Tag Archives: Church

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Today, our journey into Mark’s gospel continues. Last week, we started this long season of green by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that in the middle of all the human chaos, and the divided messy nature of human relationships, Jesus stays the course of bringing new life to us and to the world. 

Today, we return to more familiar parables: Parables of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those to whom Jesus was teaching and preaching. When Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different from ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected. 

The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval – a powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever again being ruled over by foreigners. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centered in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place, as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria. 

Into this expectant time Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how they would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the 

smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of garden weeds. 

These parables would not have described a Kingdom like that which the crowds would have expected. This was not the Kingdom of God they were looking for. 

Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what the Kingdom should look like. 

These days, just like those first century followers of Jesus, we too are in a moment of expectation. The world is waiting for things to get back to normal, for our pandemic misery to end, for all our pent-up desires for our favourite outings and gatherings to finally happen. 

But we are also reeling. Reeling from the discovery at Kamloops Residential school two weeks ago. Reeling from the next tragedy and reminder that we are a broken and divided house in Canada.  Reeling from the terror attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Reeling from day after day of multiple COVID deaths in our province, including the death of a teenager this week. 

And this experience of tragedy pushes us to ask for, to demand, to expect something of our leaders, of those in charge. To demand and expect a response from God. 

Our hopes for the future, our hopes for the present can look a lot like the hopes and expectations of the crowds listening to Jesus today, wanting some very specific things because of our world in need, because of the cries for justice from the oppressed, grieving, and marginalized. 

Yet, today, we know that this parable of Jesus’ is about defying expectations, about doing the unexpected. God is asking us, in the middle of the chaos, to step back and consider just what the Kingdom of God might look like. 

So let me ask a question. And it is for the gardeners among us, in particular. 

Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?

I can’t think of any. 

You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look very similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown. 

In the best of times, churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.

As human beings in this moment, most of us are longing to regain some predictability into our lives (every day might feel the same as the last, but our weeks and months feel impossible to plan for). We want to go back to a world that is predictable and safe. We long for a world that isn’t blindsiding us every week with another tragedy or another big news story or another thing to get all worked up about.

But the Kingdom of God is simply not that way. 

God is up to something that is not safe or predictable or manageable. Scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes God ends up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field – mustard seeds that grow into wild, weed-like over-powering bushes. 

This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into a living plant. 

And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and threatening to take over. 

As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the Church. And then God has other ideas, seizing opportunities to throw us out of our comfort zones, to call us to find new and unexpected ways of being. God demands that we give up our narrow vision of the world, and instead embrace the wide-open, possibility-filled vision that God has for us. 

We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within our imagination and expectations. The Kingdom of God appears and grows in unexpected places from surprising seeds. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

To people who have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like, to the Israelites of the 1st Century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.  

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would never have predicted from the seed. 

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness. 

The Kingdom of God is meeting us on our screens, in our social media pages, in the outpouring of righteous outrage and compassionate support for survivors of residential schools and Indigenous communities, for the family and community of victims of the London terror attack, and for Muslims across the country. 

And in the scattered seeds of the Kingdom, God is reminding us that there is more work for us to do in order to achieve reconciliation – the work of justice, education, and change is upon us. God is reminding us that there is a new and unknown way of being the Church and a community of faith ahead for us, even if we don’t know what that will look like. 

New plants growing from the most surprising of places.

So as we struggle in this moment to find a world that meets our expectations, that conforms to a controllable, manageable state… we are reminded that God is busy with other plans. 

God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life. 

Needing Pentecost more than ever

GOSPEL: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
[Jesus said,] 26“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning….


After seven weeks of celebrating Easter, we have now moved from the great joy of the Season of the Resurrection to the Day of Pentecost. For much of Christian history, Pentecost has been the third great festival of the Church alongside Christmas and Easter. Pentecost tells the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples and equipping them to proclaim the Gospel. This day is also known as the Birth of the Church. The day that the community of believers called the Body of Christ was established with its mission to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and peoples. Pentecost was a confusing day, with many being uncertain of exactly what was going on. 

