Monday, January 30, 2012

Notes from the Capernaum Synagogue

Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I'm trying something a little bit different this week. The more I studied this gospel passage, the more I wondered about the man with an unclean spirit. I wondered what his life was like before that day when Jesus taught and healed in the Capernaum synagogue, and what his life was like after. I wondered what he might say to us, if he could. So the rest of this sermon is my imagination of how this man might tell us his own story.

We didn’t have air conditioning back then. We didn’t have electric fans. Those wouldn’t come for almost two thousand years, and the heat in summer in Capernaum was relentless. It was so much cooler in the Capernaum synagogue – the thick stone walls retained the cool night air, and the wooden roof let any heat rise out. I could usually stay there for a long time before they made me leave.

I don’t know what you call people like me now. You’ve sorted us all out into categories – schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, bipolar. But then, we were all called demoniacs. Or they might say that we were en pneumati akatharto – with an unclean spirit. There are different names for it these days, and there are pills and things, but in a lot of ways it isn’t so different. There are still people like me wandering out on the streets with nowhere to go. People still act the same way around us, looking at the ground and hoping we’ll go away soon, no matter whether you call us schizophrenic or possessed. Whatever you call it, I was different. I was unpredictable. I heard things that other people couldn’t hear, and sometimes I would just know something was true but people didn’t believe me. I heard voices sometimes, and they told me to do things and I knew something bad would happen if I didn’t do what they said. I was usually pretty jumpy, because the centurions were always watching me and following me, although my brother said I was just imagining it, and that they had better things to do with their time. I shouted a lot, sometimes to tell the centurions I was onto them, or sometimes because the voices said to. I didn’t want to be like this, I didn’t want the voices and the thoughts in my head, but I couldn’t stop them no matter what I did. Prayer, fasting, healers… nothing changed it.

I lived with my brother and his wife, but they didn’t like me hanging around the house all day. I heard my sister-in-law say she didn’t like me home with just her and the children. Sometimes I would try to help my brother with his work – he was a fisherman – but I couldn’t always do that. A lot of days, he said he just couldn’t deal with me, out there on that boat.

I liked the synagogue, though, because it was cool, and quiet but not too quiet. It was calming, sometimes, to sit and think while the people would study or pray or talk. I liked the music, too – when they sang the psalms.

I was sitting in the synagogue one Sabbath– that’s Saturday for you – when a man I’d never met before came. He had some guys with him, and I recognized a couple of them – they were Zebedee’s boys. He walked up to read something from the Torah. Then he sat down, and began to talk about the passage he had just read. That raised some eyebrows. Everyday people don't really do that, that's more for the scribes and educated people, and who knows who this guy was, wandering around with a bunch of fishermen. But after a few words, he had everyone’s attention. He told these stories and none of us quite understood what they meant, but you just wanted to keep thinking about them. He said that God loves and blesses poor people, and people who are hungry. I wondered if he would tell what God thought about me.

That's when I started to get excited. When I get excited, that can be a bad thing – when my mind gets busier, often there are more voices, more shouting and acting strange.

First I started to get a little bit jumpy, and then I stood up and started pacing back and forth. And I just felt like I had to shout. I knew the guys at the synagogue wouldn’t like it so I tried to hold it in, but I kept hearing these words, so I shouted them: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are! The Holy One of God!"

Joel who helps run the synagogue rolled his eyes and sighed. He's usually the one who has to tell me to leave.

Jesus looked frightened for a second. People usually are when I shout. Then his face softened and he asked, "How did you know my name?" I don't know how I knew his name. That was just what I had to shout.

I had to keep shouting. I knew I had to, or something bad would happen. So I shouted more. "What have you to do with us?" He came towards me, and he put his hands on my shoulders, looking very stern. "Please stop shouting," he said. But I kept shouting. Then he was shouting, too: "Be silent, and come out of him! Be silent, and come out of him!"

