What’s the Question?, Epiphany 4 (B) – January 28, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If this is the answer, then what is the question?” Have you ever wondered that about something?

Jesus often asks questions without providing answers: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” “Who do you say I am?” “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

Anytime we read Paul’s letters, though, it’s the reverse. We have answers, but not questions. We need to ask, “If this is the answer, then what is the question?” for we only have Paul’s response to a letter or a circumstance. We do not have any of the original context which prompts his response.

It’s sort of like playing the TV game Jeopardy. The answer is given; what is the question? And this is the pattern we encounter this morning in our reading from 1 Corinthians.

The question this morning seems to be whether one may eat meat sacrificed to idols. And Paul responds. Paul also addresses this topic in his Letter to the Romans, so we know that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was a wide-ranging concern within the early Christian community.

This is a question about food, particularly meat. In a variety of ways, food was associated with pagan ritual, either in the course of a social or public event in the temple or the home, or later, for sale in the market. Apparently, there was some concern within the Christian community about eating what had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Some, either secure in their faith or “puffed up” with knowledge, as Paul puts it, readily ate the meat available, whatever its pedigree. Still others had difficulty separating their faith in Christ Jesus from the pagan sacrifices of their culture, and were confused in their understanding.

Paul tells the Christians in Corinth to sit up! Pay attention! Take a closer look! Paul tells those Christians that they’re focused on the wrong thing. To eat – or not to eat – that is not the question!

So we’re back to questions and answers again.

We have an answer in Paul’s writing. What is the question?

The truth is, there is no single question formulated in a neat and tidy package, but whatever the Corinthians were troubled about, eating meat was just the presenting issue. The real concern had more to do with freedom, and responsibility, and rights. The real question wasn’t so much about eating meat, as about principles and people. At its heart, it was a question about love.

There is a difference between doing what we imagine is good and right and doing what we imagine we have a right to do.

Do you remember Jonah of big whale fame? Just like in the story of Jonah, Paul is talking to the Christians at Corinth of the conflict between principles and people.

“I can eat meat sacrificed to idols because I know that the idols aren’t real.” “I have a right to eat the meat if I want to and it doesn’t do any harm.”

Have you heard this kind of language about rights and wiggle room? Some of those in Corinth took these positions, and certainly from a legal standpoint—even a standpoint of religious right and wrong—they were correct in their thinking.

Paul agrees: “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ that ‘no idol in the world really exists’ and …we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do…” Paul argues against any kind of legalism that puts the rule first—for the sake of the rule itself—and people and consequences second.

But there is more than one way of forgetting God in one’s religious zeal. The Corinthians were a headstrong lot in a very diverse community and they were apparently quite determined to hold to their rights as Christians and as free citizens. Trouble is, in doing so, they put principles before people, substituting rules for responsibility.

Rules can be important in establishing a community’s identity. One example of how biblical rules get lived out is in the dress codes of Orthodox Jews. Have you ever observed Orthodox Jews in an airport? The men are quite noticeable with their giant black hats and long black coats. Orthodox Jews are faithful in living out the rules of their religious beliefs, and this includes the way they dress.

We tend to take a more flexible, relaxed approach to some biblical rules. As Episcopalians, we’ve thrown out some rules, or been selective in choosing ones to support our positions. Few among us practice Levirate marriage, for example, where a woman, upon her husband’s death, marries his brother. We don’t go break a neighbor’s window if ours is accidentally broken. And we don’t pluck out our eye when we see something offensive.

Since we are sometimes not very good with rules, we’re also often confused about responsibility. Maybe we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater!

One of the earliest lessons of the Old Testament, what God has been trying to get across to generations of willful people and what the “show and tell” of God in Christ came finally to demonstrate is found in the story of Cain and Abel. Remember that in the 4th chapter of Genesis, Cain kills Abel. God knows this and asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

The point is made quite clearly that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We share responsibility for each other in Christ Jesus and in Christian community. Paul and his opponents in Corinth differ not simply about meat and who should eat what under which circumstances. Paul, in writing to the Christian community in Corinth, addresses the issue of meat, yes. But more deeply, and more to the point, he talks about the meaning of freedom. Of Christian freedom. And Paul frames this in the context of Christian community.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of rights as responsibilities.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of principles as people.

