Starting Over

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Mark 1: 29-39

1. Healing at Sundown

My friend visits his mother frequently. She is 100 years old. She now lives in a nursing home, a quiet place along the north shore. Over 100 years she and her family have known many places, other homes, many regions, other settings.

Sometimes, as here, a mother and son can share over many years a deepening and deeply loving friendship. I wonder how Peter and his mother-in-law got along. I wonder about you and your mom and your mother in law, too. I wonder if Peter’s affection and connection were as strong as that between my friend and his mom.

One day my friend was visiting, late in the afternoon. You are probably aware of the phenomenon tagged by the term ‘sun downing’. Later in the day, women and men who otherwise can function, who otherwise can be fairly clear headed, head into the twilight. As the sun sets, the sun sets for them. They lose track. They lose their way. They lose a part of their mind. We are not told of Peter’s mother in law’s malady, or of the time of day or night on which she was touched. She had a fever. She felt worse and then felt better. On the day my friend visited, he visited in the later afternoon.

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of losing one’s memory and mind, or a part of one’s memory and mind, chills me. For some years I have been reading Proust, a few pages a day, to marvel at the magic of memory. Now, in my mid fifties, I find, here and there, that my certainty in memory sometimes is proven to be in inverse proportion to the exact nature of the events remembered. The more certain I am of something, now and then, the less true is the memory, the less certain the certainty. I addressed a friend a few days ago, certain he had graduated from Cornell. He had not. Indeed, he had not and had not any affection or desire for the school. He was not offended at the mismemory, but neither was he honored. This is to say that even the younger among us can appreciate sunset. Carpe Diem…

My friend visited his mother at twilight. When he visits, they tell stories, and share cotidian morsels. They remember together. In that, they resemble our gathering here. We remember together, too. Some of that memory is in prayer, or liturgy if you like bigger words. Some of that memory, some of the best of it, is in hymnody. Some of that memory is in readings like this one, wherein St Mark in about 70ad, recalls a moment in 25ad. I wonder how certain he was as he wrote out these few Greek sentences? Mark seems to have been given a little collection of healing stories, which he then arranges, with a little attempt to give them form and order. Yet there is very little in the historical cupboard here, for us. No furniture in the room, for example, and no room. No words of healing, like ‘epratha’ or ‘anastasia’. No prayers, no hours, no murmuring of crowds. He gives us only the memory of someone who starts over. Sick, now well. Fever, now gone. One lone mother-in-law. Do you notice how the Gospel moves person to person? Do you notice how healing gives way to service? And she served them…

There is little need for the early church to go into detail. Their conviction is that the Lord of whom Mark writes, is the Lord who speaks in the community of the faithful, the same Jesus who is present to them…and to us.

There is an individual quality to the passage today, not always present, particularly in the fully apocalyptic passages, like this one, laden with disease and healing, laden with possession and demons, laden with quiet and speech. Truly new starts begin with individuals. Finally and fully, you have only one sort of control, self-control. And even that ninth fruit of spirit is fragile. The world gets better one person at a time. So Simon. So Simon’s mother in law. So Simon’s neighbors and friends. Then, at last the whole city. You start resurrection like you start a campfire. You start over, one twig at a time, the smaller the better. In resurrection, that is, there is a place for twenty year olds.

Once the sun had set my friend thought maybe he should be moving along. He is a minister and so sometimes he says a prayer by the bedside. Sometimes he reads a little bit from the Psalms, or from the Gospels. ‘That evening, AT SUNDOWN, they brought to him all who were sick…’ I like to think that he read to her Mark 1:32, ‘at sundown…. Finding a living connection, a nexus as Peter Berger calls it, between your life and your religious tradition, is like finding a way to start over. Sundown, in Palestine, in 25ad. Sundown, in Massachusetts, in 2009ad. I like to think of my friend, at sundown, with his mother, at sundown, reading and praying, at sundown. The image has a healing quality to it, a medicinal and transformative quality. The day begins at sundown. Evening and morning, one day. Evening is the sign and the time to start over.

The world gets better one person at a time. I want to leave my friend hovering of his mother for a moment, like Simon leaning over his feverish mother in law. Hold him there in your mind, just for a moment.

2. There is Time

In the healing ministry of Jesus there was, and there still is, a powerful incentive to start over. He healed many… You may have missed several classes this term already, but there is time to start over. You may have fallen off the wagon year after year, over against much New Year’s resolution, but there is time to start over. You may have missed a chance or three to set things right with your partner, but there is time to start over. You may have now an enforced, a pink slip occasion to set out again, out onto the wide sea of a new career, but your time is time to start over. 82% of all job losses this recession have befallen men, not women. Men, there is time, time to start over. You might want to dust off your copy of an old book, Who Moved My Cheese?.

In the exorcist ministry of Jesus there was, and there still is, a powerful incentive to start over. He cast out many demons…This country may have let an unconscionable distance grow between the least among us and the elite among us, but there is time to start over. This country may have fallen off the wagon year after year, over against much resolution to eschew greed, but there is still time to start over. This country may have missed chances to build wise partnerships the globe over to support the things that make for peace, but there is still time to start over. We may now have an enforced, depression based occasion to set out again, out onto the wide sea of liberty and justice FOR ALL, but this is nonetheless, though perhaps unbidden and unchosen, still an occasion to start over. You might want to dust off your copy of an old book, The Courage To Be.

3. Religious Make Over

You sit in a likely place to start over. The gospel of Jesus Christ envisions a two way street between religious and intellectual life. One recent afternoon, on your behalf, with you in spirit and mind, I visited the Hillel House regarding a program on grieving, I visited the Islamic Society as they began their weekly prayers in the basement of the student union, I visited Swami Tyagananda at the Vedanta Society. We have nothing to defend and everything to share, if we remember who we are.

You sit in a likely place to start over. The
gospel of Jesus Christ envisions a two way street between the religious community and human experience. We sit together with those who ponder rules and policies for student life. We plan to celebrate with all who will come the non-religious holiday of Valentines’ Day, even as we already have observed Ground Hog day. We join with the Catholic Center and others in a mid-week celebration of Christian Unity. We have nothing to defend and everything to share, if we remember who we are.

4. The Glory of God is a Woman Fully Alive

Speaking of healing, we celebrated the funeral for a nurse here this week. Rose Dixon, a real human being! You may have seen her obituary in the Boston Globe. Born in 1949, an African American woman, Rose one day found the grace to start over. In 1967 she was working in drudgery, back in the file room of an insurance company. For someone of her vibrant personality, it must have been a prison. One afternoon a friend stopped in and told her about ODWIN, a new program for nurses. She graduated in 1972 from Boston University with a degree in nursing. She was healed, and she did heal!

Yet her healing was a part, a thin tradition voice across all these decades, of what life might be, a healing of the nation. Her niece, Melissa Christine Goodrum, an accomplished poet, put it this way:

Auntie Rose loved being Auntie Rose
And the billowing costumes of Masterpiece Theatre
The drama of the theatre, ballet and lights on Broadway
PBS, BBC and anything having to do with Jane Austin
Looking at the costumes, patrons and talking furs of the opera
Listening to the sopranos’ aria at the opera
Anrea Boccelli, Luciano Pavarrotti, Kathleen Battle, Mahalia Jackson and Sweet Honey and the Rock
Singing along with the soundtrack from the BODYGUARD
Listening to Mozart in her Mazda while driving along the Charles
The lights of New York City, Chinatown, and bargaining at the open market
Talking about the market and being savvy
Watching the pundits on CNN
Commenting like a pundit on CNN
Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes and the Latest Breaking News
Watching Charlie Rose, listening to Charlie Rose
And watching his interviews with Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn
Talking about the state of the world
Being hopeful about the future of the world
Talking about history and the politicians in the world

Another niece simply said, ‘Auntie Rose thought it was more important to look good than to be on time’.

She was healed, she healed, and she became a part of the healing of the nation.

The world gets better one person at a time.

To have time alone, Jesus rose early, and went out to a lonely place. The mystery of his life already prefigures the mystery of his death. The demons know him, so he will not let them speak. Preaching and healing, he continues on the way.

Did you notice the conclusion to our Psalm? Steadfast love is itself an inspiration to hope. An individual example of reliable love—and I have seen many this week among and within this congregation—is itself a source of hope. One by one. Peter, Mother in Law, Neighbor, Neighborhood, City, all…

5. A Chance Meeting

On Thursday Boston University gathered for the single biggest photograph ever. Students, faculty and staff filled out onto the basketball court at Agganis Arena, following the twilight victory, after sundown, of BU over Albany. One of the students was dressed as Jesus: long hair, full beard, white tunic, sandals. And a BU scarlet scarf. Who would have known that our Lord was a Terrier fan? Through the crowd I moved to greet him. I felt it was my duty, as Dean of the Chapel. At last the crowd parted, and before the sea of students moved again, I had the chance to stretch out my hand. My mind was blank, my lips were dry, and my voice quaked. At last, not knowing what to say, I gurgled, ‘I have always wanted to meet you…’ He lowered his chin, piercing me with his dark eyes, paused, and then said, simply, ‘I understand’. We talk about Jesus every Sunday here in Marsh Chapel, but at the Athletic Department, you can shake his hand. We preach about him here, but there you can greet him. We sing his praise here, but there you can look him in the eye. Unfair competition…

Healing happens one by one. This week, during my annual physical, our doctor measured, and looked, and tested, and questioned. Mostly, though, she listened. If you want to heal others, first you must make sure you are healthy. Jesus went out early, alone, to pray.

