Fourth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert


March 11, 2018


Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Are there times when a poison is its own cure?

Today we hear the story of Moses and the people of Israel meeting snakes in the wilderness. It is an extraordinary story, a weird story, and yet somehow a powerful story. With Moses’ help, with God’s help, Israel has escaped from slavery in Egypt. And as sometimes happens, the glow of freedom is fading. Like a young person who has moved out of their parents’ home and, after a week of saying, “I’m free – I can do whatever I want!” they are now beginning to grumble and say, “I’m lonely, and no one seems to be washing the dishes.”

They start to complain. They say to Moses:


Why have you brought us out Egypt to die in the wilderness?

There is no food and no water and we hate the food.

(That is a line that suggests to me that the comedy of scripture is underappreciated.)

It is shortly after the people pose this question that the snakes show up.

Now, somewhere along the way, when folks first started telling this tale around the campfire, it became part of the story that God sent the snakes to bite the people, that God sent the serpents to teach an ungrateful people a lesson. I don’t know if I think that God does that sort of thing, but I admit that I kind of love this element of folk-tale comeuppance. There is something satisfying about the kind of Brothers Grimm slapstick justice: here is an echo of the guy who in boastfully announces that he is invulnerable and then is promptly crushed by a falling piano.

Regardless of why it happens, the snakes are here. And the people are soon dancing around in pain and grabbing their freshly bitten ankles, more than one of them falling over dead, X’s drawn over their lifeless eyes.

They turn to Moses and say, “help us.”

And Moses, who probably could be forgiven for celebrating this development –after all, the people of Israel can be pretty obnoxious – jumps into action. He resumes his ongoing conversation with God, he prays to God. And God tells him what to do:

Make a serpent. Put it on a pole. And then have everyone look at it. They will be cured.

Moses digs out the collection of bronze and his hammer and his fire and he gets to work. He puts the serpent on the pole and, the people look at it.

And they live.

The poison is its own cure.

Now, if you have ever taken a course on classical literature and mythology, then you may be noticing right now that there are echoes in this story of the Ancient Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine, whose symbol is a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. (The pole and the serpent remains the symbol for medicine to this day.) Somehow across the Ancient World, there is this notion that if you have been hurt by a snake, you need to encounter a snake. There is this notion that drawing near to the thing that hurt you (or at a minimum to a safe or symbolic version of the thing that hurt you), is what is going to make you well.

And maybe that sounds odd until we remember that this notion of a poison being its own cure is not confined to the Ancient World. The famous and suspicious home remedy that involves trying to cure a hangover by consuming some of “the hair of the dog that bit you” – in other words, by getting up in the morning and drinking more alcohol – is an identical strategy. Or if you prefer a more evidence-based, or at least a more sensible, perspective on reality, consider what a vaccination is: a vaccine is a sterilized version of the very disease that it protects us against. I understand that a lot of anti-allergy medications are manufactured in a similar way.

And speaking of snakes: we cure the poison from snakebites by administering an anti-venom which is made out of… snake venom. (You may have seen a nature show in which one of those somewhat misguided animal experts wearing khaki shorts “milks” a snake to get venom out of it.)

Similarly, the psychological notion of exposure therapy is about doing the thing that you fear: if you are afraid of heights, go climb a ladder; if you are afraid of looking silly, go out in public wearing a goofy outfit; if you are afraid of rejection, give people opportunities to say “no” to you. This is the very thing that your Mom or your Dad told you when you were learning to ride a bike and you had your first really good crash: get back on, start riding again. This is what is going to let you test your limits, to grow.

Two weeks ago, Corbet shared an amazing sermon with us about resiliency. And the notion that the poison is sometimes its own cure is related to what he shared with us. Corbet talked about the research that says that resilient people have a vigorous support network, are able to reframe the stories of the things that hurt them in a way that gives them meaning, and they are adaptable. It is adaptability that we are talking about today. When we encounter the poison in a symbolic or safe way it frees us up to walk through the world with greater freedom.

Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be safe. There is fascinating research that says that children who have had a significant fall – say out of a tree – are actually less afraid of heights than those who have never had such a fall. That is the opposite of what you might expect. My guess is that what the research suggests is that the opportunity to test our limits – to get hurt and say, “that was bad, but I was able to survive it” – invites us into resiliency. That’s an important and hard lesson for those of us who are charged with the care of children. We have an instinct to protect our children from as much hurt as possible. But if we get carried away, we may end up inadvertently nurturing brittle people.

