Saturday, January 28, 2012

Choose Life

29 January 2012/Epiphany 4B – Mark 1: 21-28 – The Reverend Kirk A. Kubicek
Live Well With Others
One is immediately impressed with the economy and compactness of Mark. Like the short stories of Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemmingway, the narrative moves quickly and efficiently with short declarative sentences from one episode to the next. Very much like the region of Galilee itself – “The Sea” is really more of a small lake from which one can see the other side quite easily without instruments of magnification. And one can easily walk from the shoreline where we saw Jesus calling pairs of fishermen to follow him into the city of Capernaum in matter of minutes. Across the way one can see ancient healing springs – spas – where people flocked from all over the ancient world to find “healing.”

As you enter Capernaum today a sign on a chain-link fence announces, “Capernaum – The City of Jesus.” As I entered the gates I thought to myself, “That sounds rather hokey and touristy.” Yet, one does not have to spend much time in the excavated city of Capernaum to know deep inside that yes, Jesus walked these streets, taught in these synagogues, spent time in Peter’s Mother-in-law’s house, and spent much of his time there exorcising demons of all kinds.

This how Mark pitches the story: Jesus is presented as teacher and exorcist. We do not spend a lot of time these days thinking and speaking about Jesus the exorcist. Exorcism has largely been relegated to the world of Hollywood movie lots rather than core Christian reflection and discipleship. But this is the Jesus of Mark from beginning to end - Mark who is credited with originating the “gospel” genre of Biblical literature.

Unquestionably Mark borrows the word “gospel” from Second Isaiah, the source of hope and encouragement for Israel in Exile in Babylon: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Is 52:7) Now applied to Jesus of Nazareth, Mark opens with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Jesus is the very embodiment of this good news, which once upon a time meant freedom from captivity in Babylon, but by the time of Jesus was understood as captivity specifically to demonic control – whether in the form of demons of all kinds, or the demonic occupation by Rome. Mark asserts in no uncertain language that all first century citizens of Israel would understand, that a new reign of God was at hand to usurp and replace the enslaving regime of Satan and the demonic in general; that good news will be the work of an agent of God anointed (messiah) with the Spirit for the task; and that this liberation will entail repentance from Sin and reconciliation with God. Mark manages to say all this in chapter 1 verse 1 for those who are familiar with the Old Testament narrative and language.

Now we post-enlightenment, post-modern readers and hearers of the Word might tend to snicker at the very mention of Satan and demons, but we do so at our own peril. In our Baptism we renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and all sinful desires that separate us from the Love of God – which of course is anything that separates us from one another. It is fundamental to admit that we not only believe in Satan and demons, but that whenever we snicker at such belief we are in fact doing the work of Satan!

Now what is breathtaking about Mark is that although we hear that people are astonished with Jesus’ teaching, there is no explication of what he taught. But in portraying the exorcism of the demon from the man who entered the synagogue with an unclean spirit, Mark announces once and for all who is in charge. As the gospel unfolds, Jesus is engaged in a battle for authority and control that dogs him to the very end. Hostility, betrayal and misunderstanding follow him wherever he goes, whatever he teaches, whatever he does.

Brendan Byrne suggests that both his authoritative teachings and the exorcisms that follow are “exercises of liberation: lives can be controlled by false images of God, by being anchored in hopes and fears belonging to an age that is passing. Jesus’ teaching is ‘new’ with the ‘newness of the Kingdom’ that will bring into being for the first time the Creator’s original intent for human beings and the world.” Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p 45.

This newness, by the way, is contrasted with the teaching of the religious experts, whose method of teaching relies principally on disputatious interpretation of scripture. Surely the man with the unclean spirit had heard much of this kind of teaching and remained unmoved until Jesus announces that the “time has come” for the reign or rule of God to begin.

Even the demons know the jig is up, their time of control is coming to an end. “What is there between us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The demons make a last ditch effort to control Jesus by naming him. It does not work. The demons are dispatched; the man is free to go in Peace “according to your Word.” Notice is served in the synagogue of Capernaum where scribal teaching has failed to chip away at the rule of Satan that a new rule, a new era has dawned. The demon’s convulsing the man betrays the demons destructive intent – the loud cry both an acknowledgement of defeat and a protest that the regime of the demonic in human life, and the life of the community of God, is coming to an end. We shall hear a loud cry once again and see that destructiveness in a far more extreme degree as Jesus dies on the cross. We are those people who know, however, that the moment of apparent triumph of the demonic on the cross will be the moment of its defeat and the exorcism of the world.

So what we have before us is a text that offers a choice very much like the one Moses proclaims way back in Deuteronomy chapter 30, verses 15-20: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that your descendants may live.”

Christians are called to be those people who understand all of this. As Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something [like the scribes for instance] does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by Him.” 1 Corinthians 8: 1b-3

Joan Chittister in her exposition of the Rule of Benedict writes, “God is calling us to more than the material level of life and God is waiting to bring us to it. All we have to do is live well with others and live totally in God. All we have to do is learn to listen to the voice of God in life. And we have to do it heart, soul and body. The spiritual life demands all of us.” Joan Chittister, OSB, The Rule of Benedict, p 31

In this remarkable octave of our Annual Meeting, Meeting with the Bishop, to today’s lessons, the choice is still ours to make- we can choose life, choose to live well with others, choose to live totally in God. Or, not. We can remain anchored in the hopes and fears of the passing age, or anchored in the newness of the age to come, the age of Christ. The future of those who come after us depends on the choices we make. Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Come and See!

