Healing: Miracle or Cure?

A little background on the Letter of James

Over recent weeks, the epistle or second lesson has been taken from the Letter of James. Traditionally the letter was ascribed to James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and first Bishop of Jerusalem. This James is different from James the Great, one of the sons of Zebedee, mentioned in the gospels. Some modern scholars dispute James the Just as author, noting that the quality of the Greek is indicative of a higher level of education than might be expected from a brother of Jesus, preferring to see the letter’s authorship as anonymous. Written in Jerusalem, the letter addresses Christians in the diaspora. The date of the writing is uncertain.

What is distinctive about the letter is its very pastoral style and content. It focuses on behavior, calling believers to live according to a higher standard of behavior than normally expected in the world. To a modern reader, the judgments meted out to those who fall short seem rather exacting.

In chapters 3 and 4 James explores the themes of self-control and personal restraint, identifying the tongue for particular comment. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire. He notes that the greatest damage  to relationships and communities is done by the unbridled tongue. Today, we often say of such a person, she or he has no filter, for whatever comes into the mind pours out of the mouth. James notes that real wisdom and understanding are expressed only through the gentleness of our actions. He strikes a somewhat modern psychological tone when he notes in chapter 4 that when envy, ambition, and selfish cravings are at war within us, then disorder in relationships and disharmony in community, will be the result.

The power of prayer

The letter of James contains one of the most eloquent passages on prayer to be found anywhere in the New Testament. In Chapter 5:13 we come upon this beautiful passage:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess you sins to one another and prayer for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 

This passage is often read as an invitation at services for healing. Normally in our Episcopal context, healing services are led by a priest, who stands in the stead of those James refers to as the elders of the church. Yet, James also invites us to pray for one another. He notes that this prayer for each other’s healing provides another powerful conduit for God’s healing.

Clearing up one confusion

images-1In our somewhat hierarchical structure, it is easy to see the prayers for healing from a priest in the sacrament of anointing and the laying on of hands as more efficacious than our prayers for one another’s healing. It’s true that while we can all lay hands on one another in prayer, only a priest has the authority to administer an anointing. This tension often translates into the expectation that the sacrament of healing is dependent on the presence of a priest.

This attitude is tantamount to what I call a belief in strong and weak medicine as in: he-im strong medicine – as Native Americans are given to say in Hollywood Westerns. It’s an understanding of prayer as somewhat magical. The miracle of healing is a conjuring up of a powerful magical medicine. Our hierarchical view of ministry leads us to view the priest as possessing strong healing, whereas baptized laypersons possess healing in a more diluted form.

But according to James the power for healing that resides in the elders of the church is not a product of their stronger magic. It is an expression of the prayer of the whole church –everyone’s prayers, concentrated and channeled through the conduit of the priest as a representative of the whole body. In this sense, the priest needs no special temperament for healing, for he or she is simply the conduit for the healing power of a community of prayer. In addition to the priest as the embodiment of the community of prayer, God also calls particular laywomen and men, who by virtue of their baptism are given a special temperament for healing. This is a personal charism or gift, to be used for the strengthening and healing of one another within the whole body of the faithful.

Clarification of a second confusion

images-1Healing for those who still maintain a pre-modern mindset, is (mis)understood through the language of miracles. A miracle is defined as: an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (God or gods), a miracle worker, a saint or a religious leader. In contrast for those who hold a modern mindset, healing is often (mis)understood as curative. Used as a verb, cure means to: relieve the symptoms of a disease or condition. When used as a noun cure refers to: a substance or treatment that cures a disease or condition, i.e. a medicine.

Note the bracketed prefix – mis – above. For, from a spiritual or theological perspective healing is neither miracle, nor cure. Healing is an action of God, usually mediated through the prayerful orientation of the community, which brings about for the recipient a strengthening in confidence, an alteration of perception, and a shift in perspective. Healing restores us to both wholeness and holiness, and the process by which it occurs is complex and various.

