Sermon, January 29, 2012
“What am I doing here!?” offered by Rev. Stacy Swain
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
You know it’s really rather astonishing that week after week you come into this place.
You greet each other with a warm embrace, or words of care. There is often laughter; sometimes tears and, if we are lucky, there is even a baby’s cry.
Some of you are here early, while others pile through those doors, long after the processional hymn has faded. You come in tucking in shirts and wiping breakfast from faces and yet in you come.
You slide into well worn pews, whispering cues to your kids, underlining with your finger where we are in the bulletin or in the hymn so they can join in.
Others of you settle back yawning off a week’s fatigue of running too fast and having too little.
And as the peace of this place settles around you, a few of you nod off for a moment or longer, catching up on some much needed sleep.
In you come. Week after week.
It’s astonishing. Here we are in this post modern world, and yet are engaged in a millennia-old practice of worship. Here we are with a QR code in our bulletin and yet are contemplating what it is to have Galilean dust on our sandals.
What are we doing?
Let us listen to what the Gospel of Mark has to say.
But first let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen
It is the Sabbath. The work of the week is over. As the last light fades, and the candles are lit, the people gather to study Torah.
An itinerant teacher named Jesus is in town so the people ask if he’d be willing to open scripture for them. And he does. Though it is the same scroll that is reverently unrolled every week, it sounds somehow different when Jesus reads it. And when he looks up and begins to teach, the people feel as if their hearts are aflame in their breasts. They are astonished. “Listen to how he speaks.” They say. “It is with an authority that we have not heard before. (Luke 1:22) What is this kind of authority?”
The question of the source of Jesus’ authority will swirl around Jesus throughout his ministry and ultimately it will be what gets him killed.
But, while everyone else may wonder at this authority that Jesus has, Jesus himself does not. Jesus is perfectly clear that his authority comes not because he knows better, or because he is smarter or more important. And even through crowds are beginning to follow him and reports of him are reaching every place in the region, he is also perfectly clear that this authority of his is not conferred upon him by those that follow him.
Jesus knows that what the people find so compelling has nothing really to do with him at all, but has everything to do with the God who called him beloved as the waters of the Jordan streamed from his face. For what the people find so compelling is that through him they are see something of God. When they hear his words, as their heart burns within them, they are reawakening to Eden. They feel God’s primordial blessing upon them and they sit up a bit straighter, they lean in a bit closer, they listen a bit more deeply because there is a blessing being spoken that they remember, and long for and are experiencing again.
And then when Jesus words are hanging there in the candlelit air and the people are wondering about how these words speak to their lives right there in the midst of Roman occupation, and poverty, and fear, and hurt, there is a commotion in the back of the synagogue. Everyone turns around as someone from the back shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth.”
The people turn to Jesus with the question the unclean spirit in their mouths as well. “What does any of this have to do with us?” “How is anything of this going to change anything?” “When I leave this place, I will still owe more than I can pay. When I leave this place, I will be as fearful for my future as when I came in. What does all this talk have to do with anything?” And though there was one man in the back with the unclean spirit upon him, Jesus looked out over all of them and sees the burden of demons upon them all.
And with a heart wide open, he walked over to that man in the back who dared to speak his pain and said “Be silent, come out of him!” And looking deep into the man’s eyes I hear Jesus saying, “You are a beloved child of God. With you God is well pleased.” In that candlelit moment, I am certain that more than one unclean spirit fled into the darkness.
Isn’t that is why we come? Isn’t that is why we let the coffee get cold on the counter and leave the dog still begging for her morning walk? Jesus isn’t just a compelling teacher. His words are not just interesting. No, they are, he is, life changing. We come here each Sunday, like those of old to open the scriptures and to learn from them about what God is doing in the world and how we are to be a part of it. But we also come here with demons on our backs. There is something that has a grip on us, that is keeping us out of Eden. Something that is doing all it can to keep us from living into the wholeness God envisions for us.
Don’t be ashamed of that. It does not mean you have failed or are less than or somehow screwed up. It is simply a part of what it is to be a part of the human condition. What is so radically, counter cultural and incredibly freeing about church is that here we do not have to pretend that we do not need anyone or anything.
We get to come into this place and say. Yes, I have the demon of fear upon me. Yes, I have the demon of shame upon me. Yes, I have the demon of bitterness and anger and hate upon me. We get to come into this place not just with ourselves but all that is upon us.
So what came with you today? What clings to your back? Is it fear for your future? Is it frustration at how self centered and demanding our adolescent children can be? Is it anger and frustration at an aging body that keeps you from living the life you want? Is it outrage at the unfairness of a life drowning in difficulty? Is it enslavement to an addiction of one kind or another? Is it a buried rage at a wrong that cannot be righted? Is there a sadness that cannot be spoken? A shame that cannot be faced? What is it for you this day? What is it that you need to be freed from so that you too can taste Eden?
