Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 3, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Psalm 71:1-6

Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.

In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.

That’s not a bad way of encountering life.

The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.

I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)

One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:

Oh no, I was no good.

My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.

Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?

I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:

Thank you.

If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.

Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:

You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.

But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”

you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,

And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible:

Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.

Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.

And then God says:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.

And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)

I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:

Okay.

Thy will be done.

One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.

A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?

And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:

I was afraid.

I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.

For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.

How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?

Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.

And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.

When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.

May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.

 

Third Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

jan272c2019

Lessons:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Psalm 19

I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?

For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.

And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.

The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.

The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:

The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.

But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.

A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.

Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.

How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.

The campfire is a place of holy possibility.

The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.

When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.

Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.

Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.

Huh.

Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?

Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.

It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.

And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.

What do we do then?

Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.

Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:

…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God.

The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.

And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.

And so, in his version, it is gone.

Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?

Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.

And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.

If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.

Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.

First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

january 13, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psalm 29

A while back I heard a short radio documentary. The feature began with a story about the reporter’s four-year-old nephew. The little boy was visiting a toy store with his mother and there he was terrified by a hideous creature, by a large statue of Frankenstein’s Monster standing by the entrance. The boy’s fear was so great that he ran deep into the toy store to hide. And that would have been an okay strategy, except that it created a logistical problem: there was only one door and, in order to leave the store again, it was necessary for him to pass the monster once more.

After a great deal of negotiating with his mother, the little boy made it clear that walking past Frankenstein’s Monster a second time was an impossibility. And so, his Mom picked him up and, his face buried in her shoulder, she carried him past the awful creature and out of the store.

For a long time thereafter, the boy was fixated on the experience, almost paralysed by it. Over and over he would say, “Mom? Remember the monster?” And he would retell the trauma of that day at the store again and again and again, much as you or I might retell the story of a car accident – such storytelling is how we wrestle with such an experience, how we make sense of it.

But one day something remarkable happened: the retelling suddenly shifted. Just at the moment in the story when the toy store monster made its shuffling evil entrance, the fear fell away from the boy’s face like a sheet of ice and it was replaced by something else. I’m going to guess that his expression was a combination of mischief and glee. (Is there a name for that look, for that mixture of emotions? There should be.) And he announced to everyone listening:

I saw the monster. And I peed all over it!

And in that instant, the monster lost its power over him. Like David letting the rock fly which fells Goliath, the little boy claimed the most improbable of victories by doing something new.

The reporter then spoke to a researcher by the name of Timothy D. Wilson who explained that the technique that her nephew had employed is what, in his research, he calls story editing. Story editing takes two major forms.

First, story editing may involve doing what the little boy did, taking a negative experience and writing a new happy ending to it. In the revised story, you have the perfect rebuttal to the guy who insulted you, you don’t drop the game-winning touchdown, you are able to defeat the monster in the store. That kind of story editing is a way of escaping from an experience which is haunting you, of gaining power over that experience. And as simple, as silly even as it may sound, Wilson told the reporter that it works.

The second kind of story is something that Wilson has focused on a lot more. It involves taking a limiting narrative in your life and reframing it. An example of such a limiting narrative might be, “I’m no good at math” or “I have a hard time making friends.” Within the church it might be – and this is a story that is often told with shame – “We’re an aging congregation.” The researcher said that he has taught this kind of story editing on a large scale with of first-year university students, with people who are often carrying the story that goes something like, “I’m out of my depth.” Wilson invites the students to take this narrative of limitation – a story that I suspect that all of us struggled with at age seventeen or eighteen, and that many of us may struggle with still – and to craft it into a new story, a story whose thesis goes like this:

“Everybody struggles at first.”

Wilson said is that, compared with a control group, he discovered measurable improvements in the outcomes of the young people who adopted the new story. That they did better on tests, on essays, on oral reports. They were happier. “Everybody fails at first” was a story that set them free.

Over these last several weeks of Advent and Christmas, we have once again walked with the holy family to Jerusalem, there to witness the Christ child’s birth. Today, we fast forward two or even three decades to Jesus’ baptism. With the exception of Luke, who gives us the awesome account of Jesus as a child teaching in the temple, we really don’t know anything about the intervening time. There is a gap in Jesus’ biography. We don’t know what history Jesus brings with him as he steps into John’s arms and the Jordan River.

We are pretty used to picturing Jesus as an almost impassive figure. Years of art have encouraged us to do so. In one painting after another, Jesus has this look of distant and holy patience on his face. Occasionally he smiles, although he almost never laughs. And, at the end of his life, he suffers. But, even then, even on the cross, the theme of impassivity remains – Jesus on Golgotha still has an otherworldly patience, a borderline terrifying serenity. And maybe artists are right to depict him that way.

What I don’t think I have ever seen is a painting us Jesus looking befuddled, looking confused, looking lost. Why not? If we take seriously scripture’s claim that Jesus was fully human and not simply an all-powerful god disguised as a human being, then, much as he shared in our pain, much as he shared in our joy, Jesus must have also shared in that sense of lostness that is sometimes part of everyone’s life. There must have been a time when Jesus was the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a nervous first year university student.

