Feb 2009 – Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
So this week we had a storm. Snow. Lots of ice. Schools were closed. And our new president, who comes from Chicago, suggested that we Washingtonians needed to man up a bit – get some of that “flinty toughness” that his compatriots from the Windy City have when it comes to bad weather.
What a hue and cry! You would have thought he’d attacked the beauty of the cherry blossoms, or the inevitability of lobbyists having a steak dinner at the Palm, or that FedEx Field should really go back to being named “The Jack!” How dare he – a Chicagoan – take a shot at a city he had just moved to?
We sure as heck didn’t want to hear a message – an uncomfortable and unexpected message – from a source who had not yet established his credibility on the topic with us.
Sometimes it’s hard to open our ears to strange messages from unexpected people.
A story from many, many years ago: It was noontime Mass at the Church of St Francis in midtown Manhattan. It was Lent, and the church was full. As we sat there, listening to a reading from the Gospel, a man started meandering up and down the side aisles. Singing. He looked a little odd, dressed in many layers of clothing. He smelled even more odd. Wafts of body odor and cheap wine preceded him as he wandered. He was singing “Panis Angelicus,” a hymn about the bread of angels. A lovely voice, although he got some of the words wrong. We sat there, half-distracted, half-annoyed, trying to hear the Scripture. But I found myself thinking in the midst of this, what am I supposed to take from this experience? Is this just another homeless guy acting strange in a place he sees as safe, or is this something more? His voice was surprisingly beautiful, and it wasn’t long before I was lost in meditation on the words of that hymn written by Thomas Aquinas: “the angelic bread of heaven becomes the bread of men…we beg of you, visit us as we worship you.” God was there, in that overpacked church, in the voice of the strange singer in the aisles. Sometimes the message comes from a strange messenger, doesn’t it?
It will come as no surprise to you that there are sometimes some very strange people in church. Gee, there are days when WE are the strange people in church. We are asked to welcome them as Christ welcomed the outsiders, the unconventional ones, the odd people, in his ministry. Strange messengers are part of the deal when we become part of the Body of Christ…look at John the Baptist, that weird guy wearing animal skins, with the smell of locusts and honey on his breath. It’s as if God realizes that he has to do something pretty dramatic to get our attention. The big gesture, the strange messenger or the odd symbolism to get God’s point across…we in our inability to see God face to face need something else to understand who God is, what God is saying to us, what we’re supposed to do with it.
That is the heart of what is going on in the Gospel of Mark today. Jesus comes in to Capernaum and walks in to the synagogue. As was the custom of the day, he as a traveling rabbi begins to teach, and everyone is impressed by this teacher. Mark gets a dig in on the local religious leaders: Jesus taught with authority, and not like the scribes, the local teachers, who presumably were not very good at their jobs. Everyone was intrigued with what they were hearing. Everyone, that is, except the local crazy guy, or at least the demons within him. The demons cried out : “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have to you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Can you imagine the Hollywood treatment of the scene? Perhaps Brad Pitt, or even better Clive Owens, playing Jesus, the tall well-spoken teacher, and someone really strange – Robert Downey Jr or Mickey Rourke playing the possessed man…that odd otherworldly voice coming out, challenging Jesus, identifying him as the Holy One of God? And we’re all sitting in that synagogue, having heard this teacher, thinking that he’s a pretty good preacher…and this crazy person says that this is the Holy One of God.
Do we believe that naming? Does this message from this crazy man sound wonderful, or scary, or just plain ridiculous? Does it convince us that this is the Messiah, or does it simply make us shake our heads…because the thought of being able to see the Messiah is utterly alien to us? Does the oddness of the messenger make it difficult for us to hear the message?
God does strange things to get our attention. God uses unorthodox messengers to make us hear.
And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? If the messenger is strange, or if the message is unorthodox, it’s hard for us to accept it as real. And we’re modern people, so when we read this, it all seems very strange and far away. We don’t know people possessed by demons…or do we? We haven’t seen God intervene in that very direct way that Jesus does in this Gospel story…or have we? What is God’s message, and can I hear it?
If we were those synagogue people sitting around the room, watching this rabbi Jesus of Nazareth come in, teach with brilliance and authority, be identified as the anointed one by a possessed man and cast out the demons from that possessed man, we’d be wondering what this was about, what it meant. If that identification of Jesus as Messiah came from the Chief Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, we’d probably be a little more comfortable with the situation – maybe – but a crazy guy? How could we process this message?