The book group this month has been reading a remarkable book entitled Unbroken. It is a true story written by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Sea Biscuit”, Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joins the air force in WWII. It is the story of how Louis’ plane is shot down over the Pacific and of how he survive 47 days on a life raft. It is the story of how He is picked up by the Japanese and taken first to secrete interrogation camps and then to POW camp. The book is a powerful testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit and it is a disturbing exploration of what we do to each other — of how violence, deprivation and abuse can strip degrade and dehumanize us. It is a story of the human condition of how we put demons on each other’s backs. It speaks not to just then, but the now I hear in reports from Doctors without Borders that speaks of torture occurring right now, right now, in Libyan detention centers.
Louie survives his tormenters. His POW camp is liberated by allied forces, but nightmares haunt him. He begins drinking too much and is overcome by bouts of uncontrollable rage. He is clearly not of his right mind. His spirit is unclean. He is in the hands of a demon.
Until one night, when he wandered into a tent rival in LA. Billy Graham was up front telling the crowd about Jesus but all Louis felt was anger and rage. Like that man in the synagogue so long ago, Louis stand up ready to bolt, screaming in his heart “What have you to do with any of what I have experienced of the pain that I feel.” But in that moment, Louis finally feels all of his rage and pain, the unclean spirit that was choking the life out of him leave. He was free. Never again does Louis have nightmares of his tormenter. Never again does he drown his rage in drink.
Hillenbrand writes of Louie’s reflections as he thinks back on that night: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird (his chief tormentor) had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and hopelessness had fallen away. He believed he was a new creation and for that he wept.”
But being reclaimed by God, being made free of the unclean spirit that has its grip on us is not the only reason why we stumble into this sanctuary every Sunday. There is more.
A couple of weeks ago, one of you told of how your teenaged daughter raked you over the coals when soon after getting to church she discovered that no other of her young friends had made it that morning. Completely put out, she demanded “What am I doing here?!” As if to say, what is the point of me being here if my friends are not!
We come into this place week after week not only because we have a need to be liberated us from that which diminishes us, but also because we know that life lived in its fullest is life lived together. Let me repeat that, life lived in its fullest is life lived together.
H. Richard Niebuhr, the 20th century theologian writes compellingly of this need to respond to each other in his book The Responsible Self. Niebuhr claims that the ethos or way of living that enables us to be most fully alive is not that of striving to achieve some goal, or of following some prescribed rules for living. The ethos that enables us to be most fully alive is living a responsive life. Listening and responding to the words and actions of those around us and having them listen and respond to our words and actions that is what we do, who we are.
But what the key is that we listen and respond not out of our own authority based on self interest, but out the kind of authority Jesus lived, out of God love. When we do that for and with each other, a new way of being in the world and with each other is born. A new creation unfolds. Eden is again.
Jesus is doing this all the time. Starting here in the synagogue. Jesus calls the unclean spirit out of the man not to demonstrate his own power, but in order that this once sidelined man can step into the embrace of the community. Jesus will go through his entire ministry doing this. He will heal the hemorrhaging woman calling her daughter, reinstating her back into her community. He will redefine belonging not based on whose household you were born into but as a shared kinship as brothers and sisters, as children of God.
This is at the heart of Paul’s teaching to the community in Corinth that Stu read for us today. A dispute has arisen about eating meat. Not just any meat though. Corinth was a cosmopolitan town where many people from any religions lived. The town was full of shrines and temples to a pantheon of gods. It was the custom to sacrifice animals. Some of the meat after sacrifice sold in the market place. So those followers of Jesus argues that it surely can do no harm to eat this eat since they know that there is no other god but God. None of this other god worship or temple meat has any meaning and therefore cannot be of harm.
Paul says yes that is true, but if there are some in your community who are new converts. Who are shaky in their faith, who may be confused by seeing you eat meat sacrificed to other gods, then why would you do it? Don’t gloat in knowing you are right. Love of your fellow Christian is more important than whether you do or do not eat meat.
Knowing you are right just puffs up, he says. But it is love that builds up. And we are in the business of building up. That is also why we come.
One final thought. Did you know we have a facebook page? We study Scripture that is more than two thousand years old but also we a have an online presence that ought to be always new and changing. But when I sit down in front of my computer to update our status, I always pause. I know the whole point of updating our status is convey to others all that is happening here and to invite them to be a part of it. But I always end up wanting to type the same thing “experiencing God’s love and learning to love each other in the same way.” Or perhaps “Growing in love of God and of each other.” And then “ Yep, still at it, we are growing in love.”
Not too catchy I know, but it is true. Whether our youth are raising over $500 dollars in a bake sale for Nicaragua; or whether the women in the church are gathered for good soup and heart-felt conversation; or whether the stewardship committee is thinking deeply about how best to manage our investments, our status is about loving God and loving each other. It is a message as old as the Galilean dust on our sandals and as new as the deliverance that is ours this today. Thanks be to this loving and timeless God of ours and thanks be to this community through which we come to experience that love. AMEN