And that makes me wonder: could the account that we just heard of Jesus’ baptism be an example of story editing?

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – begin Jesus’ ministry with some slight variation on these words of assurance. Now, I don’t doubt that God speaks these words in order for all of us, gathered with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to eavesdrop, in order that we all might understand early on who our protagonist is. But what if God also speaks these words because he knows that Jesus needs to hear them?

What if Jesus comes to the Jordan labouring with the fears that so many of us have. The fears that say that God couldn’t have a purpose for someone like me, that God might not be able to forgive someone like me, that God might not even be able to love someone like me. And there, in John’s arms, God says to Jesus:

Let’s edit your story into something new. You do have a purpose. You are forgiven. You are good enough, you are worthy enough, you are loved enough to take on the ministry that is before you.  

Son, I’m proud of you. You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.

What if, in that moment, Jesus defeats the monster which has held him back? And that frees his ministry to begin, a ministry which will transform the world?

Here is the promise of the Gospel, the good news. God comes to all of us and invites us to edit our stories as well. Most of us don’t get an experience as profound as a voice speaking from heaven. Rather, most of us hear God through the voice of friends, through something we read, through an experience of beauty.

You may be lost. Everybody, God says, gets lost sometimes. Most of us get lost more than once. Sometimes we need to get lost. Sometimes it is in getting lost, in those experiences that we would never have chosen, that we learn the most about ourselves, about our neighbours, about God. You may be deep into grief. Everybody experiences grief. You may be full of doubt. Everybody experiences doubt.

These things do not define you, they are not who you are, they are not your story. Your story, God says, is:

you are loved.

The Epiphany by The Rev. Corbet Clark

jan. 6, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

On this feast of the Epiphany that ends the Christmas season, we still have the manger scene up, a very traditional sort of tableau that combines the birth stories we have in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. it’s a powerful symbol of what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about the birth of this unique figure – not just in human existence but in the existence of the cosmos. So we have cosmic elements present in this scene –  the stars, the angels – and all of it is focused on the adoration and worship of this baby. We have the shepherds and the wise men, representing the poor and the rich, we have Jews and gentiles – the wise men are foreigners from another country. And it’s not just humans who have come to adore, but the animals as well. So all of creation is gathered around this child to offer worship and homage. Powerful symbolism, but it raises some questions.

One of the things that’s interesting about the gospels is that there is a split in the four of them. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a birth story, and the other two don’t. So why would that be?

I think one of the things that the gospel writers are wrestling with is the fact that on the one hand, even from the time of his birth Jesus is revealed to us as this unique, divine figure. But he’s not going to begin his ministry for another thirty years, well into adulthood. So what was he doing in those intervening thirty years? If he was self-aware as a divine figure really from the time of his birth and growing up, then why wasn’t he out there doing stuff?

Now Mark answers that question very simply, because for Mark, Jesus doesn’t realize his nature and his calling until his baptism. And it’s from the point of his baptism by John that there’s a flash of understanding. So presumably he’s been growing, he’s been learning, but it’s not until that point that he realizes that God has called him to a unique purpose. And in the meantime, presumably, he’s been living a fairly ordinary life. There are no stories in the gospels about those intervening years, which probably means nothing spectacular really happened.

Well, for some early Christians that was not a satisfactory understanding. So from pretty early on, we get some writings called “non-canonical,” meaning they didn’t end up in the official collection of New Testament books, for reasons that I think will be obvious in a minute. These are sometimes called the infancy gospels, and they have stories of Jesus as a child – with the assumption that as a child, he has the divine powers that he’s going to reveal later as an adult. For a couple of reasons these stories are problematic.

To use an analogy: one of my favorite superheros in the new superhero pantheon is Spider-Man. And Spider-Man, if you’re not familiar with the Spider-Man story, is a teenage boy who accidentally receives powers that are kind of spider-like, that allow him to go out and be a crusader for justice, etc. There have been a couple of iterations of Spider-Man in the movies, and the most recent one is really my favorite, because it reveals Spider-Man as just an ordinary kid who happens to have these super powers. But given that he’s a teenage boy, things don’t always work out in the best way. In trying to help people and save situations, he misjudges situations, he doesn’t realize what’s really happening, and he creates a lot of havoc. And people actually get ticked off at him.

Something similar happens in the infancy gospels. Because on the one hand there are wonderful stories of Jesus doing good as a young child. So for example there’s a story of a companion of his falling off a roof of a house and dying, and Jesus raises him back to life, and everyone thinks that’s fantastic. There’s a another story when he’s with a companion and the boy cuts his foot with an axe, and Jesus heals him instantly. Well, that’s really cool!

But there are other stories. He has a teacher who’s trying to teach him, and he’s really snarky with the teacher and tells him, “You don’t have anything to teach me. I know everything already.” Which presumably would be true – right? There’s a scene where he’s playing with some boys, and a boy bumps into him accidentally and Jesus gets ticked off and causes him to fall down dead. The boy’s parents are understandably upset, and they go to Jesus’ parents to complain, and Jesus causes the parents of the dead boy to go blind. And the villagers get really upset and go to Mary and Joseph to complain, and Jesus’ parents have the classic response, “There’s nothing we can do with him – he’s out of our control.” 