In a sermon, I cannot wander into the complexities of the process of healing as it affects our physical, emotional and spiritual health. As we look forward to having more time for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, healing is an area I hope we can with some urgency, begin to explore in seminar and workshop format. A key area for further exploration is the complex nature of the psyche-soma connections and cross-overs. We are so conditioned by a rationalistic scientific point of view that understands soma – physical matter, to be foundational. This view relegates mind and soul to secondary positions as merely registers, places for the reverberation for the primacy of the physical.

A short example: heart issues are understood to be rooted in biological somatic causes, located in the malfunction of the heart muscle. This obscures the connection between stress and the heart’s response. Could not heart failure also be a registering of the emotional condition of unresolved stress, originating in the mind. It might equally be a somatic registering of the spiritual state often poetically referred to as a broken heart.

Yet, if we accept that human beings are psychosomatic creatures, then we have to accept that healing is a complex interplay of factors affecting all three domains. The sermon is a medium severely limited by time restriction and mode of presentation and is not conducive to the exploration of the interplay between psyche, here used in both the sense of mind and soul, and soma. It is enough to say here that healing operates as a dynamic process with divine origins, bringing soma, psyche, and soul into realignment.

Jesus in his ministry, as recorded in the Gospels performs what are usually referred to as miraculous, spontaneous healings. Why does he do this? Is he intent on wooing the crowds with feats of miracle working? Is he setting up a first-century version of medicins sans frontiers? The answer to these questions is a resounding no. Jesus is revealing the power and glory of God, and his healings are intended to bring about a realignment and reorientation in his hearers relationship to God.

The revival and strengthening of the church’s healing ministry is for me a central plank as our community at St Martin’s moves forward on a path of spiritual renewal. Although healing led by a lay person has been available on the third Sunday of the month, it is my hope that as we can gather a larger team of those who discover a call from God to participate in this ministry, we can offer healing prayer routinely on Sundays. The formal sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands is always available on request as is the sacrament of the reconciliation of the penitent.

To come for healing runs somewhat counter to the reserved New England temperament, which shuns public demonstrations of spirituality. Nevertheless, pray that through God’s blessing our renewal will begin to gather momentum. One fruit of this might be that many more of us within our community might feel emboldened to bring ourselves, our suffering, our anxiety, and our struggles for healing. Pray God to also raise up some amongst us who discern a calling to this ministry of prayer and human solidarity.

Three Themes in Mark 9:30-37

There are three distinct sections to this passage from Mark, chapter 9.

  1. Passing through Galilee.
  2. The question about the disciples conversation along the way.
  3. Jesus’ admonition on what it means to be welcoming.

imagesTracing Mark’s chronology

Remember two weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophonecian woman? This was a consciousness expanding experience, for Jesus. The challenge presented by this gentile woman, who seems to be the first to openly recognize who Jesus really is, dislocates him from his hitherto understanding of his mission to the Children of Israel. Jesus now opens to the wider implication of a mission to everyone who recognizes the message he brings. God’s open armed inclusion of all within the grace of God’s love and acceptance. For Mark, this is the pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry, because it is from here-on that he turns his face towards the journey to Jerusalem.

Then last week, we were invited into a rather tense encounter between Jesus and his disciples, and in particular, their spokesman, Simon Peter. Having been recognized by the gentile woman Jesus now challenges those who are closest to him with the question – who do you say I am? Jesus then begins to share with them the implications of what his mission really means, for him, and for them. 

Tracing Mark’s theology

Mark begins his gospel with God’s open declaration – this is my son, my beloved, and I am very pleased in him. It’s unclear as to who among those present at his baptism get to hear God’s voice, but the point is that we the readers, hear God’s declaration as to who Jesus is. Mark then treats Jesus’s identity as the Christ as an open secret. The Syrophonecian woman – a gentile seems to understand. It is significant for Mark that after the theophany (God event) at his baptism, Jesus is next recognized by someone outside of the dispensation of Israel. Then it’s a case of the disciples, those inside the dispensation playing catch-up.