In the two thousand years since, Christians haven’t done much better to figure out exactly what is going on with the Church. But this past year, making sense of what the Church is all about has been especially difficult and confusing. Pentecost comes to us at time when we may be struggling more than ever to know to what and to where God is calling us. 

In the fifty days following the Resurrection, the disciples were left in a confusing and uncertain place. The first experiences of the Resurrection seemingly didn’t offer them much help in figuring out what to do and who to be as a community. The women’s report from the empty tomb had caused much disruption. The disciples who walked with Jesus to Emmaus did not recognize him until the end. Thomas could not bring himself to accept that Jesus had been raised until he was forced to. And when Peter met Jesus on the beach and was asked if he would lay down his life for Jesus, he could only respond by saying that Jesus was his friend. 

The Resurrection experiences hadn’t provided a clear path forward and the disciples were still trying to figure out how they had gone from following Jesus around Galilee to being locked away, hiding from Herod’s soldiers and the Roman soldiers. 

The disciples’ world since Easter had become dangerous and threatening, while also raising questions of who they were now were and what they were supposed to do. They were not yet the Early Church community; they had not yet been given a mission or purpose. They were an aimless, frightened and fearful bunch of former followers of Jesus. 

The Church today is also full of uncertainty and confusion. We had been living on a mostly predictable path before now. One that, even though it wasn’t exactly working great, was a way of being what we thought we knew and understood. 

Many congregations were small enclaves and communities gathered around a common identity, often around families, neighbourhoods, or cultural backgrounds. We had histories and traditions. Before 2020, most churches knew very well what most Sunday mornings or council meetings or Christmas Eve services or potluck meetings or Bible studies and more would look like for them. 

Sure, a lot of folks tended to be aging and resources for ministry tended to be declining, but this was very much in consort with  a nation, province or city also facing declining resources for every other institution. 

Maybe we aren’t quite as intensely confused and uncertain as the disciples were during their fifty days of wondering between Easter and Pentecost, but with 2,000 two thousand years of history behind us, with generations of established traditions and practices, and a lot of ministry to stand on… our Easter-to-Pentecost wondering is rooted in deep questions about what the Church is still called to be, and how the Church, our community of faith, is supposed to fit into our rapidly-changing world. 
___________________

On that first day of Pentecost, as the disciples remained confused and uncertain as ever still fifty days on from the Resurrection: Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus had appeared to them in locked rooms, along roads and then finally on mountain tops. And now Jesus had left them… but not alone. Jesus had left them a promised advocate… a Spirit. But who among them knew what that really meant?

And then in the midst of all that confusion and uncertainty, there was rushing wind blowing through the group. And then, tongues of fire resting on them. And then, they were compelled to go out into the streets to tell the story of Jesus. They were sent, speaking many languages so that all could understand. They were sent to preach to all the nations. The Holy Spirit gave them what they needed to preach the Gospel.

The wind and fire, the miraculous ability to speak in other languages mark the story of this day. They reveal and point to the Spirit of God working a new thing among God’s people. But they aren’t the most significant part of the story. Instead, these signs and miracles from God serve to orient us back to the main point of the story.

This band of Jesus’ followers, uncertain about who or what they are as a community, what are they are supposed to do without Jesus’ literally holding their hands and showing them the way… The band of Jesus’ followers, confused about all that has happened to them since Jesus called them from their boats, from under the fig trees, from their jobs as tax collectors, carting them around Galilee and then asking them to bear witness to his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death… only to be surprised by his Resurrection three days later. 
This band of Jesus’ followers is suddenly thrust into Pentecost from their post-Easter hiatus, thrust back into the world. The Spirit pushes the disciples out of hiding with a reminder of the mission that Jesus left in their hands. They are to share the good news with all peoples. 

That is the point of Pentecost — the sending of God’s people into the world for the sake of the mission of the Kingdom. 

And just the same, the Holy Spirit is swirling around and among us, too. Long before the pandemic, we gathered and huddled away in our churches for too long, waiting for people to just start coming to church. People like us, people who already knew who we are were. Waiting for the world around us to figure out that going to church is what good, decent people are were supposed to do. But they weren’t just showing up, no matter how hard we hoped. 