Well, you get a sense of why these stories didn’t end up in the canonical gospels, yes? Because, really, teenage boys – forgive me, teenage boys – don’t always have the judgment and self-control to be able to make wise decisions. Wisdom is something that typically comes with age. (Doesn’t always come, but it’s supposed to.)

So you can see the challenge here: if Jesus really does have these miraculous divine powers as a child, what kind of man would he become? We kind of have a choice: do we want a Jesus, can we identify with a Jesus, who even as a child is aware that he is really very different from everyone else, because he has these miraculous, divine powers. Or do we want a Jesus whose understanding of his mission and of his powers is something that develops gradually over time, and which he finally comes to realize in adulthood.

There’s only one story of Jesus not as an infant and not as an adult. It’s in Luke when Jesus goes to visit the temple at about age twelve, when a Jewish male would become an adult in the congregation. And what Luke says after that scene is that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and people.” I think that’s a nice summary of what we might presume Jesus’ life was like between his birth and his beginning his ministry.

Now for Paul, the idea that Jesus is just a man is really critical. Paul makes a point to call Jesus “born of a woman.” It’s really important to Paul that Jesus is a man, not a god descended to earth, which would be a typical thing in Greek and Roman mythology. But a man, just a man. Paul talks in Philippians about Jesus emptying himself. Yes, he’s the son of God and yet he doesn’t claim that title. Instead he empties himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who uses the language of sacrifice in the temple to talk about Jesus’ mission, says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with human weakness because he has experienced human weakness. And that for Paul, and I think for the gospel writers as well, is really critical to understanding who Jesus is. That Jesus is able to redeem our humanity because he has fully experienced our humanity. In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity, in all of the ordinariness of daily life. For years and for years and for years. One of the early Christian writers, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in a famous phrase wrote, in talking about Jesus’s humanity, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” And the word “assumed” meaning here, that unless Jesus takes on true humanity then he cannot redeem our humanity.

So to go back to the Matthew story and the manger scene, and this moment of glory and adoration. Immediately after this scene Matthew wants to emphasize again that Jesus is born as a very vulnerable child into a dangerous and violent world. At the time of his birth under King Herod he is threatened by violence, and he and his parents have to escape and become refugees and go to Egypt and hide, and when they are finally able to return to their homeland they have to go to an obscure village. It’s an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God and yet he is living the life of a human being like the rest of us. I think the Jesus I can identify with is the Jesus who has experienced all of human weakness, all of human poverty and suffering. Who has experienced life in its joy and in its sorrow, in its triumph and its tragedy – and who can therefore redeem me and all human beings.

Amen.

Last Sunday after the Epiphany by Holly Puckett

Feb. 11, 2018

Lessons:

2 Kings 2:1-12

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Mark 9:2-9

Psalm 50:1-6

Many of you know this already, but this Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday because of the Gospel reading – Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain with his friends Peter, James and John, and all of a sudden bright and beautiful rays of light begin to shine from Jesus – he is transformed – transfigured. And then some old time prophets appear on the mountain with them – Moses and Elijah – and Jesus speaks with them. Then a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, Listen to my son! Some people say the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.

Transfiguration Sunday is a threshold day. We stand at the end of Epiphany. We stand just before the beginning of Lent. We stand at the edge of our seasons turning from winter into spring. Let’s start our journey up the mountain top, across the threshold of holiness, and then back down with a blessing


Dazzling —Jan Richardson

Believe me, I know
how tempting it is
to remain inside this blessing,
to linger where everything
is dazzling
and clear.

We could build walls
around this blessing,
put a roof over it.
We could bring in
a table, chairs,
have the most amazing meals.
We could make a home.
We could stay.

But this blessing
is built for leaving.
This blessing
is made for coming down
the mountain.
This blessing
wants to be in motion,
to travel with you
as you return
to level ground.

It will seem strange
how quiet this blessing becomes
when it returns to earth.
It is not shy.
It is not afraid.

It simply knows
how to bide its time,
to watch and wait,
to discern and pray

until the moment comes
when it will reveal
everything it knows,
when it will shine forth
with all it has seen,
when it will dazzle
with the unforgettable light
you have carried
all this way.

 

For me – the transfiguration story, as well as the earlier passage we read today, where we heard the story of how Elijah was carried into heaven by a chariot of fire, up into a whirlwind of clouds, leaving his servant and friend Elisha crying and alone on earth – both of those stories really resonate with me, and bring up something that I think we all struggle with in life – how to be present in the current moment.

I make THE BEST plans. I plan big things, I plan little things, I plan for the short term, and I plan for the long term. I day-dream plan, I reality plan, I have plans where I write it down, I have plans that I keep in my heart and tell no one. I have four notebooks for different kinds of plans. I like to lay it all out. I like to know what’s gonna happen. And then what happens? You all know what happens to the best laid plans. We get to have a good laugh at our plans. But here’s the thing – what else are we supposed to do, but plan?

