Epiphany 5b, February 8, 2015

February 10, 2015

Making The Right Call
Mark 1:29-39

1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I’m not a big fan of the NFL. I rarely watch a professional football game during the regular season, but I usually tune in to the Super Bowl, and I always find some reason to be for or against one of the teams. I decided I would root for the Seahawks this year. I think I based my decision on the demeanor of the Seahawks’ coach – Pete Carroll. The coach for the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, has a powerfully unhappy face, and it sort of puts me off. He’s clearly a good football coach, and he might even be a great person to have over for super on a Friday night, but that’s not the message that you get from the look on his face.

When you have no allegiance to either team it’s easy to find something more appealing about one team than the other, and that’s what I look for – a shallow reason to prefer one team over the other one. I preferred the look on Pete Carroll’s face and I found the uniforms of the Patriots to be pretty bland, so I was all for the Seahawks. Primarily I primarily wanted an interesting game, and it was that! It was an exciting game up to the last moment, and then my coach blew it! The Seahawks were four points behind, but they had the ball on the one yard line with 3 plays to go and 30 seconds on the clock – and they attempted a pass to a guy who was in the middle of this mass of humanity and it was intercepted.

Lou Holtz once pointed out that there are 3 things that can happen when you throw a pass and two of them are bad. I only had been a Seahawks fan for about 3 hours at that point, but I was infuriated by that call. I really can’t imagine how actual fans were left feeling at that moment. I’ve heard a couple of people defend the wisdom of that call, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s likely that that call will go down in history as the worst play ever called.

The winner of the Super Bowl has no impact on anything of any real significance, but I found that situation to bring a lot of attention to this exercise of decision-making. I went to bed last Sunday night troubled by the way that football ended. I think my feelings were split between being annoyed that Coach Carroll had led my freshly chosen team to defeat, but I think I also was tormented by the thought of how badly he must have felt when that game ended so badly. It’s easy for me to imagine myself making the wrong call – I wasn’t just annoyed – I was feeling his pain. I know what it feels like to be in that club. I don’t always make the wrong call, but I know what it feels like to do that.

Part of what it means to be an adult human being is having to make a lot of decisions – and that’s not necessarily the fun part. When you are a kid you think you want to have more freedom to make your own decisions, but it’s when you become authorized to make your own decisions and decisions for other people that life gets complicated.

The events of this first chapter in Mark make me think that Jesus knew what it felt like to have to make difficult decisions. The fact that he moved so quickly from one situation to the next gives the impression that Jesus knew exactly what he needed to do next, and I don’t doubt that he had a good amount of clarity in regard to where he needed to be and what he needed to be doing, but I don’t think he made those quick decisions without engaging in some good old-fashioned soul searching. He was decisive, but I don’t believe he was on autopilot.

To watch what Jesus does in this first chapter of Mark is to watch a man on a clear-minded mission. What we see in Jesus are the actions of a man who appears to know what he needed to do. He seamlessly went from one spot to the next and he responded to the various circumstances he encountered without delay or misstep. He was on his game. Of course this first chapter is the beginning of the first quarter, so to speak, but we don’t get the sense that he had any sense of ambivalence about where he needed to go and what he needed to be doing.

And of course this is no big deal if you are inclined to think of Jesus as the pre-programmed Son of God who never had to wonder where he needed to be or what he needed to be doing. If Jesus was of a different biological and spiritual substance than you and I he had no choice but to do what God would do. He would always do the right thing if he had the wisdom of God perfectly downloaded into his brain. If that were the case it would be amazing if he ever did anything that wasn’t perfectly prescribed by God. And of course we don’t know of anything he ever did that wasn’t becoming of a perfect God-man, but Mark includes a piece of information that indicates to me that he wasn’t removed from this process of trying to understand where he needed to go and what he needed to do. If Jesus was perfectly programmed to do what God would do, I don’t know why he got up and went off to pray so early in the morning.