Paul says food will not commend us to God. Knowledge puffs us up. It is love that builds us up, and in love, Paul counsels the Corinthians to take care lest their understanding of liberty become a stumbling block to the weak.

The God who is our source and goal, and Jesus Christ who lived among us and prepares a place for us, are more interested in our sisters and our brothers than in legalistic principles. The message of Paul underscores Jesus’ message of love: our relationships are more important than our rules. Freedom is not a matter of our rights, but of our neighbor’s needs.

When Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in today’s gospel lesson, he casts out that which separates a person from God, that which emphasizes knowledge and principle. Be sure to notice how painful it is when the unclean spirit comes out of him!

Rules are easy. We know what they are and can dress accordingly, act accordingly, eat accordingly. Freedom, the freedom that Christ brings, the liberty born of God’s love for us, is a harder thing to live.

So, back to the beginning. Without knowing the question, we can read Paul’s answer to the Corinthian community. People matter. Responsibilities bind us.

Still, there are some critical questions that come out of this, questions for each of us to ask ourselves and to hold in mind:

Am I not an apostle?

Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

Am I not free?

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world. She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4(B).

Building up, not puffing up the church, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2015

February 1, 2015

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The gospel, on this fourth Sunday in the season of Epiphany, plunges us into the acts and words of one who speaks with authority. The light of Epiphany shines today on the character of the one sent from God. The evangelist Mark zeroes in on this divine quality at the very beginning of his gospel. He says of those listening to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses. Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they are remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet.”

We know from the unfolding of the stories, both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the gospels, that true prophets are recognized but rarely heeded. We seem to prefer magicians to prophets. It is much easier to solve problems through magic than to spend a lifetime of obedience to the words of the prophets and the demands Christ makes in our lives.

Throughout history, movements arose to make easy knowledge of the divine possible – Gnosticism, theosophy, efforts to call back the dead in order to talk to them – as well as our modern emphasis on meditation as an alternative to prayer and study of the scriptures; one can spend hours enumerating human efforts to avoid the words of the true prophets and to ignore the one who speaks with authority.

It is truly fascinating to read the verses that precede the first lesson read today in Deuteronomy. They enumerate practices that are very old but are still to be found in our times:

“No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits or who seeks oracles from the dead.”

Think, for instance, on titles of popular movies and television shows and remember how many of these practices are found in the culture of the day. As an interesting sidelight, that first practice mentioned – passing through fire – is still found during Epiphany in certain villages of northern Greece. There the faithful, carrying icons of Constantine and Helen, dance until they become ecstatic and then walk over burning coals without suffering from the fire. They are called anastenáridhes. Human beings are attracted to magical solutions and practices. The new faithful are oftentimes confused: Is this something a Christian is allowed to practice or to believe?

This happened very early in the Christian church. The Corinthian believers of the first century, surrounded as they were by so many gods and the different cultures and worship of various people who thronged that rich city, were confused about what Christ asked of them and by what they had learned while living in a multicultural city. They had written to Paul to ask a variety of questions. Among them was the question of diet. Was it proper to eat the meat of animals after these animals had been sacrificed to a pagan god? This was practiced widely in the Roman world. They would offer the whole animal as sacrifice at their pagan temple, but then the meat would be sliced and sold in the marketplace. Some of the new Christians who felt superior because they had knowledge – they were educated – felt free to buy and eat this meat. Others, afraid that they would fall into the sin of idol worship, would refrain from eating meat and would eat only vegetables. Today of course they would be praised as being vegetarian, but in those days food was scarce and people who were knowledgeable were more concerned with feeding their families than with the niceties of the new religion that had its roots in very old Hebrew traditions.