There are, of course, real and significant limits to a poison being its own cure. If you have a hematoma under one of your fingernails, you aren’t going to make it better by whacking it a second time with a hammer. If you are afraid of cars, the solution is not to run back and forth across the I-5.

Could we think of building the bronze serpent as a parable? A parable about appropriately and generatively engaging with the poison that has hurt us.

Three things happen when we follow the example of Moses’ parable. First, we name our pain out loud. Second, we allow the possibility that our hurt might have something to teach us. And third, we open ourselves to the presence of God in our hurt.

I’d like to spend a little time with all three.

First, naming. As Moses creates the serpent, he says: This is the thing that hurt you. He names that out loud.

There is something powerful and insidious about unhealthy secrets. They can end up having this huge gravitational pull over our lives. There is a reason that, in the Harry Potter books, Harry and Dumbledore refuse to participate in the practice of not saying Voldermort’s name. They are unwilling to give him that kind of power.

My cousin Mike – this is a sad story with a happy ending – was a closeted gay man well into his forties. (This was not 50 years ago: this was in the early teens of the 21st Century.) My read is that Mike had a story that his Dad, my Uncle, could not handle hearing the truth about Mike’s sexuality; that his Dad would blow up or disown him, that the news would kill him. Mike had a partner he had been with for 18 years. And his partner was never mentioned in the Christmas letter, never at a family gathering.

I don’t know what happened. But Mike – maybe with his partner’s help, maybe with his community’s help – found the permission to come out late in his Dad’s life. There was recently on Facebook a photo of Mike and his partner and his Dad and their whole family. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom, of what can happen through naming.

On a justice front, something similar is happening right with now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. This is about what happens when people have the courage to name something. A year ago, it was an accepted and immutable fact that Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. And then some courageous women named his behaviour. And that changed reality.

It’s a big deal to name hurt out loud.

Naming leads us into learning. Vaccination, which we talked about earlier, is about allowing your immune system to learn from an illness, to become resilient. Our hurts, if we allow them, give us a similar opportunity.

I want to be careful here. Because I don’t want to get into a facile theology in which everything happens for a reason and God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Those are problematic statements; they are often more about consoling the person speaking than consoling the person who is in pain.

What I am trying to get at belongs more to the realm of paradox. I think about certain griefs, certain hurts in my own life. This is stuff that I didn’t want to happen, stuff that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.


Somehow if I know anything about compassion it is because these things happened. Somehow if I know anything about justice it is because these things happened.

I have, as I’ve told you before, lost track of how many people have said to me: the time after the car accident was a spiritual awakening for me; the time after I got sick was a spiritual awakening for me; the time during my divorce was a spiritual awakening for me. Even though I didn’t want this thing to happen, it allowed me to understand something about myself, about my neighbour, about God.

I we allow them, our hurts will be our teachers.

Last, as the people look at the serpent on the stick, they are invited to see God in their hurt, to recognise that God is present in their woundedness. I don’t mean that God is responsible for their woundedness, that God sent the snakes (although that is a way of reading this story). Rather, I mean that they are invited to see that God shares in the pain.

My guess is that this is why John draws on the imagine of the snake on the pole when talking about Jesus on the cross. The message of the cross is that God endures and accepts the worst kind of violence and humiliation. And because of that, we are able to say that God shares with us in our suffering. There is no pain or lostness so great that we cannot say to God: You know what this is like.

If indeed we can read the story of the snake on the pole as a parable about naming, learning, and seeing God in hurt, then the question for you and me is:

What are the serpents that have bitten you and me?

We all come here wounded. We all come here wounded by trauma, grief, by an experience of unfairness – the list goes on. What would happen if we were to name these things, to learn from them, to see God in them?

We might be able to look at the serpent on the pole, to look at Jesus on the cross, and live.

Third Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 4, 2018


Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Psalm 19

One of my theological heroes, the Franciscan priest and author and activist, Richard Rohr, has said that in all of his years of attending church he has never ever heard a sermon on the Tenth Commandment:[1]

You shall not covet.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey or sports car or lawn mower or flat screen TV. You shall not wish you were dating your neighbour’s spouse (let’s broaden the lens a little here from scripture, and not assume a heterosexual male perspective). You shall not covet someone else’s stuff or someone else’s life.

