February 8, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“Balancing our Discipleship”

I spent most of the last week in Baltimore, Maryland, at the annual conference of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (also known as APCE). The Presbytery of Northern Saskatchewan was able to fund the trip so that a team from Saskatoon and Prince Albert was able to attend the conference – learning and gathering resources and ideas for ministry with children and youth for our congregations.

Martha Fergusson, Logan de Bruijn, Ted Hicks, and I came home last night with pretty tired bodies from a busy week, but with our minds rushing with ideas and our hearts full of hopeful possibilities for the future of our ministries and congregations.

The conference wasn’t a holiday, and it wasn’t even a retreat (an event designed specifically for rest, renewal, and prayer). It was a busy conference packed full of key note speakers, workshops, discussion forums, and networking opportunities. There were books to consider buying, and resources to gather for current or future possibilities for our ministries.

But there was also lots of worship at APCE… gathering songs, early morning communion services, and several wonderful worships with inspiring preachers, creative liturgy, and opportunities for prayer and reflection. The hotel ballroom was filled with nearly 800 Presbyterians from all over the US and Canada, gathered to worship, and pray, and draw close to God.

Many of the people at APCE were ministers like me, and a larger group were Christian educators. Others were elders, lay leaders, and volunteers who are engaged in the work of educating children, youth, or adults in the Christian faith. It was a place full of busy, busy people, who decided to take the time to come apart for worship, training, and being inspired in our ministries once again.

Some were discouraged, and they needed to be lifted up with hope. Some were tired, and they needed to be renewed. Some were feeling lost, and they needed some direction. Some, I imagine, probably just needed a break from the daily and weekly demands of their ministries and the people that they were serving at home.

Jesus did something similar in this morning’s Gospel story. At the beginning of our passage, Jesus and the disciples are just leaving the synagogue where Jesus has been teaching. And if Jesus is anything like a minister on Sunday afternoon, he was probably ready for a nap. So they go back to Simon’s house and they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed, sick with a fever.

Jesus goes to the sick woman right away, takes her by the hand, and raises her up. Her fever disappears, and she is well enough that she begins to serve them. Finally, Jesus might have the chance to rest and let someone else take care of him.

Evening comes. The sun is setting. But Jesus’ work is not yet done. People keep on bringing sick people and demon-possessed people to him. And the line-up doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter… It’s like the whole town is gathered at the door! So Jesus continues to work… one person after another… treating each one, I imagine, with care and concern and dignity.

At some point after that, it sounds like Jesus did get to go to sleep. There’s no mention of how late he was up doing miracles, but he must have slept a little bit… because it tells us that, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”

I am not really a “morning person” myself, but I am told that the early morning is a wonderful time for prayer. Some of you have explained, and I’ve even experienced myself occasionally, that the early morning hours before the sunrise can be gloriously peaceful and even holy. Before the traffic gets going, before the phones start ringing, before the hustle and bustle of busy families and workplaces begins… the morning is a wonderful time to meet quietly with God.

That’s what Jesus got out of bed to do. “He rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”

We don’t get any indication of how long his prayer lasted before it was interrupted – a moment, a minute, an hour, perhaps? But before long, Jesus’ disciples tracked him down. I’m reminded of parents trying to catch a few minutes to sit and read the paper or have a cup of coffee while the kids are still sleeping. Even a few minutes of quiet can be gloriously peaceful, but before they know it the kids are there again needing help, needing food, needing the immediate attention of their caregivers.

“Everyone’s looking for you!” Simon and the others told Jesus… perhaps impatiently, perhaps angrily, perhaps desperately because the disciples didn’t know how to handle of the people’s needs without Jesus’ leadership and help. But rather than getting annoyed, or sending them away, Jesus’ gets up to continue his work… not returning to Simon’s house this time, but heading off in the other direction to the nearby villages, so that he can preach there too. “That’s why I’ve come,” Jesus says… to preach in the synagogues and throw out demons.

If a new Christian or a person of another faith were to ask you what Jesus’ ministry involved, today’s Gospel passage would be a good one to direct them to. In just eleven short verses, it has everything! Jesus preached. Jesus healed. Jesus prayed. Jesus preached and healed some more.

Jesus didn’t only give his life for the people of the world when he died on the cross, but he gave his life each and every day for the people he met every day. He gave his life as he spent it teaching, and healing, and helping everywhere he went. He gave his life as he dragged himself out of bed in the early hours of the day to seek out a quiet place to pray and prepare himself for what was coming next.

Of course, as Christians, we all know that our calling is to follow Jesus – to make his way of life our way of life in our time and in our context. Very much like him, we may feel overwhelmed at times by the demands on our time and attention. And if we take our calling seriously, we will probably feel the pressure of the many needs around us in our families, community, and church.

Being a Christian and attempting to follow Christ’s way of love and sacrifice means that we will often be called upon to put others’ needs ahead of our own. Sometimes we will need to give up some of the personal time and attention that we might want for ourselves because we are needed somewhere else.

