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Pentecost 12 Proper 15B August 15, 2021

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

In our opening reading today, David dies. Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, becomes king. We all remember his prayer to God, in which he admits he does not have a great deal of knowledge. At this time in his life, Solomon is only about twenty years old. But Solomon asks God for the gift of wisdom. Directly after this passage, two women come to the new king, both insisting that they are the mother of the same baby. Through wisdom, Solomon determines which woman is the real mother of the baby. 

Scholars tell us that during the reign of Solomon, there was a great blossoming of wisdom literature which has lasted into our own time and has inspired many of us. Solomon also built the temple in Jerusalem, constructed a magnificent palace, and built temples to the gods of his many wives and concubines. He was able to do these things because he imposed forced labor and brutal taxation on his people. Upon Solomon’s death, the Northern Kingdom seceded and the monarchy was divided.  Unfortunately, there was a gap between his stated ideals and his actual behavior.

Our epistle for today also emphasizes wisdom. We are called to be wise and to use each moment to the fullest by seeking and doing the will of God. We shouldn’t get drunk, but should be filled with the Spirit, singing and worshipping together. We should give thanks to God at all times and for all things.

In order to follow this guidance, we will need to spend much time in prayer, asking for God’s will and then asking for the grace to do God’s will. This is what the great moral theologian  Kenneth Kirk calls “the habit of referring all questions to God.” We are in a constant dialogue with God, seeking the divine will and then doing what God is calling us to do.

If we are filled the with Spirit, we are gathering together, singing psalms and spiritual songs, praying together as we are doing right now. And we are thanking God at all times and for all things. The attitude of gratitude does not always come easily. What if something is not going the way we want it to go? What if something terrible is happening? What if a friend or loved one has just been diagnosed with cancer? When good things happen, thanking God is a wonderful spiritual practice. It makes the good thing reverberate and expand in our hearts. When something awful is happening, we can thank God for God’s grace and healing and we can pray for our loved one and  ask God to help us be there for our friend or loved one. Even in the worst of times, we can thank God for being with us, for giving us the gift of faith and the energy to ask God for help.

After our long Covid fast, I am thanking God today for the opportunity to be with this loving community and to read the scriptures and sing hymns and spiritual songs with you, to pray for ourselves and others, and to be in the presence of our Lord as a community of faith. What a  gift! Thank you, Lord.

In our gospel, Jesus is saying that the bread that he gives for the world is his flesh. This reminds us that in the early church, followers of Jesus were accused of being cannibals. We are not literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our Lord. We are doing these things sacramentally. Then our Lord says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will have no life in us. Those who do share in Holy Eucharist will abide in him, will rest in him will live in him, will be alive in him, will be part of him.

Abiding means a very close relationship. We become one with him and he becomes one with us. We are alive in each other. We are so closely connected that we are one. 

And, because we are so close to our Lord, because we are one with him and alive in him, we are now leading a new life, life in a different dimension. This is what we call eternal life. But it does not mean that we have to die in order to enter eternal life. This newness of life, this life in a new and deeper dimension is here right now. We are living that new life now,. We are in eternal life, fullness of life, right now.

In this new life. this life in a different dimension, Jesus is very close to us. He is in our midst. We can reach out and touch him. We can sense his presence. We can ask his help. We can see and follow him.

We are one with Jesus, with God, with the Spirit, and with each other.

We can ask God’s guidance and receive that guidance, together with the grace to carry it out. We can grow in God’s wisdom and do the things God would have us do. This is what it means to be filled with the Spirit. The energy and love of God are within us. Our relationship with God is so close that we can grow in compassion and do God’s will almost instinctively, because we are constantly asking for and receiving God’s guidance.

The Holy Eucharist is the way our Lord gave us to call him into our midst. “Do this in remembrance of me” literally means “Do this for the anamnesis, the “not forgetting” of me. In a very short time, our Lord will be feeding us with the essence of himself with his energy, his love, his grace, so that we can go out into the world and be his hands and feet, his body, ministering to a world that needs his love and healing.

St.Teresa of Avila was a very practical mystic who lived from 1515- 1582. She wrote these wonderful words describing how we are parts of the living Body of Christ.

