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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

"The kingdom of God in Mark is good news because it brings liberation at a number of levels. The central thing is enabling people to be how God made them to be."

"First Thoughts on Passages from Mark in the Lectionary," Epiphany 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

Prayer

A Byzantine church was built on top of a synagogue in Capernaum
In Christ your Son, O God, you impart to us a new teaching from one who speaks with authority, for Jesus is the unique master of wisdom, and our only liberator from the forces of evil.  Make us convinced and courageous in professing our faith, so that by word and deed we may proclaim the truth and bear witness to the happiness enjoyed by those who center their lives and put all their trust in you.  We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.




Some Thoughts on Mark 1:21-28

What is unbound in us?  This is the question that I am taking with me into the Gospel reading from Mark appointed for this Sunday.

This is a very dense and important passage. The author of the Gospel is very much laying a firm foundation upon which he is building his revelation of who Jesus was and the import of his mission in this world and in the world to come. 

First, let me caution the reader and preacher against taking this simply as a story about healing.  I think this is an important caution as there are people in our congregations who are prone to seizures and epilepsy.  They, like their loved ones, are very wounded by preaching on this lesson that does not embody Good News for all people.  We as pastors and leaders should not do anything in our teaching or in our preaching that implies that these people are filled with some demonic spirit when what we know is that they are ill.  In point of fact to say that this story is solely about healing and the casting out of demons from a person is to miss a great deal of what is going on in the passage and in the entirety of the Gospel according to Mark. 

Is this a story about healing? Yes, by all means it is.  But what is it that we are being healed from? What is it that is being unbound in us? How and for what are we being freed? These are the questions that must be answered as you prepare your sermon for Sunday.

A couple of things to note: First is that this passage parallels the passage in Mark 5:1-20; wherein Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac.  It parallels the passage EXACTLY.  The difference is that this passage takes place in the midst of the Jewish community and the passage in chapter 5 takes place in the midst of the gentile community.

The second note is that the community of Mark was indeed a community oppressed on every side.  Joel Marcus writes:

For Mark's community, which feels itself to be the focus of the hatred of the whole world because of its preaching of the good news about Jesus (13:9-13), this feature of the initial exorcism would function as a reassurance that eh world's reaction of convulsive hatred does not invalidate the community's claim that its preaching imparts God's eschatological message. (Marcus, Mark, vol 1, 195)
In keeping with most of the scholarly perspectives around this passage, it is my opinion that Mark's community feels bombarded by hatred from both the religious leaders of the day and the political leaders of the day.  As the passage in chapter 5 reflects the political attacks and adversity to the Jesus message; so here in our passage for this Sunday we can see the attack from the religious leaders of the day.

Let us look at the passage closely.We remember that John the Baptist is now faded to the background. Jesus is taking up his full teaching mission. He is calling people to follow him and he is proclaiming absolutely good news of God and the kingdom of God.  We find ourselves then in this Sunday's passage following him into a major center of religious life - Capernaum.  It is the sabbath and so he goes and he teaches in the synagogue.

They are astounded at his teaching in part because his teaching is good news but also because he teaches with authority.  This kind of teaching is different than the leaders of religion that they normally hear from.

As if to sharpen the distinction between the different messages and preaching a force enters the synagogue.  Characterized in a demon possessed man, this force challenges Jesus' teaching.  This is essential. We can get caught up in the demon part and not realize that the dialogue here is of the utmost importance. The man says, in the midst of this religious center filled with people:

24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
We might remember that the earliest manuscripts had no punctuation so that these may not be questions at all.  We might read this as:  What are you doing. Why are you teaching here. This is not good. You have come to destroy us.  And, yet too in the enmity cast on Jesus (and for Mark's community anyone who is proclaiming Jesus as Lord) we see a recognition and proclamation of Jesus as son of God - the Holy One of God.  Let us also remember the rest of the story and how these same religious authorities will decry Jesus' ministry and that of his followers.

Jesus unbinds the man from his rejection of the Gospel and his preaching.

The response to this is that people are amazed. Amazed at the freedom to believe? Amazed at the revelation of Jesus as Holy One? Amazed at his power over and against the religious authorities? "Yes," I say.  All of these and there is in verse 27 a recognition that this is a new teaching and one that comes from God. The response of the people is one that affirms Jesus as preacher and teacher of this new movement. He is bringing reform to an old way. He is in fact leading a new way of being disciples of God.

I am currently reading the Bonhoeffer biography by Metaxis.  In it the author makes a persuasive case that Bonhoeffer while on the one hand believed in the importance of Christian community he also recognized the reforming nature of Jesus' words and ministry upon a Christianity that was simply religious.

Yes, people who trust in Jesus do experience healing of life. I have seen it. I know it is true.  But the passage for this Sunday is about the reform of religion. The Gospel of Jesus Christ challenges all Christians and their communities to remember the Holy One of God and the Good News of Salvation at the core of its life. It challenges Christian communities to boldly proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  It challenges Christian community hear the absolute and grace filled message of love. 

I want to take a moment and ask you to think about your religion. Now I am not talking about your denomination. I am not talking about your church. I am talking about your personal religion? I am wondering if you might make a list of certain things that are required for you when you go to church. Only men as priests or women as priests, incense or no incense, lots of vestments or no vestments, Rite One language or Rite II language or non gender specific language, ancient hymnody in Latin or guitars... I can tell you these are not requirements of Jesus. None of these are mentioned in his teachings.  Yet people are constantly at war over these or other lists of required religious iconography in order for the true gospel to be preached.  The Gospel is there every Sunday and Jesus is present but I wonder what shackles we bring into church that keep us from hearing it and proclaiming it.

Let us think of our own church now.  As a church embattled in structure and economy, in a church struggling with the different orders of ministry and asking questions about how we do our mission, we must hold the mirror of Mark's Gospel up and ask some serious questions about reform.  Has the religion become more important than the message? Is the benefit of Christian community lost in the chaos of a faith at war with itself? 

As Christians, as Episcopalians, we are imprisoned by our religion.

Jesus Christ comes into our midst. He comes right down into the center of every congregation this Sunday.  He challenges us to teach our faith with authority. To boldly claim the Holy One of God as our own.  To proclaim that God is love and that we are to love one another. We are challenged to teach our response to that love is mission.

Jesus comes in and this Sunday looks at our heart's religion and he seeks to free us from it.  Jesus offers us unbounded love, free from the shackles of our inherited religion, and challenges us to be at work in the mission field.

I am an Episcopalian and I love being an Episcopalian and I want other people to meet Jesus in our church and worship him as Episcopalians. To do that we must be freed from our heart's religion and our church's religion that says it is my way or the highway. We must be freed and unbound from those ties that bind us to a certain death that our faith and our communities may be part of the kingdom that is coming.

And, like the demoniac in that synagogue and the religious leaders of Jesus time you and I both know our religious heart and our puritanical faith rejects this invitation be to be free.

Jesus keeps coming though.  Again and again he invites us along the way just like his disciples and those he first goes to in Capernaum.  He invites us to allow those parts of ourselves that do not glorify God to fall to the wayside, and invites us to be freed for mission.  We are invited to live lives in communities where the Holy One of God is present and alive and proclaimed.  He invites us most of all to change the nature of our dying religion, that all that are around us (in our neighborhoods and cities) might be amazed at our proclamation of freedom and our teaching with authority -- the unbounded love of Jesus and the freedom to lay our religious shackles down and follow him.



A Little Bit for Everyone




Mark 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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