The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

February 4, 2024 – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:25-31; Mark 1:29-39


Resilience is a hot current topic as we work with therapists, even understand culture. More than bouncing back after tragedy, writes Margaret, it’s how we get humbled, brought to our knees and in the darkness, empty enough we begin again. Mother died of cancer at age nine, father at twenty-two. She never thought she’d rise from the grief and despair. Thought of ending her life. Reaching out in the abyss, she caught a rope and life vest just close enough—counseling every week—the nine-year-old missing mommy, young adult yearning for daddy’s approval. “Days – weeks – months – years – drugs – boyfriends – jobs – apartments, passed through my life,” she writes, “until one day when a young woman at a school where I worked had a bloody nose. I tended her nose, stayed with her, we talked and laughed. She thanked me, hugged me, and I realized I’d given her a piece of me when I thought there was nothing – nothing to give. From that moment, resilience within me grew an ability to integrate the nine-year-old and twenty-two-year-old with who I might be; I felt for the first time, a possibility of being. I now believe all tragedy to be a blessing. I know that sounds horrid given what tragedy there is; but I do; because I believe it’s the beginning of rebirth, of recreation, an opportunity to redefine what is left, even when we believe there is nothing. Within that darkness resilience is born.[i]

“Our greatest glory,” Jacob quotes Confucius, “is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Failure was familiar—troublemaker, wrong crowd, peer pressure, poor choices, problems in school and with parents. Then I realized this is my only life, he says. And through failure I grew into the stronger person I’ve become today, with opportunities I may not have ever had otherwise. America too has proven to benefit from resilience facing many issues and tragedies from which we’ve risen and improved. The Great Depression and other crashes that spark innovation, forcing individuals and organizations to expand ideas. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death sparked a huge push for Civil Rights. Hurricane Katrina tragedy turned into our country’s unified effort to aid in relief. New innovations and technology were created to address the gulf oil spill. Numerous service organizations face world issues such as hunger, AIDS, illiteracy, women’s rights, and many others all created because of people’s hope to rise out of bad times; to turn negative situations into positive change.[ii]

Friends, I wonder what hard times we’d share in mind and heart. Moving to another country, a radically different climate and culture, with hope and yet missing home, grieving family, friends, what’s familiar. Growing up in our culture amid all the messages and pressures to prove or acquire value outside of ourselves. Life transitions seeking a way of goodness. Spirals of personal choices and troubled patterns, social realities beyond our control, and consequences that remain hard. Then there’s all we hear about the world we’re inextricably entwined with, from wars in Gaza, Ukraine, Yemen, to gun violence and the grip of poverty close to home. All the social concerns we care about which make our pulse increase, mood fall, and unkind words come out.

Resilience is a hot current topic. And it’s a most ancient human characteristic. Isaiah tries to nurture it in his people, captive prisoners of war made slaves in ancient Babylon. They’re asking: How can I face another hard day personally, physically, emotionally? Who are we now as a people, a nation, if all our value, identity, dreams, assumptions, vision for flourishing tied to life in the land of Israel were so utterly destroyed and dislocated reduced to rubble? And why? Where is God … could we hope even with us here in Babylon to give us comfort, courage, fortitude?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? Isaiah implies: of course, we have! In any particular place or through all circumstance, we are loved by God. We know the stories, he urges. We know our experiences—never perfect but loving goodness always there in some way. Flourishing life flows from grace and gratitude and creative fortitude. And that’s just as true wherever we are, whatever we face whether it fits the boxes of our assumptions and expectations or not. Wait for the Lord, he urges. “Wait” conveys tension, as we twist, stretch, strain, entwined and still strong like strands of a rope. We wait, looking eagerly for the future to come, even as we linger in memory, assured of what has been known.

Every time we settle in this Sanctuary, friends—on Sunday or any day—the walls hold all the fear and yearning, love and joy, laughter and tears of everyone gone before who’s sat where we do now. The arches bear the weight, like the divine bearing all the burdened and blessed humanity arcing toward hope. And I think of our stained glass as a kind of collective memory. There are literally symbols of the church, and shared values and processes that hold us together like tracery. So every illuminated pane radiates like grace received and given by someone like you and me often in hard times—maybe seemingly tiny ways, but together a witness to the light of God’s love that shines and no darkness can overcome. We are gathered here by God in shelter of holy love to find refuge and trust as we remember. Have we not known? Have we not heard and seen? Wait for the Lord!

Reflecting on his time in Buchenwald concentration camp, modern Babylon or worse, Elie Wiesel writes: In my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, it cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering. It must be deepened, given, shared. We speak, therefore, believing that our words have meaning, will help prevent my past from becoming another person’s – another people’s – future. I believe that witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.” What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives with only one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. After all, God is God because God remembers.[iii]

Isaiah’s telling us God remembers. Here’s our memory. Here are we as witnesses to tell our story. Resilience is hotly current, anciently human, and here’s the point in our living faith. This is no pull yourself up by your bootstraps, do it alone formidable task to accomplish. Isaiah and Mark bear witness to us, urging: know it, trust it, receive resilient strength as a gift of Sacred Grace. The Almighty Lord of Love we come here to praise, stays with us everywhere—in our visible Babylons and silent burdens. As we hold on to this rope for dear life, this bond of grace and gratitude, God will lead us out of trouble. From any terrors of the night or arrows of the day, snares, disasters, deadly hazards we will be raised in divine grace, for holy purpose we have been created to serve.

