It’s not every Sunday that the Gospel reading seems so easy to disregard, as is the case this morning. There are at least two details reported to us by Saint Mark that sound, to my ears, so hard to believe, so unlikely, so far removed from reality as to render the Gospel message nearly laughable to 21st century ears.
The details to which I am referring, are not the ones you may at first suspect. I am not put off by the idea that Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever by simply taking her hand and lifting her up. I am not suspicious of the idea that the first thing the woman did when she was healed was to go about the task of getting tea for the men, or whatever else was involved in serving them. I do not find it dubious that Jesus healed many people there at her house, quite miraculously, or that he cast out demons – although I realize that these details do seem far-fetched to modern ears. They are, however, almost completely plausible compared to the two claims made in Mark’s Gospel that seem at first blush to be almost impossible to the contemporary listener in Philadelphia.
The first such claim is this: “the whole city was gathered around the door.” The city in question is Capernaum, which was no tiny village – it was a city of decent size. But in my own mind, I tend to transpose the story to Philadelphia – though it could be any city in America. And I find it nearly impossible to imagine such intense interest in Jesus, no matter what kind of miracles he was performing.
Admittedly, I have been an Episcopalian my entire life, so skepticism about interest in Jesus is my birthright. Nevertheless, in my experience the only thing you can get an entire American city interested in is baseball. I have been on Broad Street after the Phillies won the World Series. I know what it feels like for the whole city, more or less, to be gathered with joy and enthusiasm. I cannot picture this kind of gathering for Jesus here in my own city. I cannot translate the English into reality: a whole city gathered around the door to come to Jesus.
The second unbelievable claim in the Gospel this morning is related to the first. It is found on the lips of his disciples when they go looking for Jesus the next morning, for he had escaped the city environs in order to find a quiet place to pray. Mark reports that Simon Peter, and Andrew, and James, and John “hunted” for Jesus; they tracked him down. And when they found him they told him this: “Everyone is searching for you.”
I don’t know what that sounded like two thousand years ago, but today it sounds preposterous. Can you believe for a moment that everyone is searching for Jesus? Let’s not even be literal about it; be as generous as you want to be, grant Mark as much poetic license as you want. Hoards of people are looking for Jesus? A lot of people are looking for Jesus? Quite a few? A handful? Two or three? I won’t speak for you, I will only speak for myself – again as a lifelong Episcopalian – I have been very nearly programmed to wonder whether anyone is searching for Jesus?
Laugh if you will, but I would contend that it does not often occur to Christians of nearly any stripe these days that anyone at all is searching for Jesus. And if we were to come across the odd person who was looking for Jesus, many Christians wouldn’t have a clue about how to help that searching soul find him.
Everyone is searching for you, Jesus.
I discovered in the New York Times this week that a young poet of sorts, a spoken word artist, attracted great attention by posting a video on YouTube entitled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” In the poem, we are asked, “If Jesus came to your church would they actually let him in?” Religion, in the view of the poet, is an incubator for hypocrisy:
“Religion says slave, Jesus says son.
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see.”
The point of the poem is summed up in this line comparing Jesus and religion: “See, one’s the work of God, but one’s a man made invention.” And the reason the video of the performance of this poem is of interest is because it has gone viral, as they say. In something like two weeks, it has been viewed more than 18 million times. By contrast, last week on an unusually busy day the Saint Mark’s website got 900 hits – an average day is more like 300. And, the reason the video performance of the poem is of interest, in the words of one commentator, is that it “perfectly captures the mood... and confusion, of a lot of earnest, young Christians.”
Part of that mood seems to be this: At least about 18 million people just might be searching for Jesus. And I suspect that if there are 18 million searching on YouTube there are millions more searching in other places. But the mood also suggests that religion is perceived by many as a barrier to finding Jesus.
It’s not my purpose this morning to address that argument – you can find interesting responses to it on the Web and in the New York Times, among other places. And I will say that I am among those who find the thinking behind “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” both highly misguided, yet important to pay attention to.
It’s my purpose to wonder why so many of us find it so hard to believe that anyone is searching for Jesus, when everyone is searching for him – or, if not everyone, at least 18 million people, or more.
And is it any wonder? Jesus brings healing to the broken and suffering. Jesus brings peace to those tormented by demons. Jesus brings freedom to those who are imprisoned. Jesus brings hope to those mired in despair. Jesus brings light where there is darkness. Jesus brings life where there was only death to be found. This is the message of the Gospel – that Jesus brings all this to the world, gives all this to the world. And I can’t prove any of that to you; I can only ask you to come and see for yourself what happens when you put your trust in Jesus. Or I can bring Jesus to you if you will let me, and hope that you find, as I have, that your life is better with Jesus in it.
What has happened is that a young poet, earnestly trying to express his love for the Lord of Salvation, and to share that love with others, has located a door, and a city of 18 million people have gathered around that door.
At that door the curious can linger, the inspired can replay the video, the doubtful can ask questions, the annoyed can huff and puff, the timid can get close enough to hear, and the converted can join in and write their own poems if they want to. What they know is that the door frames something meaningful, something important, something life-giving, something life-saving. And they know that the door frames something they have been searching for: someone they have been searching for.
When Saint Mark’s was built, more than 160 years ago, our forebears who built it understood the importance of a door. The great red doors that face Locust Street were not actually part of the original plan; I’m not sure there was a plan for the doors that face Locust Street. They were originally exceedingly plain. Perhaps there was not money, or perhaps there was not an idea for what should go there, but in time both materialized – more than 50 years after the church was built – and the doors of this church were made unmistakable with their red paint, ornate hinges, and the image of Christ the King reigning over them. Ever since, we have assumed that the role of those doors is to let people in. Get the city to gather at your doors, and then bring them in to sing and pray and learn, and grow, and live together as a community of Christ’s love. And, in many ways, for many years, the doors have functioned well in this manner.
But now we live in a world in which millions are listening carefully at other doors when a young man declares “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” And when we discover that entire cities are gathering at other doorways, it may not hurt to go back to the Gospel and see what happened there.
And we find that Jesus did not open up a parish church in the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We find, in fact that he left the house very early the next morning, before the sun was up, or anyone else had awakened; he was already out the door to pray and prepare himself.
The disciples track him down to tell him that everyone is searching for him. I suspect this means, in part, that the crowd has gathered again at the door of the house – a house that could never accommodate them all anyway
But Jesus does not go back to the house. He is already out the door. “Let us go on,” he says, “to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Our doors will always be open to allow people in, to welcome them with warmth and love, and the invitation to find rest and comfort and hope in Jesus.
But sometimes we must use the doorways as Jesus did: to go out, to travel with him, to send one another on our ways, to proclaim the message where it has not and cannot be heard unless we go out through the doors.
And when we do, we should not be surprised to discover that everyone is searching for Jesus, which seems hard to believe if we shut ourselves inside the door. But let us go on, beyond our own doorways, so that we may proclaim the message, for that is what he sends us out to do when we tell him in our prayers what he has always known, but we are only just learning: Everyone is searching for you, Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 February 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia