At Fever Pitch

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

Why Should I Stop Thinking?

I continued to reflect on our Malawian journey in worship on August 2 2015.  Our scripture passages were Acts 18:24-28 and Hebrews 5:11-14

Most of you are aware of the fact that I am fresh from one mission trip and packed for another. You need to know that the time in Malawi, Central Africa, was just amazing. You’ll hear more about this next week, but I need to tell you that there was more that happened in those two weeks than I ever thought possible.

PartnershiplogoOf particular joy to me was having the opportunity to see the Christians from South Sudan and our partners from Malawi enjoying the time together so completely. For a long time, our church has partnered with the church in Malawi, but a couple of years ago that was broadened to include Christians in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan. Since then, I’ve often used the analogy of a piece of furniture, saying that while one might be able to rest on a two-legged chair, a three-legged stool was far more practical and durable and comfortable. The possibilities of this trans-African partnership are just beginning to be explored, and the future appears to be very, very rich.

An elder from South Sudan put it this way: “We are glad to be in partnership with people in Pittsburgh, but we think that we will profit far more from our relationship with Malawi than with the USA.” It was just glorious to watch these two churches begin to fall in love with each other, and I believe that this could really change the face of mission in Africa if not the world.

This trip was amazing; it was important; it was life-changing; and it may have even been life-saving.
Three years ago, the church in Malawi presented itself to the world, so far as I could see, as a “receiving” church. It was chronically needy. Our friends there had come to believe in themselves as people who will always need help from the outside just to get by. When the Christians in South Sudan came alongside, that offered believers in Malawi the chance to re-evaluate their strengths and resources and gifts. Together, these two African churches have discovered wonderful opportunities.

As we were leaving Malawi, a good friend of mine who is in leadership in that church said to me, “It was a good trip, but I wish it was not yet over.” And I smiled, and shook his hand, and said, “You bet! I wish we could stay here longer.”

He shook his head and said, “No, not here. I wish that you were leaving here and spending three more days in Mozambique. The Christians there are struggling, and we are trying to help them. In fact, I believe that next week we will be signing a partnership agreement with the church in Mozambique.”

I looked at him in surprise and exclaimed, “Hey, really? Are you already trying to change my three-legged stool into a four-legged desk?” And I laughed.

And my friend, this beautiful Christian man, looked at me and said simply, “Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian, after all.”

I’m sorry to say that immediately I thought of a whole new line of t-shirts and hoodies that would bear that message: Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian!

StopTHinkingShirtThe reality is, however, that for far too many people, Christianity is about saying “yes” to a set of ideas. It’s saying, “I believe that Jesus is my savior,” and that’s it. We say what we believe when we are twelve, or twenty-two, or forty, and from that point on, the focus is on defending that amazing truth from every changing, from ever developing, for fear that we somehow “lose it”. We concentrate on some moral behavior (we don’t smoke or drink or sleep around or vote for the wrong people), but the core of our spiritual identity, in too many cases, does not change. Ever.

How many friends do you have who might say something like, “Of course I’m a Christian. I became a Christian on the afternoon of September 19 2009.”? For these people, the Gospel is a line of some sort. I’m not a Christian. Now, I’ll pray that prayer, and cross over the line. I am a Christian. That’s it, right? I just wait here, then I’ll die, and I’ll get to go to heaven. Amen.
As popular as that theology seems to be in some circles, there’s a problem with it: it’s just not biblical. Faith is alive. It is living and vital. And as with all living things, the normative state for faith is to grow. Which means that our faith will change and evolve over time.

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul, fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul,  Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

In Ephesus they had a little church. It had been started by a guy who knew a little about changing and growing over time, the Apostle Paul. As that congregation experienced numerical and spiritual growth, Paul was joined by two colleagues, a husband and wife team named Aquila and Priscilla. Eventually, Paul pulled up stakes and moved on. Not long after that, Apollos wanders into town.

Apollos?And Apollos seems to be the real deal: he’s tall, he’s good-looking (ok, the text doesn’t actually mention this, but, c’mon – with a name like Apollos, you don’t think he was a short fat guy with a mullet, do you?)… He’s a great speaker with funny jokes and impeccable timing.

Apollos (more likely)

Apollos (more likely)

The only problem was that he didn’t have the whole “Christianity” thing down. He was missing some key concepts on the presence of the Holy Spirit and the nature of life in Christ. When they learned that, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and helped him to grow – and he was able to change his understanding and practice of faith.

That’s not surprising in the book of Acts – after all, that’s what Christians do. And like Paul, Apollos went on to help people grow in their faith. He encouraged them to move, not simply from “A” (not believing in God) to “B” (believing in God’s activity through Jesus Christ), but to grow from “A” to “B”, and then from “B” to “C”, “D”, and even “E”. Because faith is based in relationship. Because faith grows. Because faith changes us and as a result, the way that we live into that faith had better change in and through us over time.

Listen: I love my granddaughter. One of my favorite things in the world is watching her eat. I’m here to tell you that that kid can put it away: fish. Beets. Sauerkraut. Berries. Beans. One of her new favorites is liver and onions. She loves to explore, she loves to taste, and she eats like a champ.

But every now and then, Lucia will enjoy some “mama milk”. And why shouldn’t she? The kid is not even two years old! Everyone knows that breast milk is a great source of so much that is good for human development.
But she won’t always be like that, will she? I mean, if in ten years, she’s still having appetizers with Grampy and then taking her main meal via breast milk, well, we’ve got a problem. Eleven year olds move and think and act and operate a lot differently than do 20-month olds. Or, at least, they should operate differently than toddlers.
We know that, right? We get that concept in the physical sense…but not always spiritually.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – who many scholars believe might very well have been Paul’s friend Priscilla, says to those in her congregation, “What the heck is wrong with you people? Grow up already! You ought to be mature by now – even teaching other people, for crying out loud. But you’re still over there, drinking up the milk like it’s going out of style. You need something you can sink your teeth into – you’re too big for this kiddie stuff anymore.”

One of the magazines that comes to my study each month is a little volume called The Christian Century. It’s full of news about the world of religion, insightful articles on faith and belief, and a lot of other stuff I don’t usually have time to read. For many years, The Century has had an occasional column entitled “How my mind has changed”, in which a prominent theologian or spiritual leader talks about her or his journey of faith, and how that person has been led to change denominations or shift views on baptism or adopt some new pattern of behavior. I love those columns, even when I disagree with them, because too often we look at someone and say, “So and so is this.” When we say that someone is “like that” all the time, we forget that each of us is, or ought to be, where we are as a part of a process.

This morning I wonder: If the Christian Century came to you and offered you the chance to write a column on “how my mind has changed”, could you do it? Are there places in your life where you used to be uncertain, but now you’re holding on tightly? Or perhaps the opposite – something about which you were convinced five years ago that now has you scratching your head?

Or has your faith and your life become so calcified that it looks exactly like the old Doxology: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; world without end – Amen!”?

Beloved, the Lord intends for us to grow – to grow physically, to grow emotionally, to grow spiritually. I know darned well that you’re not the same person I met the first time we laid eyes on each other – not physically, anyway. How have you changed spiritually? Where have you grown?

If you’re not sure how to answer that, then let me encourage you to take this last month of the summer, these “dog days”, and spend some time shaking yourself up. Borrow a book from a friend and then talk about it afterwards. Ask Gabe Kish to tell you about his trip to Africa. Study an issue that has you perplexed. Go serve up a hot meal with some hungry people at The Table. Engage someone who is really different from you. Read a part of the bible that has scared you in the past. Sit with your pastor for a season. Learn to pray out loud. Visit someone who is grieving. Write a letter to a prisoner. Show up at a protest or a march. Ask someone about her tattoos. Give something away.

Some of you are going on a mission trip this week. If you come back unchanged, then I’m not a very good pastor – or you’re not a very good participant. We will be staying on a farm in the country at a shelter for homeless families. How will that affect you? Which of these people with whom you’re sitting will be a better friend when you get back? How do you think the next year in school will be different because you’re participating in this trip? Have you ever really spoken to someone who’s been homeless before? Why does God allow poverty in the world, anyway? I mean, if God can do anything, why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and whip up some more food or an apartment complex or something? What’s the deal with that? Why do you have a home and the people you’ll meet later today don’t? Are you better than them? Smarter? Holier? Does God like us better than he likes them?

Cute-Kittens-and-Babies-17-HD-Images-WallpapersI know, these are hard questions. Here’s a cute photo of a kitten  to calm you down so you don’t have to think so hard.

new_ideasBut the truth is that you will be a different person next week. How? And how will you allow that change to help you grow into God’s person in this world where you are?
You are a Christian. Why should you stop thinking?