Now, after we have been huddled away from each other, the Spirit is pushing the Church again. Pushing us to quit waiting and to go out. Tongues of fire have been sent to us, like Facebook, YouTube, Zoom and other online platforms that connect us to the entire world. Christianity and local churches have gained interest  more interest from the news media (both good and bad) in the past year then in the previous decade. The Spirit is making us known again to the world. Our Pentecost moment is upon us. 

Like the disciples who went out to preach the Gospel, the Spirit is calling us to adapt our message to our hearers, to meet people were they are, to preach to all nations. The Spirit is reminding us that God speaks in many voices, in our voices, allowing all to hear.

And the Spirit is telling us not to expect everyone to become like us, not to wait for the world to come to us. But to go out with the story of the Jesus whom we have experienced. To announce the crucified and risen Christ, to announce God’s plan to save all people and all creation. To tell of God’s grace given for all. 

The Holy Spirit is working here and now, among us. The Holy Spirit is with us preparing us to be a new Church, yet still the Body of Christ, the same that we have always been. 

The Spirit is blowing and swirling the Pentecost wind in and through us right now.

So this year, when we find ourselves in a state not terribly different from that of those disciples  locked-away disciples who were about to be thrust into the World… we hear again that the wind of the Spirit is blowing all around us. Pentecost is here and now. The Gospel is being preached with our many voices and God is speaking God’s creation. God is announcing God’s plan to save all of creation, to forgive sinners, to heal the suffering, and to bring the dead to life. 

 God is telling the World that the crucified and risen Christ has come to save.

Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.

Abiding in the Branches

GOSPEL: John 15:1-8
Jesus said: 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Here we are into month 14 of this global and pandemic, while it feels like we are in much the same place that we found ourselves one year ago, so much has taken place during this past year. 

This Easter season has again been a journey begun in Lent, Lent 2020 that is. And when we gathered at the foot of cross on Good Friday and then again the empty tomb on Easter morning with the women who were afraid, our journey barely paused for moment. 

These 14 months have dragged us through much, through world changing times, even as so much of it has been about staying in place and keeping to ourselves. 

In this back half of our second pandemic Easter, Jesus lays out this metaphor of the vine and branches for us. And today, we need as much as ever to hear Jesus’ promise again… the invitation to Abide. 

To stop, to gather ourselves, to lay aside our fretting and worrying, to take a breathe and simply abide.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

This 1st century metaphor of a grape vine may be an image mostly lost on our 21st century ears. While there are certainly many green thumbs out there, grape vines are fairly uncommon in wintery Manitoba. I know because I remember them being uncommon in wintery Edmonton where I grew up. I know because many summers growing up, the back walls of my parent’s house bore the unusual sight of heavy, leafy, green vines growing up makeshift trellises, tended to by my father. Dutifully grown, and pruned each spring and summer. Harvested and picked clean each fall. Carefully wrapped and buried each winter only to be resurrected each spring. 

So unusual were the grapes, that my kindergarten class took a walking field trip to our house to see them. So did other gardeners come from time to time, interested in seeing these uncommon grape vines. 

Now the thing that almost all the first century folks listening to Jesus would have known about grape vines is that they are complicated plant systems. The vines twist and tangle up around grape trellises to find sunlight and air. The branches grow big leaves which protect the fruit from the sun and the rain. Other branches grow to make structure and support space for the fruit to the grow in sheltered areas between vines and branches. The grapes grow in luscious bunches when they find the combination of supported vine, protected shade and space. 

The vine, the support systems, the branches, the leaves all work together in symbiotic harmony to produce fruit. Unlike apples or some other fruit bearing trees and bushes that just seem to grow something no matter the conditions, grape vines need attention and care, they need all the parts of the plant working together towards the common purpose of growing fruit. 

And the branches that don’t work in the system need to be pruned back, even sometimes the branches that do work need to be cut back in order to keep the fruit growing. 

And it is this image of the complicated, fragile plant system that Jesus choose to describe the community of the church. If Jesus were Canadian he would describe a well coached hockey team, with all team members working toward the common goal… the players who weren’t getting cut from the team or traded away. 

The branch who does not abide withers away. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Whether it is a withering branch, a hockey player cut from a team, or a church members feeling disconnected from church community… it can feel a little rough to consider being cast out from a community from which we think we should belong. 

A branch withering on its own maybe hits a little too close to home these days. We get what it means to feel like we are withering way having cut pruned from the other branches and vine that we thought we belonged to. 

And on the other hand, we also know of the branches who will not abide. Those who insist on striking out on their own, those who will not abide working in harmony with the community, those who would rather be cut off than be beholden to system working together for the common good. 

Either way the effect is much the same, being cut off from community is life draining. Both for the branch who cannot abide or will not abide, but also for the system as it must heal and regrow to compensate for the loss. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

And so it feels almost harsh that Jesus seems to suggest that not abiding is cause to get cut off by the vinegrower. Yet, Jesus is not being prescriptive, Jesus is not suggesting condemnation for those who aren’t getting along. 

Jesus is describing what happens to the branch that leaves the plant system. The branch will not abide, so the branch withers and then the branch is thrown into the fire and burned. Immediately our minds turn to the medieval visions of hellfire and brimstone. 

And yet to Jesus’ ancient hearers, hell would not be the place that they would be thinking of. 

Instead, they would imagine the cleansing fire pit of agricultural land. The place where the pruned branches, the branches who will not abide are reclaimed. Reclaimed, found again,  and brought back into the fold, into the plant system. 

These burned up branches are reclaimed and turned into new life, sprinkled as fertilizer onto gardens and vineyards, or added to compost as key sources of nutrients. 

Even the branches who will not abide, the branches that are burned up are still found and reclaimed by the vinegrower and put the purposes of new life. 

The withered branches are not left or abandoned or punished by the vinegrower, but instead are brought back into new life. 

And this complicated system of vines, of branches for leaves, branches for support and branches for fruit, are joined by branches for fertilizer ash. In the vines and branches, the community of the church there is room for all, for all kinds of gifts and skills to join in the work of producing fruit for the sake of the world, for all kinds of people who work in the midst of community and those who have trouble abiding. God vine grower pursues them all and finds a places for in the community that produces life. 

This is good news for us who are withering away these days. Those who of us who are having trouble abiding alone. Those of us who have forgotten how to live in systems and communities tasked with working for new life, for life for the sake of the world. 

That even when life feels as though it is draining from our bodies, God is the One seeking us out, finding and reclaiming us for the sake of the kingdom, putting back into the business of growing into new life. 

As we enter into yet another withering lockdown, as we contemplate our ever shifting and uncertain future, as we imagine what comes next in this topsy, turvey world, as the life feels as though it slowly draining away from us… God is busy at work, pruning, watering, tending and finding a place for us to grow into new life. 

God is making us ready to grow into new life when the time comes, making us ready for life in community, for being part of a system of vines, branches, leaves and fruit… and fertilizer once again. God is preparing us for life in together in the church, for being part of a worshipping, baptizing, word proclaiming, meal gathering, learning, growing, music making, praying, serving, community of faith once again… soon. 

But today, as we wait and wonder for God’s future… Jesus says:

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Why Heal Anyone if You Don’t Heal Everyone, Jesus?

Mark 1:29-39
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Today is our last Sunday in the mini green season before we head up a mountain. This church year began way back in Advent, as we built towards the coming of Christ in the flesh of the babe in a manger. And soon we, with Ash Wednesday and Lent on the horizon, we will be building again towards the coming of Christ, this time Christ coming to a cross on Friday and out of the grave on Sunday. 

But for now we have been lingering with the revealing of Jesus. Revealing of his mission and ministry, revealing his identity in the waters of baptism, his call to the disciples in various ways, his message for God’s people bringing the Kingdom near. 

Last week Jesus cast out an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue, a spirit that revealed our own fears and anxieties of change, of the unknown, of the future. 

And all these weeks between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, are supposed to moment to steel ourselves for the slog of Lent. Yet, this has been hard work, being forced to face reality and deal honestly with our situation. 

In this final week of lingering, there are more miracles. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then the whole town comes with their problems. They want to be healed too. 

