First, you get their attention….
That basic starting point was as true two thousand years ago as it is today. Jesus very quickly developed quite a reputation. Exorcisms and healings will do that. And from one perspective, all the drama provided clear evidence of divine power and, from our vantage point today, the beginnings of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. In any event, there’s certainly a lot to consider in this week’s Gospel lection from Mark:
As soon as they 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 NRSV
That scenario was repeated in one form or another several times during Jesus’ ministry. Crowds began to follow him everywhere to witness another miracle or perhaps to be the recipient of a healing themselves. But the press of the crowds kept him from the core of his ministry: to call the people to repentance and proclaim God’s kingdom.
It’s a challenge not unlike what the church still faces. With all of the distractions and competing forces in our world it’s hard to get people to pay attention to the church’s greatest ministry: calling people to repentance and proclaiming the kingdom of God on earth in the here and how. Finding the balance between attraction (through entertainment) and substance (helping turn people toward God and new life made possible by the gospel of Jesus Christ) is a tough and never-ending task for many congregations.
At one extreme are those churches that eschew anything and everything that remotely resembles entertainment (such as avoiding instrumental music accompaniment and other “worldly” activities). At the other are worship experiences that rely heavily on theatrical styles and often present some form of “gospel-lite” to bridge the gaps between musical numbers.
A not-completely-foolproof criterion I use is to look at the architecture of the worship space. If there’s no windows, that’s often a sign to me that maybe what I’m in for is more entertainment than anything else. That’s not a perfect plan, of course, but it’s at least a starting point.
What strikes me most from the passage in Mark this week is that Jesus had to sneak off to a deserted place early in the morning to pray. Even his disciples had trouble finding him. Obviously, there’s a time to gather and a time to be alone. Both are part of the spiritual life.
My latest book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is available from Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions