Worship 2/7/21

Call to Worship/Psalm 147 1-11, 20 (NRSV)

Praise the Lord!  

How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.

The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.

He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.

He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.

His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

Praise the Lord!

Opening Prayer

God of all power, you are the One who called this world into being. Yet, you desire to share your power with those who are powerless. You yearn to heal the brokenhearted and to bind up the wounds of the suffering and rejected of this world. Such radical love leaves us speechless, but you gave it human form in the person of Jesus, in whom your promises of healing were fulfilled. We give you thanks and praise for blessing our lives in this way. We pray that in Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we too can become radical lovers of the powerless, and passionate bearers of hope to those whose lives are filled with despair and hopelessness. May this time of worship be an honest and open expression of our desire to praise and glorify you, O God, for the many ways in which you bless us, and may our lives reveal our gratitude in all we think, and do, and say. This we pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Matthew 1:29-39 (NRSV)

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33And the whole city was gathered around the door.  34And 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.  35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  38He 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.”  39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Message/In-laws & Outlaws

Tonight, a team will be declared champion.  Who will it be?  The Kansas City Chiefs with their young, talented quarterback Patrick Mahomes?  Or will it be the venerable, seemingly unflappable, Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers?  Even in these pandemic-filled times there is excitement in the air.  Certainly, the excitement of which team will be crowned the champion at the end of the game, and with it, all of the scuttlebutt about whether Brady will finally hang up his cleats, but about all of the spectacle surrounding the event.  How will this year’s halftime show compare with previous ones?  How awe-inspiring will the performance of the National Anthem and the accompanying flyover be?  And, of course, who can forget the most burning question of the evening: who will have the best commercial?  Let’s remember that only 35 percent of people watching the Super Bowl are interested in the game, according to a Google survey.  The Super Bowl is all about the spectacle and the spectacle is all about consumption—especially food.  For example:

  • Pizza: Super Bowl is the 2nd biggest day of the year for Pizza delivery.  Pizza Hut expects to sell over 2 million pizzas, and Domino’s over 12 million.            
  • An estimated 14 billion hamburgers will be consumed across the US tonight.  That’s a lot of beef!
  • Like guacamole with your chips?  Then you’re not alone because 145 million pounds of avocados are eaten during Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Don’t forget the chips as 11.2 million pounds of chips are consumed.  This equates to 293,000 miles of potato chips if they were laid out end to end and would go from the earth past the moon, which is only 238,000 miles away.
  • If you don’t like regular chips, you can contribute to the 8.2 million pounds of tortilla chips are eaten.
  • Over 8 million pounds of popcorn is eaten on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Over 1.4 billion chicken wings are consumed by avid watchers of the game.  Over 57% of those who eat chicken wings opt for ranch dressing over blue cheese.
  • Americans drink over 325 million gallons of beer throughout the day (over 2 million cases.)  This is equal to 493 Olympic sized swimming pools.  A value of over 1.3 billion dollars.
  • It’s no wonder, thenthat Antacid sales typically see a 20% increase the day after the big game and that Monday after the big game, is also known as “Super Sick Monday.”  According to a survey conducted by Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated, over 17 million Americans will call or text their boss tomorrow morning and claim they can’t make it in to work.

In 2020, the Super Bowl averaged 102.1 million viewers, the tenth most watched Super Bowl ever and eleventh most watched program of all-time.  It’s amazing how that last episode of MASH is still in the mix after all these years!  It was also the most streamed Super Bowl with an average minute audience of 3.4 million.  On average, the Super Bowl has seventy commercials accounting for about 45 minutes of commercial time.  In ways big and small, this year’s Super Bowl commercials have been shaped by the pandemic—from who advertises and who doesn’t—to the messages they deliver for brands that have chosen to take the plunge at $5.5 million per thirty-second spot.

