Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018, Lectionary B
ST. ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector Scripture: Mark 1:29-39
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
How real do you want?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to make Jesus really real for us in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The teaching had been excellent. Anticipation was now high. What would God do? Would He heal? What would happen? Yes, prayer ministry time had finally arrived. The speaker for the teaching/healing mission was Francis MacNutt, a former Roman priest (he had gotten married) and co-founder of Christian Healing Ministries in Jacksonville, FL. There was, however, a problem. The place where Francis would be standing to pray for people was blocked by a woman, stretched out on a special orthopedic chaise or chair. She had been in a car accident and was disabled. Francis’ assistant walked over to me to ask what I, as coordinator for the weekend, would do about her. I wasn’t about to tell the woman to move. Francis was not deterred, though. He went straight to the woman and proceeded to pray in tongues. Within minutes, the woman was able to rise from her seating apparatus. The following week she returned to report that her doctor said she was 80% healed from her disability.
Francis MacNutt is one of my Christian heroes. It would not be a stretch to say that Francis is singularly responsible for the church reclaiming God’s gift of healing through His Son Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Francis’ calling and ministry have allowed the church to recover the forgotten reality that Jesus still heals even today. In Francis’ ministry he has seen it all—the same array of healing challenges faced by Jesus two thousand years ago. In his classic book, simply entitled, Healing, he documents those occasions.
When Francis was in the prime of his ministry, he was much sought after to teach and most especially pray for people. Why? Because healings of every kind of disease or sickness did occur, including the lengthening of arms or legs where one was shorter than the other due to some birth anomaly. Healings not only occurred when Francis prayed, but so did deliverances from evil spirts or demons.
A few years before Emily and I started attending the renewal conference at Kanuga, Francis had been the keynote speaker. The conference has always attracted individuals who are strong in their faith. When the prayer ministry time began, it was the Lord’s agenda on this occasion to cast out demons, evil spirits. There was a whole lot of deliverance ministry going on which was great. That kind of ministry however can be noisy. It can be unruly. It can be disturbing. The Hollywood depiction is not far wrong. The Kanuga management though did not like it and determined that Francis could never return as a speaker.
Now, we could easily speculate that the management thought decorum had been violated, but I wonder. Could it be that God, that Jesus, that the Holy Spirit had become too real for them? Shall I say that again? Had God become too real for them and that was what they did not like?
I have always operated under the assumption that a big part of my job as priest and pastor was to somehow make God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit available and real and not just some idea. I have, however, begun to wonder. Is that really what we want? Do we really want God, Jesus, to be real? It is a serious question with serious consequences. If God was really real, how might that effect the way we live our lives? Healings, deliverances, and miracles testify to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit being real; indeed, that God is present.
In today’s gospel from St. Mark we see Jesus doing His healing thing. (About a quarter of the gospels are about His healings.) The first to be healed was Peter’s mother-in-law. She was in bed with a fever. Perhaps, she had the flu. The fever might even have led to her death. As we heard, “[Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” Next, the gospel tells us that “[Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” Lastly in this reading we heard that “He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
In other words, these people had been touched by God through Jesus in a powerful way. He had been really real to them. We are not told what difference this might have made in their lives with exception of Peter’s mother-in-law. Though it might sound trite, after Jesus healed her, she began to serve them. Translated, that might mean she prepared a meal for them. Even more, what would that encounter with Jesus, with God mean as to her support for Peter running around the countryside with Jesus and not staying at home with his wife, her daughter? She would be supportive, would she not? Her heart had been changed, and we might wonder whether the same could be said for those others who had been healed or delivered from demons. Certainly, as a result of being healed and delivered their lives would have been changed, no less than if you or I were healed of some illness. We could now do things we were unable to do before.
You may recall a certain encounter that Peter had with Jesus in Luke 5:4-8: “[Jesus] said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish; and their nets began to break; 7 and they signaled to their partners in the other boat, for them to come and help them. And they came, and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
As with those who had been healed or delivered from a demon by Jesus, God had become really real to Peter in that bountiful catch of fish. Any of us who have had a great day fishing would have been celebrating, but not Peter. Shouldn’t he have been excited about this fantastic catch of fish? What, though, as we just heard, did Peter say to Jesus? “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” In other words, get away from me, God. Get away?
Peter’s words to Jesus, indeed to God (Peter calls him Lord), might remind us of an episode from Exodus 20:19-20, after God has given the Israelites the Ten Commandments. “Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” Peter knew that the great catch of fish was not just dumb luck. It said God was really real and it also said something about Peter—something he would just as soon not admit. Yes, he was a sinner.
Week before this past I attended the Prayer Book Society’s conference at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Savannah. The day had started out rather chilly. Consequently, not only was I wearing an undershirt, my clerical shirt and jacket, but also a vest. As the conference proceeded, it became rather warm in the upstairs room where we had gathered. During a break, I went to my car to shed the vest. The conference that day concluded around 4:30. I returned to my car and as reached for my prescription glasses (not cheap, of course), I discovered they were nowhere to be found on my person. I looked inside the car, thinking that they might have slipped out of my jacket when I took it off so I could remove my vest. Still, my glasses were nowhere to be found.