15 January 2012 / Epiphany 2A - Psalm 139/John 1:(31-42), 43-51
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills
Come and See
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it... 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. So begins the First Chapter of the Fourth Gospel. It ends with angels ascending and descending upon the son of man. Much of this chapter has to do with declaring who Jesus is, and how we are to respond to his presence among us.

Our portion records the second of two days of Jesus gathering disciples. The way in which John sees this happening, however, is that someone like Andrew meets Jesus, and is so excited he goes to find his brother Peter. Then in Galilee Jesus finds Philip, invites him to "follow me," and then Philip finds Nathanael. This is what disciples do throughout the gospel of John - they, not Jesus, go out to gather more followers. Disciples, like Philip, are constantly reaching out to new people and saying, "Come and see!" This is the normative pattern for growing the Christian community, says John. No slick marketing schemes, no seductive programs - one person experiences Jesus in his or her life and invites others to come and share that experience. The text means to challenge us, asking, "Just how often do we do this?"

Another discipleship theme is the recognition of Jesus' identity - from verse 35-51 Jesus is called "Rabbi"(v38), "the Messiah"(v41), "him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote"(v45), "Son of God"(vv34,49), "King of Israel"(v49), "Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth" (v45), to which Jesus adds his own, "Son of Man"(v51). All contribute important attributes of who Jesus is: one who fulfills scripture, one who answers Israel's hopes for a future leader, a new king like David or a prophet like Moses. All attributes people were looking for in the first century, and none of which or even all of which sum up who Jesus is. And none of them is identical to what the prologue has already told the reader, that Jesus is the Word-made-flesh, and the Word is God, and the Word is Light, and the Light is the life of the world!

We pray today to be illumined by this Light through Word and Sacraments so that we might "shine with the radiance of Christ's glory." It is easy to forget - Jesus is the Word, Jesus is the Sacrament. When asked at a liturgical conference how many sacraments there are, a nun replied, "Two: Christ and his Church. There are currently seven manifestations of these two sacraments that form the life of the Church." We are the Body of Christ, we are the sacrament of Christ for the world. Again the text means to ask: Are we shining with the radiance of Christ's glory?

The call of Nathanael by Philip stands out. It is the first time that witness to Jesus is met with resistance. "We have found the one....Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth," says Philip. What Nathanael thinks he knows about Jesus - that he is from Nazareth - is enough to determine what he can expect of Jesus ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") This too becomes a theme in the Fourth Gospel - people's preconceptions about Jesus can stand in the way of people's experience of Jesus.

Not much has changed in that regard. Not only do we all come with our own preconceptions about Jesus, but we all harbor preconceptions about one another. Note carefully that Jesus, on the other hand, who has every reason to be insulted by Nathanael's remark sees only the good that Nathanael can be and is - an Israelite without guile, as the King James had it, or without deceit, as we get it today. Nathanael is appropriately flummoxed - how do you know anything about me at all?!? Still somewhat antagonistic. Jesus starts talking about one of his favorite go-to topics, fig trees, indicating only that if you are the Word of God and you are God, you are expected to know these things!

Besides if you think my knowing that there is good in you for the building up of God's kingdom is something, you ain't seen nothing yet. You will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This is a reference to the Son of Man language of the book of Daniel, and to Jacob's vision of angel's ascending and descending a ladder, or staircase - something like the ziggurats of central and south America. Which is to say, this is where earthly and heavenly, human and divine, meet. Jesus uses traditional Old Testament language and imagery to announce that God is in the neighborhood. This is what "the Word became flesh" ultimately means - God with us, Immanuel.

It is interesting to note that William Temple's translation regarding Nathanael has it, "Behold an Israelite in whom there is no Jacob." Jacob is the very prime representative of guile and deceit - he who was born grabbing his brother Esau by the heel in an attempt to be the first-born, he who stole his brother's birthright, he who was accused of stealing his father-in-laws best animals - Jacob who after wrestling with whom? - an angel of the Lord? The LORD God himself? - is renamed "Israel" meaning something like "he who has striven with God and survived." Jacob, who is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, the archetype of the Twelve Disciples. Jacob who, through a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures leads his people, all 70 of them, into Egypt to escape famine and become slaves for the next several hundred years. Jacob the deceiver becomes the Israel of God. God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called!

Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder as a sign of God's immanence, God's nearness to us. Now it is just Jesus and the angels, no intermediary structure is necessary: no ladder, no steps. Jesus is that intermediary. Jesus is the structure. Jesus who is with us even now, at this moment, in this Eucharist, present to us in bread and wine as his Body and Blood.

At the end of the day, it is all about God's nearness to us. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. There is the story of the preacher going all over town shouting, "Put God in your life, put God in your life!"' One day the local Rabbi stopped him and said, "God is already in our lives. God is already here! Our task is simply to realize that!"

Psalm 139 says as much. There is no way that we can distance ourselves from God. No matter to what ends of the earth or sea we might go, no matter how dark the darkness is, "You press behind me and before, and lay your hand on me." God searches us out. God knows us. God is with us wherever we are. Jesus, God's Word, God's Eternal Word of Love, came to be with us as one of us. I once was told that if you read Psalm 139 once a day for 30 days your life will change.

All this seems to suggest that until we believe that God is with us in the radical and intimate way in which Psalm 139 has it, we cannot even begin to set aside our preconceptions about Jesus and about one another. And until we set aside these preconceptions about God in Christ and one another, we cannot begin to know who Jesus is. And until we know and experience Jesus for who he really is, it is not likely that we, like Andrew and Philip, will run around town urging others to "Come and See!" It all begins with accepting God's eternal love and living out of that love. We have now just a short time to do this, but it is enough to enter the Kingdom of God. Amen.