I mean I really think that God asks us to hold a creative tension here. It’s like a conversation between you and God, your plans, and then the way that life takes our plans and makes them into something we don’t necessarily recognize that is … our life.

It’s so obvious to me that our lives are a creative process between us and God that is happening in every moment. We claim our lives, and we live into a vision – that’s our planning – but at the same time, we have to hold open the very real possibility that surprises are going to be happening. So we work for days, and weeks and months, and sometimes even years on our plans – we show up, and we tend our visions like they are gardens or like they are children, or like they are a work of art that we are painting. Then suddenly there is a shift of some kind. We see things in a new way, we know something we didn’t know before. Our hard work ends up changing us. We only think we have control of the mosaic of moments that is our life. Or even worse, we don’t really pay attention, and miss the chance to create something beautiful with God.

Let me read a short passage from A tree full of Angels by Macrina Weiderkehr that explains paying attention: We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry. Not only do we dwell in the land of plenty; we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God. In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? Lock up our souls? Why do we limp? Why do we straddle the issues? Why do we live so feebly, so dimly? Why aren’t we saints? 

Each of us could come up with individual answers to all these questions, but I want to suggest here a common cause. The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is we have never really learned how to be present – with quality – to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are all starving for. Real Presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet, the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers! 

There is nothing – no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain that cannot be harvested and used for our journey to God. 

So that’s what stirs up in me when I think about the three disciples who followed Jesus up the mountain, and then had to follow him back down again and go on to live their lives. Life can cause us, in sometimes very painful or vivid ways, to have to release things that we have counted on the most. To be transfigured. We feel like Elisha when Elijah was whisked up into heaven and there he was standing on the ground. People, don’t tell me that this thing or this person I love is going to be taken away from me, as Elisha says, “yes, I know this bad thing is going to happen. Keep silent.” For us, some of our chances are gone, and some of our beloved people have died, and here we are. The chariot has gone in a whirlwind up to heaven and we are here, in this moment. Down from the mountain. Facing our life. Ripping our clothes in agony. 

It’s easy to want to stay on the mountaintop when we know great things are there, and not so great things are waiting for us on the ground. So what about that mountaintop? Oh that glorious mountaintop! Sweet Peter, up on that mountain, sees the most amazing thing of his life and what does he do? Something transformative happens and we want to cling to it. Let me build something so that this is a tangible thing I can hold onto. But as he suggests that, a cloud comes out of nowhere, it overshadows them, and speaks – Listen to my son! And Jesus walks them down the mountain, and there’s no more talk about building anything.

God doesn’t want us to build house for the holy, the man-made structures, the architecture that we create in God’s name. All of that is very cool, and wondrous, but usually when God shows up, it is through other people. We are God’s architecture. We’re the buildings God loves the most. Not the monuments we’ve built to God.

And then as they walk back down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to talk about it. Not to talk about his transfiguration. To wait, to reflect, to carry it with them in their heart, to ponder it. Like Mary pondering the birth of Jesus. We experience transformative things, and then sometimes we create stories about what we experience – like a physical building, we build a story around our life that we tell other people about who we are.  

Nothing is the same for the disciples – they witnessed something dazzling, and they turn back to the rhythms of their lives, but they cannot forget what they have seen. It’s changed them. It’s changed everything. Why did Jesus tell them not to talk about it? Maybe it was too soon. There’s a time and place to share about the transfigurations of your life. There’s also times when pondering in your heart is the better course. Our experiences dwell in our stories, and our stories change our experiences if we let them, especially if we try to define a transfiguration when it is still happening. 

Because we are at the end of Epiphany, let me ask you – So what about you? Have you ever been to the mountain top?

Think back. When was the last time you had a revelation about God? When did you understand something completely new about yourself and about your faith? Last week Martin said in his homily that God can be found anywhere. Everywhere. I love it, and I agree with it. And that’s what I’m asking you about. Can you think back to the last exciting Epiphany that you had about the nature of God? Where were you? Go back in your mind to that moment.

We have these mountain top moments, and then we go back down and return to the real world. Because this story is not just about learning to come down from the mountain top, and it’s not just about learning to let go of plans so we are hearing God’s plans with us. It’s also not just about learning that building monuments does not help us to keep going. here’s what I think it’s about, more than those things.

I think it’s about opening our eyes. Open your eyes and see the glory that’s around you. Let that glory into your bones. Open your very soul to it. Allow glory to move you. Allow it to affect you on a deep level. Give yourself permission to walk where the glory of God leads you. Have courage to trust what you have seen on the mountaintop. Trust what you know from God. Because it goes back down the mountain with you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The gifts you receive on the mountain top are still real at the ground level. And even more than that, they are still with you even when you walk in the valley of the shadow. 

Don’t you think these are great passages to lead us into Lent? We are about to spend forty days examining what we cling to, and what we need to let go of, in order that we may know more fully how Christ is in our lives. But don’t jump ahead, because Lent will be here soon enough. we are here with Peter, John and James right now, and they are asking you – how does their story, and their journey down the mountain connect with your own? Where do we reach that beautiful, creative conversation where God and each of us are playing out the vision for our lives?