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body here on earth but yours.  

Keep up the good work! Amen.

Epiphany 4B January 31, 2021

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

In our opening reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is saying farewell to God’s people. He will not go with them into the promised land. But Moses is also saying that God will call forth from the people a prophet like Moses. This reminds us of all the great prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Hosea. 

These prophets were called by God to tell the truth, often to leaders who were going astray. They had the courage to speak truth to power. My beloved mentor, David Brown, described a prophet as someone who holds the plumb line of God, the standard of God, the values of God, up to the society, and asks, is this society living by the values God has given us to govern our life together?

In our reading for today, God says, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I shall hold accountable.” Prophets are called to speak the truth. They are called to speak the word of God. They are called to lead lives that are in harmony with the word of God. This is our model for good leaders.

Our second reading today allows us to look in on the people of the Church in Corinth, a bustling city with many temples dedicated to various Greek and Roman deities. The people in the congregation in Corinth are wondering whether it is acceptable to eat meat that has been “sacrificed to idols.” This was a difficult issue because, after meat was dedicated to these various deities, it was sent to the markets to be sold. Often, business dealings took place over a meal, so decisions on this topic could affect one’s livelihood.

Some people in the Corinth community say it’s fine to eat such meat because there is only one God. Others are not sure; some are deeply troubled about this. Paul reminds us that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” 

Whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols is not a burning issue for us, but Paul’s advice about our attitudes in the midst of controversies is highly relevant.  

The core of the law and of our faith is that we love God and love our neighbor. As we grapple with issues in the Church, we are bound to have different opinions. In Corinth, the people who felt comfortable eating meat sacrificed to idols were being a bit pushy in trying to convince others to agree with them. Paul is reminding us to focus on God’s love for us and our love for each other. He is also calling us to be aware of the difference between freedom and license. Christ has set us free, but that does not mean that we have a right to do things that hurt others in the community. If we think it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols, we can refrain from doing that if it would hurt others in the community of faith.

In our gospel, it is the Sabbath day. Jesus goes to teach in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus can be seen as the greatest of all the prophets. He speaks the word of God. The people are amazed because he has true authority. What he speaks is from God.

In the synagogue is a man who has an unclean spirit. Since he is seen as ritually unclean, he is supposed to stay away from others. He is marginalized. The unclean spirit immediately recognizes Jesus and names him. Jesus speaks the word of God, telling the spirit to be silent and come out of the man. The spirit convulses the man and comes out. The man is now healed.

The prophet speaks the word of God, and that word is a word of wholeness, not brokenness; life, not death; unity, not division; love not hate.

Fred Craddock writes, “Jesus is the strong Son of God who has entered a world in which the forces of evil… are crippling, distorting, and destroying life….But with Jesus comes the word of power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore. In Mark a battle is joined between good and evil, truth and falsehood, life and death, God and Satan. And sometimes, says Mark, the contest is waged in the synagogue.”  Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year B, p. 92.

What forces are creating brokenness, division, and hate in our world? What forces operate against God’s shalom of peace, love, and harmony? Racism is one. We all have implicit racism from living in a country where white people are treated differently than people of color. Other such forces are greed, seeking power in order to use and control others, dishonesty, classism, misogyny, violence. Many forces are working against the shalom of God.

Where do we find God’s truth in our world? What forces are working on behalf of truth? What forces are working against truth? Our readings today are encouraging us to be sure that we find sources of information that deal with facts, sources that give us information which is based on scientific research and truth, sources that base their work on information and research from trained, ethical experts who convey reliable, factual information.

Writing of Jesus’ healing of the man in the synagogue, Fred Craddock reflects on the power of words. He writes, “It is the quality of the speaker’s life that makes the words word of God. Another criterion is the character of God: Ours is a God who loves and cares for people, who seeks their wholeness and  health, who speaks healing rather than harming words. “ (Craddock, Proclamation 2 Epiphany Series B, p. 33.

May we all speak the words of God, words of love and caring, words of wholeness and health.  Amen.

Pentecost 13 Proper 15B RCL August 19, 2018

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

In our first two readings this morning, the term “wisdom” is mentioned. In our gospel, we focus on Jesus as the bread that came down from heaven, and this leads us to reflect on the meaning of the Holy Eucharist.