It is no wonder that Jesus is tired by the end of the night. It is no wonder that he wants to get away and be by himself. And it is no wonder that even the disciples want more out of him. 

The miracles, the people clamouring for Jesus. This is the story of today. But as Mark tells us these stories of healing, we are begged to ask a deeper question, one that is percolating under the surface. 

Mark shows us that there are many, many people searching for healing, searching for miracles. And Jesus doesn’t accommodate them all. In fact it almost seems random and doesn’t make sense. Why heal anyone if you don’t heal everyone? 

And if you have the the time to stay and heal some people, would one more day, to finish the job, be so bad? Jesus decides to pick up and move on, and for us it doesn’t really jive. 

This Gospel lesson brings another story to mind, one that may open wide the question that is floating beneath the surface, the one that we might be afraid to ask.

In the face of suffering, in the face of pain and grief. In the face of death, we bring our greatest questions to God. And we ask why some and not others? Why heal some people and why let others suffer? Why is there no obvious reason for it all?

This moment in time has certainly opened the flood gates of questions about suffering, with a sometimes near harmless, sometimes deadly virus seemingly arbitrarily choosing who gets really sick and who doesn’t, who ends up in the hospital and who just gets the sniffles. Not to mention all the other things we have going on that are out of control from job loss to climate change, from racial justice to extreme political division based conspiracy theories. 

We know both the exhaustion that Jesus seems to have with it all (and it is only still the first chapter of Mark) and the clamouring for healing and miracles of the crowds who are coming to him. 

There is a temptation when preaching about this story tell you that we are being selfish when we ask why God isn’t solving our problems. There is the temptation to say that we only want a magic Genie God who comes at our beck and call to make our lives easier. There is the temptation to say that all human life ends in death, so a little healing here and there doesn’t really make a difference. 

But that is not fair to the reality of suffering. That does not acknowledge how much suffering and our need to be healed can come to define our very existence. And nor does it explain why sometimes it doesn’t make sense why some people are healed and some are not. 

When Simon comes and tells Jesus that people are looking for him Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 

For that is what I came out to do. 

We know the message. We know what Jesus has done for us. 

But at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done it yet. The message that Jesus is preaching is that the Kingdom of God has come near. Those are the very first words that he says in the Gospel of Mark. 

The Kingdom has come near because the King has come near. God is near because Jesus is near. And Jesus is not only on his way to proclaim the message, Jesus is the message. The message is what we proclaim as a community of faith:

Christ has died

Christ has risen

Christ will come again. 

But the message is not just knowing the story, but discovering how exactly the story has changed our lives. 

Jesus has not come to take away our suffering. In fact, even the people who Jesus healed, they still suffered afterwards. And even still, Jesus himself suffered. 

Suffering as terrible as we know it, is normal. That doesn’t make it easy, that doesn’t make it suffering good. 

But especially these days, as our suffering and discomfort, our crisis and struggle is so acute, there is a strange comfort in know that it is not outside the normal. It isn’t *our* normal, but pandemics and economic struggles and existential threats are not unusual for creation, not new in history, and not outside of God’s purview. There is nothing that we are experiencing now that is too big for God to contend with.

God’s mission in Christ, God’s purpose in the incarnation, God’s activity in the world has not changed. God stills comes to be reconciled with God’s people. God still brings mercy and forgiveness and grace into a world that needs it. God in Christ has come near to us to do something about ultimate and permanent defeat — death. 

While life and freedom will always mean that suffering and discomfort are a part of our existence, God’s mission to creation is to redefine our existence. Not take away our pain, our suffering, our grief. Not remove death from our existence. But rather to transform it.  

On the cross, Christ takes all of our death. 

Christ does not take it away, rather Christ changes it, all of it. 

Transforms it. 

Into something new.

On the cross and then in the empty tomb, Jesus takes death and makes it something completely different. It is no longer the end of our lives. Death is now our entrance into the Kingdom of God. Suffering, pain, grief and death are near. But so is the Kingdom of God. This is the message that Jesus has come to proclaim. This why Jesus only stays for so long and why some are healed and others not. Because this healing is only temporary. But death having been transformed into resurrection. That is permanent. 

