Whenever you hear the gospelers making a comment about the Pharisees and scribes, you should pay attention. You should do so not because they’re portrayed as the foil for Jesus, as the “bad guys,” but because of what they represent. Far too often we think of them as these mythic villains in Jesus’ stories and then conflate them with all Jewish people, ignoring the reality that Jesus and his followers were also Jewish too. It would be far better to describe them simply as religious leaders or even the religious elite.
I need to begin today with a few words on current events. We heard from our Attorney General this week that there is a biblical injunction from St. Paul in Romans 13 to follow all the laws of the ruling government. Therefore, the recent policy to separate families at our southwestern border is endorsed by God. The Press Secretary when asked about it doubled down by saying, “Enforcing laws is biblical.”
So let’s take a look at what Paul wrote in context within his letter to the Romans. In the verses leading up to chapter 13 Paul exhorts the Roman Church to do this, “Let [your] love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” He continues in that train of thought about empathizing with others and doing good and then he gets to the verses referenced by our political leaders.
We’re back in that Upper Room. The candles on the table have burned down considerably. The smell of the bread, and the roasted meat still linger in the air. In the corner lie the basin and the bowl Jesus had used to wash their feet.
Judas has gone out from that place to begin the plan he has cobbled together in his mind hoping for God knows what, and, our Gospeler tells us, “It is night.” The sun has gone down, and in Jewish custom even now, the day has changed. It is now Good Friday.
If you thought our reading from Mark detailing the resurrection story fell a bit flat this morning, you’re in good company. No, we did not somehow cut it short to create more drama; this is exactly how Mark’s gospel ends as it was handed down by the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Period. It bothered biblical scribes so much along the way, that they tacked on not one but two different endings to try clean it up.
In the Greek it’s even more troubling ending with the literal phrase, “they were afraid for…” and that’s it. Imagine those first hearers of Mark’s gospel gathered in a house church, meeting under the cover of night in Ancient Rome anxious about their own lives and hoping that the authorities wouldn’t discover them. “Wait, is that it? What does Mark mean ‘They were afraid for…’ For what? Are you sure that’s how it ends? Is there really nothing more? Did the women say anything? Where’s Jesus? Isn’t he supposed to be resurrected? I thought this was ‘Good News,’ but it doesn’t make sense. Reread those last couple of verses again.” And so they did.
If you asked me on any given day who my favorite author happens to be, I’d say it’s Frederick Buechner. Mr. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister whose vocation has been to write. His books range from collected sermons and memoirs to reflections on faith and novels. Sometimes he writes about his craft and how it works both in his art and also in his life. This week I’ve been reflecting on something he wrote in his collection of essays entitles, The Clown in the Belfry.
He writes, “The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to shape, fashion, feign.’ That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening. They are the raw material of both.
A couple of years ago I awoke in a tent in the Pemi Wilderness in the heart of the White Mountains National Forest. I had spent the previous two days hiking in the area—the first day I made it to an AMC hut near Galehead Mountain, a good 6 miles from the trailhead. The second day I ascended South Twin Mountain and continued on to Bondcliff, where I met a couple of friends who hiked in from the other direction. Together we made our way to the Guyot Campsite for the night.
On that cold morning, I was both excited to be there—my first overnight backpacking trip in a tent—and also pretty beat. We all had done a significant amount of hiking with heavy backpacks the previous day, and so talked briefly about skipping West Bond—one of the 4000 footers—and just heading out to my car. But after some coffee and a hearty breakfast, we decided to leave our packs near the trail and did the mile to the peak. Mist hung around in patches that morning, and the trail to the summit became tight with bushes and tree branches. Just as we got close to the summit we encountered a steep incline up rocks for the final push. My toe began to hurt, and the exhaustion from the previous days hit me hard. I wasn’t sure this would be worth the effort.
“For those who want to save their life, will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their life?”
These words from Jesus lie at the very core of the gospel, and they remain tremendously difficult both to hear and put into practice. How can we lose ourselves and, by so doing, save ourselves? You can spin that around and around all day long but it doesn’t make logical sense. If I want to get somewhere, I need to go that way. If I want to save my life, then I must take measures to ensure my well being. It does not flow that if I want to get something in the end that I need to do the opposite. But that’s exactly what Jesus is after.
And it’s the heart of the gospel.
Over the course of the past year, I’ve been delighted with a little hippopotamus named Fiona. You may know her story: Fiona arrived six weeks early at the Cincinnati Zoo weighing in at a slight 29 pounds — hippos normally weigh between 55-120 lbs at birth. She had to be bottle fed by a team of neo-natal caregivers, and for a long time things were touch and go. Slowly she began to grow, found her legs and took to swimming.
She received her name due to her ears which look just like Fiona’s from the “Shrek” films, and because it means “fair one.” She became an international social media phenom, and she recently celebrated her first birthday. I’d encourage you to check her out.
But even though she’s tremendously cute, Fiona’s a wild animal. In fact, the hippo is the deadliest land animal in Africa, more dangerous than the elephant, lion, or river crocodile. Hippos are territorial, and while they’re strict vegetarians, they will hurt humans with their immense jaws if you unintentionally get too close to their area.
During Advent we visited the church of friends of ours for a musical celebration. We had to get there pretty early to ensure we found good seats, and then had a long lag sitting in the pews. We chatted with our friends getting caught up on their lives. At some point, my friend handed me a laminated card that was in the pew. “What do you think of this,” she asked.