In our first reading, Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, becomes the King of Israel. In his encounter with God in a dream, Solomon asks God for the gift of wisdom, and God grants that request. Scholars tell us that there was a great flowering of wisdom literature during the reign of Solomon, and the wisdom tradition has continued since that time, about three thousand years.

In our passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, we are called to live as wise people, not foolish ones. This involves understanding and doing the will of God. We are called to keep our minds clear. Singing psalms and spiritual songs, including Taize chants, is one very effective part of the wisdom tradition. This kind of singing helps us to center our lives in God, in Christ, and in the Spirit. Giving thanks for everything at all times is a powerful part of our prayer lives.

Our gospel for today leads us into a deeper awareness of our life in Christ. We are one with him. He has given his life for us so that we may have new life. He gives himself to us, his life and energy, every time we gather for Eucharist.

We gather, we pray, we read the word of God. We hear the readings interpreted in a sermon; we say the Nicene Creed together as our statement of faith. We pray for the Universal Church, the world, our nation and all in authority, our local community, those who suffer, and those who have died. We give thanks for God’s many blessings. We confess our sins and receive God’s absolution.

At the Offertory, we we offer our time, talents, and treasure to God, We ask God to take our lives and transform them and use them in God’s service to build God’s shalom.

And then we move into the Eucharistic prayer. We remember what happened when Jesus shared that last supper with his closest followers and gave us the commandment to love one another as he loves us. And we recall that he told us to gather and share this special thanksgiving meal of bread and wine—His Body and Blood—to call him into our midst. And so, here our Lord is, the host at this Thanksgiving feast, feeding us with his very self.

We say the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer he taught us, the prayer that has been said over two thousand years.  And then we come to the part of the service called the Fraction, the breaking of the bread. As the body of our beloved Lord was broken on the cross, he took all the brokenness of the world and made it whole. He takes all the brokenness in our lives and makes it whole even now. We receive the body and blood of our Lord knowing that he is risen and present among us. He is in us and we are in him.

Now, let us pick up the thread of wisdom and try to integrate that into our reflection on these readings and on our life in Christ.

In her book Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “What [Jesus]…has in mind is a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other. His most beautiful symbol for this is in the teaching in John 15 where he says, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.” Bourgeault, Wisdom Jesus, p. 31.)

Bourgeault says that Wisdom calls us to“[see] with the eye of the heart.” She continues, “We almost always think of the heart as the center of our personal emotional life. But this is not the way the wisdom tradition sees it. In wisdom, the heart is primarily an organ of spiritual perception, a highly spiritual instrument for keeping us aligned…with the realm of meaning, value, and conscience. The heart picks up reality in a much deeper and more integral way than our poor, Cartesian minds even begin to imagine.” (pp. 35-36.)

Bourgeault goes on to say that seeing with the eye of the heart operates …from harmony, as when we hear a G and automatically think of a B and a D, “that make it into a chord, that join it to a whole.” (p. 36.) She says that metanoia, the process of transformation to which Jesus is calling us, “literally means to ‘go beyond the mind’ or ‘into the larger mind.’ It means to move into that nondual knowingness of the heart which can see and live from the perspective of wholeness.” She says, “This is the central message of Jesus. This is what his Kingdom of Heaven is all about.” I would add that this is what Jesus meant when he said that we are all one as he and God are one.

We Christians are beginning to return to the wisdom way of knowing and living. The Rock Point Intentional Community celebrates a Celtic Eucharist each month and another Wisdom School will gather this fall.  I think that Grace Church is very much a wisdom community, having an awareness of the oneness of God and the creation and the oneness of God and all God’s people. I think that awareness is at the root of Grace’s deep love for God and all people, a love that people can feel when they come into this building or when they spend time with this community. Today, once again, we meet the risen Christ and take another step toward looking at the world through his eyes and his heart.  Amen.

Epiphany 4B RCL January 28, 2018

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

In our first reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is giving his farewell address to the people of God. He will not be going with them into the Promised Land. But he is assuring the people that God is going to raise up leaders who will be as faithful as Moses has been.

