Sermon for Epiphany 5 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week we continue our slow, yearlong liturgical journey through the remarkably fast-paced Gospel according to Mark. It may be said without too much overstatement that Mark is like a Hemmingway novella to John’s Dostoevsky. The author of Mark didn’t have time for John’s high-flown theological discourse, Matthew’s apologetics, or Luke’s beautiful storytelling. There’s a striking immediacy to Mark. Indeed, the word “immediately” was mostly deleted in the translation of Mark, for it shows up so frequently in the Greek as to make the English virtually unreadable at points.

This immediacy is evident in today’s Gospel reading, which actually comprises three separate narratives in the course of ten verses. While many scholars explain this fact about Mark on its writer’s lack of sources or authorial ability, I think there’s something much more intentional at work. Specifically, I think Mark’s fast-paced style is, at least in part, meant to highlight the immediacy, the urgency, of the Good News itself. We see this not only in the style but in the substance of the book. Jesus called the first apostles immediately, and immediately they forsook their nets in order to serve their Lord. What I find most astonishing about today’s gospel reading is that as soon as Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she jumps out of bed and begins to serve Jesus and the apostles.

When do we begin to attend to the work of God? The voice of the Gospel is singular: the answer is “now.” It is often tempting to delay following God’s will in our lives. “I’ll do what charity demands when life is a bit less hectic.” “I’ll get really involved in the life of the church as soon as I sort out everything at home.” “God’s calling me to serve, but I’ll do that as soon as I become the exemplar of moral rectitude.” These sorts of attitudes are natural and often quite reasonable. We often feel that we must be totally together to undertake any kind of ministry. But God meets us where we are, busy, confused, sinful creatures that we are. We needn’t be so loath to serve God in these times, due to our perceptions of our own unworthiness.

Some of the greatest champions of our faith heard God’s call to serve when they were leading lives that were anything but exemplary. From David in the Old Testament to Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr., God has called men and women to do His work despite personal flaws. Paul himself, when he met Christ and was converted on the road to Damascus was, as Acts says “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Yet, again quoting Acts “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God.’” This is not meant to suggest that personal behavior doesn’t matter; quite to the contrary, Christ is constantly calling us to repent and amend our ways. Once we have, though, it does no good to dwell on our former trespasses when there’s work to be done. Paul repented, but he didn’t spend time bemoaning his former sins. He began serving immediately.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is that of St. Ambrose, who also followed God’s call despite his own apparent unworthiness. In the fourth century, Christendom was racked by heresy, schism, and general unrest. Milan, Ambrose’s hometown, was one of the battlefronts, as it were, of the dispute amongst Christians. In A.D. 374 Auxentius, then bishop of Milan, died. Upon convocation of all the Christians of Milan, then the means of electing a new bishop, the masses mysteriously and univocally began shouting “Ambrose for bishop!” This was particularly odd as Ambrose was an unbaptized catechumen. Ambrose made known his misgivings, but the people continued to call for his election and, as Ambrose soon realized, the Holy Spirit continued to call him as well. Ambrose was baptized, ordained a deacon and a priest and consecrated bishop in the span of a week and began with much prayer and self-sacrifice to mend a Church which was torn by strife. He didn’t dwell on his inexperience and fear. He began serving immediately.

None of this is meant to suggest that the work of God should be undertaken haphazardly. In this week’s gospel reading we see Jesus himself stopping and taking time to reevaluate the situation. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” We too must realize that the process of discernment, of figuring out to what God is calling us, must be undertaken carefully. Sometimes God’s will is not readily apparent, and we must like our Lord, retreat to our own wilderness and listen for His still small voice. Sometimes we must take some much needed time to rest and recreate in order to undertake the work of God and to execute it more effectively. And we must take time to determine if what we are already doing is really God’s work on God’s terms, or if we’re actually doing our own work on our own terms.

The important distinction here is between preparation and procrastination. The distinction between them is sometimes a bit blurry and sometimes we delude ourselves into believing we are doing the former when it’s really the latter. How easy it would have been for Simon’s mother-in-law to linger in bed a bit longer! How easily she could have justified it to herself! “I’ll rest up just a half of an hour longer,” she might have said, “and afterward, I’ll surely be ten times more efficient ministering to this man who just healed me.” This is much like my own internal monologue every morning at about 6 o’clock, by the way. But Simon’s mother-in-law knew to what she was being called, and she knew that she was being called to it then and there.

