Why are we here?

A sermon for Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:112, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

We pick up this morning right where we left off last week. Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue go to Peter’s house, where they discover his mother in law is ill. Jesus heals her and she begins to serve them. By sun set the whole city was outside the front door seeking Jesus’ help; with all these new friends you think he’d won the lottery. Jesus heals the sick, and silences the demons. At some point he goes to sleep, because the story tells us he gets up early in the morning to go pray. We’d all be better off praying after a long’s night work and/or before starting a long day’s work. The disciples find him, perhaps interrupt him, ‘cause the people are already lining up. Jesus tells them:

Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

There are two points I’d like to explore. The first is Peter’s mother in law immediately getting up and begin serving people. Many find this offensive, among the defenses is seeing her serving as a sign of her complete healing. Others point out Lazarus doesn’t go about serving  after he is raised from the dead, he sits down, well lays down, as they did in the day, for dinner. Another defense is her serving shows she has been fully restored to her family, tribe and Israel, like we explored last week. But still, it rubs raw a woman serves it’s the same ole same ole subjection of women. However, Mark Skinner looks all the way to the end of Mark, at Golgotha, positing that among the women who witness Jesus’ crucifixion and death, who had served him while he was in Galilee; (Mark 15:41) is Peter’s mother in law. Thus, early on Mark is identifying her as one of Jesus disciples. (Skinner)

The second bit is “that is what I came to do.” This story is broadly understood as a healing story, and lots of people are healed. However, Jesus himself tells us, that is not why he is there. Jesus is there to proclaim the message. But, what message? Marks references it in the first verse “The beginning of the good news….” so perhaps it’s the whole story. Isaiah 61 includes ideals like: liberty, release, comfort, provision, and gladness. (Isaiah 61:1) Jesus continually silencing demons, who know who he is, points us to the message as the reveling of the presence of God’s messiah, the anointed one, Jesus self, as the way of redemption for all creation. The message is good news is the Gospel.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses his preaching the Gospel. His saying “I become all things to all people” is more nuanced than most think. Its best understood as Paul pointing out he doesn’t call people to come over here and be like me. Rather he goes to them, lives with them, respecting their ways, within limits, to be a glimpse of the presence of Christ to them. All for the purpose of sharing the Gospel, so that he may share in its blessings, that he may experience the unity of God’s people. (Mast)

We know Jesus knows why he was in Galilee. We know Paul knows why he was in Corinth. I wonder; do we know why we are here? I know you know I’m going to give you two reasons: to proclaim the message, and for the sake of the Gospel. Well three answers: to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here, right now. And you won’t be surprised when I recall last week’s gleanings this is much more a how than what task. But this week’s readings invite us to continue to seek understanding proclaiming the Kingdom as we seek the depths of our own belief, as we seek the behavioral imperatives of our own faith. And as Jonah taught us it’s our attention to the everyday stuff not the grand cosmic schemes to which we are most likely called.

Let me share some examples. On my trip to Atlanta I left the cross given to me at my graduation from seminary, which I have worn nearly every day since then, in the security bin. When I got back to Memphis, I asked about lost and found. At every step along the way the TSA people listened carefully, answered respectfully and were very helpful. I sensed they shared in my joy when I picked it up last Wednesday.

Recently Angie took a phone call from a stranger, referred by a known individual, and shared her experiences with Nuggett as a service dog, including the places where she struggles.

Recently some colleagues and I listened to another share challenges of changing life and church status which included hopes, concerns and fears. Once again I’ve witnessed the staff at Great River Medical Center offer loving care to a patient and to the patient’s family and loved ones. My favorite Super Bowl commercial is Nationwide’s controversial ad that shows a child lamenting he will never ride a bike, or have a first kiss, or fly, or know a best friend, or get married “because I died in an accident. The ad closes with scenes of an over flowing tub, open kitchen sink cabinet doors a flat screen TV pulled off a dresser shattered on the floor, and then invites us in: “We can make safe happen.” (Nationwide)

Other examples are those standing with the marginalized. Many Episcopal clergy stood with protesters in Missouri, New York, Ohio and elsewhere and by their physical presence forcing us to look at our culpability behind inappropriate lethal police responses.

