Sermon: "If We Would Be Building, The Lord Must Renew Our Strength"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
Last Sunday we noted the peoples’ astonishment that “Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1.22; NRSV). While they recognized Jesus’ authority, they questioned its source. By Middle Eastern standards, Jesus should have been a carpenter. Where did he receive such authority? After Jesus had cast out an unclean spirit, some even suggested his authority came from Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Of course, we recognize Jesus’ authority comes from his identification and oneness with the Father, but I further suggested Jesus’ authority derived from his great love for us, a manifestation of God’s agape love.
In that Jesus empowered his disciples to cast out unclean spirits, we must be able to identify (to name) them and we must recognize that they can be cast out only through prayer. The unclean spirits are those practices and institutions devoid of God’s love, e.g., unbelief, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We also considered Ched Myers’ characterization of prayer as that “intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.” In other words, prayer involves “the struggle to believe that change can really happen. A better world is possible” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5 ).
Building God’s kingdom is anything but easy! We often become discouraged – this is part of the “intensely personal struggle” within us, and among us. We may find it difficult to believe that a better world is possible. Many of us have wrestled with such feelings over the last several months as we have lived in the time of Covid-19 and threats to our democracy. We have wrestled with “post truth” and “alternative facts.” We have noted the promise and the perils associated with the use of social media. Our technologies are accompanied by a host of choices which reflect their propensity to be used for good or evil. We are now beginning to confront such choices as they relate to surveillance, facial recognition software, and artificial intelligence (AI).
As we consider our call to be kingdom builders, to promote God’s new creation, what lessons can we glean from today’s scriptures? Our reading from Isaiah 40 invites us to reflect on the nature of God and God’s promise that our strength shall be renewed. The invitation to reflect appears twice: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth” (Isaiah 40.21; NRSV)? After noting that “God sits above the circle of the earth;” that “God stretches out the heavens like a curtain;” that “God brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing,” Isaiah asks again, “Have you not known, have you not heard” (Isaiah 40.22-23, 28; NRSV)?
Isaiah then tells us “The Lord is the everlasting God … He does not faint or grow weary … He gives power to the faint,” and then Isaiah tells us: “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” (Isaiah 40.28-31; NRSV). The phrase, “Those who wait for the Lord” conveys the sense of placing one’s trust, or one’s hope, in God. The Hebrew ‘qavah,’ which is translated as “wait,” conveys a sense of being tied together, of being entwined. Another way of putting this might be, “Those who live in the Lord,” or “Those who commune with the Lord shall renew their strength.” If we would be building, the Lord must renew our strength.
In Psalm 147, the psalmist praises God and celebrates God’s goodness and favor shown to Israel. The psalmist sings, “The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds … the Lord lifts up the lowly” (Vss. 2-3, 6a; BCP). The psalmist further observes, “God is not impressed by the might of a horse; he has no pleasure in the strength of a man; But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favor” (Vss. 11-12; BCP). These verses reinforce Isaiah’s emphasis on the significance of waiting on the Lord for the renewal of our strength. If we would be building, the Lord must renew our strength.
In today’s gospel, we see how Jesus did not allow legalism and tradition to stand in the way of acting in love. It is the sabbath. Jesus, Simon and Andrew, James and John depart the synagogue and make their way to Simon and Andrew’s house. They tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is laid-up with a fever. Jesus enters their home, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up; the fever departs, and she begins to serve them. Jesus healed on the sabbath and he did not hesitate to break with social custom by entering Simon and Andrew’s home and touching their mother-in-law, an act which would have permitted others to accuse Jesus of ritual uncleanness.
John further tells us at sunset (the close of the sabbath) people brought all who were sick or suffering from demon possession to the door of Simon and Andrew’s house where Jesus proceeded to heal many – note the account does not say all. The next morning, Jesus got up early and went into the wilderness to pray. Jesus was waiting on the Lord for the renewal of his strength.
Like Jesus, if we would be building, the Lord must renew our strength; we must receive God’s assurance that change can happen, that a better world is possible! We should also note that Jesus did not remain in Capernaum. When the disciples found him, and told him everyone was looking for him, he replied: “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (John 1.38; NRSV). Jesus then began his ministry throughout Galilee.
If we would be like Jesus, we must proclaim the gospel message beyond St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Our ministry does not stop at the church doors, nor does it remain in our homes. We must carry the gospel message into our workplace and our community where we can share it with others and where we can live out and lift up the gospel in ways that challenge the evil spirits of our time. Get involved! Write your legislators and express your concerns but do it in a manner which reflects God’s agape love.
Last, in the Epistle to the Church of Corinth, St. Paul speaks of proclaiming the gospel: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9.16; NRSV). We are obligated to share the gospel. Paul reminds us that although he is free with respect to all, he submits to becoming a slave to all such that he might win more for Christ. To the Jews he becomes as a Jew; to those under the law, he submits to the law; to those outside the law (i.e., the gentiles), he becomes as one of them; to the weak, he becomes as one who is weak. Paul sums up by saying, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9.22b-23; NRSV).
In this divisive time, how might we become all things to all people? You may object, I cannot sacrifice my principles nor lose my identity! Paul is not advising us to sacrifice our principles or lose our identity. I believe Paul is encouraging us to seek out ways in which we can identify with the needs and concerns of those who differ from us. Isn’t this what the way of love calls us to do? As a good friend of mine recently said, “We can always find something we can agree upon.” Let us begin by seeking out experiences and values which we share, which we hold in common. For example, we all yearn for love and acceptance. Most of us share concerns about making a decent living and having a level of security. When we stop to really consider things, far more unites us than divides us. How can we build on those things which unite us? By renewing our strength, by waiting on the Lord.
I admit, searching for what we hold in common is anything but easy! It is far easier to build walls and hurl barbs at one another. Searching for what we hold in common calls for a measure of love which only God can give, but at root, does not all love come from God? I am preaching to myself just as much as I am preaching to you; I challenge myself just as I challenge you! The gospels remind us rather frequently that Jesus drew apart to pray, to wait on the Lord and to renew his strength. If we would be building, we must do the same; we must wait upon the Lord and renew our strength. Only then can we mount up with wings like eagles, only then can we run and not be weary, only then can we walk and not faint!
We Would Be Building
Hymn lyric by Purd E. Deitz Tune: Finlandia
We would be building; temples still undone O'er crumbling walls their crosses scarcely lift, Waiting till love can raise the broken stone, And hearts creative bridge the human rift. We would be building; Master, let thy plan Reveal the life that God would give to man.
Teach us to build; upon the solid rock We set the dream that hardens into deed, Ribbed with the steel that time and change doth mock, The unfailing purpose of our noblest creed. Teach us to build; O Master, lend us sight To see the towers gleaming in the light.
O keep us building, Master; may our hands Ne'er falter when the dream is in our hearts, When to our ears there come divine commands And all the pride of sinful will departs. We build with thee, O grant enduring worth Until the heavenly kingdom comes on earth.