Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2009: 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deut. 18:15-20  ;  Ps. 111  ;  1 Cor. 8:1-13  ;  Mark 1:21-28


A book came out just over ten years ago now by Andrew Sullivan, former editor at The New Republic, entitled Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival. The book was a set of three essays, and the one that has stuck with me the most over the years was the essay on friendship and the image of friendship Sullivan offered. Our friendships are among the most intimate relationships we will have in our lives. I’m tempted to say, “next to our romantic relationships,” but that would betray the point I’m about to make. Our friendships and our great romances each bring us intense intimacy of different varieties, and of equal value.

Sullivan illustrated the difference between these two kinds of relationships, describing romance as a relationship where we stand shoulder to shoulder with our beloved, facing the world together; and friendship as a relationship where we stand face to face, reflecting for our friends the truth of what we see. Romantic love, when it leads to commitment, offers us some measure of relief from the essential loneliness of human life because in it we commit to taking on a portion of our beloved’s lot in life. We share their joys and sorrows, we build a home and a family, and perhaps we raise children. Romantic love creates a common identity for those who are in love, which we joke about when we hear our friends begin to use the word “we” instead of “I” – as in “I have to check with so-and-so to find out what we’re doing this weekend.” That common identity joins lovers at the shoulder as they begin to look ahead at a common future and imagine facing it together.

Friendship is no less important to our experience of life, though the gifts it offers are different. Friendship, when it is sincere, offers us some relief from the anonymity that is characteristic of modern life because in it we reveal ourselves to each other in all our messy and glorious singularity. We share our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties; we set goals and attempt to achieve them. Friendship offers us a mirror into which we can look to see if our internal perception of ourselves matches what the world sees when it looks at us. Friends stand face to face with one another offering the gifts of candor and camaraderie that allow us to push past the illusions we carry about ourselves to become the people we want to be.

At first glance today’s readings don’t appear to have much to do with friendship, or romance for that matter, but I want to propose that perhaps there is some connection between friendship and prophecy – which is clearly the topic of the passage from Deuteronomy, which points to the passage from Mark.

In Deuteronomy we hear Moses as he delivers the law to the people of Israel, who are preparing to enter the promised land after their long journey in the wilderness. He has guided them through the desert, but he will not cross over into it with them. He has been the people’s greatest prophet, and they cannot imagine what it would mean to carry on without him, so Moses assures them that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people” (Deut. 18:15). The people are instructed to heed the words of the prophets among them, which automatically raises another set of questions. How do we know when a prophet is authentic, and when she or he is false? In fact, Moses addresses these questions in the verses that follow immediately after the ones we heard read this morning.

“But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it (Deut 18:20-22).

This is Moses’ last word on this subject at this point, though we are still left with some questions. Like, how long might we wait to see if a thing takes place or proves true? A year? A decade or a century? Consider the words of modern day prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. whose prophetic dream delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 remains only partially fulfilled, even in the wake of our nation’s election of an African-American man to highest office.

Still, Moses identifies for the people the essence of the prophetic word – that it takes place and proves true. We might ask ourselves, in fact, if part of the function of the prophetic word is usher in a new reality, to establish a new truth. In that case, King’s words at the Lincoln Memorial

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’”

do more than predict a future reality, they help bring that reality into being by the very act of being spoken. They tell the truth about our humanity in a way that sets us free. These prophetic words are powerful in their utterance, but they become more powerful over time as we live them into being not only true, but real.

Moses’ instruction that prophetic speech comes true because it is true is the through-line that connects the passage from Deuteronomy to the passage from Mark. The words spoken by Jesus to the man with the unclean spirit reveal his prophetic power, because they change reality. The man is afflicted with spirits, with voices and patterns of being that torture him. Jesus commands the spirit to leave the man and it does. His word is effective, it heals with power. The people around him react not to his words, but to their effect, saying “what is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).

One reading of these two passages side-by-side would suggest simply that Jesus is the prophet God promised through Moses, the one who arises from the people to continue God’s saving work. This is some people’s approach to the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, to look in Hebrew scripture for prophesies that find their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. However, this kind of reading ignores the fact that God not only empowered many other women and men with the gift of prophetic speech between Moses and Jesus, but that God continues to empower us, we who are living after the resurrection – God’s Easter people – with prophetic speech as well.

In fact it is only five chapters later in the gospel of Mark that Jesus begins to send the apostles out in groups of two into the countryside with the authority to cast out unclean spirits. Mark reports that “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them” (Mark 6:12-13). They are supplied with God’s powerful word for the purpose of healing and restoration.

It would not be difficult to construct a list of those famous people stretching from the time of the early church to the present day who delivered God’s powerful, prophetic word in ways that created reality by speaking truth. That kind of list-making is actually kind of common in sermons, as we point to ancient and modern-day saints to inspire our own action. I want to avoid that this morning however, and focus instead on the arena in which most of us spend our lives, among family and friends.

There are some unclean spirits that have taken possession of us as human beings, as a nation, as tribes of people who identify ourselves by ethnic background or politic
al persuasion that are so large that they need to be addressed publicly at the highest levels of power in order to be reformed. We have just come through a season of political speech that has attempted to do just that very thing, with inspiring calls to become our best selves and to choose our better history. Most of the spirits that possess us though are more personal. We are plagued with self-doubt. We are possessed by a tendency to violence with our words or with our fists. We are small-minded in our estimation of those we work with or go to school with. We are petty in our competitions with one another for rank or status. We hate the way we look, or talk, or live. We belittle and berate those people who love us most. We are impatient with ourselves and one another. These spirits are unclean because the conceal the truth about us, a truth that finds its grounds in the waters of baptism where we are claimed by a loving God and hear those words that Jesus heard as he emerged from the waters of the Jordan, “this is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

These spirits are not likely to be cast out by any public address by our president. We may feel them shift uncomfortably when confronted by the words of modern day prophets like King, but they quickly find a new perch in our hearts. Like the new resistant strains of bacteria, these unclean spirits have developed an amazing resistance to inspirational rhetoric, and they are most directly impacted by constant exposure to truth delivered by those we trust the most.

This is where friendship re-enters the conversation. Unlike romance, in which we align ourselves so closely with our beloved that we may turn a blind eye to the ways we hurt or are hurt by each other in order to keep in the peace, in friendship we speak to each other face to face. In friendship we are able to carefully and lovingly tell the truth about what we see.

In friendship we are able to address self-doubt with words of reassurance: “you are brilliant, and perfect for that job. Go ahead, take a risk!” In friendship we can confront each other’s aggression: “your belittling words are harming your children,” or “you can’t hit your spouse.” In friendship we have just enough distance to reflect what we are seeing, and just enough closeness to tell the truth. In friendship we are able to speak words that are powerfully true, in the hope that they become reality: “you deserve so much better” or “you are beautiful just the way you are.” In friendship we become prophets to one another, raised up from within the ranks of our most trusted allies to lead us in faith with love.

We, the body of Christ, inherit the power that comes from that name – the name before which the unclean spirit cried out, “have you come to destroy us?” We, the priesthood of all believers, have inherited a vocation of healing and liberation that answers, “yes, come out of him – come out of her – and let my friends live in the fullness and richness of life that is their birthright.”

Pray for the strength and the courage to be good friends, good prophets, to one another. Listen to the friend who brings God’s prophetic word to you. They speak with the authority to heal.


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