Sunday, February 05, 2012

Love, Not Magic

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 5, 2012

Year B: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31
(Psalm 147:1-12, 21c)
(1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
Mark 1:29-39

Love, Not Magic

Who here is familiar with Penn and Teller?

They’re magicians – Penn’s the tall, talkative one and Teller is the short, silent partner. They’re both who’ve been around for a few decades now, appearing on TV and for the past few years they’ve had a regular gig out in Las Vegas. Sue and I have seen them a couple of times and - though not appropriate for young children – they put on a pretty entertaining show.

They do all sorts of magic tricks – some traditional and others amazingly creative and seemingly very dangerous.

What sets Penn and Teller apart from other magicians, though, is that they often explain how they do their own tricks. During Teller’s famous red ball trick, Penn usually tells the audience, “It’s done with thread!”

Penn and Teller also delight in explaining how other magicians - and also psychics - manage to pull off their seemingly amazing feats. They’re happy to explain how the woman in the box is never in any danger of being sawed in half or how the psychic can figure out the name of your long-lost relative. Needless to say this doesn’t make them too popular with magicians and psychics!

Well, Penn and Teller would have had a great time if they lived in First Century Palestine, during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

In those very pre-scientific days, as among many today, there was a profound belief in the spirit world. In particular, people believed in – and feared - the power of evil spirits – of demons – who were always hard at work causing pain and suffering, especially in the form of possession and illness.

That firm belief in a powerful spirit world provided many opportunities for magicians, sorcerers and enchanters to roam the land claiming they had special powers or knew just the right mix of herbs and potions or understood how to cast spells that could cure whatever ailed you – from demonic possession to a skin disease to infertility to, well, you name it.

From this distance it’s hard to judge how many of these magicians were charlatans out to fool people in pursuit of fame and fortune and how many really believed they had special powers or knowledge. And there were probably some magicians who were some mix of fraud and sincere belief.

But this is the world in which Jesus and his first followers lived. This was a world that expected exorcisms to occur. This was a world in which people looked for miraculous healings and honored people who could perform them.

I’m sure Penn and Teller would have delighted in trying to expose them as frauds.

As we’ve mentioned before, for most of the Sundays this year we’re going to be making our way through the Gospel of Mark – the earliest and the most barebones of the four gospels.

And the Evangelist Mark likes to tell us that people were impressed by the teaching of Jesus. Last week we heard about Jesus and his first followers arriving at Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee.

Mark tells us that on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. He writes, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Mark then goes on to tell us that there was a man with an “unclean spirit” – an unclean spirit who recognizes who Jesus is – the Holy One of God.

Jesus performs an exorcism – using language and a formula that are found in other accounts of exorcisms from around that time. So, although I’m sure we’d all be quite surprised to have an exorcism this morning here at Grace Church, people in the synagogue in Capernaum probably weren’t shocked at all. Exorcisms, while not routine, were not unheard of in that time and place.

Then we move from the synagogue to the home of the brothers Simon and Andrew. Jesus is told at once that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever. We’re told that Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Again, this kind of healing would have been familiar and expected in the ancient world. In fact, people at that time - and maybe even we - might even start to think that Jesus was just another magician or sorcerer like those guys out roaming around selling their “special” powers.

But, there are some key differences.

First of all, Jesus doesn’t do anything to promote himself – just the opposite, really.

Maybe because he doesn’t want to be associated with the charlatans, throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus specifically tells his followers not to say a word about the mighty wonders they’ve seen. For example, in today’s lesson, Jesus goes off by himself to pray even though – or maybe because - the word about him has gotten out and everyone was searching for him.

Second, Jesus’ miracles are not merely physical healings. Jesus’ miracles are part of his teaching. Jesus’ miracles are about the transformation of the whole person.

And Mark makes this point in the little snapshot of Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost comical: she’s healed and then immediately she began to serve them. But, in those few words, in that little scene, we see not magic but the true power of God to transform us from broken, sick people into people who give away our lives in humble, loving, and generous service.

Over the past few months, Lauren and I have been doing a lot of anointing of the sick. At our Wednesday morning healing Eucharist some members of the congregation stay at the altar rail to be anointed for themselves or for another or sometimes both.

And then both of us have been visiting – and anointing - people who are ill – in homes or hospitals or nursing homes.

It’s one of the great privileges of my life and work. Because I want to be careful about what I say, I just about always say the same prayer when I anoint someone – it’s basically right out of the book:
“I lay my hand upon you and anoint you with oil, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you, to fill you with grace, so you may know the healing power of his love.”

“The healing power of his love.”

Love, not magic.

I always hope and pray that the people I anoint will recover, but sometimes they don’t. Just in the last few months we’ve anointed two parishioners repeatedly, but they still died.

To be honest, it would be unbearable and I’d give up anointing people if I thought it was only, or even mostly, about physical healing.

But, it’s not. After all, eventually Simon’s mother-in-law died even though Jesus had healed her fever that day in Capernaum. She died just as all of us will die someday.

What’s most important is God’s love – that healing power of love that we experience in and through Jesus – that healing power of love that transforms us, even in – or especially in - times of great suffering.

And I know the healing power of God’s love is real because I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the healing power of God’s love when in times of great sadness and fear, in a hospital room filled with beeping and blinking machines, people are able to express… joy, to remember happy times, to give thanks for good gifts, and sometimes are even able to laugh.

I’ve seen the healing power of God’s love when a person found Grace Church in the phonebook and called asking if a priest would hear her confession. After she made her confession and I pronounced absolution I could actually see a physical change in her face as a huge burden of shame and guilt was lifted off her soul.

Love, not magic.

We don’t like to admit it, but in some ways we’re all broken and sick and all in need of the healing power of God’s love.

We all have fears and regrets and doubts. We all suffer loss and will lose more in the future. We all carry heavy baggage - though we try to fool everyone, including maybe ourselves, into thinking we’ve got our act together and don’t have a care in the world.

But God knows. And so we’re all offered the healing power of God’s love.

We’re offered God’s healing power of love through the support of family and friends.

We’re offered God’s healing power of love when we pray, when we listen to God’s Word, when we’re anointed and most especially when we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

God’s healing power of love can transform us just as it transformed Simon’s mother-in-law. God’s healing power of love can transform us from being sick and broken into people who give away our lives in humble, loving, and generous service to one another and to God.

The truth is, there’s nothing here for Penn and Teller to debunk because it’s love, not magic.

May God fill us with grace so we may all know the healing power of God’s love.