This is a comforting word at this time in our diocesan life. Bishop Tom will be retiring by September of 2019. Most of us have had an opportunity to know and work with him over the years, and we have grown to love and trust him. He has been a great support for Grace Church, and we will miss him deeply. This reassurance that God will provide a good and faithful leader is a great help as we face this time of transition.

Our psalm today reinforces the theme of God’s faithfulness and presence with us.

In our epistle today, St. Paul is addressing a thorny issue of that time. Corinth was a bustling port city with temples devoted to all kinds of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. If you went to the market to buy meat, chances were that it had been dedicated to one or another of these gods or goddesses.

The issue of whether to eat meat devoted to an idol is not a burning issue for us today. But Paul’s guidance in how to deal with controversial issues is relevant in all times and places.

Paul says that,  as Christians we know that these Greek and Roman deities are not equal to God. If we eat meat sacrificed to an idol, it means nothing. It is just meat. But, for someone who is new to the faith, it may not be that simple. We can think with our head, “Oh, that meat was sacrificed to an idol, and it does not matter if we eat it.” But, if someone eats that meat and then their conscience bothers them because some part of them believes that eating that meat is somehow wrong, we should not encourage them to eat that meat. Paul is telling the Corinthians and us to be very careful about pushing folks into positions that are not comfortable for them, positions that disturb their conscience. It does not matter if our position is intellectually correct. What matters is our effect on other members of the congregation. So, if we are at a meal and we know that someone in our community would be troubled it we eat that meat sacrificed to an idol, we need to consider that person’s feelings and choose not to eat the meat.

Paul says,”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He calls us to avoid doing anything that might make one of our brothers or sisters stumble on their journey with Christ.

In today’s gospel, it is the sabbath, and Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum. He is magnetic. His person and his words convey the truth of God’s love and faithfulness. He has genuine authority—auctoritas, authority that works on behalf of people, authority that sets people free from things that imprison them.

Now the focus changes to a man in the synagogue who is possessed by a demon. In our terms, the man is seriously ill, possibly with a mental illness or a seizure disorder such as epilepsy. In those days, folks with such illnesses were thought to be possessed by something evil. They were considered unclean and people did not associate with them.

Jesus has no patience with anything that harms people or separates them from others. In a commanding voice, he calls the forces of darkness to leave this man. The revered Biblical scholar Fred Craddock writes of this passage: “Jesus is the strong Son of God who has entered a world in which the forces of evil…are crippling, alienating, distorting and destroying life….But with Jesus comes the word of power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore. In Mark, a battle is joined between good and evil, truth and falsehood, life and death, God and Satan.” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 92.

There are many things which cripple, alienate, and distort life today. We have only to think of the epidemic of addiction, particularly of opiate addiction, that is taking lives every day all over our country. The sin of greed, which some have called affluenza, infects people to the point where no amount of money and wealth is enough. The pursuit of power is another destructive force of darkness. People will lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their goals. Violence stalks our streets. All of these are distortions of what human life is meant to be. They destroy individuals and they destroy community. In the face of all these, as Craddock says, “Jesus has the word of power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore.”

We can see from this gospel passage that Jesus has no patience with anything that is destructive to any of his children. This man was not anyone famous, but Jesus confronted and defeated the evil that threatened him.

God is faithful. God calls us to be faithful. God calls us to use our gift of free will with extreme care and profound love and consideration for our brothers and sisters. God calls us to put the needs of others before our own needs. Our Lord stands clearly and unequivocally against the forces of darkness. He is the light that has come into the world.

Herbert O’Driscoll says that we, who know our Lord as the Compassionate One, may be shocked to see the power with which our Lord vanquishes this demon. He writes, “For me, the value of this passage is the glimpse it gives us of the immense natural authority that was clearly present in Jesus’ words and actions.” (O’Driscoll, The Word Today, Year B, Volume 1, p. 86.)

In our readings today, Moses, St. Paul, and Jesus give us sterling examples of leaders with moral authority. May God give us such leaders in our own time. Amen.

