Mark 1:29-39

Busyness: cell phones, faxes, e-mails, multiple meetings and multi-tasking. These are increasingly the icons of this age. Our society considers these the symbols of successful living. Everyone seems to be doing more, but are we living more? We are certainly living longer, but not necessarily living better.

Yesterday, several pilgrims came to this cathedral to pray. They took time out of their daily busyness to pause?take stock of what was going on in their lives and in the world?and dedicate themselves for several hours to do nothing but pray. Guided by the Cathedral Pilgrimage Program, they walked the labyrinth, worshiped together, learned Christian contemplative prayer practices, and took a guided slow journey through the sacred spaces of this holy ground.

In the midst of all that is going on in the world today, and all of the demands upon their time, why would they choose instead to do nothing. Isn’t that irresponsible? Certainly that question forms the backdrop to the strange behavior of Jesus in the gospel lesson today.

Very early in his ministry, Jesus visited the house of Andrew and Simon (later to be named Peter), when he was told that Simon’s mother-in-law was very ill with a fever. He went to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up from the bed. Immediately the fever left her, and undoubtedly out of gratitude she began to serve everyone in the house.

Meanwhile, word of the miraculous healing spread like wildfire throughout the surrounding region, and by sundown “the whole city was gathered around the door” of that house. It seemed that everyone who was sick or possessed by demons was brought to this new miracle healer to perform his magic upon them. He cured many of them, but as daylight faded, so apparently did he, and in the darkness Jesus retreated to a deserted place to pray. He would do no more healing that day.

What do you do when you are faced with a world of need, when it seems that everybody is holding out their hand saying “help me”? Do you turn them away? Or do you look for a way to escape their desperate cries?

This past week a woman told me of her experience in Sierra Leone a year ago, going to that West African nation on a mission trip. She is a seminarian, training to become a minister, but she is also a nurse by profession, and she and her colleagues went to a deserted camp in that impoverished land to offer whatever services they could. She described one of their days there: the incredible heat, the press of human misery crowding in front of that makeshift clinic as the day wore on, the discouragement that descended upon them from having too few medicines and supplies to adequately help the people, the fatigue that set in by the day’s end. Overcome by the enormity of the need surrounding them, and desperately needing a respite, the volunteers finally took the only action they thought was available to them: they climbed out of a window in the back of the structure, and they escaped.

And so do we. What do we do when we are so bombarded by the constant appeals, the images of human misery on our television screens, the letters that flood our mailboxes to give to this or that cause — all of them worthy and good — and yet we feel powerless to do really make a difference in the face of so great a need? Well, we succumb increasingly to what the experts call “compassion fatigue”, whereby we shut down emotionally and don’t do anything. When faced with an enormous need that is much greater than our capacity to give, we simply “give out, and give up”.

In this context, I like the wise saying (that has been attributed variously to Adlai Stevenson, White Rabbit, and the Buddha) which goes: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” (repeat) What would it mean for us in this cathedral, representing the values of the wealthiest nation in the world, to simply “stand there” in places of need?

Several years ago I was at a gathering one evening in the living room of a nearby house full of people interested in what was happening to poor Christians in the Sudan, in eastern Africa. Bishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak, of the Diocese of Renk in the Episcopal Church in the Sudan, told of the horrific persecutions of his people, and at the conclusion of his presentation one of us asked what we Americans could do. Just as we were reaching for our wallets and pocketbooks, preparing for the expected appeal for funds, the bishop held up his hand to stop us, and asked gently, “Will you come die with us?”

Today, there is a young couple from this city, Joe and Katie McGervey, who heard those words sometime later in a sermon, and who are now living in South Africa, doing what little they can, spreading all the love that they can muster, standing there. In October of this year, many of us will make a pilgrimage to South Africa, led by our diocesan bishop, leaving Washington National Cathedral in late October to go there and stand with them. Will some of you come with us?

Where do you stand on issues of poverty, illiteracy and disease? I do not ask this question in the philosophical sense of what should be the policy of the U.S. government on foreign aid; for as worthy as those discussions may be in other contexts, today, in this “national house of prayer for all people”, the question isn’t essentially one of public policy. It’s one of spirituality. Not simply, “where do you stand?”. But more pointedly “where do you make a stand?”

Who will stand for the hungry everywhere, by feeding one or a few more mouths somewhere? Who will stand against illiteracy and poverty everywhere, by helping one person to read somewhere? Who will stand for the integrity of creation everywhere, by refusing the waste a precious resource of water, land or fuel somewhere? And who will stand against war everywhere, by resisting the temptation the temptation to turn to violent force somewhere? What does it take to make a stand? It takes courage, bravery, and confidence in the power of the Lord God almighty to heal, drive out the demons, and replace evil earthly empires with the empire of God. What does it take? It takes faith, and that brings us back to the gospel lesson today.

Jesus, when faced with overwhelming suffering and need, withdrew to a quiet place to pray. A cowardly act? No, a brave act. Was it the behavior of an uncaring, immovable, detached person full of divine power? No, the prayer of Jesus was rooted in compassion, for he knew that unless he prayed, unless he submitted himself to God entirely with his whole being, his thoughts, emotions and deeds, then he would never be able to do anything. Without the prayer that connects him deeply to the source of all love and compassion, he would grow callous, uncaring, unmoved, and eventually steel himself against the cries of the suffering and the poor. He would search for a window at the back of the house, and escape.

But Jesus did not escape. He prayed. And when his disciples found him, he sprang to his feet, and said to them in a strong, clear voice: “Let’s go! Let’s get out of here, but not just to your house, Simon, or to this neighborhood or this city. We will go everywhere, healing hurt and pain, alleviating suffering and wiping away tears, driving out demonic powers and evil wherever it is found, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God: beginning in us, among us, and eventually throughout the whole world, for this is what I came to do.” And so they went. Were they successful? Well, two thousand years later, here we are.

Yesterday, pilgrims came to this Cathedral to pray. They came to this sacred space to join with Jesus in his communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And they left to follow Jesus in his work in the world. And do you know what? THEY WILL CHANGE THE WORLD! Amen.