Sunday morning is the time we start over. Every Lord’s Day, every Resurrection Day, every Sunday is a time to start over. We remember, now, who are, who are meant to be, who we want to be, who we are trying to be.

6. G.B.Caird Starts Over

This summer I discovered in an old box, a prize possession, a copy of a sermon from 60 years ago.

It is GB Caird’s inaugural sermon as a professor of New Testament at McGill University, Montreal, in 1951. Here are some highlights:

“Today we have come to recognize that we have no knowledge of any Jesus of history other than the Christ to whom the writers of the New Testament bear united witness, that St. Paul made good his claim to have the mind of Christ and is in fact the greatest of all Christ’s interpreters, and that St. Mark’s Gospel is no less theological than that of St. John.

“Anyone who imagines that the contribution of critical scholarship to the study of the New Testament can be lightly brushed aside to allow for a return to the traditional orthodoxy must be totally ignorant of what he condemns.

“Sooner or later the demand was bound to be made for a new movement which should rediscover beneath the diversity the fundamental unity of the New Testament, which can be felt even by those unable to prove its existence. The prophet of the new movement was C H Dodd.

“We can still regard the Bible as the Word of God—a word communicated not by the automatic processes of verbal inspiration but through the fallible powers and kaleidoscopic variety of human speech and thought, yet a word unique in its authority and appeal.

“I propose to set before you in three illustrations a view of life which seems to me to be common to all the richly varied writings of the New Testament, and to be the peculiar contribution of those writings to the religious thought of mankind.

“The Sovereignty of God: God is the Lord of heaven and earth. It is he who makes his sun shine on the evil and the good…The invisible nature of God is clearly seen in the things he has made…Nowhere outside the Bible do we find such an exalted faith in the Living God…Only in the Bible and the religions derived from it do we find a belief in the sovereign purposes of God.

(Caird addresses Jewish nationalism, pessimism and legalism), before turning to the problem of evil, to which academic question the NT gives no answer, but rather responds to what can be done about it: “God has done something. His kingdom of righteousness has broken in upon the kingdom of Satan.” The NT supplants the above three with universalism, optimism, and spiritual freedom.

The Destiny of Man. “The NT always regards the life of man in the light of eternity…NT thought is always eschatological.” (NT combines vertical Greek with horizontal Hebrew eschatology. “The essence of sin is self-love and the essence of salvation is that the old self dies in order that out of it may rise a new self with its love set on the proper objects of love—God and neighbors.

“The Christian who knows and practices
the New Testament faith regards the world not as a vale of tears or as a house of correction, but as a fit setting for a life of heavenly citizenship…Perfection is a social achievement and only in the corporate perfection of the new society of God’s kingdom can a man find his own subordinate perfection.

The Argument from Experience. “Life in the New Testament is viewed in the light not of theory but of experience…It is impossible to describe an experience to one who is incapable of sharing it…It is no criticism of St Paul as a theologian if we say that he touches the deepest springs of our spiritual life when the theologian yields to the poet…The New Testament does not leave us in any doubt as to the nature of the equipment required for the appreciation of its testimony. To the humbling of all University professors, let it be admitted that it is not intellectual; there are things hidden from the wise and learned which are revealed to babes. The equipment is moral. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled…Whatever be the relation in other faculties between pure and applied science, we in the Faculty of Divinity are ever conscious that the science of theology must be subservient to the practice of Christian living.

“To the fatalism of those who see the world hustled by a blind impulse to an unknown destiny the New Testament proclaims that behind the manifold workings of the mysterious universe there is a personal and purposing power; to the loneliness of those whom the friendship of this world has failed to satisfy it offers the fellowship of a new society; to the optimism which still hopes to build utopia by social reform it declares that that society is already in being; to the materialism which has submitted to the facile attractions of worldly security and comfort it asserts that the kingdom is not of this world; to the rationalism which demands logical proof it responds with the testimony of personal experience; and to the pessimism which is overwhelmed by the burden of the world’s shame and sorrow it gives the assurance that the Lord God omnipotent reigns.”

7. Coda

Memory is such a fragile magic. I don’t know about you, but the thought of losing one’s memory and mind is chilling, to me.

Now it is sundown in the nursing home. Now my friend has read and prayed. Now he is ready to go, to go home, to go on to other duties and promises. His mother drifts a little at twilight. He puts on his coat and hat. He draws out his gloves. She gestures to him. ‘Tell me again who you are?’ And he does. ‘Oh, yes. Yes.’ He gives his love, and tells her of his love. He moves to leave. She gestures again to him. ‘Tell me again why it is that we love each other?’

Your memory is not as good as you think it is. Not for the big, old things, at any rate. So before the week begins, before I put on my gloves, before Monday morning hits, before we part company, we linger to remember why it is that we love each other. Then we are ready to start over.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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