Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!
Jesus is walking southward with his disciples to Jerusalem, a journey he would have made many times… but probably not on this particular route.[i] On this occasion they are walking from Nazareth – which is up north in the Galilee region – through the region of Samaria to get to Jerusalem. It’s 90 miles straight, following the hypotenuse of the triangle. However most Jews, walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, would set off east on a right angle, crossing over the Jordan River, then following the river southwards until cutting back westward over the river to go up to Jerusalem. This turned the 90-mile direct trek-on-foot into 120 miles; however it avoided Samaria.
Samaria was in the center of Palestine, 40 miles from north to south, and 35 miles from east to west. The Jews hated the Samaritans; the Samaritans hated the Jews. The Samaritans were colonists established by the Assyrians in the territory of Israel. The Samaritans claimed that they, too, were among God’s chosen people. But the Samaritans did not go up to Jerusalem to worship; they went up to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was “bad blood,” sometimes vitriol racism, between these two groups. Samaritans stayed amongst themselves. Jews taking a shortcut through Samaria were easy targets for hatred, sometimes for vindictive robbery.
One day Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee. While they were at table, a woman “who was a sinner” entered the room with an alabaster jar of ointment. She began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet as she poured the costly ointment over them. We are not told who the woman was, or what had earned her the reputation of “a sinner,” or how she knew Jesus, or why she was weeping and anointing his feet. The gospel writer records only her simple act of profound love and devotion.
The Pharisee objected mightily to this woman’s presence in his house. He may have been irritated that she was distracting his guest and ruining his party. But it’s more likely that he objected to her very presence. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” For the Pharisee, that label had clear implications: it dictated how a righteous person would respond to her. Certainly a teacher like Jesus should understand these important social norms. Not only would he not have let her touch him, he would not have interacted with her in any way. To do so would compromise his own holiness.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.
As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
It seems that the end is already present in the beginning.
Jesus commences his public ministry just as John the Baptist is arrested. Before we even perceive this John as the one coming in the spirit of Elijah, his witness to Jesus’ coming hastens his murder by the powers of this world. Now the one whose appearance John foretold is walking among us, proclaiming as he goes, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Mark tells us that Jesus is not simply announcing the time. Rather, it is Jesus himself who fulfills the time, both in his words and in his full humanity. For this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him the coming time is always now—the present.
But how can Mark’s Jesus preach that the time is fulfilled when the world’s history continues with disaster upon disaster, injustice upon injustice, violence upon violence, hatred upon hatred, and greed upon greed? If the time is already fulfilled, then what are we to make of the redemption, much of which is clearly yet to come?
Yet Jesus, who still walks among us, doesn’t set about explaining or making excuses for God. Rather, Jesus calls upon people, using an imperative, to respond to his declaration, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus walks among those of his own day, and continues to walk among us in our own. Jesus invites us to assume our full identity, new each day, even those of us who have begun to experience his call in our lives.
I know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”
First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”