Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 4, 2018


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.


“You Are the Light of the World” + Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. D. Corbet Clark


Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112:1-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20


“You are the light of the world.”

When people through the ages have tried to figure out exactly what Jesus was trying to do in his ministry, they’ve come up with a variety of ideas. Some think he was like a monastic leader, trying to start a new ascetic movement, to establish a pure community of believers. Others that he was a teacher of wisdom, even secret wisdom, as Paul suggests in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. Others say, no, he was a new Moses, giving people a new law of follow. And others have seen him as a revolutionary, starting a movement to overthrow the established order and remake society.

Each of these may have some truth to them, but the idea that he was trying to start a revolution I find hard to believe. It’s true that he lived at a time when the Jews were being oppressed by Roman rule, and there was a lot of anxiety about politics, but in the gospel, every time that someone tries to get Jesus to say something provocative about the Romans, he deftly avoids doing that. It’s not that he’s not interested in what’s happening in his society, but his focus, if it’s revolutionary, is more on what I might call a “revolution of the heart,” that is, a process of transformation that begins with the individual.

This is along the lines of what Isaiah is saying in today’s Old Testament reading. Seven centuries earlier, the Kingdom of Israel was under the same kind of stress as the Jews in Jesus’ time, with invaders pressing against the people and complaints about failed political leadership. Isaiah’s words let us hear what people in his society were saying – that they are fasting and praying and offering sacrifice and doing what God expects them to do, and yet God isn’t protecting them and giving them justice. Isaiah rebukes them by saying that God doesn’t care about the fasts and the prayers. How can they cry out for justice when they don’t practice justice in their own lives? They treat even members of their own households with cruelty and don’t care about their workers, or those who are hungry and homeless. They need to practice justice and equity in their own lives first, before they can expect God to help them.

This seems very much in line with Jesus’ teaching, which is so often focused on where people’s hearts are, as opposed to their outward actions. His complaint about the Pharisees is that they follow the letter of the Law but not its spirit – they don’t seem to regard the dignity of other people. If we think about why Jesus was so appealing to people, we could point to his powerful healing or his charismatic preaching. But we must also pay attention to his ability to treat all persons as fully human. We think, for example, of his encounter with the woman at the well, detailed in John’s gospel, and how he treats her with respect and dignity, even though she’s on the fringes of the social order. It’s this capacity to engage individuals and call them to personal transformation that is so striking. It reminds me of Jeremiah’s call for God to write the new covenant in people’s hearts. The just society we all seek must start with our own transformation.

In Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House there’s a well-known character named Mrs. Jellyby. She is a social crusader, a fervent advocate for orphans in far-away places like Africa, and she spends her days writing letters to stir up support for their plight. Meanwhile, her own seven children are utterly neglected: they are all filthy, in tattered clothes, scrounging for food as best they can, because their mother is too busy for them. In this caricature we can see sexist assumptions about the proper role of mothers, but it also hits home because we can recognize the type who is very concerned about injustice in far-away places but doesn’t practice it in their own life.

Our society today is also beset by anxieties – about threats from outsiders as well as concerns about political leadership. People from all parts of the political spectrum are calling for justice and urging people to political action. I think political action is fine, but I think Jesus would urge us to start with ourselves, to think about how to practice justice in the context of our own households, our own workplaces.

In my job this year as high school principal, I have responsibility for 45 plus faculty and 300 plus students. I won’t say I “supervise” the faculty, because if you know teachers, they’re not easy to supervise, but I am responsible for them. I have ideas and a vision of what I would like to accomplish broadly at school, but I have learned that my first job is really to treat others with equity, to work on relationships with individuals, to practice care for others. I am imperfect at doing this, but if I don’t try to do this, everything else – all my grand ideas and big plans – is meaningless.

“You are the light of the world.”

As we seek justice for our society, Jesus calls us to enlighten our own hearts, to examine our relationships with those closest to us. Am I doing justice to my spouse, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters? Am I treating my co-workers, or the people who work for me, with respect and equity? What about my brothers and sisters in the Christian community?

You’ve probably had the experience at some point in being in a large and completely dark space, and having someone light just a single candle. Suddenly the darkness is transformed – not that it’s completely light, but now you can see, even if only dimly. Just one candle can make a huge difference.

When I was first ordained as a priest, I worked as an assistant in a parish in Seattle that was fairly well-to-do and rather conservative, with a good number of retired military. This was in the late 70s, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. One summer, when the rector was on vacation, I got a call from someone in the Diocese working on refugee resettlement to say they had a group of Cambodian refugees arriving and really need placements for them. Without asking anyone’s permission, I put it to the congregation one Sunday morning – could we take in a Cambodian family. People rose to the occasion, there was an outpouring of help, and we got that family settled and on their feet. Just one family.

“You are the light of the world.”

As individuals, as families, as a Christian community we can take on the work, candle by candle, of remaking the world in the image of justice and love. Let your light so shine in the world, that people may see it and glorify your Father in heaven.