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 4, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

We’re going to begin this morning with a quiz. Take out a piece of paper or open the drawing feature on your mobile device or call up a blank page in your mental notebook. And within the medium of your choice I am going to ask you to make a map or a graph. And the purpose of the map or graph is to illustrate, within the whole world, where God is, and where God is not. Or let’s add a little nuance to that, because maybe “is” and “is not” is a little too binary. Let’s draw a map that explains where God is most present and that takes us through a series of gradations to the place where God is least present.

I’ll give you a few seconds to complete your work.

Okay, now pass your completed work to your neighbour. We are going to grade one another’s work.

That’s a joke.

One possible way of creating this diagram – and here and in much of this sermon I will be leaning heavily on the work of the wonderful scholar and blogger, Paul Nuechterlein – would be to draw a series of concentric circles and to label each of them. So at the centre, maybe, is a building like this one, like this church. As we work out way out, we move to somewhat less holy but still beloved locations: let’s say our homes. Then at 50% holiness comes – what shall we put there? – our places of work, where we go to school. As we move to still less holy, still further removed from God, we find the places we don’t like followed, last of all, outside the circle, by the places that we fear.

We could do a similar diagram with people: here in the middle is Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, and then a beloved teacher, and then friends and colleagues, acquaintances, then people whom you struggle to like or understand, culminating with your least favourite person in the world.

We could do the same thing with food. While most of us here this morning don’t live with values like Kosher or Halal, we don’t live within a context in which foods are ritually clean or unclean, we do have some pretty intense and deeply-held cultural notions about what is tasty and what is disgusting, not all of which are especially rational. 80% of the world’s nations, for instance, regularly eat insects as part of their diets; there is no particular reason that most of us in Portland would react with revulsion if we were presented with a bowl full of mealworms or deep-fried crickets, both of which would be common meals elsewhere.

To some extent, this stratification or sorting of reality into circles of holiness is normal and universal and good. We need contexts such as this church in which we gather to name the holy and to encounter the holy. We need a centre to our lives. (Before I started going to church, the centre of my diagram was the theatre, and in many ways it still is: in the theatre I found friends and beauty and meaning.) At the centre of our personal diagrams is we find what the Celts would call a Thin Place: a location in which we sense that God is particularly near the surface of things.

The problem shows up when we begin to regard this diagram not as a map of where I have encountered God most strongly, but rather as an objective statement about where God is and where God is not. God is objectively, literally here around this altar and God is not – well fill, in the blank of your own outer circle – in the alley downtown where someone is shooting up, in the migrants and refugees south of our borders, in the White House.

For the second week running, we hear a story from Mark about Jesus coming to the Synagogue. This is the first half of the last line of today’s reading:

He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues…

Within Jesus’ culture, a Synagogue is probably as close to the centre of the diagram as you can get. Only the Temple in Jerusalem would be closer in to the middle, closer in to God. And for the second week running, we hear something unexpected paired with the word synagogue. Here is that sentence in its entirety:

He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues… and casting out demons.

This week and last, it is here at the centre of the diagram, at the epicenter of holiness, that Jesus meets demons, that he meets something unholy.

Now let’s track back to earlier in the reading. Jesus goes to a deserted place – maybe a place that is like that alley in downtown Portland, somewhere further out on the circle, maybe as far out as you can get on the circle – and there he prays. It is out here on the periphery, in other words, that Jesus encounters the one whom he calls Father, that he encounters the deepest kind of holiness.

The unholy is in the centre, the holy on the outside.

What is going on?

In the past, I have suggested that we could liken the Gospel to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, that Jesus’ words and actions invite us into a Topsy Turvy place, a place of reversed expectations. What’s up is down, the poor are blessed, the outsiders are first in line. And I mostly stand by that. But every analogy has its limitations, and I’m not sure that Topsy Turvy entirely works when we encounter this diagram and Jesus’ challenge to it today. Indeed, I want to suggest that this diagram might be an instance in which Topsy Turvy could lead us to duplicating the very mistake that Jesus is shining a light on and critiquing through his actions.

Not quite ten years ago in 2009, a South African filmmaker by the name of Neil Blomkamp created a fascinating and ultimately disappointing movie by the name of District 9. District 9 is a science-fiction film and, like a lot of fantasy (think of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), it uses a fantastical scenario to talk about real life. In brief: a group of aliens come to earth and their spaceship breaks down, stranding them here. The human military rounds them all up into a ghetto or a camp where they live under harsh conditions and have fewer rights than their nearby human neighbours. Because of the sort of accident that happens in Science Fiction films, however, a human being is transformed into one of the aliens. The literal and figurative line that subdivides the two species is crossed.

District 9 is an allegory for apartheid, for any scenario in which human beings build walls between themselves based upon race or national origin or money or something else. And it is an allegory for what happens when a privileged person wakes up to the evils of apartheid, when they cross the line from the centre of their circle and moves out into what their culture has told them is unholy. The allegory is the fascinating and exciting part of the movie.