You may or may not have heard of Elizabeth Cook, suffragan bishop of Maryland. She was driving under the influence and struck and killed a bicyclist. There has been lots of press. I’m most impressed by an open letter blogged by Anna Howell, who, while not excusing Bp. Cook’s behavior, distinguishes between her behavior and her person.  Howell reminds us all Bp. Cook, as do we, continues to be baptized, and beloved of God. She quotes Julian of Norwich

[who] saw no wrath in God, even in response to human sin. … Because God is so much bigger than us. (Howell)

There are those who stand with Muslims seeking to peacefully live into their faith, so related to Judaism and Christianity all of whom share origins in Abraham and though very differently, place our faith in the same God.

There are those who stand with people of different sexual orientation who continue to be the object of virulent exclusion. As the legal battle for the right to marriage works its way through the courts Sons have been denied burial, and partners have been denied presence with dying partners. I know of pastors denied churches and or access to pulpits because of their sexual orientation or their stance on issues of sexual orientation. I’ll also mention that women ministers are routinely denied access to the pulpit because of their straight gender. And I know those who stand in solidarity with them.

To stand with those on society’s margins is risky. There is the risk of losing social standings, and exclusion. It’s also difficult to do because of our tendency to strike back. David Brooks posits the key to taking such a stance is to get our self-worth out of the way, To step out of the nihilistic taunting terrorist, misogynist, anarchist, bullies, exclusionist seek to draw us in to.  (Brooks, Conflict and Ego) It’s difficult for us to live into our Christian faith because it’s not a position of power, nor influence it’s a position of trusting others to make a good decision.  (Brooks, Being Who We Are) It’s difficult for us because we can come right up against our belief our faith our trust that God is with us.

Why are we here? We are here, I pray, so we may be a healing presence, so we can speak from within ourselves of the presence of God; so we can be present to another as God is present to us; so we can stand with the those belligerently denied their birthright as a child of God, so we can trust that God stands with us as we stand for the Gospel amongst the marginalized, as we stand with Peter’s mother in law as a disciple of Christ.


References

Brooks, David. “Being Who We Are.” New York Times 30 1 2015. nytimes.com. <http://nyti.ms/1BxJy9I&gt;.

—. “Conflict and Ego.” New York Times 6 2 2015. nytimes.com. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/opinion/davidbrooksconflictandego.&gt;.

Howell, Anna Marion. An Open Letter to the Right Reverend Heather Elizabeth Cook. 4 2 2015. <https://sulfurfreejesus.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/dear-bishop-heather/&gt;.

Lose, David. Epiphany 5 B: Freedom For. 08 2 2015. <davidlose.net>.

Mast, Stan. 1 Corinthians 9:1623. 8 2 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Nationwide. Super Bowl Commercials 2015. 1 2 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKUy-tfrIHY&list=PL7_vzLILpPXjApytIgRJGKo2__BiPGenS&gt;.

Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Mark 1:2939. 8 2 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344&gt;.

What’s your center?

A sermon for Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, Psalm 40:1-12

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received on last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It is cute, with Hugh Jackman, think Wolverine, doing Bunny’s voice, it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story are many great lessons. 

My gift is a conversation between Jack and North. North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls, painted like North. He says: This is how you see me, very big and intimidating. Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North replies: Look closer. What do you see? You have big eyes. Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours?  Jack: I don’t know. i

The conversation is about identity, who are we, and how that identity shapes our lives. It’s the same conversation that’s the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, that John is having with his followers, and Paul is writing to the Corinthians.