I looked down and read the card. Written in typed print were the words,“I made my donation online.” I looked up confused.
“It’s for the offering plate,” she said. It took a couple of moments before it dawned on me that those who set up their regular giving online could toss that card in the basket when it came around to have something to place in the basket. My friend said, “They did it because some parishioners didn’t want others round and behind them to think they were cheap or shirking their responsibility in supporting the church.” I was a bit stunned, and I could tell my friends didn’t like it either.
What does it mean that in Mark’s gospel the first public act of Jesus involves casting out an unclean spirit?
We might want to gloss right over that this morning, I mean it is a bit odd, right? We’re more civilized now, more in the know on illnesses and health and the rest. Our patron saint—Mark the Evangelist—didn’t understand everything we think, so we can dismiss him. But Mark, this fabulous storyteller, uses the first scene of Jesus’ public ministry to show what Jesus’ primary focus in his life will be. Mark begins with a story of Jesus’ powerful and authoritative teaching leading to the healing of this man possessed with the unclean spirit.
[callout]A sermon based on Mark 1:21-28.[/callout]
Even with all our 21st century knowledge, I do not think we can easily shrug off the diagnosis of possession quite so easily. While some out there would say “Mark must be describing a physical ailment like epilepsy or perhaps a mental illness,” doing so shunts the impact of this story. What Mark chronicles centers on some force taking control of this man’s life, something that made him act in a way contrary to how he normally would behave. Ultimately this would force him out of the community as someone who was completely unclean, someone to be avoided, if that had not already happened. We only hear that this man had been overtaken by something who knows full well who Jesus is and the authority and power Jesus has. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The unspoken response is yes, yes this Holy One of God has come to destroy those things which take possession of the hearts and minds of all people, those things which take them away from life. “You want to know what Jesus is about?” Mark seems to implicitly ask in his narrative, “Here, let me show you. Jesus comes with the power and authority to set people free.”
The issue for us centers on this idea of “possession.” We don’t believe it can happen to us, so it seems way too foreign, if not blatantly ignorant. And yet theologian David Lose invites us to reconsider that position. He writes, “Let’s take this matter of ‘possession’ more seriously and wonder what kinds of things possess us — anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse.” We might not describe them as evil spirits ourselves, but I’ve heard more than a handful of people discuss alcoholism as a demon in their lives. I’ve listened to stories from loved ones describing how lust overtook a person, leading to that person throwing away the anchor of their family life, and everything and everyone become unmoored. Engage any person with a child in the throes of an opioid addiction and “unclean spirt” isn’t a stretch at all. Or those things Prof. Lose mentions, anger and fear, workaholism and the power of greed and envy. They all drive people far from the love of God and from the life imagined for us by Jesus. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” he declared.
So by beginning with this narrative, Mark the Evangelist describes how the power of Jesus’ teaching can set people free from forces that bind them. Forces that perhaps bind us or those we love. As Professor Karoline Lewis suggests, “Evil forces have the most to lose in the coming of Jesus and the ‘good news,’ [the gospel message]. And those evil forces are at play even now.
In a few minutes we’ll be making our way to the font to welcome Lincoln into the life of faith as a follower of Christ. Two of the questions I’ll ask his parents and godparents are these: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? And do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “I renounce them,” will be their response, and the response all of gave at our baptisms. When we enter those waters of baptism we make a bold claim that we will follow Christ as our Lord, and no one else. By doing so, we proclaim we want a life based on his love and teachings. His words have the power to bring about transformation and release from those things that hold us back. Did Jesus come to destroy those forces of wickedness that keep us from God and the power of love? Absolutely.
And that sends us a message about what we’re called to do as well, as the baptized community of Jesus at St. Mark’s. We do not gather each week in order that we might get some good marks on our permanent record up in heaven, nor simply to be fed at this table and then leave. Our Eucharist Prayer states, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” We come together to hear these words of faith and encouragement to help us remember that God doesn’t want us to fall prey to the forces of wickedness. Additionally we hold fast to the idea “that church, at its best, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing,” as David Lose puts it. We have a purpose and a mission to be a blessing to the world. To share the good news that Jesus wants to bring healing in order to set us free. That the abundant life we imagine can be made manifest through the powerful life and teachings of Jesus.
We’ve been doing those things this past year, and we have so much more that we can become together. Because there are too many demons out there terrorizing our lives and our world. People are hurting. They are overwhelmed. They walk in the wilderness fearful that they are alone, that they will not make it out intact.
The ministry of this community centers on following Jesus, his powerful words and actions which lead to healing and redemption. We don’t see this work as just another item on our to-do list, but recognize that in embodying Christ’s mission we can change someone else’s life forever, never mind changing our own in the process. If you don’t believe me, give food to a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk in Boston. Visit a shut-in here in our community. Say a prayer over the phone with someone who’s sick. Sit quietly with someone whose life has been ravaged by the addiction of a loved one. Pick up a mop while working with others showing that love shines through in even the smallest of tasks that show care.
We are called to be the church, the embodiment of Christ in our day and age. At our best we can encourage and strengthen each other both as individuals and collectively to be blessings to our world and to all of God’s children. Jesus’ words have the power and authority to bring us to the place of healing and strength and renewal that we’ve longed for. He is the Holy One of God. May we faithfully follow him with passion in concrete and specific ways this next year, bringing his powerful words of healing to the world. Amen.