If Rohr is right about never encountering Commandment Ten as a sermon topic (and anecdotally, his experience is consistent with my own: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this subject myself) then: how come? How come those of us who have the privilege to preach are ignoring or dodging God’s prohibition on covetousness?

Well, maybe preachers recognise that covetousness is an almost universal phenomenon and we are nervous about a subject that is likely to touch a nerve in, well, everyone. Covetousness certainly has been and remains a part of my own life. During those times in the theatre business when I was underemployed, I coveted the career opportunities that some of my peers had. During high school, when I was telling a story about how everyone but me had a girlfriend, I coveted the romance that some of my classmates had found. And to this day, I kind of covet the effortlessness with which some folks appear to navigate social situations; I don’t share the common fear of public speaking – standing here is pretty natural for me –but I find cocktail parties mildly terrifying.

Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting any of the things that I just named: it is good and fine to want to gainfully and steadily employed, to want romance in your life, to want to navigate social encounters with a degree of ease. What distinguishes covetousness from a dream or an aspiration is that covetousness assumes a perspective on the world based around scarcity and resentment. It assumes that, if I am to have the things that I want then you need to not have them. I need to take them from you. If I am going to win, you have to lose.

Richard Rohr’s guess – and maybe this is a variation on what I just said – is that preachers don’t touch covetousness because we recognise that so much of our society is built around it. To look at the ads at the Oscars or on the bus or on a billboard is to see one monument to coveting after another. Here in the ad is a bunch of young, athletic, beautiful people. And they are having the best time on a beach or at a party while surrounded by their equally young, beautiful, and athletic friends. The message is clear: if you want to be young, beautiful, and athletic, if you want to be happy, if you want to be lovable and loved, you need the goods or the services that the people in this ad have.

Occasionally, Madison Avenue will wink just a tiny bit in one of these ads. I remember a Home Depot spot that kind of mocked the competition between two neighbours, both of whom wanted to have the most beautiful lawn. But the ad didn’t wink too much. It said: even though a lawn war is silly, even though coveting your neighbours grass is demonstrably ridiculous, you should probably still buy our lawn care products.

Better to be safe than sorry.

I have wondered, sometimes, why I find it so demoralising, so draining to walk through Lloyd Center. Maybe what wears me down so much is the unexamined and unnamed religiosity of the place. In that building there are a thousand and one messages that say: this is the place where you will find your freedom. We have the keys to the kingdom here. If you are to find healing, you need this stuff; if you are to find belonging, you need this stuff; if you are to find meaning, you need this stuff.

Most of us have tried entering into the contract that Lloyd Center and places like it offer: we have bought the new necktie or phone or whatever. And for a while it worked: we had a rush of satisfaction and happiness for a few hours or maybe even a few days. But then it wore off and we realised that we needed something else, something more if we were to be happy if we were to fill the hole in our lives. This built-in dissatisfaction is, of course, by design. The consumer model would fall apart pretty fast if you could buy one and only one iPhone and then be happy forever.

I think that I have told you before about my friend Barbara. Barbara is in her nineties, she is one of the people whom I see when I preside at the Eucharist over at Holladay Park Plaza. I look forward to seeing her every month. Much like the recently deceased Charlotte Creswell, Barbara has a palpable joy and palpable faith – a joy and a faith that she has chosen despite some significant suffering in her life. Barbara said to me once:

We have to be careful about what we worship. Because we will worship something.

You and I will worship something.

I spend a good part of my time talking with folks about faith. And pretty often, someone will say to me about one of the things that we say in church:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

And you know what? Good. God invites us to question. God expects us to question. I just wish that we would expand that questioning, so that when we stand in the middle of Lloyd Center and see its promises that our credit cards will allow us to buy love and freedom, we might say to ourselves:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

Scholars who study rabbinical interpretation, who examine the long Jewish history of interpreting scripture, tell us that the Jewish tradition tends to give special attention to the first and last items in a list or a sequence, that these items are set apart or emphasised versus the rest of the list, that they are tied together.[2] Thus, in the Ten Commandments, this final commandment – you shall not covet – is tied to the first commandment – I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.

This linking makes a lot of sense to me. Because it seems to me that coveting is all about directing our love and our energy towards something that isn’t God, about having other gods before God. What we find at Lloyd Center – call it capitalism, call it consumerism – in a very real sense, is a religion: it is a promise that you and I will find healing in stuff, that we will find belonging in stuff, that we will find meaning in stuff.

At the far entrance, there is actually a statue within a fountain made out of coins. Could we call that an idol to money? It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus outside of Lloyd Center. It isn’t too hard to imagine him seeing that idol, picking up his whip of cords, and going berserk.

To let go of covetousness is hard. It is an act of vulnerability and hope. It is a choice to go through the world saying that there is enough, and that I have enough, and that who I am is enough. I need to be something more, I don’t need to get something more in order to be loved by others or by God.

Keeping the commandment to not covet, in other words, isn’t just good for our neighbour, it isn’t just good for creation, it is good for our very souls. Setting aside covetousness allows us to be genuinely happy for other folks’ successes. Keeping the Tenth Commandment, hard though it may be, allows us to follow Jesus’ commandment: to love God, to love our neighbour, and – amazingly, amazingly enough – to love ourselves.

[1] Richard Rohr’s Meditation: Community as Alternative Consciousness. Accessed March 03, 2018.

[2] “Lent 3B.” Girardian Lectionary. Accessed March 03, 2018.

Second Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Feb. 25, 2018


Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

Psalm 22:22-30


Is suffering necessary?

Is suffering redemptive?

The human experience is that suffering is inevitable. We have all experienced pain and suffering, from illness or injury, or the indignities of aging, from failure and setbacks in school or in work, from community disasters, from losses of family and friends. Our suffering is not all the same, but we all experience at least the everyday suffering of things gone wrong.

Human beings are remarkably resilient. Resiliency is that ability to cope with failures and disasters large and small, to confront them, to move through them and emerge from them, often in positive ways. We know that resiliency is an essential skill for navigating adult life, and most of us learn the skills, usually through bitter experience.

Resiliency has become a hot topic among educators. We know that it’s essential for young people, as they grow up, to develop these skills, and most young people are able to do that. But in recent years there has been an increasing number of young people, from adolescents to young adults, who don’t seem to be able to cope with even modest personal challenges, who seem overwhelmed by setbacks and disappointments. In my work with high school students at school we have seen an increasing number of young people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, or depression that prevents them from functioning in daily life. Why is this? And how do young people develop the ability to bounce back from personal challenges?

Resiliency seems to be like a muscle – it needs to be constantly exercised in order to gain strength. We all want to protect our children from terrible things happening to them, but the paradox is that when we as adults intervene too frequently or forcefully in their lives, we may be preventing them from developing the resiliency they need. When kids get into trouble and parents step in to fix the problem for them, when students fail at school and parents intercede with teachers or principals on their behalf, when young people experience disastrous social relationships, and adults try to manage that, we are probably doing our children no favors and may actually be keeping them from learning the hard lessons and gaining the confidence in themselves that they need to be mature, resilient adults.

What does resiliency look like? What are the skills we need to learn? Resilient people are able to draw on people around them to provide support and encouragement – not people who will solve their problems, but who will stand beside them and encourage them to solve their own problems. Resilient people are flexible and are able to adapt to changed circumstances, to alter their course when they face a dead end. “My major didn’t work out, so I switched to a different one.” “This relationship wasn’t going anywhere, so I re-thought my priorities and made a change.” “I lost my job, so I decided to pursue a completely different career.”

And resilient people are able to re-write their life narratives in ways that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. We all have a life narrative, a story about our own lives that gives our lives a sense of coherence and ideally a sense of meaning. So that our story is not just “This happened and then this happened and then this happened,” but more like “this happened, and it was hard, but it set me on a new path that has been very fulfilling.” For example, “I had a hard time my freshman year in college and decided to drop out. I spent a year working in the wilderness and came back from that with a new sense of what I wanted to do with my life.” We are constantly revising our life stories, as new things happen to us and as we make new life choices, and resilient people are able to find meaning even in the sharpest setbacks and failures, giving them strength to move forward in life.

This, I think, is exactly what Jesus is doing with his disciples – trying to instill in them the skills to cope with failure. The disciples are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus full of the expectation that this will be a moment of triumph. God’s reign is going to be established and Jesus will make it happen. When Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer and die,” he’s telling them it’s not going to be like that. He is going to suffer and die because he is human, and it is the lot of all humans to suffer and die – there’s no escape from that for any of them. When he tells them to pick up their cross, he’s telling them that by confronting the suffering that is to come, they will find the purpose that God has for them – if they accept it and deal with it, they will find meaning in it. God will show them the way.