Pentecost 12 Proper 15B RCL August 16, 2015

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-55

In our opening reading, King David has died, and his son, Solomon, is the new king. At this point in his life, Solomon is a young man. Scholars tell us he is about twenty. In this passage, Solomon has a dream of an encounter with God. He shows humility, admitting that he does not yet know how to perform the duties of a king, and he asks for the gift of wisdom. In the passage immediately following this one, Solomon does show wisdom when two women come to him claiming to be the mother of the same baby. When Solomon offers to decide the case by cutting the child in half and giving each of them a portion, the real mother, putting the baby’s welfare first, tells him that there is no way that she is going to let him do that, and he should simply give the baby to the other woman. Of course, Solomon gives the baby to her.

We know that Solomon built the great temple in Jerusalem. He also built himself a palace, and, toward the end of his life, he built shrines to the various gods of the many foreign ladies he married. All of this construction required workers, and he forced his subjects to do this labor. He also taxed the people heavily in order to afford all these projects plus the luxurious lifestyle of his large court. In short, he did not show  proper respect and concern for the people. He also failed to respect the traditions of Israel. Soon after he died, the country split in two.

It was a good thing to ask God for the gift of wisdom, but Solomon did not follow through on the gift. In the beginning of this lesson, we read that Solomon loved the Lord, yet he worshipped at the high places and had gone to Gibeon to sacrifice to another deity. We have the beginning of a theme here, the conflict between wisdom and foolishness.

Ephesus was a port city, full of all kinds of temples to various gods and goddesses, full of many temptations and worldly distractions. By the time Paul was writing this letter, most followers of Jesus were expecting the Lord to return very soon. They felt that their time was limited. He might come any day. So Paul is calling them and us to make the most of the time we have. The Greek word used here for time is kairos. Kairos is kingdom time, the quality of time that we experience when we are living in the new life, as opposed to chronos, or clock time.

Paul calls us not to be foolish, but to seek the will of the Lord. That is what it means to be in Christ. We ask our Lord what he wants us to be doing. We don’t simply do what we want to do. We let him guide our actions and our thoughts.

We are called not to get drunk on wine. Then as now, people used to get drunk because they thought it let them have a quick way to have an ecstatic experience of God. Obviously, getting drunk is not an experience of God. Paul calls us to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. That happens from giving every moment of our lives to God, and asking God to lead us and guide us in our choices so that we are living in the Spirit and filled with the Spirit.

We are called to praise God, to sing psalms and hymns to God. When we sing praise to God, especially when we sing and pray together, something happens within us. Praising God allows us to open ourselves to God’s love and grace.

We are called to “thank God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is a tall order sometimes. Do we thank God that Elizabeth is going to have to have more surgery and chemo and radiation therapy? I find it impossible to do that, but we can thank God for the love and faith of her family and for the skill of her medical team, who are doing everything possible. We can thank God for the gifts of faith and hope, and we can pray for and with everyone who is praying for Elizabeth.

“Be careful then how you live,” Paul writes. Thank God that we know that there is another set of standards that go beyond the values of this world, and that we are trying, with God’s help, to live by those standards and to become new in Christ.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is actually asking us to eat his flesh and to drink his blood. In the early days of the Christian community, some people thought that we Christians were cannibals. As we study this reading, we think of Eucharist. “This is my Body,” our Lord says, “This is my blood.” Jesus is with us. He is the host at this Thanksgiving Dinner. Remember, Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”

No, we are not cannibals, but our Lord is giving us Himself in a way that goes beyond our understanding. Centuries after he walked the earth with healing and love, he is able to be more present at every point on this planet and throughout the universe because he has risen.

Every time we gather, he is here, and he feeds us with food and drink that transforms us into his likeness and welcomes us into a new way of living, a way that is very different from the values of this world. We are not just spectators at this feast. We are participants. We are joined with him in something that can transform us and transform the world.

Once again, the religious authorities are caught in the literal, the earth-bound. Jesus is inviting us into the heavenly realms that transcend those earthly prisons, and thanks be to our Lord we are able to follow him. At the center of our life in Christ is the cross. Living in wisdom and love requires sacrifice and discipline.

