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Action and Contemplation

In 2003, JaMarcus Russell was the most promising high school football player in the country. His senior year he set the Alabama state record with 10,774 career passing yards. He committed to Louisiana State University and after redshirting his freshman year, he was the starting quarterback, getting better and better throughout his college career. In 2007, he entered the NFL draft and was the first overall pick of the Oakland Raiders. Unfortunately, Russell’s NFL career was a bit of a bust. The commentators said he was unfocused, distracted, not working hard enough. They said he was too heavy, too out of shape. By May May 2010, Russell was released from the team, and he never played another game in the NFL. He’s been named one of the biggest draft busts of all time. He had more than enough talent, but it seemed that his heart and his head just weren’t in it.

But behind the commentators, the reports, the stats, there was a different story. In a very short period of time, just before his first season with the Raiders began, two of JaMarcus’s beloved uncles died suddenly. A third had a debilitating mental breakdown. JaMarcus was devastated, depressed, lost in grief, and making destructive choices. In an essay published last year, he wrote: “I love football with all the life I ever breathed, but at that point, I was just lost…I remember getting to training camp and warming up out on the field before practice and just crying and crying…I was just lost.”[1]

It's a story we can see over and over again in sports. It takes more than talent to succeed. JaMarcus Russell was incredibly talented, but his heart wasn’t in it. A similar story may be unfolding right now for Zion Williamson- incredibly talented, but not performing as expected. Earlier this week, Shaquille O’Neal said, “that just tells me he ain’t ready. Get mad. Them people calling you [out], whatchu gonna do about it? Shaq says you ain’t working hard. whatchu gonna do about it? The fact that you don’t get mad shows me that you don’t care.”[2] To be a successful athlete, you have to have the talent and the attitude. The action on the field or the court and the internal drive or motivation. It takes both.

And it takes both in the Christian life too. Action and contemplation. Behavior and being. And that is what we see Jesus living out in our text this week. Our passage begins at the synagogue where Jesus is teaching, astounding the worshippers with his authority. And when provoked by a man with an unclean spirit, Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, healing the man and restoring him to the community. From there, Jesus, Andrew, James, and John go home with Simon. His mother-in-law is very ill, and Jesus heals her. When her fever leaves, she serves them. She, too, is restored to herself. And so are the very many people who come to Jesus seeking the healing and wholeness he can offer.

But the next morning, Jesus goes off to a deserted place to be alone and to pray. While he’s off on his own in prayer and meditation, Simon and the others hunt him- it’s the same word for a hunter searching for his prey- they report that everyone is looking for him. There’s work to do. And Jesus says let’s go on to other towns for preaching and worshiping in the synagogues. Back and forth- action and contemplation, out in the world and on his own, public work and private devotion. Jesus is illuminating for us the path to holiness, and it has two sides.

You see, if we as individuals or as a church are only concerned with right action- with behaving rightly and serving others, we are just a philanthropic social club. (Philanthropic social clubs are great, by the way, just not church.) On the other hand, if we are only ever in prayer and contemplation, then we are useless to those around us. We become, as some have said it “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” It is as Paul writes, we are saved by grace. And it is as James writes, “faith without works is dead.” Two sides of the same coin. Two sides to Christian life. And to be clear, this isn’t a game with winners and losers. There are no records to set or points to earn. It’s simply about being faithful; there are two sides to being faith.

So we find a way to do both, to love and serve others in order to love God. And to engage in contemplation, meditation, and prayer so we know how to serve others. We do this because this is what Jesus models for us here in Mark.  Paul Neuchterlein explains that “Mark, from the very beginning of his Gospel, portrays a Jesus who is the model of Contemplation and Action for the sake of the world.”[3]

The beginning of the year is very often an invitation for us to consider making changes, to decide who we want to be. The beginning of Mark’s gospel tells us who Jesus decided to be. But here, as the year begins, is a good time for us to reconsider who we are, who we want to be, how we might serve God. For some, that consideration feels exciting, and for others perhaps it feels quite daunting. What is God calling you to in 2024? What is God calling us as a church to?

I do not pretend to have the answers, but I do believe Frederick Buechner’s famous words that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” God is calling you to the crossroads where your spiritual life is richest and where your action can meet the world’s deep need. That is your calling, that is your purpose.

And so if we are to be resolved to anything in this new year, let it be to lean into the spiritual practices and disciplines that lead us to right action- let us gather together in study and worship, to remember our baptisms, to come to God’s table, to invite God to illumine our paths. Let us also resolve to serve, to share, to connect, to make wise choices, to live on the exterior all that we have experienced and learned through Christ in our interior lives.

The story of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law gives us another window into what this looks like. The woman is very ill, sick with a fever. And then she has an encounter with Jesus. We don’t know exactly what Jesus says or does, we just learn that Jesus “takes her by the hand and lifted her up.” But her fever is gone. She is restored. And she begins to serve them, the text says. Now my cynical side wants to point out that maybe the lady could have used some more time to recover, but I actually think there is something else going on here. The word for “serve” is the same word from which we derive the title of “deacon.” This woman deacons Jesus and the others. She is the first person to whom that word is given. She comes close to Jesus and experiences healing. And then she is immediately moved to serve, to action, to giving the gifts of love. Contemplation and action, drawing close to Jesus leads to a life of service.

As we approach the table, may it also be so with us. Amen.

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