But today’s Gospel example of Jesus also points to the fact that we all need some balance in our lives. Did you notice that Jesus preached and Jesus healed? Then Jesus slept (at least for a little while) and he got up early to find a quiet place to pray and be renewed. Then Jesus preached some more and healed some more. And after that, he probably took another break – another moment to seek God’s guidance and God’s help for the challenges of all that he needed to do.

Different Christians, and sometimes different denominations of Christians, tend to emphasize one of these activities over the others. For some, to be a Christian is to be someone who works on healing and helping – donating to missions, helping out in the innercity, working on projects for justice and peace for the poor and the oppressed.

For some, to be a Christian is to be someone who preaches the gospel – teaching about Jesus inside and outside the church, making Bibles available, witnessing and sharing faith with neighbours, friends, and co-workers. And for others, to be a Christian is to be someone who prays – someone who engages in spiritual practices, prayer and worship, retreats and personal devotions.

I imagine that for most of us, one of those emphases resonates a little more strongly than the others. Take a moment, and consider your own life of faith. What does being a Christian mean to you most days? Does it mean that you are someone who comes to church on Sundays and takes time to pray every day? Does it mean that you are someone who tells others about Jesus and what God means to you? Does it mean that you are someone who uses your daily life – your job, your talents, and your spare time to share God’s love in practical ways with other people? Although one of these aspects of the Christian life may come more easily and naturally for you, all three belong together and need to hold together.

When Jesus healed people, it wasn’t just for the sake of making them physically or psychologically well, but his acts of caring and service also proclaimed the reality of God’s love being poured out powerfully on the people. And when Jesus preached, it wasn’t just an audible message for the people to hear and try to understand, but he was also demonstrating the good news of God’s grace by his presence and his powerful acts. And when Jesus went off to pray, it wasn’t just because he enjoyed a little peace and quiet, but he needed to talk to God and to listen for what God wanted him to do and to say next.

You see how interconnected Jesus’ three main activities were? Preaching and healing and praying all go together. And that’s how interconnected these activities need to be for Jesus’ followers also.

Faithful prayer without witness in word or deed is meaningless. It may make us feel holy, peaceful, or even happy, but if it doesn’t lead us to live as Jesus’ disciples in our daily lives, then our prayer has been very hollow.

Loving, caring, and helping in the world seem like they could stand alone. After all, there are many people without faith doing good things and making the world a better place too. But as Christians, our healing and helping should demonstrate something more than our own kindness and generosity. We love others because God loved us first in Jesus Christ and because God both called and equipped us to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that most of you didn’t identify preaching the gospel as the emphasis for your lives of faith. Even pastors and Christian educators who regularly tell the stories of God coming to us in Jesus Christ in formal settings may still get nervous and unsure when they are called upon to share the good news individually with friends, family, or neighbours. We may be more inclined to just invite someone to come to our church instead of trying to explain why it is we come here week by week.

Perhaps we are worried that people will find us pushy instead of authentic, or that they’ll think we are hypocrites when our actions don’t seem to match up with our words. Certainly, telling others about Jesus and what he means to us is an important part of what it means to be a Christian. But once again, it needs to be balanced with efforts to help and care. As missionaries have often reminded us, people who are hurting and hungry cannot hear the good news. We cannot speak about God’s love without enacting God’s love in real and practical ways.

The season of Lent will be beginning soon, with Ash Wednesday coming up on Feb. 18th. As the days lengthen towards Spring and we wait and prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Christ at Easter, we are invited to turn our lives towards following the way of Jesus more closely. So I’d like to invite us to consider the balance of our discipleship.

My intention is to offer during Lent an additional opportunity for us to come together to pray and to learn about and engage in a variety of prayer forms. That might be a good thing for some of us who notice that we are not taking the time for rest, reflection, and seeking the guidance that we need from God through prayer.

Others might consider finding a new way to help, heal, or give generously during Lent. The Stewardship Committee will be encouraging us to support Presbyterian World Service and Development with our offerings, and we might also consider making a commitment to some act of kindness or help in the community, church, or even just in your family.

And if you’re brave, perhaps you could consider trying to share your faith in words with someone during Lent. It will probably mean actively looking for an opportunity, and praying that God will give you the words to express what your faith means to you – what difference God makes in your life every day.

As Jesus gave his life fully every day for the people of the world – preaching, healing, and praying for God’s mission in the world… As Paul tried to follow his lead, becoming all things for all people, giving himself sacrificially to draw all people to God… so we are called to balance our discipleship lives and give ourselves fully for others.

It will sound like a lot to ask, and at times we will get tired as Jesus did. But that’s when we need to be sure to spend time with God in prayer… because we are not alone in this mission. God is with us, and God’s Spirit is in us to help and encourage us along the way.

The prophet Isaiah encourages us… “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they 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.” Amen.