I get angry at myself when I shout, because I try to stop it and I get so frustrated when I do it anyway. Sometimes people get angry and shout back at me. It’s not fair that people get so angry at me for something I can’t help. But Jesus wasn’t angry at me, I could tell. He was angry at the voices that were making me shout, and he wanted them to stop as much as I wanted them to stop. He was angry at them, not angry at me, and he was shouting for them to be silent, shouting for them to go away, to leave me forever. “Be silent, and come out of him! Be silent, and come out of him!”

I kept shouting and he kept shouting, and I kept shouting, and he kept shouting. No one had ever acted like that when I was shouting, like they weren't afraid of me. Like they knew that I was still there, that I was still me, a me separate from all of the shouting and voices and strange things I said and did. Like they actually saw me. I started to weep, and I was shaking, and I wasn't shouting anymore, and I kind of wanted to just run away and get out of there as fast as I could, but I wanted to stay near Jesus, too.

All the other men were glaring, glaring at me, and Jesus still had a hand on my shoulder and he looked right back at them. It was like he really knew and saw them, too, imperfections and all. It was like he knew that Joel got really irritated about tiny little things in the synagogue being exactly perfect, and that Samuel was always trying to be the center of attention, and he talked so much all the time and never wanted to listen. And Levi and Joshua just never stopped bickering with each other over things that didn’t even matter at all.

Jesus just looked at them all glaring at me, like "Well? You think he's the only who struggles?" And then Joel said "Jesus, why don't you sit down and tell us more about the guy on the Jericho road." So that’s what Jesus did.

I think people read my story these days and they assume that I was normal from then on. They figure that whatever was wrong with me, Jesus fixed it and that was that.

Well, yes and no.

I was definitely better. Maybe a lot better. I think that after that day with Jesus I shouted less, and I didn’t worry as much about the centurions. Sometimes when things were getting bad I would remember Jesus and it would calm me down and bring me back.

But something else happened, too.

Joel and Samuel and everyone who was there treated me differently after that day. They weren't so afraid of me, and when I was yelling or muttering or pacing, sometimes they would just talk to me.

I think that when Jesus and I shouted at each other in the synagogue that day, he changed the way we all thought about each other, and ourselves. Because all those other guys, they’re not perfect; we all have things about ourselves that we would change if we could. We all have ways that we’re broken. Mine is right on the surface for everyone to see. Everyone saw it that day, but Jesus said in every way he knew how that I mattered and belonged anyway. He said in every way he could that God loved me and that those people in the synagogue should love me too. God goes and finds the lost sheep, he said. God loves all those people on the edges. And God loves the people whose brokenness is hidden, like the priests who walked past the beaten-up guy on the road, or the responsible brother who got ticked off when his dad threw a party for the irresponsible brother who came home alive. Jesus told us every way he knew how, with his words, and then with his actions, and then with words again. And the miracle is, I think all of us heard him.

Things are different around the synagogue now. Sometimes I get to read from the Torah, even -- I learned how when I was a kid. When I have a bad day, if I shout too much or say something horrible or mean, Joel still tells me I have to leave. “No blasphemy in the synagogue,” he says, or “You can’t be so loud here, you need to leave for now.” But other times, Joel comes and sits by me and talks to me, even if I’m having a little bit of a hard day, he just talks to me and I talk to him. The other guys are nicer to me, too, and sometimes they call me over to sit with them while they study. It’s like everyone can see me now, like when Jesus sent away my voices that make me shout, he sent away everyone else’s voices, too… the voices that make people hate me and fear me and ignore me. I think we’re starting to be friends, maybe. I think that’s how Jesus wanted it to be.

I think that is how Jesus wanted it to be.

God of the lost sheep, send away the voices that whisper fear and hate. Help us to see one another as you see us. Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fearfully and Wonderfully

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20





Those words are all portmanteaux, words that blend the sounds and meanings of two words into one. Portmanteau words are fun, and funny, but they also help us to name things that are two-or-more-in-one.

My spouse and I have a portmanteau we’ve made up. This word describes the state of being so hungry that you’re likely to act cranky, or get angry for no good reason. We call this combination of hungry, cranky, and angry, “hrankgry,” H-R-A-N-K-G-R-Y as in, “I forgot to have lunch before church, so I got hrankgry during the sermon.”