A few Super Bowl stalwarts—like Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and Audi—have decided to sit this year out.  Meanwhile, some first-time advertisers will highlight how their products are relevant in the social-distancing era.  For the first time in thirty-seven years, Budweiser won’t air a Super Bowl ad.  Instead, the beermaker famous for its Clydesdale horses, will donate their time to COVID vaccine-awareness.  Coca-Cola Co., which has struggled with the closing of movie theaters and restaurants, said it’s sitting out this year.  Hyundai Motor America also decided to pass on the big game after winning praise for a funny Boston-themed commercial during last year’s Super Bowl.  However, there are several first-time advertisers who will make their Super Bowl debut this evening including Huggies, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Chipotle, Mercari, DoorDash, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Fiverr, DraftKings, and Vroom.  Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. will use its first Super Bowl ad to remind viewers that backyards can provide a refuge for people stuck at home, allowing them to socialize safely, exercise and work remotely.  Vroom, an online used-car marketplace, will use its first Super Bowl commercial to highlight how consumers can have a vehicle brought to them “contact-free.”  Its Super Bowl ad features a man being physically tortured at a car dealership, then cuts to him sitting on his front lawn as a car is delivered.

Back in 2013, there was a fantastic Super Bowl commercial that represents an emerging approach to advertising that seeks to empower its audience.  It’s something of a counter-cultural approach in that most of advertising for nearly the last century has been dominated by what Jonah Sachs calls “inadequacy marketing.”  Such marketing seeks to create in you a sense of lack—the belief that you do not have enough, even that you are not enough—in order to promise you that if you purchase the product being advertised you will not experience that sense of lack any longer.  In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Sachs describes the history of this approach in order to offer the counter-cultural option of what he calls “empowerment marketing.”  In empowerment marketing, the advertiser urges you to the good and seeks to create a sense of possibility and abundance.

The commercial I’m referring to here is an ad for Duracell that featured Derrick Coleman of the Seattle Seahawks.  At an early age, Derrick lost his hearing.  In the allotted sixty seconds, this commercial told the story of Derrick being bullied, picked last for teams at school, harassed by coaches, even not being drafted by the NFL.  And then comes the signature line at its conclusion, when Coleman says, “Everybody told me to quit.  They told me it was over.  But I’d been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.”  The last scene is of Coleman entering the Super Bowl arena and saying, “And now I’m here, with a lot of fans cheering me on, and I can hear them all.”  And of course, this is followed, by the tagline across the screen: “Duracell: Trust Your Power.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  This is still advertising, and the hope of the advertiser is that you will associate these positive emotions and experiences with their product.  Hence, in this commercial, Duracell hopes that you will connect the tenacity and spirit of the Seattle Seahawks’ Derrick Coleman with Duracell batteries and be more likely to buy them.  But the commercial works well because it creates a sense of possibility, potential, empowerment, and freedom.  Derrick’s story of living into the person he felt he was meant to be, against great odds to boot, inspires us because we hope that’s our story, too.  As much as I like that commercial, I’d like to think we might get that feeling in places other than Duracell commercials.  At home from supportive parents or spouse.  At work from our colleagues.  On the athletic field from coaches and teammates.  At school from caring teachers and friends.  And at church.

Whatever the motivation, I think it’s still an incredibly powerful alternative to the dominate mode of advertising.  And I think we in the church can learn something from it.  Too often, we have defined Christianity in terms of lack—what we are not—Instead of in terms of what God calls us to be.  And so “sin” is not, as in Paul, a force in the world that seeks to rob the children of God of abundant life, but rather is a catalogue of all the things we’ve done wrong.  And “grace” isn’t the power to claim new life in Christ, but rather is something that only makes up for our sins.

Last week we watched as Jesus’ first action in Mark’s Gospel is to cast out an unclean spirit and interpreted that as God’s commitment to stand against all the powers that keep us from abundant life.  This week that pattern continues.  Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, restoring her to her community and vocation.  And it’s not only this one woman, mother to Jesus’ new disciple.  It’s all kinds of people, as Jesus heals and cares and restores countless people, setting them free from illness and possession to be the person God created them to be.  So many people set free—a whole city, Mark reports—that the toll it takes on Jesus forces him to retreat for a time of silence and prayer.  Shortly however, he is restored, or perhaps senses the profound need around him, and he goes once more to embrace the mission entrusted to him: to heal and feed and care for and set free all who recognize their need and come to him.

This isn’t just the message of the first chapter of Mark, of course, it consumes the whole of his account, all the other gospels as well and, indeed, the entirety of Scripture: God wants to set free all of us so that we might live into our God-given identity and potential, claiming our calling as children of God, and join God in the mission to love and bless the world.