When he was young, Solomon asked for wisdom, but he did not have the spiritual stamina to sustain that gift. Paul calls the Ephesians and us to use every day and every moment to choose the way of compassion, maintain the spiritual focus to follow our Lord. Jesus comes to us, having suffered every horror, even the horror Elizabeth and Keith and Sara and Chris and Jack and Teddy are now enduring, and he gives us the food of himself so that we can walk into a new dimension of life and eternal life with him. Amen.

Epiphany 4B RCL February 1, 2015

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

Our first reading today is from the Book of Deuteronomy. The people are about to enter the land of Canaan, but Moses is not going with them. Moses is assuring the people that God will provide them with faithful leaders.

Our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians poses a question which was tearing apart the community in Corinth: Should Christians eat food that is sacrificed to idols? At first glance, this seems like a pretty silly topic. This is not a burning issue for us. But, if we look more deeply into this controversy, it can teach us all kinds of wisdom.

Corinth was a large city which bad many temples dedicated to Greek and Roman deities. If you went to the marketplace to buy meat, all of the meat there had been sacrificed to one or the other of these deities.

When people joined the new faith and became followers of Jesus, some of them felt that it was all right to eat this meat because the Greek and Roman deities were not real gods. There was only one God.

Paul agreed with their thinking. If God is the only true god, then the fact that the meat had been sacrificed to these other deities meant nothing.

Other members of the congregation felt extremely uncomfortable eating meat sacrificed to what they considered idols. On an intellectual or “knowledge” level, they realized that there is only one God, but still the fact that this meat had been sacrificed to Apollo or Artemis did not sit well with them and they chose not to eat the meat.

Paul is asking us to think about the spiritual well being of our brothers and sisters and to put the health of the community first. Some of the folks in Corinth were sure that they were “right.” They were trying to argue their brothers and sisters into doing something that seemed wrong to them. Paul says that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Logic and reasoning are important, but we are not to use knowledge to bully our brothers and sisters into doing things they consider to be wrong. The most important thing is to love and respect our brothers and sisters in the faith. This is a good passage to keep in mind when the church gets into controversies.

In our gospel, Jesus has called his disciples, and now they go to Capernaum, a city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus enters the synagogue on the sabbath. His teaching amazes the people.

There is a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. The unclean spirit  calls out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus responds with compete authority: “Be silent and come out of him!” The demon leaves. Again, the people are amazed.

This is a healing, and it is also a confrontation between Jesus and the forces of darkness. James M. Childs Jr. of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio writes, “Christ’s triumph over the evils that assail us restores us to community with God and one another. This is a restoration to life and for life. The very real demonic forces of our world, manifest in enmity, jealousy, greed, lust, and manifold forms of cruelty and disregard for life, are divisive. The demonic is mean spirited in its drive to separate us from God and one another and to divide us within ourselves, pitting the impulses of selfishness against the desire to love.”  (Childs, New Proclamation Year B 2002-03, p. 108.)

In this story, our Lord confronts the powers of evil and overcomes them. In the season of Epiphany, the season of light, we remember the words of John’s gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

While we are well acquainted with the love and compassion of our Lord, incidents like this one make it clear that he had no patience with the forces of darkness and brokenness, and that he confronted those forces with unyielding power and conquered them. This is important for us to keep in mind in a world where those forces are so apparent and active. Christ has won the victory over all forces which seek to hurt or enslave God’s children. As Sr. Rachel Hosmer has said, our Lord has won the victory but we are part of the mopping up operation.

Our Lord calls us to build up his kingdom in love, to support each other in our journeys and to reach out to others and extend our Lord’s strength, grace, and healing.

May we follow him. May all our actions be rooted and grounded in love.  Amen.

Epiphany 4B RCL January 29, 2012

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

In our first reading, God’s people are on the border of Canaan, poised to go into the promised land. God is assuring them that God will raise up prophets like Moses to guide the people. There is a long line of prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and many others who held God’s measuring rod up to their societies and called people to follow God’s ways.

More recently, we have prophetic people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyl, who has led the struggle for democracy in Burma, also called Myanmar, and Professor Wangari Maathai, the tree lady of Kenya, founder of the Green Belt movement to plant trees and combat deforestation.  The Green Belt Movement has also promoted social justice and democracy. God is constantly calling forth prophets.