Christianity is a very resilient religion. Think about it: Jesus’s followers expected imminent triumph and instead Jesus was arrested, tortured and executed, and his followers were scattered. That should have destroyed the Jesus movement, but somehow they managed to carry on. The found strength in their community and in supporting one another, they were able to re-frame their mission – how and why they were going to move forward. And most importantly, they rewrote their narrative. They took the cross – a symbol of defeat and death – and they made it into a symbol of hope and new life. And Christians have been doing the same ever since.

I came to my school, OES, thirty years ago. Just before I arrived the school had experienced a catastrophic disaster, when nine members of the school, both students and faculty, were killed in a mountaineering accident on Mount Hood. It could have meant the end of the school, but somehow it survived. People found strength and comfort in one another, not to make the pain and loss disappear, but to bear the pain together. And the school rewrote its own narrative, to incorporate that terrible loss and to reshape the school’s mission to one of care for the whole student and service to the larger community, which had offered the school care in a time of crisis.

I think the same kind of thing is happening now in South Florida. In the midst of the incredible pain and grief of this human catastrophe, the community is finding ways to be resilient. They are drawing together to support one another. They are bearing one another’s pain. And they are rewriting their narrative by taking on a new mission: working together with others to make change in our society to stop the violence associated with guns. In the process they are giving themselves hope in the midst of despair and a sense of meaning and purpose, so that the loss of those children will not have been in vain. We don’t know how that will come out, but it’s a sign of great hope.

How do we cope with suffering? How do we develop those skills of resiliency, as individuals and as a community? We commit to supporting one another when we are in pain. We practice compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with,” for those in crisis. When we confront failure, we adapt to new circumstances. If our mission is failing, we don’t dwell on that failure but seek out new ways to move forward. And we continue to rewrite our life narratives, as individuals and as a community, to find new meaning and purpose in the midst of defeat and failure. We take up our own cross, confronting hardship and pain directly and finding in it God’s purpose for us, so that the cross of defeat and death becomes the cross of hope and new life.




First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 18, 2018


Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Psalm 25:1-9

This is a Gospel story. It is a Gospel story that takes place in an apartment building.

My friend Darcy is a residential property manager. His job takes him all across Canada, to apartment buildings in the North of British Columbia and in the South of Ontario. At these apartments, Darcy works with his staff of local building managers – with what another generation called superintendents – to make decisions about maintenance and renovations and interactions with the city and about the thousand and one other things that make a building into a place that people want to live. And at these apartments, Darcy meets with those especially attention-getting residents whom the building managers have saved just for him.

One of these residents was something of a legend. He was the source of constant complaints from his neighbours: the thumping music and the shouting at his almost nightly parties kept the whole building up well into the wee hours of the morning. He was selling drugs out of his apartment. And he and his many guests had damaged the building on several occasions, pulling doors off of hinges and kicking holes into drywall, although no one could say if the damage was a consequence of something as deliberate as vandalism or, rather, if it flowed out of plain-old drunken carelessness.

As many of you know, eviction is really hard. It is an expensive and time-consuming pain. That made Darcy wonder if there was another way. And so he decided that what he was going to do was to metaphorically “stand beside” this tenant. He wanted to see what would happen if the two of them could look at the horizon from the same perspective, if there was a way that they could discern a path that they could walk on together.

Looking at the world from his tenant’s perspective, Darcy immediately saw that this man’s goal was pretty clear: he wanted to party all the time. Darcy said, “I don’t understand that. I can’t understand that. And I don’t have to understand that. What I have to do is to reconcile his goal to party all the time with my goal that the party happens somewhere else.”

And so Darcy got on the internet and found a house for rent, all by itself at the end of a lane, perfect for parties. Then he went to a couple of contractors who were working on the apartment – they had a truck, now empty of the lumber and other equipment that they had installed – and he said to them, “If I keep you on the clock, would you mind helping someone to move?” The contractors said, “You bet!” And then Darcy knocked on tenant’s door. And he said:

“I’ve found you a place to live, I’ve got a truck and a couple of guys ready to move you. If I give you $300, will you move out right now?”

The guy said, “Okay.” And, just like that, he was gone.

Now, that story kind of amazes me. I think I’m amazed because most of us – myself included – when confronted with someone who was behaving like that tenant would probably say: That son of a gun. I’m going to fight this guy. I’m going to win. He’s not going to get a nickel out of me. I’m going to teach him a lesson. 

