Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2015: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20  +  Psalm 111  +  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  +  Mark 1:21-28

Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.

It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”

At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).

As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries 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.”

“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.

When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.

You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.

At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.

The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.

The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.

Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.

At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.

What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.

In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

If you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember that I spent a good bit of time in my sermon talking about the backdrop to the Gospel of John, the fact that it’s believed to have been composed near the end of the first century, sixty years or more after the death of Jesus. From what we can put together about that time, the Jesus movement was experiencing conflict as Jewish people who had come to believe and confess that Jesus — whose life, death and resurrection were now facts of history — was the long-awaited messiah. Their confession put them at odds with members of the synagogue community who did not share their faith, and as a result they were being kicked out of their congregation. The disruption was intense and the consequences were devastating. These first century Jews were not living in today’s religious landscape, they couldn’t just join another church with beliefs friendlier to their lived experience down the street. They were being cast out of all they’d known with no assurance that they were being called into something new.

It’s important to understand the story behind the story when reading scripture, so that we can begin to understand the incredible choices each story teller is making to give hope to fearful people, to give courage to a community doing a new thing, to give faith to an assembly gathering outside the boundaries of the known world, a new world, a new creation.

From the start, John’s gospel has been trying to tell us that the world is being made new. “In the beginning,” it says, echoing the words of Genesis, “was the Word…” the familiar proclamation of Christmas morning. After that opening prologue, the very first thing that happens in John’s gospel is an act of testimony, as the Jerusalem establishment heads out to meet John the Baptist across the Jordan where he is baptizing people. They ask him, “who are you?” (John 1:19) and it says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.”

Imagine what these words would have meant to people who were being cast out of the familiar places of community and meaning because of their own confession, their own testimony. The story begins with a baptism, and a confession that will not be denied

From there the story focuses, understandably, on Jesus — until we get to chapter nine, the long passage we just read together. It begins with another echo of Genesis, one that would require us to know and remember that the first human, formed in the garden at the beginning of time, was named Adam, a pun that functions as a moniker. In Hebrew the word for “earth” is adamah, so the first person, formed from the earth, is called Adam.

580510493_5c828c0454_oJesus comes upon a man blind from birth, someone who has never seen him. This man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t plead for Jesus to perform a miracle, he’s just living his life. Jesus’ followers notice the man, and use his blindness as an occasion to start a conversation about sin. The man is different, so they want to know what went wrong. Jesus is uninterested in their preoccupation with sin, and responds to them, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) Again we hear the beginning of this gospel,

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5);

but also, again, Genesis,

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3).

Then Jesus takes some earth, the stuff we’re made of, and rubs it in the man’s eyes, as if to recreate them, and tells him to go wash in a pool of water, to be baptized as it were, and we’re told that the name of the pool, Siloam, means “sent.”

From that point, a series of remarkable things occur. The very first being that Jesus disappears from this story and the focus shifts from Jesus to the man who has now begun to see the world in a new way, for the first time. In fact, the verses that follow mark Jesus’ longest absence from the story in this gospel. Rather than continuing with the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, the story follows a series of exchanges between the man with new sight and the temple establishment.

blindYou can imagine that the original audience, the community for whom this gospel was composed, understood immediately what was happening here. Like the man born blind, they’d never seen Jesus. Only heard of him. Maybe they were the children or grandchildren of people who’d been alive when Jesus had walked the earth, and they grew up hearing other families in the synagogue talk about their differences as if they were sins. Maybe they’d lived their whole life among the assembly, but experienced an epiphany, a conversion they never saw coming that changed everything about how they saw the world. Whatever their particular circumstances, I feel certain that these first century Jews knew that when the storytellers talked about the man born blind, they were talking about them.

The next thing that’s remarkable to watch in this story is the creation, before our eyes, of an evangelist. After spending his life being treated like the subject of other people’s speculation, he begins to find his own voice. It’s tentative, at first, he’s no John the Baptist. His testimony develops and is sharpened, like all of ours, in conversation with others.

His first words are simply to assert his existence to people who’d walked by him every day, but never really saw him. Now that he is different, now that he sees the world differently, they can barely recognize him. “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. Just as Jesus’ disciples wanted to talk about this man, not to him, this man’s neighbors were so busy talking about him they barely heard him when he gave his first testimony: “I am the man.”

“I am the man,” is shorthand for so much being said. I am the man Jesus healed. I am the man you used to walk by. I am the woman you talk about, not to. I exist. I am a subject, not an object. I am one of God’s own creations. I have sacred worth. I matter.

