Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Oh man. Idol worship. Sacrificed meat. Exorcising demons. Not a comfortable set of lessons for an enlightened group of 21st century folks. Meat is meat – you can argue whether or not it is good for you, but not from a spiritual standpoint. Demons, well, thanks to medical science, we know that convulsions aren’t caused by evil spirits and we don’t spend much time or energy trying to exorcise epileptics. Or maybe these lesson are actually too comfortable for us. We pull out our modern cultural perspective and dismiss these readings as the products of a pre-science world and neglect to find what the message is for us.
Fred Craddock is a famous homiletics professor. He tells the story of a young minister. Fresh from seminary. He’s new and nervous and wants to do everything right. He is called to his first parish and eventually is called to make a pastoral call to an ailing, elderly pillar of the church. The woman had severe chronic respiratory issues and has contracted pneumonia as well. There is no hope for her recovery. The family calls this young, inexperienced, sincere new minister to pray with her, anoint her, give her a last communion. On the ride over he agonizes over the words to say, how to give comfort to this dying woman, prays that he can communicate God’s love to her.
He comes to the woman’s room. She is frail and ill. They chat for a bit, nothing earth shattering, and eventually he asks if she would like him to pray for her. “Well, of course, that’s what I wanted you to come for.” He then politely asks, “And what would you like me to pray for?” The old woman looks him straight in the eye and says, “I want you to pray that God will heal me.”
The young pastor is a bit surprised by the answer – doesn’t she know that she is dying? Flustered, he takes her hands and starts fumbling over the words. Somewhere in the flurry of words he ends up praying for what she asked – that God would heal her. When he finally says the Amen at the end of the prayer, the woman says, “You know, I think it worked! I think I’m healed!” And she gets out of bed and begins to run up and down the hallway of the hospital yelling, “Praise God! I’m healed! Praise God! I’m healed!”
Meanwhile, the young pastor stumbles to the stairwell, makes his way to the parking lot and somehow manages to find his car. As he fumbles to get his keys out of his pocket, he slumps back in the seat and looks heavenward and yells, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
That poor minister. He “knew” things didn’t work that way. Knowledge puffs up, and the poor man was deflated. Great are the works of the LORD.
We do so love to be right. To be in the know. Not just to know things, but to know more than the other guy. Paul says, anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge. It’s the Pauline version of Robert McKloskey’s, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
The Corinthians knew that idols meant nothing in the face of the one true God. They knew meat was just…meat. Paul didn’t argue with that truth. The Corinthians use this “knowledge” in a game of one-upsmanship with their “brothers” who followed their consciences to deny themselves the tainted treat. Paul struggles to explain that “right” is not the issue. Love is the issue. Knowledge can steer you wrong. We must meet our brothers and sisters where they live, and love them.
Doesn’t apply to us? Sacrificed meat not such a divisive issue? How about creationism? Literal biblical interpretation? Gay marriage? Agnosticism? Women in ministry? Using contemporary words to the Lord’s prayer? We all have opinions. And we all know we’re right.
Have you heard of the Episcopal Story Project? It is a new effort to collect the stories of Episcopalians on line. It’s just starting up, and just has a few entries. One is from Mark Osler, an attorney, who is talking about how to have a meaningful conversation about a controversial topic. I won’t repeat the whole speech. (It’s worth taking a look at). Pertinent to today, he talks about a technique used by attorneys. When there is an exhibit to look at, they have two choices. They can stand behind it, thus (demonstrating), and show it to the jury. Or they can place it up front, walk to the jury, turn around and say, “Let’s look at this together”. It’s a visual cue for what needs to happen for people to connect. “What you have to do is walk to them, turn around, and walk with them, back to where you want to go.” It’s a walk across the courtroom for the attorney. It’s a journey of love for us. A transformative process for everyone involved. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Jesus went to the synagogue, the place where his brothers and sisters would have gathered every week, not just to worship, but as a way of life. He spoke, and they knew his authority, just from his few words. The scribes had knowledge. They knew what was “right”. Jesus’s authority doesn’t spring from what he knows, or from being correct. Presumably he was – we don’t even know what he taught that day. Jesus joined them where they were, right or wrong, enlightened or not, with such demons as they carried. The love of God flowed through him, the Holy One of God, and with it came authority and healing.
Great are the works of the LORD!
Let the love of God flow through you. You don’t have to change your convictions. Truth is still truth. Just let God’s love greet your brothers and sisters where they are, with all their new-fangled or old fashioned ideas, all their demons, all their issues. You are God’s messenger, God’s prophet. Remember, they will forget what you say, forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Great are the works of the LORD! Praise be to God.