The question continues to hang over us – who do we say Jesus is, or put another way- who is Jesus for us? The difficulty for many of us is that we think we know the answer, because we know Mark’s story and how it ends. It’s not a secret for us. Yet, let’s not dismiss Mark’s notion of the open secret too soon. We know who Jesus is because at one level we know the story. Yet, knowing the story means we know about Jesus. It does not mean that we experience who Jesus is.

Jesus’ question to the disciples has two parts: who do people say I am, and who do you say I am? As part of the generic people, we know who he is because we know the story. Yet, in our heart of hearts can each of us answer – yes, I know who Jesus is for me? 

In Mark 9: 30-37 we come to realize just how hard it is to truly know who Jesus is, because the consequences of knowing are rather unsettling. With the three-fold outline of this passage in mind, we see Jesus talking to the disciples about what it means to be who he is as they pass through the region of Galilee. He talks to them about the ultimate implications of who he is and what God is asking him to accomplish. The details are so dire, so frightening that the disciples hear, and yet do not hear him.

Selective cognizance

This is what we human beings do all the time, we select what we want to hear and ignore the rest. Most of the time this is a semi-conscious process. By semiconscious, I mean that if someone were to bring it to our attention we would readily recognize the process. Yet, there are some things so terrible, so frightening for us in their implication that we simply can’t take them in without something blowing up. The hippy phrase – wow that really blows my mind, man – comes to mind here.

Now, the reason we can’t take in the message is because unconsciously we do hear it. It is just that confronted by an imagined sense of utter helplessness, the message is too much for us. This is exactly what we see the disciples doing as they follow along at a distance they think is safely out of Jesus’ earshot. We see them distracting themselves with a pointless conversation. Unconsciously, they feel terrified and helpless in the face of what Jesus is telling them. No, no, no, they psychically scream!

So much of our lives together in parish community involve distracting ourselves with endless chatter about things that don’t matter because we are afraid to really recognize the full implications of why we are here. Do we not chatter on endlessly about our desire to make a difference in the world while keeping our commitment to building Christian communities with the energy and power to really make a difference rather low, in the list of our priorities? Do we not feel a need to protect ourselves from being dislocated by the demands of the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about in Mark 8 and 9?

Similarly, as a society we are distracted by the spectacle of the massive corruption of our political election process, presented to us as entertainment by an equally corrupted news media. In truth, we are all disgusted by the waste and the wasted opportunities to confront the issues that really matter. While being somewhat entertained we stand helpless before the escalating crises bearing down upon us like the headlight of a locomotive soon to roar upon us from its tunnel.

Jesus response

Jesus takes a child in his arms. For us this seems a tender and caring gesture that resonates with our view of the world where we hold our own children dear and at least in principle, we hold all children dear. Contrastingly, Jesus’ society predates the development of a concept of childhood. Here, children were simply smaller and weaker adults, to be overlooked and disregarded. To be a child was one step down from being a woman. So to represent a little child as the model for the receptivity and welcome of the Kingdom of God was a startling thing. This is an invitation for all of us to embrace vulnerability. In our vulnerability, we are compelled to welcome God.

Welcome and change

To welcome, costs us something. There is an important link between our process of welcome and what we welcome others to. We long to be like little children with their open and trusting view of the world. Yet, as adults we know disappointment and disillusionment. We are caught between our child-like desire to be open and our adult need to protect ourselves.

Resolving this tension is a matter of deepening our experience with the living God, an experience always mediated through the way we negotiate our day-to-day lives. To this end at St Martin’s our key priority areas: inspiring one another to greater levels of engagement in all aspects of our community life, strengthening the message of financial stewardship, and attracting and retaining new members, merge into a single priority:

to facilitate our personal transformation through the renewal of our individual spiritual lives.

Key to addressing our new priority is offering a practical approach to the enrichment of our day-to-day lives through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice – is for me a catch-all phrase covering the application of age-old spiritual wisdom and experience to help anchor ourselves more securely in the face of the escalating demands and stresses of modern life.

In the particular

At St Martin’s on the Eastside of Providence we long to become a more magnetic community – the fruit of transformation in our individual spiritual lives. In my mind, that requires us to become more magnet shaped. This has implications too terrible to contemplate, i.e. changing the way we do Sunday morning.

