Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week we continue our slow, yearlong liturgical journey through the remarkably fast-paced Gospel according to Mark. It may be said without too much overstatement that Mark is like a Hemmingway novella to John’s Tolstoy. The author of Mark didn’t have time for John’s high-flown theological discourse, Matthew’s apologetics, or Luke’s beautiful storytelling. There’s a striking immediacy to Mark. Indeed, the word “immediately” was historically frequently deleted in our English translation of Mark, as it shows up so frequently in the Greek as to make the English virtually unreadable at points.

This immediacy is evident in today’s Gospel reading, which actually comprises three separate narratives in the course of ten verses. While some scholars try to explain this fact about Mark on its writer’s lack of sources or authorial ability, I think there’s something much more intentional at work. I think Mark’s fast-paced style is, at least in part, meant to highlight the immediacy, the urgency, of the Good News itself. We see this not only in the style but in the substance of the book. Jesus called the first apostles immediately, and immediately they forsook their nets in order to serve their Lord. What I find most astonishing about today’s gospel reading is that as soon as Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she jumps out of bed and begins to serve Jesus and the apostles.

When do we begin to attend to the work of God? The voice of the Gospel is singular: the answer is “now.” It is often tempting to delay following God’s will in our lives. “I’ll do what charity demands when life is a bit less hectic.” “I’ll get really involved in the life of the church as soon as I sort out everything at home.” “God’s calling me to serve, but I’ll do that as soon as I become the exemplar of moral rectitude.” These sorts of attitudes are natural and often quite reasonable. We sometimes feel that we must be totally together to undertake any kind of ministry. But God meets us where we are–busy, confused, sinful creatures that we are. We needn’t be so loath to serve God in these times, due to our perceptions of our own unworthiness.

Some of the greatest champions of our faith heard God’s call to serve when they were leading lives that were anything but exemplary. From David in the Old Testament to Paul in the New, when he met Christ and was converted on the road to Damascus was, as Acts says “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Yet, Acts tells us “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God.’” This is not meant to suggest that personal behavior doesn’t matter; quite to the contrary, Christ is constantly calling us to repentance and amendment of life. Once we do this, though, it does no good to dwell on our former trespasses when there’s work to be done. Paul repented, but he didn’t spend time bemoaning his former sins. He began serving immediately.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is that of St. Ambrose, who also followed God’s call despite his own apparent unworthiness. In the fourth century, Christendom was racked by heresy, schism, and general unrest. Milan, Ambrose’s hometown, was one of the battlefronts, as it were, of the dispute amongst Christians. In A.D. 374 Auxentius, then bishop of Milan, died. Upon convocation of all the Christians of Milan, then the means of electing a new bishop, the masses mysteriously and univocally began shouting “Ambrose for bishop!” This was particularly odd as Ambrose wasn’t even a priest–he was a Roman official and a relatively new convert to CHristianity. Ambrose made known his misgivings, but the people continued to call for his election and, as Ambrose soon realized, the Holy Spirit continued to call him as well. Ambrose was ordained a deacon and a priest and consecrated bishop in the span of a week and began with much prayer and self-sacrifice to mend a Church which was torn by strife. He didn’t dwell on his inexperience and fear. He began serving immediately.

None of this is meant to suggest that the work of God should be undertaken haphazardly. In this week’s gospel reading we see Jesus himself stopping and taking time to reevaluate the situation. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” We too must realize that the process of discernment, of figuring out to what God is calling us, must be undertaken carefully. Sometimes God’s will is not readily apparent, and we must, like our Lord, retreat to our own wilderness and listen for His still small voice. Sometimes we must take some much needed time to rest and recreate in order to undertake the work of God and to execute it more effectively. And we must take time to determine if what we are already doing is really God’s work on God’s terms, or if we’re actually doing our own work on our own terms.

The important distinction here is between preparation and procrastination. The distinction between them is sometimes a bit blurry and sometimes we can convince ourselves that we are doing the former when it’s really the latter. How easy it would have been for Simon’s mother-in-law to linger in bed a bit longer! How easily she could have justified it to herself! “I’ll rest up just a half an hour longer,” she might have said, “and afterward, I’ll surely be ten times more efficient ministering to this man who just healed me.” This is much like my own internal monologue every morning at about 5 o’clock, by the way. But Simon’s mother-in-law knew to what she was being called, and she knew that she was being called to it then and there.

This is awfully daunting stuff. God is calling each and every one of us to something all the time, and each of us is obliged to respond. It’s daunting, but it’s also reassuring. We are never so far out of God’s will that He stops calling us back. On our own road to Damascus, which is this earthly pilgrimage, we like Paul are being summoned by God to be continually converted, to die every moment to ourselves and the cares of this world and to be reborn to the concerns of the Kingdom of God and to the work God has given us to do. And though none of us is a David or a Paul or an Ambrose, we may each of us, like Simon’s mother-in-law, be a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. Than this there is no greater joy save heaven itself.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.