In it for the long haul
After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. 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. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 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.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Mark 1:29-39
In his short and action-packed gospel, Mark distills Jesus’ ministry. Right from the start, and in quick succession, we see Jesus being baptized, going to the desert to be alone in prayer, being tempted, and then coming back to recruit followers and go into his tireless ministry.
In just a couple of pages of text, we learn how Jesus acts in the world: he teaches, he heals, he expels demons, he rests, and then he goes away for a bit to be alone and pray. Only after a time in silence is he ready to go on.
That’s exactly what we heard in today’s gospel. After leaving the synagogue where he had just taught, he came to Peter and Andrew’s home where they found Peter’s mother-in-law with a fever.
With great compassion, Jesus goes to her and heals her. After supper, people came in droves to be healed, to have their demons expelled. At the end of a very long and exhausting day, Jesus rested. First thing next morning, when it was still dark, he went off to a solitary place to pray. Only after a time in silence is he ready to go on.
The lesson here is that If we want to stay in something for the long haul, we need to remember that being in a solitary place and praying is where it all begins and ends. The body also needs to rest; sleep and food are important too. But prayer in solitude, resting in God, is what the soul needs to be fed; to find the nourishment and strength it needs for the long haul.
Howard Thurman, the great theologian and mystic, who was the mentor and inspiration for many in the civil rights movement, from Martin Luther King Jr. to John Lewis and Jesse Jackson, always reminded these men of action that they needed not only to take care of themselves and rest, but also to seek some time alone to pray and to be in touch with the still, small voice that can be heard only when one is in prayerful silence. Then and only then, would they be strengthened and prepared to go back into action.
When in 1958, at the age of 29, Dr. King was stabbed during a book signing in Harlem, his life was in grave danger. Two surgeons, the best in their field, one African-American and one the son of Italians, were immediately brought in to treat him. After an operation that lasted more than two hours, they were able to save Dr. King’s life.
Ten years later, and on the eve of his assassination, he gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, with more than 2,500 in attendance. Talking about that fateful day when he was stabbed, he reminisced,
“I want to say tonight, I… am happy I didn’t sneeze, because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters.”
He went through the list of the other things he would have missed had he sneezed: the Freedom Riders, the Selma to Montgomery march, the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act and the March on Washington.
“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
In 1958, while Dr. King was recovering at Harlem Hospital after the attack on his life, Howard Thurman came to see him. The advice he gave him was to stay off the active trail for a while until he was fully recovered and to spend time in silence and prayer, so that he could really listen for guidance from within on what his role would be in the movement he had started but that now was getting stronger and had a life of its own. He wanted Martin, his spiritual son, to be spiritually strong for what lay ahead.
According to Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, the historian in charge of Howard Thurman’s papers in Boston University, Thurman “sensed the tragic dimensions of the civil rights struggle and the danger that awaits one who dares to stand publicly and speak truth in America.”
Martin Luther King Jr. followed his mentor’s advice and told Thurman that he would continue to mull over the question he had asked him to ponder, “Where do I go from here?.” Dr. King went to India after he recovered, and upon his return he was fully committed to non violence.
Years later, during another time of quiet reflection away from the spotlight in the island of Jamaica, he wrote extensively. After passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, a new focus was needed. Dr. King believed that the next phase would have different challenges, and demands for African Americans who kept struggling for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and education equal to that of whites. It would be his last book. The title: Where Do We Go from Here?
Howard Thurman was a kind of Spiritual Activist; he encouraged people to find their inner spark, something that is uniquely one’s own. In the quiet of silent prayer, we are urged to hear that unique sound.
We all have different gifts and talents to carry out God’s work in the world. The only way we can learn what our gifts are is by knowing ourselves. Like Cindy said in her sermon a few weeks ago, we need to listen well, listen hard to that which stirs us from within and moves us into action.
One of the lessons from Jesus that I treasure, is that he always kept the dialogue open with God—it was an ongoing conversation. That’s why he needed to find a quiet place where he could be still for a while, and listen, listen intently for promptings from God, helping him discern whether he was on the right path.
St. Mark’s has a great tradition of working for what’s right, of thinking of ways to help fight systemic injustice and dismantle racism, to continue advancing the agenda that was part of Dr. King’s dream. There are many ministries in our parish that people have supported over the years and continue to support today. In recent months, for example, we’ve been hearing about St. Mark’s rejoining WIN, the Washington Interfaith Network.
There is a great deal of enthusiasm, commitment and dedication by the core group, with meetings, trainings and other events. WIN’s current focus is on job creation and on housing equity, specifically in Reservation 13, the land that the District is planning to develop in Southeast DC. WIN’s advocacy centers on ensuring that developers build one third of the units for low-income residents, one third for middle-income earners and one third priced at market value.
There are other ministries, like the Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, which has been a yearly commemoration for seven years, only interrupted in 2020 because of the pandemic. That has been an ongoing effort, a labor of love supported by a large number of people from St. Mark’s and other organizations.
There is also our Incarceration Justice Ministry which started almost three years ago and is going strong, with new members joining and the possibility of working with RCAN, a network of several area churches which helps returning citizens whose needs are great and manifold.
Last, but not least, there are the ongoing efforts to educate ourselves in the realities of systemic injustice and racism that persist in our midst despite the work done over the years to try to remedy the situation. In this regard, we at St. Mark’s have been doing our part with book groups and with the sacred ground circles promoted by our diocese and by the national church. This past week was the last class of the first sacred ground circles.
It was a serious commitment of time and effort undertaken by twenty-one people of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds. Over ten sessions, our ideas about history, race and privilege were challenged through videos, articles, book excerpts, plus two core books. Every class took us to deep places in the heart. Our level of sharing and willingness to be vulnerable with one another was awe-inspiring. We cried, we learned from one another, and we came out of this experience better people—all ready and committed to continue in our efforts to learn and to act, each according to their gifts and talents.
I can’t wait to get started with our new circles; to continue to educate myself and to help others in their process of learning about themselves and the realities of our broken world. That is my calling, and I know it is, because every morning when I wake up and spend time in silent prayer, I keep asking the question and the answer still comes back affirming me in this ministry.
So how do we keep in it for the long haul? Only if we find the divine spark within us, only if we learn to know ourselves and offer ourselves to God, will we be able to discern what we are called to do with our lives. Not everyone is called to the same ministry; not everyone has the same talents and time. What is important is to know yourself by seeking guidance from your inner stirrings, talking with a mentor or one who knows you well, and following your heart. Offer yourself to God, like Jesus did, with love and compassion in service to others, and you’ll know what it is that you have to give and will be sustained in whatever that is for the long haul.
I am reminded of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, In it, they talk about the need to have new and creative human responses to the world’s social and economic problems that beset us, so that we can develop a sustainable society committed to healing and recovery. Their words fill me with optimism for a better world:
“This is where we begin—by acknowledging that our times confront us with realities that are painful to face, difficult to take in, and confusing to live with. Our approach is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness. The purpose of this journey is to find, offer, and receive the gift of Active Hope.“