Yes, we know that suffering and death can be terrible and it can in fact come to define our very lives… but God has refined suffering, God has redefined death and God has redefined life. Yes, we come clamouring to Jesus to take away our aches and pains, to take away our grief and sorrow. But Jesus does something completely different, something that isn’t for just a few or some of us. Rather, Jesus has come into our world, joined God to all creation in order to bring us, all of us, all of creation, to New Life. 

Capernaum, Possesing Spirits and Living Out our Worst Fears

Mark 1:21-28
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!”

On this 4th Sunday of the Season after Epiphany, in this season of unknowns, Jesus continues to be revealed to us. From the waters of Baptism, to the calling of his disciples, Jesus and his mission towards us and all creation is revealed in news ways. 

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples. 

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or a Rabbi who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach. 

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true. 

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God. 

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from. One person did. Or rather a man possessed by an unclean spirit. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world as he and the people around him are stuck the past, in the comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to. And Jesus is going wreck things. 

The spirit is the one who speaks. 

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatened the status quo. 

Sound familiar?

Or maybe, did that used to sound familiar? 

In years past, we may have heard this story from the Gospels and thought about how the quaint little synagogue in Capernaum was probably a little stiff and stodgy. But we also probably identified with them, we know these folks and their comfortable community. 

Or at least we did. 

These days we almost certainly wish we were the Capernaum Synagogue. The community faith able to keep their traditions, able to be unchanged by the outside world, able to just keep on keepin’ on without anything or anyone bringing disorder or disruption. 

But for nearly a year a now, we have been living the worst nightmare of the Capernaum Synagogue. We have been disrupted and forced to make nearly everything new. Even as we strive to retain as much of what we can of the familiar way of being church, they way we must form our community today has been completely transformed in the past year.

The man with the unclean spirit asked if Jesus had come to destroy. 

I wonder if on some level destruction for the folks in Capernaum looked liked us. Empty churches, lonely people, the feeling of disconnection and drifting apart. The knowledge that who we were when this all started is not who are now. And who are now is not who we will be by the end. We has been changed as individuals and as a community. 

That the whole world is being forced to change as result of this time we are living in, but just how everything has been changed isn’t settled yet. Much as been lost, but we aren’t sure what has been lost for good. 

The man with the unclean spirit expressed the collective anxiety of a system that feared change, that worked hard to maintain the status quo and the order of things. 

The spirit of our time is of anxiety and uncertainty, of having to live through change that we do not control, of having to endure things that are uncomfortable and difficult. This moment require sacrifices that we don’t know if we have it in us to keep making. 

There just might be a part of us that wants to stand up and say to God too, 

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

When the unclean spirit interrupts Jesus in the synagogue and names the threat that Jesus is – the threat to not only to the spirit’s possession of the man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole community and the status quo –  Jesus will have none of it. 

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit does. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future. 

Be Jesus knows that God is calling them into something new and unknown. 

And today, Jesus knows that we have been thrust into that new and unknown thing, and that even still our anxieties and worries, our fears and hesitations are keeping us from seeing God’s future. Because we would love to go back to our past, to recreate what we once were. We used to long for the glory days, but now we would settle for just the pre-pandemic world. We feel the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for generations before us just slipping away faster than ever. 

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that what we once were was wrong or bad. Jesus it not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like losing so much and failing all those who came before us. 

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among God’s people the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on to what we were, of our fears and worries of what we will become. 

It is not the past keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us a new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming us from the future, meetings us in the places that we are going to, not where we have already been. God knows we cannot go backwards. 

In 2021, we know that this has never been more true. There is no going back. 

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in Capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and the forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life. 

It might seem like folly to imagine a community of friends and family, gathered together in that community space and community home, like the Capernaum synagogue, or the familiar church buildings… 

But today, Jesus is calling us into something new. And Jesus has been calling us, calling the church, the Body of Christ into the new thing for quite a while now. 

And just as Jesus called out to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus is calling out to us. Calling out our fears and worries, our anxieties and hesitations. Jesus calling them out of us, showing us that no matter what the future brings, no matter what our present brings, that the God to whom we belong is a God of new things, new realities, new teachings and most of all –

New Life.