In our Anglican- Episcopal tradition worship is the focus of who we are. The primacy of worship gathers us, transforming us into a community that celebrates the long relationship between God and the people of God. In Eucharist, we make present here and now this great story, collapsing past and future into this present moment.

To become more welcoming, we think it’s a matter of tinkering with the liturgy, in some cases simplifying it, in others making it even grander and more complex. We think if we offer more services then we will attract more people. All of this smacks of a response of those of us already here, desiring and designing a welcome for those who are already like us.

In Advent, we will launch an experiment that flows partly out of our recent experience of the simplified summer schedule of services. During the four Sundays of Advent we will move from two Eucharist’s on Sunday morning to one, timed to be followed by an hour of Christian formation time, for adults as well as young people, ending around 11.30am. A second, contemplative and instructive Eucharist will be added to the late afternoon – early evening. Our recent experience of this pattern confirmed for us a new and strengthened experience of a more magnetic community as we husbanded our human resources into one place and time.

This is bound to inconvenience some of us who are used to the existing pattern. The chief reason for this change is to offer a richer diet for a world where many are so spiritually hungry.

Jesus called his disciples to mission. It took them a while to be able to face the fearful implications of what this would mean for them. But embrace mission they did, breaking out of the fear shaped prison of their selective cognizance, and in nearly every case, like that of their master, at the cost of their lives.

The question of welcome, that so exercises most church communities boils down to the question Jesus asks us: who am I for you? Am I the comfortable Jesus – distanced by the gospel narrative as a once-upon-a-time story? Or, am I the anchor that holds you firm in the face of the escalating demands of life?

Echoing Archbishop William Temple’s statement that the church is the only organization which exists for those who are not yet its members, let’s work to renew our community as a magnetic – mission-shaped community of disciples, – a community where personal transformation through daily encounter with God us, its members to with energy and joy have an open and welcoming heart for those who have yet to show up.

Homecoming; Mark 8:27-38

Episcopalian preachers are images-4constrained in the choice of preaching texts by the Lectionary’s three-year cycle of readings. We preach on one of the four texts –OT, Psalm, NT, or Gospel appointed for a particular Sunday. I often lament not having the authority to choose my own favorites. I think that’s probably a good thing? The congregation is spared my hobbyhorses and can be directly addressed by the Wisdom of God. Through the Lectionary cycle, the Wisdom of God invites us as a community into a particular conversation, one that God desires to have with us rather than the one we tend to have with ourselves. Through the sermon, the preacher’s task is to respond to God’s invitation, taking the broader transgenerational conversation of Scripture and contextualizing it within the here-and-now experience of this particular community.

This little summary of the theory of preaching is a way for me to segway into an admission that on Homecoming Sunday, a Sunday when the emphasis is on celebrating the start of a new program year and welcoming everyone back after the recreations of the summer, having been given the choice I would not have selected Mark 8 with its language of getting Satan behind us, self-denial, taking up our cross, and the terror of winning or losing one’s life – but hey? Before I get into the knotty task of contextualizing these challenging comments of Jesus reported by Mark, let me say welcome back! It’s good to see you. Let me tell you I am excited looking forward to where our new program year might take us!


Over the coming months – September – November, the transgenerational conversation that the Wisdom of God will be drawing us into, will be channeled through the Gospel of Mark. The good and bad thing about Mark is that he is a straight talker. The economy of his words, the direct immediacy of his syntax – note he has a preference for the continuous present form, communicating an immediacy that can often disquiet those of us who prefer a more polite distance from Jesus’ call to discipleship.

Recently in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has returned from a visit to the borderlands with a visit to the Gentile city of Tyre. Here, outside his exclusively Jewish context, Jesus is jolted into a larger vision for his mission, a graphic experience for Jesus of learning from experience,250px-Palestine_after_Herod the upshot of which is that the message of grace and inclusion is no longer confined to the Children of Israel, but now startlingly open to the entire canine[1] world. He then returns via a healing tour of the Decapolis, an autonomous cosmopolitan region where Jews and Gentiles live side-by-side, before arriving at Caesarea Philippi, where he addresses his disciples with the question: who do people say I am, and more specifically who do you say I am?