Perhaps, I had dropped them in the room where the conference was being held. By now, of course, I had begun to pray to find them. I searched where I had been seated and then some, but I did not find my glasses. I began to pray harder, as I walked back to my car. Again, I looked inside the car, getting down on my hands and knees, but no glasses. In resignation I cranked the car’s engine, slowly pulling out of the parking place. Then for some reason I paused to peer over the high front of my Toyota Four Runner SUV. A few feet inside my parking space a 3×5 bright yellow piece of paper caught my attention. Guess what. Right next to it were my glasses, unharmed, unscratched and unbroken.
Somehow when my glasses fell out of my jacket they managed to bounce under my car and not within the path of my tires when it came time for me to back out. Without that yellow piece of paper I am not sure I would have seen my glasses. There is so little to them. (Hold up your glasses.) Like Peter and the great catch of fish, I knew it was not just dumb luck that I had found my missing glasses. God had shown up, really real. This was more than just praying for some parking place. How did that affect me?
Needless to say, if we are walking with the Lord, then there times of greater faith and lesser faith. Recently, my faith had trended toward the lesser. When my glasses miraculously appeared, kind of like Peter, I was convicted, and for me it was for my lesser faith. No, this did not mean that I somehow saw God shaking His finger at me, saying bad, bad, bad. Rather, in the greater light of His presence and love (He was really real) it was I who saw my shortcoming. God did not have to tell me. I then found myself repenting, trying to do better at believing and having faith. And, that’s the thing about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit being really real. That encounter does something to us or at least should. Yes, it reveals to us our sinfulness, but it does not stop there. It also reveals to us God’s great love for us. Perhaps, therein is the dilemma for us. We want the love, but we don’t want to know that we are less than God made us to be and that we could be more than we are.
If we think about the reasons people have said that they don’t believe in God, those reasons probably boil down to two. First, there is the scientific objection. Prove to me that there is a god. Second, if there is a god, then why do bad things happen? As to the first, when we speak scientifically we are speaking about measurement. Is there any way to measure, calculate that God exists? Even with all the technology we have today, the answer to that is probably a “No.” I would suggest, however, that the bottom line question to the two is the one about bad things happening. In other words, bad things would not happen if God loved us, loves me. Ironically, it is when we allow God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to become really real that we discover how much we, you and I, are loved by God. He calls each one of us by name. He says to each one of us personally that He loves us.
Last summer Emily and I were again driving to the renewal conference at Kanuga in Hendersonville, NC. At best it is a five and a half hour drive, but longer, depending upon the traffic. Somewhere along the way we stopped for gasoline and a bathroom break. Usually, we also buy a little something. I went over to one of the many coolers, looking to buy a Coca Cola, hoping not to have to buy some quart-sized bottle. You might remember that around that time Coca Cola had launched a new ad campaign. It was simply one. They were printing individual names on the bottles—Mary, Bob, Jane, Sam, and the like.
I had thought the campaign was rather hokey. So, when I came across these bottles with different names on them I made every effort to avoid buying one with a name. Finally, I found one with just the words, Coca Cola on it. Emily and I went to the cashier to pay for our little purchases and then proceed to get back into the car. As I got into the car, I placed my bottle of Coca Cola into the cup holder on the inside of the door. When I did so, the bottle turned. Can you imagine my shock? There printed on the side of that Coca Cola bottle was none other than, yes, my name, Clark. (Hold up the bottle.) What were the odds of that? How many Clarks do you know? It was as if God had directly said my name. Oh, I understand if you want to pooh-pooh that, but you have to admit the odds are rather staggering and suggest something beyond mere happenstance. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit want to be really real for us, call us by name, but is that what we want?
If the Holy Trinity were really real for us, what might that mean? Would we live our lives differently? Might we attend church more frequently, pray more often, and heaven forbid give more money to the church for God’s work? If God were really real, might we then feel inclined to watch our language or somehow love others more and with greater respect? I mean if God were really real it would mess up everything—the way we have always lived our lives. We might have to read the Bible.
Think for a moment about that one thing you would like for God to do for you. At least, you have told yourself that. Maybe there is some chronic sickness or disability with which you struggle like a bad back; maybe it is high blood pressure or diabetes; perhaps, it is heart failure or dreaded cancer. Suppose someone like a Francis MacNutt were to pray for you, as he did for the woman in the special orthopedic chair, and suddenly you are healed. What would you say to yourself? We know that it doesn’t take long before medical science can reach a dead end. All their medicines and treatments have not cured us. In fact if we are taking some medication, it means that we have not been healed, doesn’t it?
Perhaps, it is time for us to ask ourselves whether we have reduced God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to a matter of doctrine, a matter of theology, and a matter of values (What’s right? What’s wrong?). If so, can we really blame our young people or the culture at large for not giving a hoot about the Christian faith? If the Holy Trinity is not a matter of being really real, then what’s the point; who is kidding whom? If God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are not really real, then (you got it) they are really nothing, nothing at all. So, you see, it really is very important that we allow and invite God to be really real in our lives. Yes, it will change us, and as well it will also change those around us and for the better.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.