Sermon: Less Talking, More Listening
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-12, 21c; I Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
As I have noted in the Messenger, the Collect for the Day collects certain sentiments that are collected from the Epistle and the Gospel. With that in mind, let’s examine the start of the collect: “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” Freedom from the bondage of sins and the liberty of abundant life – if God would grant us spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin and the liberty of spiritual abundance through Jesus Christ, why do we see so little of either evidenced in the lives of so many Christians? Why do so many Christians remain trapped in narrow, negating legalism when they could experience the abundance of the loving, liberating Spirit of God? What would the assigned reading from the gospel and the epistle have us hear and live?
Remember, Jesus has recently called Simon and Andrew, James and John, has taught in the synagogue with authority, and has healed a demoniac. Mark tells us after they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever; Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them. According to the established law, Jesus should not have performed this healing for it was still the sabbath. According to established custom, Jesus should not have had any physical contact with this woman. Yet Jesus would have her live abundantly, so, not permitting legalism to stand in the way, he freely gave what she needed.
At sundown, at the close of the sabbath, the people of Capernaum brought the sick and the demon possessed to Simon and Andrew’s house. Mark tells us “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1.33; NRSV). In the intervening hours between the healing of the demoniac and the close of the sabbath, the word must have spread. Jesus healed many, and cast out many demons, but he did not permit the demons to speak for they knew him. In the early morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and left the house for a deserted place where he prayed.
If you have ministered to people, if you have listened with your mind and your heart, you know it is exhausting for you journey with them on the road of pain and suffering. One who loves others in this manner is constantly reminded of peoples’ loneliness and suffering, of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, of the darkness of this world. Yet, as St. Paul notes, we are commissioned to carry the light and love of the gospel.
St. Paul further tells us how he became “all things to all people.” How although free with respect to all, i.e., not constrained by any one’s expectations, he made himself a slave to all; how he became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; how he became as one under the law that he might win those under the law; how, although not free from God’s law but subject to Christ’s law, he became as one outside the law to those who were outside the law; and how to the weak he became as one who is weak that he might win the weak (1 Corinthians 9.19-22; NRSV).
A rather critical interpretation of these verses asks if St. Paul was a man without principles? Can one really become all things to all people without sacrificing one’s own sense of identity? Where was Paul’s sense of personal integrity? This interpretation is more closely aligned to the perspective of the values of this world as opposed to the values of the kingdom of God. If Paul were here to answer these charges, wouldn’t he tell us he had died long before, that he was crucified with Christ that he might receive the power of Christ’s resurrection?
Here is how Paul put it in his letter to the Galatian Christians: “For through the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.19-20; NRSV). This is Paul who was present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60). This is Paul who confessed, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Galatians 1.13-14; NRSV). Paul is a new creation filled with God’s love.
It is this very love, the love of God, through which Paul becomes all things to all people. Paul is living from the center of a new identity and a new integrity. It is this transforming love of God which unites all of Paul’s actions, but Paul also tells us of the need to rejoice, to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances (I Thessalonians 5.16-18; NRSV).
One cannot consistently live in the center of this love, one cannot live with integrity, apart from renewal. Yes, in Christ, we are a new creation, but the process of creation continues in us just as it continues in nature.
The words of the Psalmist illustrate our need to rejoice, to offer praise, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks, and to wait upon the Lord! Listen to how God heals, renews, and re-creates:
1 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! * how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
2 The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; * he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted * and binds up their wounds.
6 The Lord lifts up the lowly, * but casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; * make music to our God upon the harp.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds * and prepares rain for the earth;
9 He makes grass to grow upon the mountains * and green plants to serve mankind.
10 He provides food for flocks and herds * and for the young ravens when they cry.
12 But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, * in those who await his gracious favor.
And as if this is not enough, the revised common lectionary reinforces these thoughts with the words from Isaiah 40.31:
But 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.
In the wee hours of the morning, Jesus met with God in prayer. Jesus often drew apart to pray. Although fully divine, he was also fully human. With one exception, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are never told the content of those prayers. Over the years, I have come to the realization that we need to do less talking in our prayers, and more listening. Yes, it is good to praise God in our prayers, to confess the nature of our struggles and our feelings, to ask for grace and strength, but we also need to listen for the still, small voice of God. We may hear it best when we attend to the silence. Prayer renews us; it is the gentle rain upon the parched earth of our spirit. It is the bread and water for our journey in the wilderness. Apart from prayer, apart from drawing away into deserted places of our mind, we cannot experience freedom from the bondage of our sins nor the liberty of the abundant life of the Spirit which come through Jesus Christ our Lord.