A question: do we know who Jesus is?

Homecoming Sunday and the call to discipleship

Each of us is on a spiritual journey. To an extent our spiritual journey and our life journey are parallel strands of experience not always well synced, yet designed to be coterminous, each arriving in the fullness of time, at the same destination. For most of us these parallel strands are in tension. At each turn of the way, the pressures of the life journey seek to overwhelm our awareness of being on a spiritual journey. The nature of our parish community is a communal reflection of our individual negotiation of the tension between the demands of life and our desire to anchor where the restlessness of our hearts find rest in the Wisdom of God. Synchronizing the life and spiritual journeys is a process of learning through consecutive stages of maturing. Thus, Christian communities comprise a series of concentric circles.

In the first concentric circle, we experience little of the tension between the life and spiritual journeys. As individuals we try to be good people in our lives and so association with church is simply, us as good people doing what good people do, connecting with an organization we see as fulfilling a good purpose in the world. Being Christian presents as another version of a desire for self-improvement, we want to be better than we are. For instance, as parents we want our children to have a Christian formation because we want them to grow as fully rounded people. Yet, at this stage of our spiritual awareness Sunday School and Sunday morning soccer are roughly equivalent, and we want our kids to have a bit of both.

The second concentric circle represents a heightening of spiritual awareness. Paradoxically, we experience a sharp increase in the tensions between the demands of life and our spiritual calling. The tension increases here because we’ve caught the whiff of relationship with Jesus, and this becomes something important to us. We seek something ineffable, something too big for us to be able to adequately express it in words. We know that no amount of self-improvement will bring us closer to that which we are compelled to seek. We become increasingly dependent on grace. Negotiating this tension requires of us some difficult choices. We continually revisit our priorities as we realize we can’t make all the choices open to us, equally – we have to choose. Choice opens some doors while closing others and this is often a difficult negotiation. As parents, we want to model to our children our growing sense of the importance of God in our own lives. Because we don’t always feel confident in doing this we seek the support of the Christian community to help us shape them in that experience. However, for our children to have more than a cursory experience of ‘church’ as part of their well-rounded education, they need to catch the spark of our own curiosity and excitement about God. Otherwise, church becomes like school, something they do when young.

The inner-most circle is where the tensions between our life and spiritual journeys settle out a little. The choices we make in the face of the demands in daily life are in greater alignment and harmony with our desire to know and experience being known by God. I am not suggesting there are no conflicts to negotiate and that such negotiation does not come without cost. It’s simply that our sense of spiritual priorities is more established and this becomes a real support in guiding us to the choices we now intentionally make. We have learned a little more about the nature of the difference between the life we seek to win and the life we can afford to let go of. Here, we don’t feel we are good people, associating with an organization for good. We feel inadequate to the central task, no longer one of asserting our own goodness, but of opening ourselves to God.

In this inner circle Jesus’ words about self-denial and cross-carrying, about winning and losing life take on special significance. Often this is the stage of the spiritual journey we reach only after our children have launched upon their own lives in the world. Experiencing a certain amount of new and often terrifying freedom from the constant demands of family life with children at home, we begin to look towards the next phase of our lives, which of necessity moves us closer to a sense that we don’t have a lot of time left. Nearer to death, the earlier urgency of love gives way to a broader perspective and greater clarity.

In a world where all the emphasis is on individual choice and our own ability to progress along a continuum of self-improvement, however defined, we are likely to hear Jesus’ invitation to self-denial and cross-bearing as a heavy and rather irksome personal demand. We mutter to ourselves: I am under enough pressure in life, I don’t need my religion increasing the level of impossible demands. Many of us remain in the outer circle of faith community life because we just simply don’t feel able to meet what we experience as God asking more than we can risk.

To be in the first concentric circle is perfectly acceptable to God because this stage in negotiating the tensions between the life and spiritual journeys is a fine place to begin. My concern is that many of us stay longer in this stage because we misunderstand what God is asking of us. Because we hear God’s call only in purely individualistic terms, we can’t move forward, and there is a danger that after a while this unsatisfying experience causes us to leave the church altogether.