This is awfully daunting stuff. God is calling each and every one of us to something all the time, and each of us is obliged to respond. It’s daunting, but it’s also reassuring. We are never so far out of God’s will that God stops calling us back. On our own road to Damascus, which is this earthly life, we like Paul are being summoned by God to be continually converted, to die every moment to ourselves and the cares of this world and to be reborn to the concerns of the Kingdom of God and to the work God has given us to do. And though none of us is a Paul or an Ambrose or a Tolstoy or a King we may each of us, like Simon’s mother-in-law, be a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. Than this there is no greater joy save heaven itself.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 4 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Occasionally I meet somebody who doesn’t know too much about the Episcopal Church, and almost inevitably I’m asked about rules. The questions are largely what one might expect. Evangelical types tend to ask if we’re permitted to drink, dance, and gamble. The answer, of course, is “yes, we drink, dance, and gamble like everybody else, but we don’t have to park in the back of the liquor store, night club, or casino. We just have to practice moderation.” Roman Catholics tend to ask if our priests can marry, and again, the answer is “yes”.

I, for one, am grateful that our church has not laid upon us rule after rule that has no basis in scripture. Even so, I think we must take into consideration Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s epistle before we go too far with this freedom we have.

Paul was writing, as he often did, in response to a disturbance in the local church, and in the passage we heard a moment ago, he was writing specifically about a controversy regarding food sacrificed to idols. What Paul ultimately says is that there’s no inherent harm in eating such food, since there’s not really any god behind the idol. The problem arises when others, who are less knowledgeable in the faith see it, and it becomes a crisis of conscience for them. It is hard for us, perhaps, to relate to the specific issue here, though I for one have had to face it several years ago, when I was in college.

The Hindu students were having a celebration for Diwali, their festival of lights. As a volunteer in the chapel I was asked to be present for the prayer service (or puja) to determine if any technical assistance were needed. At a certain point, the priest came over to me with some fruits and nuts which had been offered to an idol, and I had a genuinely uncomfortable situation on my hands. I knew there was no inherent harm in eating the stuff, and I feared that it might have been reckoned inhospitable to refuse. On the other hand, I knew that there were other Christians present, most certainly some who were more concerned about whether or not it was right to participate than I. Ultimately, I politely refused the food, the priest was not offended in the least, and I felt great relief that I had not offended him. I’m not saying that my choice here was definitely the right one, but rather that the circumstance Paul brings up can happen still.

But, since most of us won’t be offered food sacrificed to an idol anytime soon, how does this effect us? I think the lesson is larger than the particulars Paul faced. So how about a more contemporary example? Let’s say that you weren’t particularly sure if you should eat meat on Fridays in Lent, but you suspected you shouldn’t. You’re at a party and you see your own priest go up to the buffet table and pick up a big, bacon-wrapped filet. It looks delicious and you really want one, but you don’t think you’re supposed to have any. You ask yourself “am I mistaken about the rule, or has the good pastor fallen off the wagon?” You decide that you trust that your priest isn’t the sort to break rules, so you devour the delicious meat with abandon. Then later, you start wondering if you had made the wrong choice. Perhaps you’ll not have a crisis of conscience over a bit of beef and bacon, but you’re confused at the very least. You don’t want to ask the priest for fear of being seen of accusing him of a trespass, so you’re left to wonder.

Now, we are all representatives of Christ’s Church, as we are all members of the Body. It is not the sole responsibility of the clergy to serve as examples, so replaced the priest in the story I just told with yourself. You see, our actions are seen by others, and they can cause others to question their own consciences. This can be a very good thing, as we should all strive to determine what that inner voice tells us is right and wrong. But it can also be confusing. Even when we know we’re not doing anything wrong, it can cause others to stumble, and St. Paul says, “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Now, don’t take all of this to mean that we must always be walking on eggshells, as it were, fearing that somebody might be offended by our actions. Don’t take all of this to mean that anything we do which might possibly cause offense must be done covertly. “If you’re doing something you need to hide, you shouldn’t be doing it at all” is probably a good rule of thumb.

The point is that we need to be sensitive to others’ sense of propriety, even if we don’t agree with it. We need to “take care” as Paul put it. We ought not to rub our freedom in others’ faces. We ought not to go out of our way to scandalize our brothers and sisters whose consciences might be weak. It might be fully appropriate to have a drink at the club, but wholly inappropriate to invite every one of your Baptist friends to a kegger just to “stir the pot”.
A little bit of charity in this regard may well be reciprocated, but even if it isn’t, it is nonetheless our obligation to be a wholesome example and to respect those whose sense of wholesomeness is more rigid than our own. The key in this regard is charity, and that should be our driving principle no matter what the particular circumstance.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.