Whoever Isaiah’s servant is: himself, another prophet, Israel, or the expected messiah, Christians believe to be Jesus, he is tired. He has given it his best, but things have not worked out, and while knowing, or at least saying his reward is with God he is done. Scott Hoezee notes everyone gets discouraged, weary.
What I suspect is in the weariness the servant’s center shifts, their identity changes, it moves from being of God and about God, to being me and about me.
God’s reply

It’s not enough for you to restore  Israel. Now I want you go to all
nations and share the story of my salvation till it reaches the ends of the earth.

at first it appears harsh and uncaring. However, it’s effect is to re-center the servant it’s reminder that from time in the womb till now, till the end of time, the servant is of God, is in unbreakable relationship with God.

What is it six centuries and a decade later? John is walking through town with a couple of his followerswhen he points to Jesus and shouts:

There is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of world!

The next day he sees Jesus again, and shouts out:

Look! here is the Lamb of God!

We all know what Lamb of God means. Or do we? Scott Hoezee ii and Richard Swanson iii point out that lamb of God, and takes away the sin of the world  are both far more complex than you’d think. To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. iv If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the rabbinical understanding of God joining us in the meal, and eating his lamb so you the trouble. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well lambs sacrificed for atonement, which is taking away sin, are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out!  v Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah. There is also the story of  the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but there are still translation difficulties. vi

So what about the phrase: who takes away the sins of the world. How? Take away  is rooted in the Greek lift up,which may imply lifting up, or pointing out sins so everyone can see them, not to embarrass, but to encourage repentance. Or it may refer to the firey serpent story in Numbers vii when the bronze snake is lifted up so those snake-bit can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion.

All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, reveals an image of God providing for the healing, which means restoring to wholeness,and wholeness is relationship with God, providing for the healing for God’s people. In short, John is telling his followers, anyone who will hear, here is your identity, the divine Jesus is your center.

We read the greeting and introduction from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning. Because we’ve read it before, we know there are troubles. Corinth is a bit self-impressed viii which is understandable. It is an urban trade center of about 250,000 people,served by 400,000 slaves. There are 2 harbors making it a commercial hub of the Roman Empire. The many peoples from many nations have established 12 major temples. Stan Mast writes: What happened in Corinth doesn’t stay in Corinth. ix It’s easy to see how such self-importance creeps into the life of the church.

It’s revealing to note Paul does not give thanks for them, he gives to God for the spiritual gifts entrusted to them through Christ. He is alluding to deep divisions among them, to the truth that even though they are spiritually gifted, they are immature and unspiritual. In today’s parlance, they’ve lost their center. They have forgotten God … has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. x   N. T. Wright notes

Paul is reminding them they are summoned to be saints and worshippers, [that] they belong to a koininia partnership with God and Jesus [whose]
     purpose  is a servant vocation [that] model[s] and implement[s] genuine new humanity. xi

Paul is saying it’s not about them, or their gifts, it’s about Jesus, it’s about God. He is pointing out their true center, their true identity as sanctified, or set aside, by God, for God, through Christ.

All three lessons call their audience, then and now back to  a life an identity centered in God through Christ. All are directly applicable to us. From Isaiah, we are tired, weary, given it our best, but the world, and declining everything conspires against us. We’ll hold on, but we are done. Such thinking reveal that our center has shifted to our survival. And when we are centered on our  survival we will miss the opportunity to proclaim the Kingdom of God is here. And that opportunity is here!

There is a similar lesson from John; we can get so caught up in our definitions of what scripture says we miss the point of scripture – our relationship with God. John is pointing to Jesus as the one who heals, restores to wholeness our relationship with God, who is, with God, the center of our being.

And Paul points out the dangers of self-importance born of success. It’s interesting that the same risk is in struggling churches who afraid they cannot survive. In such fear, we double down on meeting our needs or on building up our skills which are as powerless as we are afraid they are. Either way our center shifts.

Epiphany is the season of light, a time to seek divine illumination. I wonder if we are looking so hard for the light, for who Jesus is, we forget who we are. And we are already: illumined by Word and Sacrament, we are already children, heirs of God through creation, and through Jesus’ redemptive ministry. Perhaps it’s time to simply live in that relationship xii and allow it to become what it already is our center, our identity, our essence.