From individuality to community

The call to self-denial and taking up our cross to follow Jesus is not primarily, a call to prove ourselves worthy of the task of achieving personal salvation. It’s an invitation to participate in the life of a community that is a self-denying and cross-carrying community, in other words, a community of the baptized. The most ancient strand of soteriology, i.e. the doctrine of salvation, emphasizes that it is as the people of God that we are saved. It is as a company of disciples that we follow Jesus.

I believe the conversation that the Wisdom of God is calling us into on this Homecoming Sunday is a conversation of welcome. God is saying come, be present, all I require is that you conscientiously seek to participate in the building up of my body in the world. The purpose of the church is not to be a haven for the good, but to witness to the saving actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All are welcome at all stages within a community that supports us as we struggle with negotiating the tensions between the demands of life and our spiritual calling.


As we journey … into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another. Matthew Skinner

 Welcome back!!

[1] My pun on Jesus’ initial disparagement of the Syrophonician-gentile woman as ‘little bitch’, hence reiterating the Jewish disparagement of gentiles as dogs.

Learning our way towards the Kingdom

The Evangelist Mark, tells of a period in Jesus’ ministry when he appears to be off-line or off the radar, to use an older expression. Mark relates Jesus turning up in the region of Tyre. Tyre was historically the capital of the Phoenicians, an area we would recognize today as Lebanon. By Jesus’ time, this region had become a melting pot of Phoenicians, Canaanite-Syrians and Greeks. Jesus has wandered into and area where Jews were not always welcome. The Middle East was always, as it remains today, a hotchpotch of diverse ethnicities and faith communities living cheek by jowl, not always in amicable terms with one another. Mark does not explain why Jesus journeys into foreign territory. Furthermore, it appears that Jesus is alone. Mark offers no explanation for this, either.

Jesus roams beyond his Jewish homeland into a borderland. I am interested in the term borderland not merely as a geographical reference, but as a psychological designation. The borderland is the place where our psychological references shift.

Within our habitual environment – our habitudewe become programmed to expect only certain things, and to interpret them in familiar ways. Our habitude, an old French word once frequently used in English is from a psychological viewpoint a construction, a mental space inhabited by familiar expectations. Our habitude is by its very nature designed to minimize the possibility of being surprised by the unexpected. Even when we are, there’s no guarantee we will even recognize it.

Mark relays an encounter in the borderland with the unexpected that surprises Jesus. What’s more, being surprised by the unexpected seems to bring about a huge shift in Jesus personal perspective on the world presaging a huge shift in the nature of his mission.

An encounter that changed the world

We all know Mark’s story (Mk 7:24-37) about Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman who request healing for her daughter. Distance in time and culture insulates us from the tensions running through this encounter. We miss the fact that Jesus’ response to her is from his place of habitude. He rejects her request because as he puts it, it’s not right to give the food reserved for the children of Israel and feed it to the likes of her a gentile dog. Micah Kiel in his commentary on this text comments:

Mark’s Jesus here uses the Greek word for “dog” in the diminutive, but this does not mean Jesus is calling her a “cute little puppy.” A colloquial translation today might be: “little bitch.” Jesus seems unsure of the relationship between the Gentiles and the Kingdom of God. 

The reason Mark gives us this vignette is because it presents Jesus as a man, confronted by the unexpected, being jolted into a new understanding of his mission. The woman receives her request and her daughter is healed not because she has skillfully bested Jesus in argument, though this is clearly so, but because Jesus is confronted with a new understanding that expands his mission beyond the confines of his Jewish-shaped -habitual expectation.

What kind of Jesus do we want?

What I mean by this question is, is Jesus a prisoner of our habitude, or is he a figure that surprises us and jolts us into the hitherto unimaginable? So much of our traditional way of viewing Jesus pictures him as omniscient – knowing all things, seeing all possibilities ahead of their happening. This presents a curious picture of Jesus who knows his end and simply journeys towards its fulfillment. It is as if we see Jesus as the key protagonist in a play, who going through the motions knows, as we also know, the end of the story ahead of time.

