Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sermon for Epiphany IV

Christ Church, Springfield--Mark 1:21-28, Deuteronomy 18:15-20

It’s amazing how comforting words can be. A distraught child brings a broken toy to a parent. The parent says, “Don’t worry, Daddy will fix it,” and the child’s eyes immediately dry up. We go to the doctor with a mysterious complaint. The doctor looks us over and tells us calmly, “It’s nothing serious. We can treat it, and you’ll feel fine in no time.” A great weight of anxiety immediately melts away, our breathing relaxes, our heart rate settles down, and color returns to our cheeks. A wife screws up her courage to confront her husband about something in his behavior that is really bothering her. He responds with complete lack of defensiveness. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I’ve really been a jerk. I promise, things are going to change, beginning right now.” Talk about relief!

It is, indeed, amazing how comforting words can be. Yet, when we stop and think, it’s not the words themselves that are comforting, but the expectation that there will be deeds to back up those words. If Daddy says he’s going to fix the toy, but doesn’t do it, the child’s original disappointment is only compounded. If the doctor can’t follow through on the promise of an immediate cure, the original anxiety of the patient is greatly multiplied. If the annoying husband makes endearing promises, but fails to change his behavior, his wife’s relief upon first hearing his promise of reform turns mysteriously into an equal degree of anger.

Words alone are empty, but they do not remain empty. If they are fulfilled by corresponding deeds, they become sources of health and life and joy. If not, they become sources of conflict and bitterness and despair. And what is true of words in general is certainly also true of words about God, specifically. Bible verses and phrases from the creeds and theological affirmations can be immensely comforting. I have never been to an Episcopal funeral and not come away with a renewed admiration for the power of words—in this case, the words of Scripture and the Prayer Book—the power of words to assuage grief and promote healing. Many people find even abstract and academic theology to be fascinating and absorbing.

Yet, theology—literally, “words about God”—theology must eventually be applied to concrete human experience if it is to retain its power. In two different dioceses, before I became a bishop, I served as one of a group of clergy known as Examining Chaplains. Our job was to examine candidates for ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, and certify to the Commission on Ministry and to the Bishop that they were competent in the knowledge of the seven subject areas prescribed by canon law. These areas include Systematic Theology, Holy Scripture, Church History, Moral Theology, Liturgy, and Issues in Contemporary Society. However, it is possible to be a veritable genius in all of these areas, and still not be equipped for ordained ministry. That’s why there’s one more subject area the canons require us to examine in. It’s called Theory and Practice of Ministry—or, more succinctly, “practical theology.” How would they use their knowledge under the actual conditions of ministry? We want clergy who are not only scholars, but pastors; people who can articulate the gospel in ways that apply and make a difference in people’s lives.

And, of course, the same considerations that apply in words about people and words about God, also apply to the words of God. Only here, there is a great deal more at stake. Each of us, personally, has a great deal more riding on it. When we encounter God’s word to us—in scripture, in the liturgy, in the corporate memory of the Church—certain very practical questions float to the surface:

How can God help me find direction in my life?

How can God help me stop the destructive behavior I keep going back to over and over again?

How can God help me be a better spouse, a better parent?

How can God help me with the complex ethical and political decisions I am struggling with?

How can God help me satisfy the empty feeling in the pit of my soul, that desire and longing which I can’t even express because I don’t even know what it’s for?

During his time among us on this earth, our Lord Jesus, if he did anything, spoke the word of God. This was a central element in his calling, his sense of mission. As recorded for us in St Mark’s gospel—still in the very first chapter, so it’s quite early in his ministry—Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and people were mightily impressed. They were impressed because of the contrast between him and the usual teachers they were accustomed to listening to. Unlike them, Jesus taught with authority. He acted confident, like he knew what he was talking about. Apparently, he wasn’t timid, or excessively artful, or coy. He made no attempt to sugar-coat the truth; he told it as it was. His words were strong. His words were compelling. To searching minds, they provided answers. To wounded hearts, they provided comfort. To weak wills, they provided strength. They were words of challenge, words of promise, words of assurance.

But Jesus didn’t stop at words alone. He backed up his words of power with deeds of power. Right after Jesus is noticed for the authoritative quality of his teaching, a man with what Mark calls an “unclean spirit” barges into the synagogue, and before the ushers can stop him at the door, he causes a disturbance. St Mark, of course, did not possess the vocabulary of modern medicine, so we don’t know whether the man may have been epileptic, or schizophrenic, or literally demon-possessed. Whatever it was, though, it was powerful. But Jesus was more powerful. The unclean spirit, convulsing the man and causing him to cry with a loud voice, came out. The man was delivered, healed.

Jesus not only speaks the word of God, he does the word of God. Jesus is God’s active word. Jesus is God’s word become God’s deed. The authority with which he speaks and the power with which he acts are two parts of the same package deal. So, when we think about God, when we theologize about and discuss our relationship with Him, but keep it all at a verbal, conceptual, abstract, theoretical level, we are unfair to ourselves and others. It may be only candidates for ordination who are tested in their grasp of “practical theology,” but it is the baptismal birthright of every Christian to experience it. It is part of the normative experience of every Christian to not only hear the authoritative words of God, but to experience the powerful deeds of God.

God wants to act with power in human lives—our human lives. God wants to deliver us from the “demons” that “possess” us. God wants to set us free from the addictive and compulsive behaviors that are so strong within us, yet so destructive in their fruits. God wants to lovingly heal the wounds and get rid of the scar tissue left by the unfulfilled promises of others. God wants to replace despair with hope, loneliness with community, aimlessness with purpose, disease with wholeness, darkness with light, death with life.

God is not a mascot subject to our beck and call, not a magician under our command. We cannot manipulate Him. But God can and does change lives in extraordinary ways, ways that, except for their sheer undeniable reality, can only be explained as impossible. So we all do well to ask ourselves a penetrating question on this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in the Year of Our Lord, 2015. Are we settling for too little? Have we asked and expected too little of God? Are we contenting ourselves with the word of God and denying ourselves the power of God? Have we given ourselves to him fully, in faith—faith not only in the authority of his words, but the power of his deeds?

Perhaps it is not too late to make a resolution. Maybe we should resolve to give God a green light, permission, to act with power in our lives—in your life, and in my life, and in our life together. Imagine the difference that would make!

Praised be Jesus Christ.
Amen.

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