Saturday, January 31, 2015

February 1, Epiphany 4, The Mission #8: Sanctuary and Hospitality

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

The public career of the Lord Jesus was about three years. At first, Our Lord did his preaching and teaching in the synagogues. Later on, not so much, as the opposition mounted against him. Already at the beginning is the first hint of that opposition, in the synagogue that welcomed him.

In those days a synagogue was less a sanctuary than a meeting house, a town hall, a union hall. There was no division between the laws of religion and political economy—it was all one. You went to synagogue for training on how to be Jewish in daily life, how to apply the ancient rules of the Torah to current situations, how to get along under the Romans and still be holy, how to share the marketplace with your pagan neighbors and still be clean.

You went to hear the scribes lay out the rules and regulations in the commentaries by the best minds of Judaism from prior centuries, and especially the carefully collected precedents. To keep these precedents in current application was the job of the scribe. What no scribe would ever want to claim was a fresh, new, personal interpretation.

You went to synagogue to worship, for prayer and praise and spirituality. You went to hear the stories from the Torah–of creation, of the patriarchs, of the exodus–the stories that told you God’s meaning for the world, and what your special Jewish place was in the world. You went to hear the readings from the prophets, as Moses had predicted. The prophets told you to hope that your God would remember you someday. You went to synagogue to keep your hope alive.

And here was sudden hope again. This Jesus, this thrilling Jesus giving his new teaching, daring to offer his fresh and unprecedented interpretations with his risky applications—it’s exciting even if it might not work. Maybe he is right. Maybe things are breaking open finally at last.

But that will be trouble for some of them. They will have been compromised. They will have their secrets. Like this one guy, in what St. Mark calls an “unclean spirit”. What does that mean?

Don’t think of it as a demon from hell. It’s natural, because they drew no line between the natural and the supernatural, and they took the natural world as spiritual, so this unclean spirit is relatively natural but it’s nature out of whack. It’s unclean like your shirt is unclean when your spaghetti sauce is on your shirt instead of your plate. Things where things do not belong. Nature made unnatural. Rotten, corrupted, like rotting meat. Pollution, a toxic environment.

This guy is in the power of corruption. Maybe he’s got a toxic boss, or a toxic family. Maybe he’s Sheldon Silver at schul, or Tony Soprano at Mass, or a drug-dealer with his mom at church. He is captive to powers greater than himself, powers human and more than human, powers which pass the boundaries of reason. He is beholden to corruption both natural and supernatural. As most Jews were in Jesus’ day, more or less, intentionally or not, actively or passively. The Roman soldier, the Roman taxes, the Roman imperium, Roman idolatry, and Roman gods and goddesses. Spiritual. Unclean.

So Jesus is a threat, for all of his good news. This guy is threatened because he can recognize Our Lord’s holiness and purity and he can sense the implications for people like himself. So he says to Jesus, “What are we to you? What do you care about us? I know who you are, the holy one of God, and that will be no help to us in our lives here, you’re only going to bring us trouble. If you win, we will be your casualties.” Well, that’s kind of true. That’s insightful.

What you’ve got here is a contest of insight, on both sides. Just as Jesus could see more in the scriptures than the scribes could, so this guy can see more in Jesus than the others can, and when the guy opposes him, Jesus can see more on him than others can. There is a contest here between two spiritualities, the spirituality of the world gone out of whack, and the Holy Spirit of God in Christ.

This guy has knowledge, apparently more knowledge than others in the synagogue, but not enough knowledge. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He does not have the knowledge of God’s love. He can’t, because he’s beholden, and he can’t let go of what is binding him. So he fears the power and authority of Jesus as even more oppression and domination. He cannot see that this power and authority of Jesus is for the freedom of God’s love.

Jesus rebukes him, and silences him, and casts him out, and with the first two actions the author doesn’t clearly distinguish whether Jesus is addressing the unclean spirit or the guy himself. And this, I think, is accurate to our experience of spirituality and its effects. Where does spirituality begin and what does it include? And not all spirituality is good. That’s one implicit lesson in this story.

Spirituality is in. People are wanting spirituality again, certainly in reaction to the empty mechanistic worldview of modernity and its desacralization of the world, reducing everything to physics and chemistry and mere biology.

And I can understand that people like to say that they are spiritual but not religious. Religion looks toxic, violence is done in God’s name, and organized religion is corrupted. This week one of our members told me that she’s the only one who goes to church of all her good friends in Park Slope. Religion? No thanks. Church? Nah. Oh yes, Jesus said nice things, but to consider him having some authority or Lordship, for example, is a non-starter. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What the guy said—the guy in the synagogue.

How much of it is fear? That member and I were talking about the pervasive fear in people’s lives today. Existential fear. For all of our modern achievements in science and technology we have not been able to solve the problem of fear.

I believe that people are more fearful today than they were when I was young. More fearful for the safety of their children than my parents were. More fearful for our health. More fearful economically. Fearful ecologically. Fearful of what we’re doing to the planet. Fearful of terrorists, fearful of foreigners. Fear is driving our elections. Around the world, people are saying to each other what the guy said, “Have you come to destroy us?” 

The fear is so pervasive that it is spiritual. Indeed, it’s because it is spiritual that it’s pervasive and powerful. And in this crisis we are called to be prophetic to identify this fear for what it is.

It’s easy to be negatively prophetic, as so many Christian voices seem to be today, which advocate retrenchment, and defensiveness, and call for division, and tolerate violence. They may have knowledge. But not love. We need to be prophetic and knowledgeable not in a spirit of fear but a spirit of love. 

What are the pervasive fears in your own life? What fears have power over you to force your choices? What fears compel you, and what fears limit you? What toxic relationships are you in? What deals have you made that are not really clean but you fear they are too costly and convulsive to get out of? I believe that for you to consider the Lordship of Jesus is always an exercise in examining your deepest fears. He challenges you. Can you believe that he is challenging you in love?

You know what I’m afraid of? Whether I have the ability and capacity to lead this congregation through its difficult challenges for the next few years. I fear that our growth and progress in the last few years could all come crashing down. What if the renovation of our sanctuary is a reach too far? What if we fail? What if I fail? What if it divides our congregation? What if I don’t lead us well and keep us together?

That’s my own personal share of our general spirituality of fear. I want to be free from the grip of my fear. I want to accept my fear and be free in my fear. I want to do what Melody said last week and run towards that which makes me afraid. I want to aim for the Lordship of Jesus.

I want to do this because of our mission, the mission of our church. Our mission is not just to gather more people into our church to make our numbers grow. Our mission is not just to worship together and educate each other. Our mission is to witness in public to the character of the authority of Jesus Christ, and how his authority leads to the freedom of love. And we have two practical ways to do that public witness within this general spirituality of fear: Sanctuary, and Hospitality.

Sanctuary and Hospitality are the two distinctive missions of Old First. That these two missions were sort of forced on us by our building is providential because these two missions are so relevant to our public culture within its general spirituality of fear. They are the opposite of fear. They are public works of love. They are prophetic, because they point to the Kingdom of God, and they witness to the character of Jesus, and his authority over you gives you the freedom to love.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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