Speaking plainly, I do not find this Jesus of much help to me. I see this traditional image as an expression of our human desire to put a wide blue distance between Jesus and ourselves. In raising him to a higher plain of consciousness – an omniscient being, Jesus earns our admiration, someone to look up to. Yet, we seldom notice that such an elevation also conveniently excuses us from the now so-called higher – as in beyond our reach -elements of his mission. Our elevation of Jesus gives us an excuse from following Jesus because it’s now a futile exercise in comparing apples with oranges.

The phrase Mark most often uses to refer to Jesus is Son of Man. Most of us seem to prefer Matthew’s more elevated reference Son of God. In Jewish etymology, their meanings are technically interchangeable, yet for us they nuance this question of what kind of Jesus do we want? Do we want a Jesus who unlike us, is omniscient, knowing all things ahead of time? Or do we yearn for a Jesus who like us, can be surprised? Mark presents Jesus as very much like us, a man who was confronted by surprise; a man who could be jolted out of his habitude of familiar expectations and learn. 

Learn is the key word here, for learning can be pleasurable, but is most often painful, arising out of a conflict between the familiar and the challengingly novel. The idea that Jesus learns comforts me because I too learn – usually painfully, and I can only imagine that it was as painful and initially disorienting for Jesus as it usually is for me.

A local implication of Mark’s story

images-2At St Martin’s in Providence the Labor Day Weekend signals our entry into the new program year. We do so this year supported by the spiritual inventory program, RenewalWorks. Like many Christian communities we are powerfully confronted by the challenge to grow- growth measured across the board: in numbers, income, levels of engagement, but most significantly, measured in terms of our spiritual deepening. It’s clear to many of us that the key to drawing others, to attaining better financial sustainability, and levels of community engagement is completely reliant on the members of our community learning; learning more about our spiritual needs and the discrepancies between what we spiritually long for and our spiritual practice.

Key to this learning transition is our willingness to close the safety gap mind the gap – keeping Jesus and his call to mission, at a comfortable distance. 

A global implication of Mark’s story

As we watch the agony of the flood of refugees fleeing the carnage of Syria and adjacent regions, as a citizen of the European Union I am appalled at the failure not simply of human charity, but of the amnesia that blinds the more xenophobic countries of the Union to the echo between the historical images of the holocaust and what we all see unfolding across our TV screens. The current crisis is a European crisis, and one that is challenging the EU at its core to learn from its own painful history. Yet, in America the lesson should not be lost on us either, for we are more than willing to look the other way in the face of increasing pressure on our own borders.

The mission of Jesus is not his mission, it is our mission also. Mark’s story is a pivotal point that shows Jesus being (uncomfortably) confronted to expand the boundaries of his mission to reveal the power and urgency of God’s love and acceptance for the entire human race. Let’s stop hiding in our habitude, safely insulated from the demands of too much accountability for one another and allow ourselves to be confronted by the message of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman.

The problems of our world are huge, and the solutions always partial and incomplete. This does not excuse us from our need for a change of heart!

‘Little I’ Incarnation

Sermon delivered on August 31st Pentecost 14, by Linda Mackie Griggs, St Martin’s Director of Christian Formation

While it may be tempting to think that we have left behind the Gospel lessons about Jesus as Living Bread, perhaps I should warn you not to get too comfortable. While our text today does seem to have moved on to a new setting, and even a new Gospel writer, we have not left behind the difficult images of incarnation. Only this time we aren’t exploring Jesus’ Incarnation so much as we are exploring our own.

Our story today actually begins much earlier; at the beginning—when God loved Creation into being, clothing countless sparks of life with myriad creaturely bodies—wings, fins and tails; fur, scales and skin; mouths, eyes and ears. The story begins, according to the first creation story in Genesis, as God seeks his first children while walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, asking, “Where are you?”—three words that embody God’s yearning for relationship.