Colleen recalls how resilience got her through despair of loved ones cancer and death. “As I overcame sadness and loss in my heart,” she says, “resilience was like a caring best friend holding my hand during my darkest days … like a savior leading me by the hand out of the dark and into the light of the world again. That’s what resilience does. It pulls you back to who you are.”[iv]

Jesus lifts up Simon’s mother-in-law. We don’t know what her ailment or illness was exactly—what caused her fever. Something clearly serious draining life from her. As Isaiah speaks to a collective experience, here Jesus gets more intimate. I wonder how we feel need for healing. What plagues us personally, or someone we know and care for intimately; threatens who we are physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally … limiting life. Sudden accidents, chronic illness, persistent ailments, caring for a beloved.

Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by hand and lifts her up, pulls her back to who she is. Mark uses the same word here as resurrection. Jesus raises her to new life. And the first thing she does is begin to serve the others gathered. Now we might bemoan this scene as more evidence of patriarchy and the demeaning place of women in ancient society. Women’s work is never done! She’s just been sick on death’s door, and still she can’t just put her feet up and get a break?! That concern is real, especially for all of us I may have just heard whisper: Amen! Maybe that’s who she is. But if we get what scholars consistently tell us, that’s not Mark’s point. Quite the opposite—she’s so much more. Instead of being restored to her low-rung place in the family system, Mark elevates Simon’s mother-in-law as an exemplary disciple, the likes to which her sons and their friends aspire, but often falter. And you see, friends, that’s what God promises for all of us. The promise is not that there will be a cure, a fix for all that ails us. Some things ever remain hard. Believe God will heal us—love us, recall from deep within us the unique goodness and purpose we can serve others and our world as we flourish together.

Here’s one way to get all Mark tries to tell us about Jesus. By God’s grace, he proclaims God’s reign—all he says and does—to nurture resilience in individuals and community. Jesus heals, he teaches, shares meals, he accepts people as they are when the faith and society say they should be something else. And so, he empowers, he raises people to abundant life all along the way in Holy Love as much as when vengeance and fear could crucify, but not keep him in a tomb.

We’ll get to Lent soon. Today after Jesus’ birth, we’re still in the season of Epiphany, getting to know our tempered resilient leader. Who is he? Jesus is our divine rope, our life-line to Holy Love. The One who helps us wait for God amid all the tension and twists of our lives. I had an inkling of an idea and asked Shawn if we have any rope. She arrived moments later with this creative resource. Shelly and I came in here draped, coiled, extended, took a photo for our bulletin. As we finished, Shawn walked in. I thanked her enthusiastically. She flashed a gleaming smile, glinting eye and said: “It’s the Scouts. I wonder if they’ll notice!”

Seems to me, friends, that’s how God’s Spirit often works among us to give strength and hope in hard times. We don’t, we can’t do life alone. We borrow stories, insights, inspiration from others. We hang on for dear life to Holy Love in our shared humanity. Maybe this rope was used on camp-outs when I was a kid—to lash logs into a tower, or bear the strain of our opposing teams tugs. Imagine how many hands have held, gripped, coiled it again for someone else to use. And so, we try to borrow the best of others, threads of memory, a rope of shared experience laid out over ages. All the way back to Jesus, his life and ministry shaping all who follow his way of service—instilled and invigorated in us. And Mark tells us: to nurture that resilience, to live faith with sacred strength, even Jesus often had to go away for quiet time … to keep rising, and live new possibility. Because we’re not always at our best with each other, especially when stresses, strains, demands make life hard and de-center us from God.

Learning to rise … Brene Brown talks about finding courage to own hard stories so we can write new chapters. Stories told by society or ourselves about ourselves that diminish trust and relational connection and crush our self-worth. The three most harmful narratives diminish our lovability, divinity, and creativity. Check this, she says: Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean we are unlovable. Check this, she says: No person is ordained to judge our divinity or gauge or spiritual worthiness. Check this, she says: Just because we didn’t measure up to some standard of achievement doesn’t mean that we don’t possess gifts and talents that only we can bring to the world.[v]

Tod Bolsinger remembers how on a hot August day, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd who knew the cost and the long road of trying to bring genuine, deep, and lasting change to a society stuck in status quo injustice. His voice cried out and his rhetoric soared. He envisioned the hard work of hewing hope from despair. It doesn’t just happen. A tempered leader and people get formed in the crucible of reflection, relationships, and a rhythm of life leading and not leading. Forging resilience in a grounded identity—teachable, attuned, adaptable, tenacious.[vi]

If you ask me, sounds a lot like Jesus we follow—a life-line to whom we cling, as we wait for the Lord. As we wait enfolded in grace, receiving courage, new perspectives maybe even thought impossible, renewed strength and determination to get up each new day and see what we can do for goodness in this world. As we wait, remembering, lingering in past fondness and present blessing and laugh and fill with joy, among even the hardest and could-be-saddest bits of life. As we wait and feel Holy Love raise us up on eagles’ wings, bear us on the breath of dawn, and make us shine like the sun, ever held by the calloused and tender compassionate palm of Jesus’ hand.

Thanks be to God. Amen.



[i] Quoted and abridged from This I Believe,

[ii] Quoted and abridged from This I Believe,

[iii] Quoted and abridged from

[iv] Quoted and abridged from This I Believe,

[v] Quoted and abridged from Brene Brown, Dare to Lead (New York: Random House, 2018), 267.

[vi] Quoted and abridged from Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2020), 207.