The problem with Paul’s congregation was that the educated ones made fun of the ones who refused to buy the meat. Paul, who probably would have eaten the meat because he knew that it would not defile him, had great compassion for the weaker members of the ekklesia. It is evident from his writings that he dreaded being a stumbling block to a new Christian. He would do anything to support the weak in order not to cause one of them to be afraid or to be lost. Having learned from his Lord what mattered, he zeroed in on what built the congregation and disregarded what puffed up the congregation. Today he probably would ask us: “Do you have a fine choir, a gorgeous building? Good for you. But do you also welcome the stranger? Do you open your doors and hearts to the weak and the poor? Take care of what builds up the body of Christ.”

Paul spoke with the authority of one who lived in total obedience to the one who had called him by name. Jesus spoke with the authority of one who had come from God. We see clearly from the admonitions of Jesus to his followers not to speak about his miracles that he did not want his miracles to attract people to him. He wanted the Word of God to be the central Good News he was proclaiming. But his compassion for the hurting was so great that he could not ignore them but whenever they came before him, he healed them.

But always, always he made sure that the least of his followers – the blind, the weak, the poor, the despised women and the neglected children – were given equal status with those who had the power and who were respected as religious authorities. He made sure that they knew that God loved them and that God had no patience with hypocrisy and self-righteousness. That was his authority; the authority of the true prophet. He spoke and lived and acted in the name of the one who sent him to the world, to us, and this is the one on whom the light of Epiphany shines today. May we see it and rejoice.

 

— Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

It might be worth a try, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2012

January 29, 2012

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

This past Wednesday, January 25, marked in our church calendar the Festival Day of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and with it, the conclusion of this year’s annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Not familiar with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity?

Well, the Week – sometimes referred to as an “octave” in church parlance – is a yearly ecumenical event dating back to the early part of the twentieth century, a time when many Christians zealously hoped and prayed for healing and oneness among the churches. Paul Wattson, an Episcopal priest and later convert to Roman Catholicism, hit upon the masterful idea of promoting an entire week of the church year as a time of prayer for Christian unity. And he appropriately chose the week in mid-January that falls between the festival days of the two great Apostles, Peter and Paul, for this new observance. The concept caught on, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is nowadays commemorated in many and diverse denominations across Christendom.

However, actual unity among Christians remains as elusive a goal today as it was a century ago in Father Wattson’s time. The rifts among Christians run deep. Indeed, some might contend that the churches of the early twenty-first century are, like spiritual tectonic plates, drifting farther apart than ever before. The reasons for this are probably as varied as the divisions among the churches themselves. Like the apostles Peter and Paul, who often did not see eye to eye, the followers of Christ today continue to squabble – sometimes perhaps over essentials of faith – but just as often over details of practice and custom.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part are, of course, not alone among the great churches of our age split by disagreements over doctrine and other issues. All churches are at some level a reflection of the broken world of which we are a part.

It is tempting to wish for a conciliator among us, such as Paul attempts to be with the Christians of Corinth – as disgruntled a group of believers as you would ever want to meet. In our second reading today, he addresses them on the then-current hot topic of “food sacrificed to idols” and whether it is proper for followers of Christ to eat it. Since we know, as Christians, that “no idol in the world really exists,” Paul explains to the Corinthians matter-of-factly, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Yet some believers, he hastens to add, are scandalized at the thought of eating such sacrificed fare, and so, “If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat.” And that is that, as far as Paul is concerned.

Perfectly sensible.

Needless to say, few in our world today are as self-effacing or ready to compromise as was Paul on such a controversial topic. And we, of course, will never know with certainty if the people of Corinth in fact heeded his example of tolerance or respected his authority as an Apostle.

But we do know that those who heard Jesus early on in his ministry soon came to recognize in him “one having authority” like no one ever before. They were literally taken aback and “astounded at his teaching,” as our reading today from the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel testifies. The point of our Lord’s authority is emphasized again a verse or two later as Jesus drives out the unclean spirit. “A new teaching,” the people conclude in amazement, “A new teaching – with authority.” In Jesus’ Word and work, they come to know beyond a doubt – with authority – what their own senses and logic could never have taught them.