How do we respond to the ineffable—to that which is beyond physical knowledge or description? There is a spark, essence, a something that God first clothed in physicality—what I like to call “little ‘i’” incarnated. Perhaps James describes it well as “implanted word.” When God first sought out this essence, this little homing device in His children they responded the only way they knew how—through their bodies, their senses, their incarnated selves. They established ritual and worship, marking the men through circumcision, eating certain foods and preparing them in certain ways. Ritual washing of bodies and cooking vessels wasn’t just a matter of hygiene. It was a matter of holiness—of valuing the sacred, and making offerings to God as acts of love and worship. All in response to God’s, “Where are you?”—God’s invitation to relationship. The bodies that humans had been given were used to connect the hearts of the people to the heart of God. This was the gift of their incarnation—heart and body as one.

And this served not only to build relationship with God but with one another. The “statutes and ordinances” that we hear about in Deuteronomy connected God’s people to God and bound the people of God into community—into family. Their physical practices kept them mindful, day by day, of who they were and whose they were. And arguably they would not have survived without it. They wanted to be seen as “wise and discerning people”, distinct from others, as Chosen.

But something happened, and it happened pretty much immediately, as is the nature of fallible humanity. Our beautiful God-given gift of incarnation has a difficult time remaining properly connected to its Source. It’s almost as though there’s a short in the system. Once the idea of sacred is introduced, humans tend very quickly to gravitate toward dualism—to want to pit sacred against that which is perceived to be profane.

So now it’s not just a matter of holiness and relationship, it’s a matter of who is holy, and who is not. Who deserves to be in connection with the sacred, and who does not. I’m worthy, but I’m not so sure about you.

“Hey Jesus, why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” This isn’t an issue of washing up for dinner. It’s a matter of who is worthy of being a member of the family.

And Jesus recognizes this. He knows the stakes are higher than hygiene and conformity. As a matter of fact he has a better idea than the Pharisees of the significance of their simple question. He pegs it as symptomatic of a totally skewed worldview—a misuse of their gift of incarnation and, as a result, of a total disconnection of the heart of the people from the heart of God. “You hypocrites,” he calls them. You have lost touch with the heart of the Law, and you are using rituals to circumvent relationship, not to build it.

And the language Jesus uses shows once again that he is, in fact, probably more comfortable with the concept of embodiedness/physicality than anyone present. It’s amusing that the Lectionary actually leaves out several verses in this passage—perhaps just for brevity in the summer heat, but I’m a wee bit skeptical. These lines, in particular stood out when I curiously went to see what was missing:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.”

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ indignation about impurity by getting down and dirty about human bodily functions. Jesus had no trouble at all with physicality. He used spit to heal a blind man. He used spit, stuck his fingers in ears AND touched a man’s tongue to heal his deafness. He called a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage, “daughter.” And, as we have heard for the past few weeks, he invited his hearers to eat his body and drink his blood.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, was totally at ease with incarnation, while the rest of us generally squirm.

This discomfort, this uber-focus on bodies as simply bodies, and not as incarnated creatures of God, has resulted in the tendency to devalue others based on various aspects of embodiedness, whether it is practices or physical characteristics. Jesus cited a plethora of sins that issue forth from a heart disconnected from its divine Source: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”, and he was probably just getting warmed up.

All from a simple question about washing hands.

Jesus wanted to open the eyes of his audience. He wanted them to understand that if they refused to truly see all people as incarnated creatures in the hearts of which burn a God-created spark, they risked devaluing them; they risked Othering them.

How might Jesus respond to our 21st century world? Would he see any change from first-century Palestine? I’m afraid He would see that humans persist with a heart-breaking tendency to discriminate, neglect, subjugate, abuse, and disregard the brothers and sisters whom we deem unworthy because they don’t look or act like us.

And God said, “Where are you?”

Thank God that God is so patient!

One of my favorite Eucharistic prayers is Prayer C. It recounts the history of our relationship with God from the very, very beginning. One of the most distinctive lines is this: “Again and again, you called us to return.” Again, and again. God will never stop waiting for us to remember that we are bound heart-to-heart with God and each other.

How will our hearts respond?

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