And that’s really the hard part – is it real? How do I interpret it? Because we’re afraid we’ll get it wrong. Think about the warning in the passage from Deuteronomy this morning, when the Lord reminds the people that he will send another prophet after Moses is gone: “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-- that prophet shall die." Makes it really hard to get enthusiastic about those prophets, doesn’t it? If we don’t pay attention to the words the prophet speaks, God will hold us accountable. If the prophet is a false prophet, he dies. How do I know if somebody is a false prophet, because if it’s a real prophet, no matter how strange the words he speaks, I’ve got to obey, and if I don’t, I get punished, and if he’s a false prophet, I don’t figure it out until he dies…but does it have to be a dramatic fire and brimstone death for me to know that he got zapped by God for being a false prophet? Sorting out the messengers and their messages can be confusing.
It’s like here’s the good news: You’re not alone because God will give you a prophet. Here’s the bad news: there may be some false prophets out there. You figure it out.
And that’s one of the core problems we face. The world is full of false prophets, with messages that sound strange. But sometimes the message of God is hard to make sense of as well. We get all twisted up trying to figure out what the message really is.
That’s precisely the sort of twisting up that the Corinthians are experiencing in the reading from Paul’s epistle that we heard. Here’s the starting point of the story: the Christians in Corinth live in a society that is dominated by pagan temples and pagan religious practices. One of those practices is offering of meat in sacrifice to pagan gods. That food is available after those cultic sacrifices for eating. The Christians want an opinion from Paul: they know they don’t believe in the pagan gods, so the fact that the meat has been offered in those sacrifices is irrelevant, right? They can eat the meat, right? It’s just meat, after all.
And Paul says, “you folks are thinking you’re so smart, but you’re not thinking the problem all the way through. Technically, you’re right. The meat is just meat. Technically, you’re right. Nothing really happened in that pagan ritual that changed that meat.” Paul continues: “…but you’re not getting the full message here, and what’s more, you’re sending a message by eating that stuff. There are those who are newer to the faith, and maybe they’re people who used to go to those temples and participate in those sacrifices. You don’t think it confuses them, when you eat that meat? You don’t think it might lead them to believe that they can stay with one foot in the pagan world and one foot in Christianity? The message you send is just as important as the knowledge, the message, you’ve received. So don’t mess with that meat, and by the way, I, Paul, am now a vegetarian, so I don’t send any mixed messages about this stuff.” And why does Paul talk to the Corinthians this way? Because he wants them to get the full import of the message: we are responsible for each other. What we are supposed to do for each other must be grounded in love of God expressed as loving each other.
That’s the test of the message, and of the messenger: what we are supposed to do must be grounded in love of God expressed as loving each other.
That’s why when someone says if I send in my money to a particular church, God will make me rich, I know that this is not Jesus’s message, because if I get rich, it will be at the expense of another. That’s not love of God, that’s love of my own desires.
That’s why when someone says that that person over there is evil because he doesn’t worship at my church, I know that this is not Jesus’ message, because Jesus welcomed all and died for us all, not just the ones who look and sound like me. That’s not love of God, that’s love of that which is familiar and comfortable.
That’s why when someone says that terrorists attacked us because we are sinful people because we are moving toward justice for gay and lesbian people, I know that this is not Jesus’ message, because Jesus embraced the most unlikely people, the ones whom society looked down upon, and called them beloved. That’s not love of God, that’s injustice.
So here’s the test we use when we’re faced with an unlikely messenger or a message that we cannot parse out. Paul tells us clearly that the answer is that love. If we love God, we’ll be able to tell whether the message is true, whether that messenger is a true prophet. God will help us understand if what we are doing is something that shows our love of him by loving each other. That simple.
So was the President right in his message about the weather? Maybe, maybe not. I’d have preferred to think about the safety of drivers and pedestrians on black ice, than whether we were tough enough. But maybe flinty toughness is a necessary thing in hard times, to help each other through. Maybe calling each other to grit our teeth to make hard choices about medical insurance for an asthmatic child in Southeast, or fighting to get food and water to refugee camps in Somalia are precisely what we need to think about.
Where’s God in the message? Where’s the love? That’s what we need to ask.