Jesus frees Peter’s mother-in-law from illness.  He frees others from disease and possession as well.  But I am not sure I always moved as quickly or confidently to another dimension of the Gospel: that Jesus frees us not only from things that seek to oppress us, but also for a life of purpose, meaning, and good works.  And by this, I mean not those things that we do in the vain hope of justifying ourselves before God or others, but rather those things that we do as a response to the Gospel to serve our neighbor stemming from a sense of joy, love, and freedom.

In today’s passage, Peter’s mother-in-law is restored to her community and vocation.  I realize we may be troubled by the fact that the moment she’s well she gets up to serve Jesus and his disciples.  I mean, goodness, couldn’t Peter have pitched in to give her a little more time to recuperate.  But as scholar Sarah Henrich observes in in her commentary on this passage:

Illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them.  Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point.  It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world.  Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling?  Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever.  It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life.  For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.

Scholar Mary Ann Tolbert points out that the word denoting the woman’s action, rendered in the NRSV as “serve” (from the Greek root diakoneo, from which we derive the word deacon), is the same word used to describe what angels do for Jesus at the end of his forty days in the wilderness.  Tolbert observes: “The author of Mark, by using the same word for the action of the angels and the action of the healed woman, obviously equated their level of service to Jesus.  What the angels were able to do for Jesus in the wilderness, the woman whose fever has fled now does for him in her home.”  Tolbert goes on to note that the door of the woman’s house “becomes the threshold for healing for all in the city who are sick.”

In response to her healing, Peter’s mother-in-law launched herself into serving others.  One wonders, then, did the man from whom the unclean spirit was cast earlier that day in the synagogue ago do after his healing?  What did all the people whom Jesus heals in this week’s story do once they are freed from the various ailments of mind, body, and spirit that had captivated them?  Some, I imagine, were simply so grateful to be made well—so grateful, that is, that they had been freed from something debilitating or destructive—that they returned as quickly as possible to their old lives and routines and relationships.  But some, I’m willing to bet, including Simon’s mother-in-law, recognize that they weren’t only freed from something, they were also freed for something, for lives of purpose and meaning and service and generosity and more.

Pastoral Prayer

For all the blessings of this life, we give thanks to you, Creator God. For families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers, who nurture us, that the love of God may grow within us. That your love will transform us into the persons you desire us to be and that our actions will blossom and bear fruit, revealing the power and depth of your grace.

For the leaders of nations and states, cities and counties: that they may lead with strong hearts, gentle hands, and generous spirits, with compassion and mercy, with wisdom and grace. May they reflect your will guiding all their actions and decisions.

For those who serve in harm’s way, those who live in dangerous places, those who live in areas of war and strife, those who live in fear, those who struggle with unemployment and underemployment, those who wonder how they will be able to feed their families and themselves. those who struggle to find any dignity in life. May your grace bring peace and safety to all people, one to another.

For those who suffer from illness or disease—of mind, body, or spirit. Restore these, and all whom we carry in our hearts, to fullness of health—health as only you, O God, can bring.

We pray not only for the healing of individuals but also for the healing of society. Exorcise the demons of racism and classism, addiction and despair, indifference and injustice from our community that we may live into the fullness of your grace and reflect the shalom of your promised kin-dom.

For those who are dying, and for those mourn the loss of love and relationship. Send forth your comforting love. Console those who grieve. Be with all who are working so hard to help us through this time of pandemic—those whom we classify as essential—health professionals and first responders, the truck drivers who deliver our food and the snowplow operators who clear our roads, grocery clerks and stockers, plumbers and powerline workers, and so many others who work behind the scenes, bringing us hope through their selfless service. 

In all things, O God, we ask that you shower your healing blessings upon us and offer us new life in your presence and peace. As we pray now the words of our Liberating Lord:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction (And All Be Made Well–Jan Richardson)

That each ill be released from you
and each sorrow be shed from you
and each pain be made comfort for you
and each wound be made whole in you

that joy will arise in you
and strength will take hold of you
and hope will take wing for you
and all be made well.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.