The disappointing part of the movie comes as it wears on. Because the movie ends up being a fairly standard-issue shoot ‘em up: the protagonist realises that the people whom he thought were the good guys – the human agents of government, whom he thought were at the centre of the circle – are really the bad guys and the people whom he thought were the bad guys – the aliens, whom he thought were outside the circle – are really the good guys. And so he has moral permission to kill lots of government agents and we, as the audience, have moral permission to cheer as he does so.

In other words, by the end of District 9, the epicenter of the concentric circles has shifted – it used to be here, now its over here – but its model is fundamentally unaltered. There are still holy people and unholy, we’ve just shifted who is in and who is out.

Maybe District 9 caught my attention so much – and disappointed me so much – because it had the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel but, instead, became representative of an all too Hollywood and all too human way of encountering justice, of imagining that justice looks like simply shifting who is the target of our contempt, our ostracism, our violence. Human beings do this a lot. Over the last forty or fifty years, for instance, we moved a long way towards recognising the dignity of GLBTQ folks. At the same time, many of us have given ourselves permission to hold Evangelical Christians and conservative voters in contempt, to shun them. You don’t have to scroll far on Facebook before you see an announcement that says: if you voted this way, unfriend me now!

But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t just shift the concentric circles. He explodes the circles altogether.

Jesus doesn’t have an unfriend button.

Jesus’ diagram looks like this. [We look at the opposite side of the piece of paper, on which nothing is drawn.] At first it looks like nothing, until we realise that it looks like everything. If there are boundaries to this diagram at all, they are on the very outside, on borders of the universe. Everything is inside of God’s centre.

Gospel in English means “good news.” What it doesn’t mean is “easy news.” Giving up the model of concentric circles is hard. There is a comfort in this model: this model says that the people whom I love are blessed by God and the people whom I dislike are rejected by God. Giving up this model means allowing the possibility, insisting on the possibility, that God’s love is without limits, that God will not be fenced in, that God is there with the people whom you like and respect the least.

That’s hard. But it’s also the best news that there is. Because when you allow the possibility that these boundaries are gone, that for God they never existed – the walls were always our stuff, never God – you realise that nothing, nothing stands between you and Jesus. The two of you are together, together as he tells stories, as he casts out demons, as changes everything.

 

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 28

Lessons:

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

 

 

It’s the Sabbath, Jesus has gone to the Synagogue (as is his habit), and there he is teaching. And the people who are listening to him, Mark tells us in his tantalising brevity, are astonished because he teaches as one having authority. Something about his words, his manner, the content of his teaching, just who he I, says that he knows what he is talking about.

As Jesus teaches with authority, abruptly, a man with an unclean spirit enters the scene. Today, our mental picture of what this man might look like is heavily shaped by medieval paintings and by Hollywood movies. It is not hard to imagine the man’s head rotating 360 degrees, him body levitating, his eyes burning red and his skin a cadaverous grey. That may or may not have been what Mark’s audience imagined when they gathered around the campfire and Mark first told this story to them. We don’t know.

While we don’t know much about his appearance, we do know that the man has an aggressive, yelling manner. He yells at everyone, he yells at Jesus:

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

So there is fear and recognition is the man’s voice. And then something fascinating happens. Did you notice it? From one sentence to the next, the man switches from the first person plural – from “us” – to the first person singular. He says:

I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

Jesus responds: Be silent. Come out of him!

And the unclean spirit does come out.

The people watching are amazed. Their mouths hang open in wonder, their eyes bulge wide, they gasp. They say – as you and I might say in the same circumstances:

What is this?

The people are like an audience watching a magic trick, asking the question: How did he do that? Except that Jesus’ magic trick is not an illusion. It’s real: the man is transformed. And then, like the man with the unclean spirit, what they say next is fascinating and, at least to my ears, unexpected.

They answer their own question – What is this? – by saying:

It’s a new teaching – with authority.

Huh.

So Jesus casting out the unclean spirit is not just gift to the man whom the spirit plagued, but it is also a lesson. A lesson for those watching and, across time thanks to Mark, a lesson for you and me. It is a lesson about who Jesus is and maybe, as his followers, who you and I are called to be. The Christian movement, after all, has long affirmed that one of the goals of discipleship, maybe the whole goal of discipleship, is to become Christ-like ourselves. In the famous words of Thomas à Kempis, we are called to The Imitation of Christ.

If the crowd gathered at the synagogue is right, if this is a lesson, then what is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us?

This morning, I’d like to wonder with you about that question by looking at the shift from the plural to the singular in the man’s speech.

Living in 2018 in Portland, the notion of an unclean spirit, of demonic possession, is not a common one. There may be some of our neighbours for whom this is a concept that is coherent or consistent within their worldview, but for most of us this is unfamiliar language. I often visit with folks who are struggling in some way or who have a family member who is struggling in some way, and exactly never has someone said to me, “Oh, Dave has an unclean spirit. He’s been possessed since the late nineties.”

(My apologies to anyone here this morning named Dave.)

