Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Sharp like a scalpel, scripture cuts through our pride, confusion, and the made-up stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. Scripture convicts us, reveals what we lack, what we’re grasping and need to let go. Scripture points to our deep need and to God’s great love.
Jesus, the very Word of God, sees us as we are. Jesus looks with love. Jesus’ words may be surprising, confusing, or confounding; they “reveal the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Revealing, for we find ourselves “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The past two evenings, our Evening Prayer lections from the second chapter of Mark have shown Jesus and the Temple authorities in conflict as to ritual observance of the Law. To the Pharisees and Scribes, it was a person’s moral duty to observe the Law with exact precision. To err, would render one ritually unclean, unable to enter the Temple, and make them a societal outcast. Over and over, Jesus challenged them as to their legalism, demonstrating to them what the Law looked like when seasoned with mercy.
Tonight’s reading from Mark turns up the heat in a way we have not yet seen. We might think this reading is about healing on the sabbath, but that is secondary to what has Jesus and the Pharisees staring at each other in silence. For the first time in these encounters we observe an emotional Jesus, seething with frustration. The gospel writer says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
I would say that this story is about identity. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson once said: “In the presence of Jesus mankind beholds not merely the power of God but the possibility of man; not only what God is in Himself but what God meant man to be.”[i] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.[ii]
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. We do know that she and a number of other women followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.[iii]She was apparently a wealthy woman; however we know nothing of her family or her vocation.[iv]Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus, other than she had been very unwell: “seven demons had gone out of her.”[v] In Jesus’ day, “demon possession” was a catch-all distinction, and could mean some form of physical, or mental, or spiritual, or moral “dis-ease,” or a combination. The reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition, or its recurrent nature.[vi] In any event, she was a person in great need, and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
Why? She is asked by the angels why is she weeping? She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” What is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not completely clear, so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind:
1 Kings 1:19-15a
Rising global tensions and almost striking Iran. Mass deportations planned. Tragic accidents. Migrants fleeing. Children held by our government in despicable conditions. Political clashes, lies, illness and personal loss. With a week like this, with a life like this, remember Elijah.
Elijah ran for dear life into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. In a cave on the mountain, God compassionately asks: What are you doing here, Elijah? What brings you here? What is on your heart? Elijah is honest: I’ve done my best for you, but the people refuse. The rulers destroyed everything. They killed all my companions, and now they’re trying to kill me.
Have you been there? Been zealous. But now run down. Run after. Alone and afraid. Ready for it all to end? Have you at the same time longed to be seen, to be heard, to be loved? How have you reached out to receive it? Perhaps you have invested time and travel, even a great distance, to be with a safe, trustworthy person, with whom you can be honest.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.
John 15: 1, 6-17
Today is the feast of St. Matthias, chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Perhaps he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out. Hardly anything is written about him. All we know is Matthias had been with them since Jesus came among them. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably was not seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. I suspect they sought stability. They chose one who had been with them. They trusted Matthias would remain with them. Remaining, staying put through loss and grief, is hard. Our culture increasingly offers and expects mobility frequently adjusting where we live, work, and the kind of work we do.
Someone asked Antony, founder of desert monasticism, “What must one do in order to please God?” Antony said to stay focused on God, live according to Scripture, and “in whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it.”[i]Do not easily leave it. Then and now we are prone to leave. There is a hunger for and wisdom in stability: remain, stick it out, and keep finding God here.