I was struggling a bit to write this sermon earlier this week – I had the worst writer’s block. When I told my spouse about it, he said, “Did you eat a good breakfast? You always get writer’s block when you’re hrankgry.”

The next morning, after I ate a good breakfast, the ideas finally started to come together. As I wrote, I marveled at my own foolishness. I had forgotten that my mind and body are connected, even as I studied Paul’s words about the connections between body and soul.

Today’s epistle reading from First Corinthians is famous among biblical scholars for being confusing and obscure.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

That is pretty confusing.

Not only confusing, but a little troubling, especially the part about prostitutes. Paul sounds horrified and disgusted by prostitutes, revolted at the idea of connecting a prostitute to the body of Christ. It’s hard to imagine Jesus sharing that revulsion – Jesus, who ate with sinners and tax collectors; Jesus, whose feet were washed with the tears of a sinful woman, and dried with her hair. I have no doubt that every child of God can be welcomed joyfully into the body of Christ. But there is something important here, nonetheless.

When we study epistles, it’s important to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail. In the early days of the church, people like Paul and Peter traveled the known world, spreading the good news and starting Christian communities. They would form close relationships with these people, but eventually they’d move on, and so they would keep in touch by correspondence. Many of these letters were kept, copied, and shared, and those letters are the epistles in our bible today. One reason this passage is confusing is that we have walked into the middle of a conversation, and we’re only hearing one side of that conversation – a letter from Paul that responds to questions and concerns in a letter from the Corinthians.

We can tell from Paul’s letter that he has just read a lot of bad news about how the Corinthian Christians have been behaving. Paul opens the letter by sternly chastising the Corinthian church for their infighting, divisions, and factions. Soon after that, he is scolding them for sexual immorality. He rounds out the letter by yelling at them for the way they’re conducting communion: some people are coming early, getting drunk, and eating all the food.

For all of this bad behavior, these are the saints of Corinth. Corinth was a port city in Greece, and it was famous for its rowdy nightlife. So famous, that in the Roman Empire, getting drunk and acting lewd was known as “Corinthianizing.”

The Corinthians, living in this city famous for its licentiousness, hear the gospel of a God of grace, and eventually, some of them start to think to themselves, “Hey, we’re all set! Our God is a God of grace, and our sins have been redeemed, and that means that we can behave however we like! Party time!” This passage is Paul’s answer.

First, he quotes back what they wrote to him: “Everything is lawful.” Then he responds, “But not everything is beneficial.” He quotes it again: “Everything is lawful.” And he responds again: “But I will not be dominated by anything.” That is, nothing but God should have power over me. Again, he quotes the Corinthians: “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” The Corinthians are advocating satisfying the appetites of the body: only souls matter, they think, so why not do what feels good for our bodies? But Paul says no. The body is not meant for fornication, he says. The word there is porneia, the word from which we get the word pornography. It’s not clear what Paul meant by porneia. In popular usage, it meant some kind of sexual immorality, but we don’t know whether it was general or specific. Is it prostitution? Is it adultery? Or, since Paul grew up Jewish, schooled in the Old Testament, is he using the word metaphorically, like the prophets who described the Israelites’ unfaithfulness and idolatry in terms of adultery and prostitution? Scholars have spilled gallons of ink trying to argue it out, most of them trying to push one agenda or another. I can’t tell you what it means for sure. But I think we’re actually better moving on to what Paul says next: the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Part of the Corinthians’ mistake is that they imagine that the soul and the body are entirely separate things – they can do what they want with the body, they think, because it is merely a vehicle for the soul. That idea was prevalent in Greek philosophy – Platonist philosophy in particular, tended to believe that the soul was eternal, good, and unchangeable, while the body was temporary, changeable, and basically bad. In The Republic, Plato wrote that we are at our purest and most virtuous when we are least connected to our bodies. Platonist philosophy saw bodies as little more than gross, stinky houses made out of meat in which our souls were unfortunately imprisoned.

