”
What does need to end, however, is our most common definition of religion. That definition that allows all of us, myself included, to prefer “spirituality” to religion, as if the two could be separated. In her book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass, says that the modern definition of “religion” understands it as something that we “believe or don’t believe,” something whose propositions are true or not true, something whose center is in the realm of the intelligible and fully understandable, up for inspection before the speculative mind” (Butler-Bass. Christianity after Religion, 97.) That understanding divides us into worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, us versus them.
This modern definition of religion isn’t even close to the original meaning of “religio,” which meant, not systematic belief, but the “awe that humans felt in the presence of the power of an unknown” (97). “Religio” was something within our hearts, not our heads. Religion, at its inception, was an attempt to describe all we can about a mystery, not an object.
With that understanding, the idea that there is some sort of connection between our well-being and religion, understood as an awe of the unknown, gets a little more exciting. Maybe we should come to church to discover more about this mystery we call God. But I didn’t title this sermon message “Religio.” So there must be more. There is.
Although the ancient definition of “religion” emphasized an affirmation of our relation to a transcendent mystery (and understand transcendent here not to mean the infinite beyond of creation, but the infinite depths of it), “religio” may actually come to us from the Latin word “ligare.” (There it is. Have you been pronouncing it right?!) “Ligare,” meaning to bind or connect. Re-ligare, or “religio,” then, means to reconnect. That there is some sort of connection between our well-being and our reconnecting to God and to one another, is undeniable. While fewer and fewer men and women, young and old, are seeking to find an organized system of beliefs, many millions are longing to reconnect. I know I am. And I “believe” you are, too. It’s why we’re here.
Our faith, from the very beginning of the Good News we receive, Mark tells us, heals us, makes us whole, binds us, and reconnects us, through community, to one another and to this mystery we all experience … God. Something happens here, or can happen here, at church, as we practice our religion. Something should happen here, that can’t happen in our individual spiritual practices, as important as they are. There is a community here. There is a preacher here. There is a teaching here. There is consolation and challenge, comfort and rebuke, here that is not found in any other place in our life.
We have one more Sunday before our Lenten journey begins this year. Let’s enjoy our church, and our religion, so we can journey forward to make it even more meaningful and more transformational for our lives and to the world. This table, our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper awaits us this morning. As we remember, let us reconnect and be made whole.
Religare … May it be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 4, 2018