But Darcy didn’t do that. Instead, he took an action that saved him a heap of time and his investors several thousand dollars. Think of the cost of eviction, the rent that the tenant might have defaulted on during a protracted legal battle, the damage that he and his friends might have continued to do to the building, the ill-will that another three or five months of all-night parties would have created with the other tenants, the stable tenants who would have refused to move in when they heard that the apartment was party central For $300 and a couple of hours of overtime, Darcy solved his problem. That was an extraordinarily shrewd entrepreneurial move. But, more than that – and this is why I’m telling you this story this morning – it was a Gospel move, it was a Kingdom of heaven move.

Notice. Notice that Darcy’s interaction with the tenant was not predicated on win/lose model. When the tenant said “yes” and moved out, nobody lost. Everybody won: Darcy got a quiet apartment in which the doors stayed on their hinges and the drywall stayed undented and the tenant got a new venue and enough money for several kegs of beer. Notice that this “yes” flowed out of empathy. Darcy stood beside his tenant and looked with him at possibility. Notice that the empathy that Darcy extended was unilateral. And notice that his empathy was one step ahead of where the tenant was.

It is that unilateral and one step ahead empathy that really gets into Gospel territory. Darcy somehow figured out how to let go of all of the complaints of the playground: It’s not fair; He started it; Everybody thinks that he’s mean; I’ll only say I’m sorry after he says that he’s sorry. Darcy decided that, even if his tenant wasn’t going to move an inch towards reconciliation and a common solution on his own, Darcy was going to move towards him.

So. It is the end of the flood and Noah and his family step out of the ark and onto the miracle of dry land. We tend to concentrate on the earlier part of this story. And we tend to tell that story to children: countless picture books feature a boat overflowing with cute animals. In many ways, that is a strange choice. The flood is a hard story, a disturbing story, a story that demands that we ask: does a tale that features God killing everyone tell us something true and real about God?

But that’s another sermon.

Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call the moral of the story, the moment when God places his bow in the sky. This is not a cutesy rainbow, not a rainbow that has a bowl of Lucky Charms at its end or features My Little Pony dancing across it. This is the bow that is part of God’s bow and arrow – it is a weapon, like a sword or a dagger or a club. God places it in the sky, God hangs it on its rack like a rifle, in order to announce: I will never turn violence on humanity again.

What is extraordinary about God putting away the bow is that humanity doesn’t have to do anything to get God to behave this way. Humanity doesn’t have to apologise, to make a sacrifice, to go church, to write a cheque, anything. God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s empathy is unilateral and it is a step ahead of humanity.

God hopes that we will respond with empathy of our own. God wants us to respond with empathy of our own. God calls us to respond with empathy of our own. But God is going to give us this gift, God is going to hang up that bow, God is going to engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy whether we reciprocate or not.  

God knows that extending this kind of empathy is a risk. Sometimes, when God unilaterally extends empathy to us, we don’t respond – or we respond with hostility. We remain as selfish as ever. And sometimes when you and I unilaterally extend empathy to another, we are greeted with cynicism or apathy or anger.

The story of Jesus’ life is that of unilateral, of radical empathy. And the story tells us that this empathy will not always be welcomed, that sometimes it will be greeted with violence. That violence comes because those who are invested in the status quo, those who like things pretty well the way that they are, find unilateral empathy to be profoundly threatening. In God’s empathy, all of the labourers in the vineyard received the same wage no matter when they begin their workday and the first are last and the last first and prodigals are welcomed home with parties.

To participate in the Gospel empathy is a risk. But the promise of the Gospel is that the risk is worth it.

Darcy’s story has an epilogue. I don’t think that it is an epilogue that he ever expected.

Months after he found his tenant a new home and, thereby, found quiet in the apartment building, Darcy ran into someone who knew the tenant. “Have you heard about Mark?” the mutual acquaintance asked, “You know Mark, the guy you got to move out?” Darcy said he hadn’t heard anything about him.

“Well,” the mutual friend said, “When you got him to leave, something changed for him. Mark was shocked, I think: no one had ever talked to him the way that you di before.

“Mark has stopped drinking. He’s stopped dealing drugs. He’s got a honest job doing roofing.

“He’s going to church now.”

We can’t know. When we engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy, we can’t know what seeds we might be planting. We can’t know what new covenant we might be inviting into being. The Gospel tells us that this empathy might lead us to the cross. And it promises us that it will lead to resurrection.

Last Sunday after the Epiphany by Holly Puckett

Feb. 11, 2018


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


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


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.


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


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.