 Our reading from 1 Corinthians asks the question: Is it all right to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols? This may not be a burning question for us, but there are other issues which can divide us.  Paul offers a profound insight. He says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” As we are working through decisions and issues in the Body of Christ, it is important to treat each other with respect and to exercise humility.  Freedom and license are two different things. Our behavior affects the lives of others in the community.

In today’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples go to Capernaum, a large town located on the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. When the Sabbath comes, they go into the synagogue. In those days, the local synagogue was a place for teaching, praying, and studying the scriptures together. The Temple in Jerusalem was the place where worship and sacrifice took place.

Jesus teaches the people. They are astounded because he teaches with a personal authority and immediacy that is magnetic. They can tell that he has a close personal relationship with God.  He is not just mouthing things he has learned in a scholarly setting.  Jesus is not a Scribe, one of the people who are the official teachers of the law.  His authority comes directly from God.

Then we move into the next part of this gospel. There is a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue.

 Scholars tell us that, in the first-century Mediterranean world, people believed that everything was caused by personal forces.  God was at the top, followed by “other gods,” sons of gods, and archangels. Then came angels, spirits, and demons. Then came humans with our own layers of social status.

Demons resisted any attempt to dislodge them from their host. In this gospel, the demons try to protect themselves by using Jesus’ name and recognizing his authority. If the demons admit Jesus’ power, maybe he will leave them alone.  Theologian Nancy Koester writes, “After all, why should the Holy One of God care about a bunch of unclean spirits inhabiting some worthless human being—especially if these unclean spirits know and confess who is boss? But Jesus will have none of it. For Jesus, authority is not merely the right to wield power over those of lesser rank, but it keeps in view the ends for which that power is used. Jesus does not make little compromises with evil. He has the authority to deliver, heal, convict, forgive, cleanse, and raise from the dead. He aims to defeat evil so that we can be set free.” (New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000,  p. 111.)

 People believed that demons (the Greek term) or unclean spirits (the Semitic term) could control human behavior. Demons were seen as a force causing people to behave in unacceptable ways that separated them from the community. To set someone free from the demons not only cured them but also restored them to the community.

 Normally when Jesus encounters unclean spirits or demons in the gospel, I talk about how diseases were in those days attributed to demon possession. But this gospel is focusing on Jesus’ ability to confront and defeat the forces of darkness. Very early in his gospel, Mark is putting Jesus’ ministry in a cosmic framework.  He cares about even the most humble and insignificant person, and he has the power to defeat any and all forces that would rob us of God’s intended wholeness.

 Jesus has authentic authority. Remember that the word “authority” comes from the Latin auctoritas, authorship, creativity, that which sets us free. If we go back to our epistle for today, we would say that true authority builds up, does not tear down. True authority is always working toward health and wholeness.  The opposite of authority is the Latin imperium, that which imprisons, confines, controls.

In this scientific age, we do not often think in terms of forces which may control us. But they exist even if we don’t want to name them or face them. Greed, materialism, self-serving ambition, violence as entertainment, all forms of addiction including substance abuse, gambling, internet addiction, and the list goes on. All of these imprison people.

 We also don’t like to acknowledge the existence of evil in this world. But it is there. Many times it comes from our own misuse of God’s gift of free will.  Whenever we think we are facing the forces of darkness, it is a good idea to look within and see what we are doing to create this or contribute to it. But there are times when it is clear that there is a powerful and palpable force of darkness. C. S, Lewis, in his classic The Screwtape Letters, cautioned us neither to deny the existence of evil nor to give it too much power. 

I am an Associate of a religious order for women in the Episcopal Church called the Order of St. Helena.  I had the privilege of working with a wonderful spiritual guide who was a member of the Order. Her name was Sister Rachel Hosmer. Sister Rachel worked for many years in Africa. The people she worked with had beliefs similar to those of Jesus’ time. Their world was full of spirits and they practiced voodoo. People actually died from curses and other practices. Once, when I was having some encounters with the forces of darkness, Sister Rachel told me something like this: “When you are being assailed by these forces, they seem huge and endlessly powerful, so dark that they block your view, but just remember that, in the face of the light of Christ, they are but a little speck.”  Sister Rachel’s comment is a perfect summary of our gospel for today.                                   Amen.