But Paul says a resounding “no” to the idea that bodies are an inconvenient, irrelevant coincidence. “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.” God created bodies, God came to us in a body, and the crucified Christ was resurrected in a body. Bodies matter to God, Paul declares. They are not just temporary houses for our eternal souls.

Today’s Psalm points us towards a more faithful way of thinking about human bodies: it speaks of a God who knows us, body and soul, “knitting us together in the womb.” It proclaims that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” This is the tradition from which Paul speaks when he declares to the Corinthians that how we use our bodies matters profoundly.

This weekend we remember the legacy of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. While he was in prison for his work, Dr. King wrote one of his greatest works, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In this letter, King spoke out against complacent churches which, he writes, “commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” The legacy of Martin Luther King reminds us that injustice perpetrated against bodies has deep effects on the souls of the oppressed and the oppressor alike.

Because we are fearfully and wonderfully made, there are intricate links between our physical bodies and our internal states, links that we feel in big ways and in small. When our minds our troubled, we feel it in our bodies – in headaches or sore backs. Hunger can make us cranky. A time of prayer can relax our shoulders. A brisk walk can lift our spirits. An hour of yoga can help us feel a deep sense of spiritual peace.

We shape our relationships through physical touch, from handshakes and hugs during the passing of the peace, to lovers embracing. As a mother and infant fall asleep together, their heart rates synchronize. The body is more than a place where the soul lives; our inner and outer selves are deeply connected. It’s how we are made. And so what we do with our bodies, honoring or harming them, using them to honor or to harm, does matter.

It is true, Paul acknowledges, that everything is lawful. That is to say, our God is a God of grace who comes to us despite every sin, flaw, or shortcoming. There is no rulebook we have to play by in order to earn God’s love. God’s love is not quid pro quo; it is freely given to us, no matter what. Paul urges the Corinthians to see this surpassing grace not as an excuse for doing harm, but as an encouragement toward deeper faithfulness. He urges us to glorify God by honoring God’s creation, our bodies – and, I would add, not only our own bodies, but also the bodies of others.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians focus on sexual intimacy as a way that we can either glorify God or do harm. I don’t know what Paul means by porneia, but I do believe that God delights in expressions of sexuality that are loving, honest, mutual and respectful, and I believe that God does not delight in expressions of sexuality that harm, oppress, or objectify. But the words “everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial” have implications far beyond sexuality. What would it mean to try to delight God through how we eat? How we use our time? How we spend our money?

The Iona Community is a community of Christians in Scotland. Members of that community commit to being accountable to one another for how they spend their money. Not just pledging – what percent, before or after tax, blah blah blah. No, how they spend all of their money. Periodically, the community gathers with their checkbooks and bank statements to discuss whether their financial decisions are reflections of their Christian faith. Are they spending more on luxuries or on feeding the hungry? Does their use of money reflect their commitment to caring for the earth? Do they avoid supporting corporations that use slave labor? Would God take delight in the ways they spend money? God will love us if we squander every cent of our money on fancy gadgets and expensive clothing – everything is lawful. But not everything is beneficial – thoughtful, faithful use of the blessings we have from God will deepen our faith and delight God’s heart.

We are not just souls housed inside of bodies, Paul says. We are portmanteau people; our souls and bodies are blended and bound up and knitted together. When our souls are well, we can feel it in our bodies; honoring bodies can buoy up souls. Our God is a God of grace – there is nothing we can do, body or soul, that will separate us from the love of God. But Paul invites us to go deeper than that: to remember that bodies matter. To remember that we are created by God, fearfully and wonderfully made. We are invited to respond to God’s love with everything we have: with our hands and feet and minds and heart and voices. With our time and money and skills and words and actions. We won’t live perfectly today, and probably not tomorrow either. And that is fine, because nothing can separate us from the love of God, who came to us in Christ, and who loves us beyond our wildest dreams, and who created us fearfully and wonderfully.
Thanks be to God.