Maybe this is your testimony as well, the word God has given you to say as a part of your own healing, and to be part of the way that God heals others. This first testimony seems so small, but is the basis for everything else we have to say: “I am the one God has made.”

His neighbors aren’t so quick to accept what he has to say however, so they finally stop ignoring him only to begin interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” In response, the man tells the story of his liberation. At this point he doesn’t try to explain how it happened, or to assign greater meaning to what happened. He simply reports the facts, as he experienced them, from his point of view.

This is the second testimony, the powerful story each of us can tell about the power of God at work in our lives, healing us, freeing us, saving us. These testimonies don’t require us to have all the right answers, or to be ready to defend them. They are powerful because they point to reality. “I used to be blind, now I see.” “I used to be afraid to leave, now I am ready to go.” “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, now I am ten years sober.” “I used to look at my body and hate it, now I can tell that this is a body loved by God.” “I used to think there was something irredeemably wrong with me, now I know I am loved.”

“Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (John 9:11)

Now the man’s neighbors begin to repeat the kind of conversation about sin and sinners that Jesus’ own disciples had been having when they came across the blind man. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath. How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Where the man born blind wants only to say what he has experienced in his own life, what has happened to him, the authorities want to talk about him, to try and cram his experience into a set of rules and laws they can understand. Finally, not wanting to own their own questions about Jesus, they project them onto the man with new sight: “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

In response, the man is emboldened to go beyond simply describing what had happened to him, and his begins to make claims about what it means. “He is a prophet,” might just as well be, “He is one of us. He is a part of our community. He is the ethic beneath the laws. He is the teller of truths. He is the voice that will not be silent. He is the past and the future. He is a prophet.”

This courage threatens the powers that be, as well as everyone else who has found a way to get by in the world as it is. Even the man’s very own parents are not ready to stand by him as he claims the truth of his own experience. Now the man is not simply reporting the facts, he is risking his own place in the world. Up until now he could back away from his testimony, sharing the facts of what happened without owning what they mean. But no longer. In a showdown between silence in the face of those who had walked by him without seeing him, and the one who had seen him and given him sight, the newly sighted man is ready to challenge the powers that be.

This is the third testimony, the point at which our story goes beyond conviction to risky words and risky actions. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also what to become his disciples?” Now the man has found his voice, and refuses to be silenced by power, in fact he challenges it directly, proposing a new understanding of life and our place in it that contradicts what had come before:

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one will worship and obey God’s will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

And now he’s said it, he’s moved beyond simply reporting the facts to declaring what they mean. Jesus is from God, and so is the miraculous new perspective he offers, the new sight.

After this testimony the newly sighted man is driven out of the community. Here we must pause and consider all that this means. These Jews were not the center of the Roman Empire, they were at the edge. They were an oppressed and occupied community. Their solidarity with one another was one of the primary ways they survived in a hostile culture. The man born blind was a marginalized man among marginalized people, and what little community he had he’d just lost.

Can you imagine the first audience of this gospel, Jews living decades after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection who had never seen him, but were risking everything by confessing him as Lord. Now there can be no doubt that they knew this newly sighted man represented them in the story.

It’s at this point that Jesus and the newly sighted man finally see one another face to face. Jesus hears that the man he healed has been cast out of the community, and he goes to him, pursues him and finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The man born blind doesn’t know who this is, but he knows that he is ready to believe whatever Jesus tells him. He has been transformed by his testimony, he is committed to the cause. “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:36)

“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

“Lord, I believe.” (John 9:37-38)

This is the fourth testimony. I believe. I have experienced the healing, the freedom, the liberation that comes from God. I have found my voice. I have refused to be silent. I have lost those who could not see the presence of God in my life, but what I have seen I cannot unsee. I am not nameless, I am not sightless, I am not voiceless. I am yours. I am God’s. Lord, I believe.

This story of testimony comes to us just past the midway point in the season of Lent, a season of preparation for baptism; a season, historically, when those who had denied their faith in Christ were offered a way back into the congregation; a season when each of us looks inside to see where we ourselves have capitulated to the powers of this world that try so hard to ignore us, to shame us, to silence us; a season when we look outside ourselves to see where the world groans in anticipation of a new creation.

This Sunday’s story challenges us as much as it challenged the church at the end of the first century. What do we stand to lose when we stand by the truth of our own lives? Who will stand with us, and who will not? What waits for us on the other side of our healing, our liberation?

Jesus does. Now as then, the Jesus we have heard of but never seen becomes more and more real, more and more visible, as each of us finds our voice and shares our testimony. We are God’s people, washed in the pool of sending to share our story with the world.

Giving glory to God,
Amen.

 

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