Because the language of unclean spirits doesn’t dovetail into the stories and assumptions that most of us in Portland have about the world, a lot of Pacific Northwest Christians – particularly those of us who worship in what we might call progressive parishes – respond to a story like the one we hear today from Mark with embarrassment. One of our go-to strategies is to ignore these stories. You often hear Christians in parishes such as Grace talking about Jesus as an author of parables, as a healer, as a sharer or meals. But pretty rarely will you hear us acknowledging Jesus as someone who casts out demons.

Another strategy that we employ is to try to shoehorn these tales into our own, pre-existing worldview. So we will say: an unclean spirit is just how people in the first century understood epilepsy or mental illness. And I guess that could be true. We don’t know.

I’m wondering about another way, however. I’m wondering about a scenario in which, whether or not we think that there are literal unclean spirits or demons at work in our world, we allow that the idea of a demon remains a useful one. Could this be an idea, a lens for reality, that invites us into compassion for ourselves and for others and that deepens our commitment to justice?

This is where I want to suggest that the man’s shift in language holds a key lesson, that the shift is a big part of what Jesus wants us to know through this teaching. When the man first says, “us,” we may deduce that he and his unclean spirit are speaking as one. They are, in this sentence, a team or a single unit or a family, they are indivisible. But as Jesus confronts the unclean spirit, the spirit begins to speak on its own, independently of the man.

What this shift proclaims is that the man is not his demon. And across 2000 years, it proclaims that we aren’t our demons. We may have demons – but they aren’t who we are, they aren’t how God made us, they aren’t want God plans for and wants us to be. We are not our addictions. We are not the crime that we committed when we were young. We are not the cruel thing that we said or did to the one whom we loved. There is no escaping that there are things that we have done or left undone. And we are called to name those things and repent for them.

But those things aren’t us.

Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t intend in any way to argue that the notion of a demon represents an excuse for bad or immoral behaviour. If I cheat on my taxes, I don’t get to say, “Oh, that was my demon,” at which point the IRS gives me a mulligan. To the contrary, the lens of the demon insists that, if I am participating or I have participated in something immoral, then I am in profound need of healing, profound need of repentance, profound need to turn back to Jesus, to ask Jesus to help restore me to being the person whom Jesus wants and expects me to be.

And furthermore let’s be clear, this story says that there is nothing simple or easy or asking for Jesus to rid us of a demon. When Jesus cast out the man’s unclean spirit, the man convulses and cries in a loud voice. In a funny way, in a terrible way, there is a comfort in our demons. We know them, they are kind of predictable, we have learned how to make them fit into our lives, more or less. Saying goodbye to them hurts.

I guess that what I want to argue is that the lens for reality via which we speak of unclean spirits or demons is two things. First, it is an invitation into compassion: for ourselves and for our neighbours when we fail. We live in a age (maybe every age is like this – I don’t know) when we are heavily drawn into a binary way of subdividing the world, so that there are good guys and bad guys, people in Category “A,” whom we can safely admire, and people in Category “B,” whom we can safely hold in contempt. We become confused and frustrated and fearful when someone moves from one category to another or when it is ambiguous as to which category they properly belong. We become even more confused and frustrated and fearful when it becomes ambiguous as to which category we ourselves properly belong.

The lens of the demon or the unclean spirit says that everyone, everyone belongs to Category “A” and that all of us, at least to some extent, have demons which belong in Category “B.” Our Category “B,” our demon, is asserting itself when we call the humanity of another person into question, when we engage in destructive gossip, when our own comfort becomes more important than someone else’s suffering. When our demon arises, we are called to be patient with ourselves – struggling with the darkness is a universal part of being alive. We are called to repent. And we are called to extend the same patience and the same invitation to repentance to our fellow human beings, including the ones that we like least and respect least.

And that leads me to, second, the lens of the demon calls us as Christians to function prophetically, to name demons when we see them. That includes the hard work of naming the demons in our own lives. And it includes the maybe even harder work of naming our culture’s shared demons.

Consider the demon that is consumerism, the way of being in the world that says that the test for something being right or wrong is whether or not we have enough room on our MasterCard to pay for it, not whether this purchase will hurt the earth or the person who manufactures it for us. Consider the demon that is nationalism, the way of being that says that migrants and refugees from outside of our borders are, in a real sense, less human than us, less worthy of safety and stability. Consider – and we just passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let’s name one of the demons that he talked about – that of militarism, the demon that celebrates state-sanctioned violence. This is not even close to a complete list: let’s think about the demons of racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia.

Here, it is as a culture that we are called to repent.

Here is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us. In the move from “us” to “I” and the subsequent casting out from the demon, we learn that while God could destroy you and me because of the demons that we carry, God won’t do that. What God will do – if we allow God, because God never makes us do anything, God respects our free will too much for that – is to heal us and restore. Come to Jesus, this story says, with your own demons, with the demons of our shared culture. Come to Jesus, the one with authority, and he will set you free.

First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 7 2018

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-5

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

Psalm 29

This is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark – the shortest of the Gospels, the oldest, the one written in the roughest Greek, and the one told with the most urgent excitement. Mark tells us the good news like an out of breath child on the schoolyard who has just seen the most amazing thing: and then, and then, and then he says.

