Sunday, February 1, 2009

RCL - Epiphany 4 B - 01 Feb 2009

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
RCL – Epiphany 4 B – Sunday 01 February 2009

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

In the Book of Exodus God chooses to make a covenant with the Hebrew people and gives Moses the Ten Commandments as a guide for how they were to love God and love their neighbor. Other laws and rules were added as the people solidified their identity and preserved their theology in a land where they were surrounded by other religions. After the written record of the Old Testament, commentary and custom continued to be added to the Law to further regulate and define the nature of holiness and the means to living with God. In Jesus’ day a finely tuned system of Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, teachers, and rabbi’s would have sought to preserve the customs and traditions passed on to them, believing that the most careful and exact following of the letter was the behavior most pleasing to God. Obedience was not just the way of life and peace, it was prescribed for all in great detail.

Over the centuries what was intended to be a means to loving relationship degenerated, as systems are wont to do, into an end in itself. Why do we obey the law? Because we’re supposed to. Rather than the law being a help to love God and one’s neighbor, it became a barrier between the individual and God and the individual and his or her neighbor - a way to segregate and fault-find and control rather than a way to connect. Constant comparisons and measurements of holiness would have taken the focus off relationship and onto who was holier than whom, who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean, who was acceptable and who was not - in other words “who does God really approve of and who does God not?” Religion became a tool to intimidate and enslave rather than liberate and empower.

Into this oppressive and manipulative institutional tradition comes our Lord, to teach on the Sabbath as would have been his custom as a rabbi. As he is teaching, something that would have been regarded by the people present as an offence against God and the sanctity of their gathering happens. An unclean man, an outcast, a lawbreaker, one who embodies everything they have been conditioned to hate, comes into the meeting place and disrupts the teaching. Rather than throw him out, the Lord engages him, or at least the evil that is speaking through him, and then, through no effort or merit on this poor soul’s part but as an act of pure love and grace on Jesus’ part, Jesus heals and delivers him.

Needless to say the people are amazed at the newness of this act. The scribes certainly couldn’t do anything like this. A neat trick, a one-time event to be sure, they may have thought. Later, as Jesus keeps showing up and continues to bother them with his calls of repentance, the people will become indignant, and then in short order the religious leaders will be actively plotting to kill this man who dares to disturb and question their sacred tradition. St. Mark’s community and his first audience was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles who found community by faith in Jesus as Messiah and sought to evangelize their Jewish brothers and sisters into the faith of Christ. Rather than convert, by the time the Gospel is written, his community has been kicked out of the Jewish places of worship and some are being actively persecuted for daring to disturb and question its sacred tradition.

So it is no surprise that our Lord’s first encounter with the institutional religion of his day is an encounter with evil within its walls. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is the outcast, the nonconformist, the man from within the tradition who seeks to restore it to its original purpose but instead is rejected and executed by it. He is the model for his follower’s sufferings and the one whose death and resurrection gives them hope that their work toward a freer and more just world is not in vain.

Those early Christians would have seen in the stories of Jesus a model for how to act as outcasts and how to oppose the evil oppression of the people. The miracle stories Mark tells are not just the relating of history, but are teachings by action full of insight for that community. People become metaphors of bigger truths that apply to everyone. Every act is revealing what kingdom life is about, that indeed the heavens are being torn apart and a new presence was invading the world. The man with the unclean spirit is a symbol of the oppressive and legalistic system of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts that sought to contain God’s love within a set of conditions and to exercise power over the helpless by exacting sacrifice and conformity to earn God’s favor.

By casting the evil spirit out of the man in the synagogue, the Lord is unmasking the hypocrisy and decadence of a depraved theology. As we know from other Gospel stories, nothing could raise the ire of Christ more than hypocrisy, especially the oppression of the weak by the powerful disguised as piety and faithfulness. The revolutionary idea simmering beneath this story would have been abundantly clear to the early listeners - the Law can manage and contain our sin, but Jesus can do more than that - he can exorcise it by his power. This uncleanness was not just individual but institutional, a creeping virus spreading through their understanding of who God was and what God wanted from them. Jesus appears with a new message that threatens the neat system of abuse: He says the real power is not the Law but grace, the real call is not ritual cleanliness but love.

This need to enforce laws at the expense of relationship didn’t end after the 1st century, goodness knows. Something in us keeps tugging at the question “aren’t rules the only way to keep people in line and maintain order and security?” This is a snippet from the Code of Connecticut, which was law in the early 18th century:
No one shall run on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden, or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath. If any man shall kiss his wife, or wife her husband on the Lord’s Day, the party in fault shall be punished at the discretion of the court magistrates.
We can laugh at what sounds to us like such primitive forms of legislated morality, but there is more to the Gospel story that speaks especially and directly to us today. The antidote to rule-dominated perfectionism is not an anything-goes relativism. To become adamantly anti-legalistic is just another form of legalism. The answer is the authority of Christ which is the law of love. The great paradox of the Gospel is that we are only really free under the authority of Jesus. We are most fully ourselves and alive when we live and act in love that comes from the heart that when we outwardly follow the rules to placate God or others. To choose our own will, our own way may seem like freedom, but it is really only imprisonment in the pit of our selfishness and prejudices.

The implicit lesson for Mark’s readers and for us is that we are the man with the unclean spirit in need of Christ’s ongoing deliverance. This is good news and bad news: good news in that identifying our need creates a longing for healing and forgiveness; bad news in that we must break with the crowd and give up seeking safety and security through outward conformity to a ritual and a tradition. Being a Christian doesn’t make us immune from the illusion of an easy and comfortable road. One way our legalism shows up is in our understanding of worship. As you gather with your parish community at home or when we join around word and sacrament here this morning, what do we believe about this God we expect to encounter? Or do we anticipate much of anything at all?

Those of us in liturgical traditions must be on guard against becoming overly fond of religious motion - satisfied that, because the lessons have been read, the hymns have been sung, the liturgy observed by the authorized people; that worship has taken place. The outer pieces of worship have been offered but whether they have prompted us to open our hearts to God is our response. I often catch myself reinforcing my own illusions by saying that my physical presence is sufficient to get me a check mark for the day. The questions of worship under the authority of Jesus are: Do I seek to love God and my neighbor no matter what? Do I have the humility to face the evil within me and seek Christ’s help to deliver me? Do I have the courage to name the uncleanness within the community and challenge my community to the freedom of grace?

As Jesus was with the man with the unclean spirit he will be with us; he will freely give us his compassion and mercy but he will never shy away from opposing with fierce directness the uncleanness that can so easily entangle us. At times the Lord will, by grace, confront us with the reality of our own evil spirit, our own hypocrisy, our own indulgence in evils like pride, arrogance, safety, security, apathy, or indifference. These insights into the reality of our own conflicted motives are great gifts because only when we have looked clearly at our own condition can we decide to live in the freedom of Christ’s authority.

So our rule of life can be our Lord’s; receive and hold onto what is life-giving and fruitful and holy in ourselves and each other and forcefully resist what destroys, isolates, and separates us from ourselves and each other. Our call and purpose is to become like Christ - to live a love that wills and works toward the best in the other, even if such love upsets the religious forces of fear, power, and control. How can we live with walls of suspicion toward our brothers and sisters, imprisoning desires, and judgmental legalism when the boundary-breaking, demon-bashing, and law-transcending Servant of all has been revealed to us?

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