As we reflect on the divisions among the churches – and in our own hearts and communities – we might well want to know: What, in heaven’s name, did Jesus actually teach or say in that synagogue in Capernaum so long ago? What amazed the people so? The gospel text frustratingly does not tell us. Did he, like Paul, talk about food sacrificed to idols? It is probably safe to say that he did not. Did he bring up in Capernaum any of the controversies and heresies that would plague his church over the coming centuries? Again, unlikely.

Perhaps he did, however, tell the people of God’s fatherly love and care for them. Perhaps he illuminated, as no one before, the teachings of the great prophets going back to Moses. Or he might have spoken of the kingdom of God, as he so often did, and of the promise of redemption and forgiveness of sin.

We simply do not know.

But we do know for sure that he addressed the unclean – and troubled – spirit afflicting the man in the Capernaum synagogue and commanded, simply and clearly, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Perhaps that is what we need to remember: That it is only in silence – and prayer – that the troubled spirits of today will come out of us all and free us from dissension and sin, and make us once again one people in Christ.

Be silent.

And listen.

Hmmm.

It might be worth a try.

 

—The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

The candles have been blessed and lit, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2009

February 1, 2009

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

Tomorrow, February second, is a cross-quarter day, more or less.

Never heard of it? Well, you are probably not alone. A cross-quarter day is the mid-point between a solstice and an equinox, the halfway point of a calendar season. It means we are nearly halfway through winter. And here you thought tomorrow was just Groundhog Day!

February second might not amount to much in Florida or Southern California, but in many parts of our country, making it halfway through winter is a big deal. Just ask any groundhog.

A cross-quarter day means, in effect, the gradual return of light and warmth; and in ancient times, this was worth celebrating. Pagan and Celtic rituals often included the burning of great fires around this time of year to welcome back the sun from its winter sabbatical. People could once again begin thinking about spring planting and summer growth.

The Church, without missing a beat, appropriated the concept and designated the winter cross-quarter day as the day to celebrate the gradual return of the sun’s light by blessing and lighting candles. It became known as the Feast of Candlemas, and it is celebrated in many of our churches, reminding us that Christ is the light who brings salvation and the warmth of God’s love.

Still today, the gradual shift from winter to spring provides an apt metaphor for our own spiritual journey from dark to light, from pagan to Christian, from mundane to sublime.

The Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading today is taken, is also about journey and transformation. As Bernard Levinson writes in his New Oxford Annotated Bible commentary, “Deuteronomy directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present.”

The Book of Deuteronomy also addresses the distance between the exile in Egypt and life in the Promised Land. Passing through Moab on virtually the last leg of their long and arduous Exodus journey, the people of Israel became tired and increasingly irritable. They were ready to settle down. And so they said as one, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

The “great fire,” of course, is not the fire of our pagan ancestors lighted to ward off the evil spirits, but the fire of Mount Horeb – or “Sinai” as it is more frequently called – the sign of the Lord’s manifestation in the wilderness. Like a beacon in the night, the fire of Horeb for years brought reassurance that the Lord is still with his people, even in exile.

But now that time of journey and exile was coming to an end. Change was at hand.

As the people were about to enter the land given to them, the Lord promised a prophet who would speak his words with authenticity and authority after Moses was gone. “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak … everything that I command,” said the Lord.

The people would not die in Moab. But neither would Moses complete with them the journey to the Promised Land. It was time for new leadership.

Christ is for us Christians the prophet who now speaks “with authority,” as we are told in our gospel account today. He brings light and life to our cold world. As the Israelites in the wilderness longed to settle in the Promised Land, so we await the coming of the Lord’s kingdom. The Exodus passage is for us the way or “path,” as the earliest followers of Christ called their newfound faith.

For Christians, transformation must become a way of life. Christ has changed everything. He has brought reconciliation and hope to a world darkened by the consequences of sin and death.

This world’s transitions and vagaries are not optional. They come as standard equipment on the engine of human life – as does the cross itself. Only in the cross of Christ is life possible at all. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the term “cross-quarter day.” Like all living things, we turn to the light – to Christ, the light of the world – to fend off our fears and overcome our despair.

The candles have been blessed and lit. We in turn must now become beacons of Christ’s love for our worried and fretful world.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Del Mar, California.

