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Monday, January 18, 2021

Epiphany 4B, January 31, 2021


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

"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. 

A Byzantine church was built on top of
a synagogue in Capernaum
Oremus Online NRSV Text

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 the 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 recognition and proclamation of Jesus as the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 the Christian community to 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 the 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 the church that keeps 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 religion become more important than the message? Is the benefit of the Christian community lost in the chaos of 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 the 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 the 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 is 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.

Some Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

"Paul suggests, in reply to the Corinthians, a new reason for caution about eating such food, and that is a concern for the effect that doing so might have on others who lack the knowledge that the Corinthian church claims keeps them safe from harm."
The Politics of Food Offered to Idols, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Richard Davis, Political Theology Today, 2015.

"The passage gives us a glimpse in the manner in which Paul understood the world, and in particular the space between God and human beings."
Commentary, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Frank L. Crouch, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"The problem develops when we let football (or other sports, or a military, or corporations, or other forces) define strength in terms of dominance."
"The Superbowl and the Church in a Culture of Dominance: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13," Matthew L. Skinner, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2015. Video: 5 Things You Didn't Know About America and Violence.

If you know this text well, or you have it open in front of you, you will see that Paul is continuing to answer the questions posed by the situation in Corinth. 

The issue at hand is eating meat that had been an offering at a pagan festival. Those who ate this meat were believed to be "weak believers." The issue seems trite in today's world, though we can easily think of religious traditions that continue with strict dietary rules of life. So, the weak believers and their counterparts are disruptive to the community. 

Paul, as he does in other texts, comes at the issue as an apostle offering wisdom to the community. He points out that Christians should not be so convicted by knowledge so as to miss the commandment to love. For Paul, the "necessary knowledge" is that of "love."

He then offers a different way of seeing the problem. He turns the problem on its ear and points out that if people in the community were wise they would understand that there is only one God and no lesser gods. That because there are no lesser gods then nothing is happening to the meat. This act of worshiping other lesser gods is nonsensical. He then performs a mic drop. He suggests that those who do not understand this (clearly he means those who are suggesting the community has "weak believers") still maintain that the lesser gods of Greece and Rome are powerful. The weak are those who have not let go of the power of the gods of the world. They are the ones being disloyal to Christ. 

He concludes by suggesting that if the meat, and we might add the conversation about the meat, draws you from the "love" of each other and of Christ then one should abstain. 

In an age of "doing right," we in the Christian Church today have similar issues. Our partisan politics, our social wars, are all examples of our weakness. 

I suggest the church should be clear and vocal about those things that draw us from the love of God and the love of each other. At the same time, we should be careful not to judge such that we are drawn from the love of Christ as well. It is a very easy thing in the age of partisan politics and litmus tests for faithfulness that we get wrapped up in doing right rather than serving the one who good or doing good. We need to be wary of those things about living in the community and in the world that draw us from the love of each other and the love of Christ.

Some Thoughts on Deuteronomy 18:15-20

"Who speaks for God? The answer requires discernment and prayer."
Commentary, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Kathryn Schifferdecker, Preaching This Week,, 2015

"Maybe Moses was remembering” even as he spoke these words ”his own failure at the rock some years ago. God told him to speak to the rock, he whacked it with his staff instead, and even that little switch-up of the divine message was enough to get Moses banished from the Promised Land for good."
Sermon Starters, Textual Points and Illustration Ideas, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

"All of this is relevant to our thinking of Jesus, the word of God incarnate, and to our pondering of his teaching and what the church has proclaimed about him."
Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Epiphany 4, The Old Testament Readings: Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.

This passage is about how the people of God are to remain faithful to God. They are entering a land of many gods. Moses is the chosen one, the prophet, who will be their go-between. Moses will have a vocation of going on behalf of God to the people, and speaking on God's behalf to the people. In this way, the people will be able to be in contact with God.

I suggest there are two facets of rabbinic tradition worth considering before we consider the Gospel application to our Gospel mission today. The first consideration is: what does it take to be a faithful people? The second is: how does the prophetic word work? Let me begin with the first consideration.

In Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman’s Torah commentary we discover that part of becoming the people of God is not about individually besting others but about a shared experience of communal flourishing with God. She writes, 
"Deuteronomy teaches, 'If there is a needy person among you in any of the land Adonai your God gives you, do not harden your heart. ... Rather, open your hand and lend what your neighbor needs' (15:7-8). The tribal world of the Torah isn't a dog-eat-dog competition. The 'primitive' society of the ancient Hebrews is interdependent--all members of the community jointly support each other and their religious and political institutions.
Rabbi Litman offers that the key to the ethic of a survivor mentality is the notion of competition for scarce resources accompanied by personal bias. The Torah community of Deuteronomy on the other hand has a different set of values that have an orientation to justice for all in the community. There is a turning to God in humility and a turning to each other without partiality in this deuteronomistic vision of the whole. I propose that this actually rejects individual flourishing that comes at the cost of others or the wider community. The theology of the deutoronomists is that there can be no individual flourishing that does not include the whole of the people. 

This is a vision of a community that is wholistic before God and will depend not only upon Moses as intercessor but upon one another to live out the faithful invitation of God.

The second consideration is the prophetic vision of a faithful people who together will inherit a land of milk and honey. What we know of prophecy in the rabbinic tradition is that negative prophecies that do not come true do not prove the prophet's worth. Only the prophet who foretells good things may be tested. In Yesodei haTorah 10:4 it is written, "But if the prophet, in the name of G‑d, assures good fortune, declaring that a particular event would come to pass, and the benefit promised has not been realized, he is unquestionably a false prophet, for no blessing decreed by the Almighty, even if promised conditionally, is ever revoked..." (See Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Testing Prophecy)

As Richard B. Hays wrote regarding the people of God and its connection to the first followers of Jesus: “There can be no question here of a purely individualized spiritual formation. Matthew is strongly ecclesially oriented.” (Hays, Echoes of the Scripture in the Gospels, p. 97) We have here a rabbinic notion of The Shekinah meaning to ‘settle’ or ‘dwell’ and is an attempt in rabbinic teaching to speak about the presence of God among the people. As Christians, we understand that Christ has come and dwelt with us in the manner described by the deuteronomists. God has manifested God's self in Emmanuel. In this way God has revealed in the person of Jesus not only God's presence or shekinah, and also the manner of living with one another. Jesus Christ brings forward the lesson from Deuteronomy, it does not exist as a past notion of communal life but as the template for the ministry, teaching, and life. It is the structure upon which Jesus Christ offers the sermon on the mount - as an example.

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