Sickness. Demons. RESPITE. Ministry.
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 1:29-39
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the last few weeks’ gospel readings have been incredibly short. That’s because our Epiphany readings this year all come from Mark. If John is the blogger of the gospels and Luke is Facebook, then Mark is Twitter. John is longform—poetic, deep, and metaphorical. John is happy to use as many words as are needed to paint his picture of a cosmic Christ. Luke is more personal, relational, speaking to our shared sense of values. And Mark, well, Mark is happy reporting the story in 240 characters or less. The gospel of Mark is more of a newspaper report: just the facts. No lingering.
In fact, despite the order that’s in our Bible, Mark was actually the first gospel to be written. It was one of the boilerplates that both Matthew and Luke pulled from to put together their accounts. They each took the facts of Mark and put their own spin on them: Matthew took the Jewish perspective while Luke sought to speak more to the Gentiles, framing Jesus as savior to the outsiders.
But Mark has no such framing. He simply reports on the whereabouts and works of Jesus, quick and to the point—leaving Matthew and Luke and all of us to interpret Jesus for ourselves.
We see this today. Lots of action in relatively few words. Jesus and four disciples leave the synagogue where Jesus has just launched his formal ministry. They go to a house where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Then a whole bunch of people show up to be healed. Jesus tells everyone not to tell anyone about him, which obviously didn’t work. We’re still talking about him 2,000 years later. Anyways, then Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray and his disciples go looking for him. They find him, and he says, “let’s get out of here and spread this good news everywhere.”
All of that happens in ten verses. John could only dream of being so succinct.
But I think what I’m most interested in today is Jesus’ movement in this brief pericope. He heals sickness. He casts out demons. He goes to a quiet, deserted place to rest and pray. Then he goes out to do the work God called him to do.
Sickness. Demons. Respite. Ministry.
Sounds kind of familiar right now.
This simple, speedy, succinct passage might offer us hope for right now.
First, sickness. I don’t think we have to think too hard to make that parallel. Right now, the pandemic constantly surrounds us with the threat of sickness. Many of us have loved ones who have had Covid. Some of us have loved ones who have died of Covid. And all of us know people who we don’t ever want to get Covid because we don’t know what it might do to them.
But demons and unclean spirits—that’s not quite as obvious to our modern situation.
I think it’s easy to think of demons as these evil spirits lurking in horror movies or waiting for bad people in the afterlife. But I think there are demons that we actually face in our day-to-day life, and they are much more complicated. Addiction can be a demon. Mental illness can be a demon. Poverty can be a demon. Depression can be a demon. White supremacy is a demon.
It’s easy to blame individuals for their demons, but there are usually much larger things going on when it comes to our demons. Generational trauma, systemic greed, genetically inherited brain chemistry, institutional racism. These are the things our demons thrive on. But my goodness, it’s so much easier to personify a demon in an individual or even a scary-looking being than to see it as something larger and more abstract.
However we believe in demons, the gospels tell us that essentially they do two things: they cut people off from themselves and they cut people off from their community.
The world’s response to the pandemic—though completely necessary—has done exactly that. We have been cut off from our communities. Our schools, our workplaces, our church. We’ve been cut off from each other—we can’t sit down for coffee together or invite each other over for dinner. Even when we do get together, we can’t even be close to each other or see half of each other’s faces.
Again, this isn’t to say that the restrictions we’ve been living with are wrong. That’s not it at all. It’s to say that the situation we’re in right now is cutting us off from our community, and because we’ve been cut off from our community for so long, we’re starting to feel cut off from ourselves.
It’s hard work getting through this time. It’s hard work keeping ourselves going when we feel so cut off. Just as I imagine it was hard work for Jesus to heal the sick. Remember that time the bleeding woman touched the hem of his robe to be healed, and Jesus felt his energy going out to her? Healing is sometimes hard work. Casting out demons is hard work. Tackling depression, addiction, poverty, white supremacy, the isolation of this pandemic is hard work.
Jesus did it, and we’re doing it. But do you know what Jesus also did? Remember?
Sickness. Demons. RESPITE. Proclaiming.
The gospel tells us that Jesus “got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Jesus found a quiet place away from everyone else where he could find respite. Respite, the Oxford dictionary tells us, is “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult.” Jesus always seemed to know when he needed it, and he made space for it in his work and ministry. That, my friends, is good news.
We are in the eleventh month of a pandemic. The eleventh month of being isolated. We are constantly doing the hard work of healing and casting out the demons that isolation brings. All on top of our normal lives: our normal jobs and commitments and struggles and illnesses that aren’t Covid. This. Is. Hard. Work.
We don’t have to keep plugging away. We don’t have to keep moving at this exhausting pace. And guess what—what used to be our normal pace is now an exhausting pace. We need to slow down. We. Need. Respite.
Just like Jesus. He knew he couldn’t fully live into his work and ministry without it.
This Lent, which starts on February 17, we’re going to look for respite as a community. You’ll be hearing more about it in the coming week.
But for today, I just want us all to stop—as Jesus did—and notice how hard it’s been, the toll this time has taken on us.
When I ring the bell in a moment, I want you to take some deep breaths and check in with yourself. Let yourself feel the weariness in your body, in your mind, in your soul. Take just a few moments to sit with it and to recognize that it is real.
Because it is real.