Because of Mark’s roughness, because of his breathlessness (there is a fascinating new translation of scripture, in which the translator renders Mark’s rough Greek into rough English), we might be tempted to suppose that his writing lacks sophistication or nuance or even intelligence. Words are a kind of a currency, they are a marker of privilege and status, and we have a long history, thoroughly tied into class and race, of declaring that those who use language differently from the wealthy and the powerful are stupid.

But to fall into that temptation is to do a disservice not only to the one who speaks or writes but to ourselves. Because to dismiss a whole section of our neighbours as stupid is to miss what those neighbours have to teach us. In the case of Mark, to contrast his rough and racing style with, say, the educated polish of Luke and to then conclude Mark’s Gospel is lacking would to miss Mark genius.

Mark might very well have been a guy who was lived most happily in the world of oral story telling, he might have been more at home around the campfire or the water cooler than in front of the quill or the word processor. But that doesn’t diminish his craft, his brilliance as a writer and as an evangelist. The part of his craft that I want to focus on in this passage this morning is his staggering and wondrous use of symbols.

Mark’s begins the story of Jesus at the Jordan River. So, unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors, and nor is there an infancy narrative. If we only had Mark to draw on, there would be no Christmas pageant.

Mark starts here at the water, with the eccentric and mystic and dangerous figure of John standing at its side.

The river itself is the first symbol that I’d like us to notice. This the body of water that, in the tale of Israel’s escape from oppression and slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel cross in order to enter into the promised land. This river, in other words, is heavy with metaphor. To step into its waters, to cross over it is to pass from bondage into freedom, from death into life.

At the time that Mark’s story begins, Israel is once again oppressed, once again living under the boot of a brutal dictatorship. Israel is living under occupation. So, to begin here at the Jordan is a profoundly political statement.[i] It is a statement about freedom. Mark begins the story of Jesus in a physical location that announces that Jesus will critique the occupation and resist the occupation and offer a non-violent and holy and liberative and healing alternative to the occupation.

The meaning of the setting at the Jordan would almost assuredly have been obvious to Mark’s Jewish listeners. But it likely would’ve been hidden to any Roman soldiers listening in. Like African American slaves singing songs about going to heaven which are also songs about going to Canada or otherwise escaping slavery, like millions of oppressed people before and since, Mark speaks about liberation in code.

Beginning the story at the Jordan means that in Jesus you and I will find freedom.

The river also informs the next symbol that we will encounter, that of baptism. We are out in the wilderness, in a location – then and now – of danger and of discovery, of getting lost and getting found. And there we see John employing a ritual from the city. The baptism that we see today in the wilderness, on the river, on the outside, on the literal and figurative border of Israel, is something that we would expect to see in civilization, in the Temple in Jerusalem. We would expect to see it under the stewardship – or, if we are feeling more critical or even cynical, under the ownership and control – of the priests who serve there.

What does it mean that in Mark we encounter baptism in the hands of John – in the hands of someone unqualified by the rules of the Temple to perform it? What does it mean that this baptism happens just about as far as you can get from the Temple is that God?

Perhaps it means that God, whom we will meet in the person of Jesus, will not and cannot be bound by our rules or by our borders. Jesus will share meals with anyone, heal anyone, tell stories with anyone, share the Kingdom with anyone, whether they be found on Israel’s side of the Jordan or beyond.

Beginning the story with baptism in the wilderness tells us that, to borrow the provocative words of Ellen Clark-King, the holiness of God is promiscuous. We will find that love even in the borders and the margins, maybe especially at the borders and the margins.

The last symbol that would like for us to encounter is the one that comes after Jesus’ baptism, after John raises him back up after the water. This is the rending of the heavens in two, the breaking that allows the Spirit to descend. Mark uses the Greek word that we translate as “torn” twice in the Gospel, once here at Jesus’ baptism and a second time when Jesus dies on the cross and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two.

That fearful symmetry is not a coincidence.

In the cosmic tearing apart that begins and ends Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see that there is no longer a divide between heaven and earth. Or no, that’s wrong: in this seismic event, God brings our attention to the reality that there was never a divide between heaven and earth.

Maybe all three symbols actually proclaim the same message: that we are free and that God is free and that God is freely choosing to be right here, right now, among us. We don’t need to go somewhere else to find the Kingdom, to find God. This is what Jesus will affirm in the prayer that he will teach us, the prayer that we say every Sunday:

Your will be done, 

On earth as in heaven.

Tear down the subdivision, tear down the illusion of a subdivision. It was nothing more than a veil, anyway.

Three symbols given to us across the centuries by Mark, by this rough and rushed storyteller. There are more symbols to be found with Jesus in John’s arms at the Jordan. But that is where I am going to stop now. All of them are about how God ends limits, all of them are about how God is found in the plainest of places. All of them are about how God will not be constrained – by empire, by the priests at the temple, by a worldview that tries to contain the holy or exclude the holy from certain places, by you and me. All three symbols proclaim the frightening and wonderful news that God is Emmanuel: God with us.


[i] This argument – and much of what follows – is indebted to Paul Nuechterlein’s extraordinary resource, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.