I find this little detail to be very endearing of Jesus. He wasn’t perfectly programmed. Like the rest of us – Jesus had to make some difficult decisions. There were a lot of people parked around the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who were in need of him, but he chose not to stick around. I sort of hate to think about what those people had to say about him when they got word that he wasn’t coming back. You can bet there were some Monday-morning quarterbacks claiming he had made the worst decision ever, but I’m thinking there were some others who came to discover that God wasn’t just available through the physical presence of Jesus. I’m guessing there were others who came to understand that the good news Jesus offered wasn’t limited by his physical presence.

I trust that there were others who continued to find healing and relief at the home of Simon Peter’s mother in law. She didn’t get up and ask what she could do. When Jesus lifted her up she knew what to do – she began to serve others – and that’s what Jesus wanted everyone who heard the good news to do. It would have been tempting to do what the crowd expected him to do – which is to continue to serve the multitude of people who had arrived at the house and who expected him to provide them with what they thought they needed, but Jesus had to get in touch with that deeper voice that reminded him that he didn’t just need to meet the expectations of those desperate individuals – Jesus had a message he needed to get out to the multitudes.

I’ve been listening to The History of the Civil War, by Shelby Foote. His book is divided in to three volumes, and I’m only about half-way through the second volume, but it’s been very educational for me. I didn’t know very much about that brutal chapter in our history, and I now know more than I want to know in some ways, but one thing that’s particularly interesting to me is the way that the military leaders of both sides made the decisions that they made. It’s quite a study in the decision-making process. The various commanders were motivated by a variety of factors – not the least of which was public adoration and peer rivalry. You would think in situations where life and death were at stake there would be more attention to actual competency, but that doesn’t seems to be the case.

And of course religious conviction was part of the mix. For Stonewall Jackson, the Civil War was on the level of a religious crusade. But many of the military commanders were very rank conscious and they weren’t just motivated to stay alive – they wanted to be recognized as successful leaders. And this was the case with the leaders of both sides.

Of course I’m hearing the story of the war filtered through the perspective of one man, but he didn’t make up the attitudes of the military leaders – Shelby Foote read endless diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and other official documents that revealed the thinking of the various decision makers of the war, and in addition to doing what they thought would properly prosecute the for the best results of their cause – many of the commanders of the day had an eye for what would enable them to make the best showing for themselves.

And I totally understand that. It doesn’t bother me that people often engage in self-aggrandizing activities. I’m happy for people to get credit for work well done. As Muhammad Ali once said, It’s not bragging if you can back it up. But it’s not so pretty when people are guided by the thought of how they will be perceived by their peers, superiors, and the public at large.

It’s hard not to want to make decisions that are highly regarded by other people. Sometimes it’s just one person you are wanting to impress. Sometimes there are a bunch of people hanging around the house that have a strong agenda for you. You might even find yourself in that rare position where millions of people are glued to their televisions waiting to see what you will choose to do. Many times what you decide will have very little impact in the grand scheme of things, but from what I can tell, the most essential thing any of us can do is to attempt to be in touch with God before we do anything – which is how Jesus chose to operate.

The voice of God isn’t easy to hear. In fact if you are like me, you rarely have that absolutely clear sense of what God would have you do or say, but I know it’s essential to seek the wisdom of God in all that we do. If nothing else, the exercise of seeking to be in silent contact with God at least removes you from the cacophony of voices of those who think they know what you need to do and who don’t restrain themselves from letting you know what they think.
The house of Simon Peter’s mother in law was surrounded by people who were desperate for contact with Jesus. The disciples themselves were pressuring him to get back to the house and take care of them, but Jesus was focused on the one voice that he knew he needed to hear, and that was what enabled him to do the work that we continue to celebrate today.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure of the moment to take care of whatever seems to be bearing down. When that’s the case, remember what Jesus did. Step away from the voices that are the loudest, and seek to hear the word of God.

Thanks be to God for that mysteriously peaceful word that can come to us when we are in the most need of hearing it.


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