Truth is personal, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2006

January 29, 2006

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Today’s gospel recounts an outstanding educational experience. The people of the Capernaum synagogue find that they have run right smack into the truth. Their encounter with Jesus leaves them awestruck. In contrast to their usual teachers, he speaks and acts with an authority that is undeniable.

What do these people learn from hearing Jesus? What difference does it make for them that he expels an unclean spirit from one of their number?

Because of who Jesus is and what he does, they realize, perhaps for the only time in their lives, that truth is personal. Their teachers are always passing on to them the venerable opinions of past masters. They are accustomed to hearing what one great rabbi or another said about this issue or that, and they are accustomed to setting great store by these observations.

But that particular sabbath day Jesus appears in their synagogue, and they find that the truth is not a “what,” an inheritance left over from the past, something they must keep stored away, wrapped in tissue paper. They experience the truth as a “who,” a living, breathing man whose face they can recognize and whose actions they cannot control.
This means that something in them has to die. That something is their belief that they can control the truth. For if the truth is a “what,” there’s reason to expect that you or I or all of us together can somehow master the truth, that we can bend it to our purposes. But if truth is alive, if truth is personal, if truth stares back at us, then this expectation seems groundless.

Personal truth will not choose to be our slave. That truth is personal means that our desire for control must die. We must commit ourselves to a far different existence, one characterized by interaction, an existence where the presence of each can be a blessing to all.

Truth is personal, and what is personal bears witness to truth; it has ultimate significance. It is therefore wrong to treat any person as a thing. It is wrong to treat anyone as disposable, to see anyone only in terms of our plans and ambitions. The last hundred years have been filled with just such abuse in many places around the globe.

Sometimes this degradation of the human person is brought about by a totalitarian state. Sometimes it is the work of terrorists who show no pity. Sometimes it occurs through economic and social systems that reject the least successful.

Truth is personal. We see truth in its absolute form in the person of Jesus Christ. Once he taught in the Capernaum synagogue. Now he reigns in glory. But this same Jesus appears in a host of other places also. Whether we are Christian or Communist, Muslim or Jew, when we hunger for truth, we hunger for Christ. Whether we are scientist or statesman, playwright or philosopher, when we discover truth, we discover Christ. Some know to call him Christ, others do not, but in each case his reality remains. We know Christ is present in the Eucharist, but that is not the only place to find him. Discover any truth, and you will find him, and when you do, listen to what he has to tell you.

If then we are to educate the rising generation in a way that is worthy of them, we must help them to see that truth is personal, that truth cannot be controlled, that truth is a “who” rather than a “what.” That is a Christian belief, but one need not be a Christian to accept it. It belongs to an even wider wisdom. This understanding is one way that Christ enlightens everyone born into this world.

The truth is personal. The truth is also communal. The truth never remains a private matter, something we keep to ourselves. We cannot have a private truth like we have a private toothbrush. Yes, each of us has a unique perspective on the truth, one that reflects our character and experience, yet by itself that perspective is not valid. Our different unique views of the truth find their validity when they are taken together.

Jesus encounters those people of Capernaum in their synagogue. This is a public place where study and discussion and worship regularly occur, a place where people sense that they are a community and sense that they are accountable to one another. It is within this network of relationships with all its strains and tangles that they encounter truth in Jesus. They experience him in company with one another. And once they have been shocked out of their wits, they seek one another’s help to make sense of what has happened. They do not keep silent, but start to talk among themselves. They wonder about it together.

If we are to provide the rising generation with the education they deserve, then we must help them to see that truth is communal. Children should know what it means to belong to a community of learners, a community that extends far enough to include their teachers and other adults. The classroom should not be a place where isolated individuals engage in senseless competition, but a place where each person contributes and receives because each has a unique perspective on the truth and none holds a monopoly.

In this way, children will discover that truth is personal and that truth dwells among them. They will not simply acquire knowledge, but they will experience wisdom. Their universe will not be void of great plans and purposes. Instead, a new health and a new sanity will be realized among them – and among us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002).