Sunday, January 28, 2024

Epiphany 4, Annual Meeting, 2024: Discerning our path

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

The question we continually face as Christians is whether something is of God, from God, or in the will of God. How do we know if a prophet is sent to us by God? How do we know if a decision we make as a church or for ourselves is the one God wants us to make?

The answer is: discernment because discernment puts God at the center of our decisions and actions. It is up to us to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ and discern how God is leading us to make it manifest in our time.

Today, after this service, we will gather for our Annual Parish Meeting to review our decisions and actions from last year and deepen our bonds of friendship as we move forward as one body, one spirit in Christ into 2024.

It’s tempting for a church to rely on the gifts that serve us well in the world, and that isn’t a bad thing. Those gifts are from God who draws them into our faith community.

For a church, however, there is more to consider, the will of God, to be specific. Otherwise, we slowly and almost imperceptibly turn our church into an earthly enterprise and the guidance we end up relying on is our own.

The way to stay on our path of faithfulness is to discern continually who we are, what gifts God is bringing among us, how those gifts can be nurtured and employed in order to glorify God, serve God’s people, and be stewards of God’s creation. This is what sets us apart as church: our goals are not focused on us but on God.

I’ve been serving as a priest for almost 20 years now, and I can attest that this church is on a faithful path. When we worship together, we are truly giving thanks with our whole hearts in the assembly of the congregation, as our psalmist says. Our ministries include listening for how we can further ease the burdens of our neighbors while also working to transform the oppressive systems that continue to harm them.

We do this by sticking close to our roots: the Bible, worship that connects us to our past while pushing us into our present, and using our God-given intellect while striving to stay humble and, therefore, useful to God. (Richard Hooker meme courtesy of Episcopal Church memes) 

Finally, we allow ourselves to be continually astounded by Jesus, much like the congregation at the synagogue was in today’s gospel from Mark.

Mark has Jesus moving immediately from calling Andrew, Peter, James, and John, to Capernaum, what the Native American translation of the Bible calls the City of Comfort, from its original Hebrew name. There was only one temple in Jerusalem but there were many local synagogues.

The leader of the synagogue was likely not a rabbi but more like our Wardens who tend to the business aspects of the community. They were, therefore, always on the lookout for teachers who would lead the discussions and prayers. Rabbi Jesus did that in today’s gospel.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus preached, but it must have been spectacular because everyone there was astounded by his teaching. As he taught, the people discerned that Jesus’ authority came not from his credentials or his ability to cite precedent as the Scribes typically did, but from God.

And that was only the beginning. While Jesus is teaching, a man in an unclean spirit yells out to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

I’m not sure why the traditional translation says “a man with an unclean spirit” rather than “in an unclean spirit” which is what it actually says because a man with an unclean spirit wouldn’t have been allowed in the synagogue in the first place.

Also, that makes it sound like the man was possessed by a spirit beyond himself, which isn’t what Mark said. More likely, he was a faithful member of that community who was astute enough to comprehend that what Jesus was teaching would upend the status quo, so he was unwilling to accept it or let go of the traditions and structures that protected and served him, even if they didn’t protect or serve others.

I say he was astute because he declares: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s astounding because even Jesus’ newly called disciples wouldn’t reach that understanding for years.

Jesus rebukes him, but that isn’t what it sounds like. Jesus isn’t reprimanding or scolding him but elevating him. The word translated as rebuke means to put further honor upon, to estimate higher. Jesus recognized the accurate discernment of this man, even though the man’s fear was clearly a stumbling block for him, so with a word, Jesus healed him, removing his stumbling block in a dramatic way, setting him free from that which obstructed his path to a right relationship with God and neighbor.

The people are again amazed! Our Scripture says they ask, what new teaching is this? But what they actually ask is, ‘What new process of teaching is this?’

What Jesus did was manifest his divine power instead of talking about it. Jesus came to bring salvation, to free us from the power of sin and death, and he demonstrates this undeniably in this story from Mark, freeing a man from that which impeded his spiritual growth – with a word! The Word of God!

It continues to surprise us how deeply Jesus knows us, cares for us, and continues to free us from whatever hinders the growth and deepening of our relationship with God and neighbor. That’s why we must constantly discern, making space for God’s love to guide us in God’s way, beyond our own understanding and habits, setting us free from whatever hinders us.

Let us pray: Come dear Jesus, into our hearts and make us one with you, one in you. Give us courage to discern your path for us, strengthen our friendships to carry us forward, and grant us your wisdom as we use the gifts you’ve given us to serve in your holy name, for that will truly glorify you. Amen.

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