Sunday, January 29, 2006

4 Epiphany B

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

“Don’t use words too big for the subject,” C.S. Lewis once warned. “Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

Perhaps had Lewis ever taught A.P. English, it would have been something like the class I was in my senior year of high school. “Don’t use words too big or too broad or too vague for the subject,” I can hear my teacher, Mr. Pell, warning. “Don’t say ‘the poem is great’ when you really mean ‘it’s as though the poem were written just for me’.” In fact, we weren’t allowed to use the word ‘great’ in class at all. Mr. Pell challenged us to say precisely and creatively what we meant, instead of ‘how’s your day? great…’ or ‘what did you think of the poem? great…’ He actually charged us twenty-five cents every time we said the word….well, you know, and on the last day of school he emptied the jar of change and went out and bought a new thesaurus for the classroom.

Words are so very significant. It’s amazing, don’t you think, that this jumble of shapes in black and white, this stream of sounds shaped by breath and lips, these words carry meaning across the space between people, whether on paper or through the air. Words carry meaning across that space allowing us to participate in one another’s lives and in the life of the world.

It’s easy to take for granted the meaning of words in our own language, until we come across a word we don’t know, or a new meaning of a word we thought we knew, or are forced to substitute words by English teachers. How very measurable that space between us feels, though, when we are surrounded by people speaking a language we do not know. And how very startled we are to learn meanings of words in different languages that seem to convey so much more than our own words do. For example, in Hebrew the word dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed’, such that to say something really is to do something. It was used especially to signify the creative word of God: Let there be light, and there was light.

Words are so very significant. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures, the Greek word logos is used in place of dabar. Logos also means both ‘word’ and ‘event’, and in Greek philosophy it signified the principle of coherence undergirding all of creation. In the gospel of John, Jesus is called logos, the Word of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

This morning’s gospel reading is from Mark, and although he does not use the word logos, he does show us in this first story of Jesus’ public ministry that Jesus’ words and action speak for God because Jesus is God.

The reading begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, speaking with such authority that the people were astounded. But Mark doesn’t record a single word of that teaching; instead, he records the Word in action. Jesus rebukes a man with an unclean spirit, speaking with such authority that the unclean spirit leaves the man and the people were amazed. What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. To say something really is to do something.

This gospel reading is not about Jesus’ ability to astonish and amaze crowds. It is not about his knowledge of or insight into holy scriptures, which is what was taught in the synagogue. It is not about exorcism. This reading is about who Jesus is, this light that has come into the world and who, in the season of Epiphany, we are taught to see more and more clearly.

Mark chooses his words carefully. The people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he spoke as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Scribes in the synagogue were not mere copyists – they were biblical scholars, charged with reading and interpreting scripture. Their authority was derived from their lifelong study of God’s holy word, as read and interpreted by the generations of scribes that came before them, and the generations before them.

But by the time of Jesus, the teaching of the scribes had become in many places rigid, binding, highly protective of the identity of the Hebrew people as God’s chosen people. They were in the promised land, but so were the Greeks, whose government and gods ruled the day. Out of….fear? Forgetfulness? Self-preservation? A need for control? the religious establishment put their trust in the word of God to define who they were (and who was not one of them).

But that’s not what the Word of God is for. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God was revealed to be not a ‘what’, locked up in parchments and memories, but rather a ‘who’, a living and breathing Word with a face like ours but a power beyond even our imagination. Nothing about Jesus was bound by any word, any knowledge, any establishment – in this very passage he’s healing someone of an unclean spirit on the Sabbath! Jesus is not bound by any word.

In Jesus Christ, the Word of God was revealed to be more than just a tradition, an ancient story of God speaking in the lives of a chosen people. Jesus was the Living Word, moving with us through time and space and skin and bones. Jesus was the Living Word, through whom God spoke love and lived love. To say something is to do something.

Mark does not make clear whether the man with an unclean spirit was possessed by demons or by that same fear or forgetfulness or sense of self-preservation that possessed the scribes. In either case, the distance between the man and the Word of God was measurable – they weren’t speaking the same language. Jesus’ casting out of that unclean spirit is considered by many to supply the meaning behind every miracle of healing he will perform. To make the blind to see or the lame to walk is great, but to heal our rigidity, our fear….to cast out the things that bind us, that keep us from hearing the Word afresh….to make us ask again and again in wonder, What is this? A new teaching, a new life, a new creation, a new spirit….that is astounding, it is amazing.

So how do we tell the world of the meaning of this Word in our lives, the Word spoken through the prophets, the Word made flesh? We can be so like the scribes, bound tightly to the stories we’ve always been told (or have always told ourselves), rigidly defining who we are and who we aren’t, who others are and who they aren’t, desperately reaching for what little control of life we can have. We can be so like the man with the unclean spirit, possessed by fear and a multitude of other things that separate us from God and from others.

But we are also the Body of Christ, part of a new story along that ancient trajectory of the love of an almighty and everlasting and creative God. The pattern of death has been broken, the boundaries of salvation have opened wide the gates, the distance between heaven and earth has been crossed, and we are united one to another as living members of that Body, of that Word.

Another of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, tells the meaning of the Word in her life like this. She suggests that we are like our mother earth, in constant revolution, always moving or we will die. If the earth were not in revolution, there would be no days or nights, no new mornings, and we would suffocate as the very air we breathe and everything else not firmly attached to the ground would drift away. But the revolution that sustains us is not reckless – it does not fling us into unknown space – because we are also on a trajectory around the sun, a path that does not falter around a source that does not waver. Madeleine writes, “As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son.”

What is this? A new teaching – with authority! In Jesus, the Word of God is as new as a baby who is both God and human, and as ancient as the first day of creation. The authority with which he speaks is that of one who is made of flesh and blood and of almighty and everlasting, with no measurable space in between. The healing he offers is that of driving out those things in us that refuse to hear the Word of love spoken since let there be light.

In the words of our own Saint Paul, let us now give glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever. Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2006

3 Epiphany B

Actually, this was my report at the Annual Meeting on 3 Epiphany B

Mark 1:14-20

When I asked Greg what I should talk about that wasn’t already covered in my written report, he suggested I reflect on what it has been like to be the Curate at St. Paul’s this past year. Now, most non-Episcopalians and more than a few Episcopalians smile politely but curiously when I tell them that I am a curate. It’s one of those funny old church words that actually no longer appears in our prayerbook or in the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal church, but many bishops still place their newly ordained priests as assistants in congregations much like this one, and they call us curates.

The word ‘curate’ is drawn from the Latin curatus, which means “entrusted with the care of something.” Originally, the curate was the priest in charge of a geographical area, called a ‘cure’, and he was entrusted with the care of the souls living within that cure. In fact, the word ‘cure’ is related in derivation to the word ‘care’. Over time, the priest in charge became known as the rector or vicar, and the name curate was given to assisting priests.

You know how funny old church words go – we don’t like to give them up, so that newcomers find themselves having to learn a new language when they join the Episcopal church. Where else does the curate wearing a chasuble remove the burse and veil from the chalice and paten before receiving the ciborium from the acolyte?! Last weekend, I attended a conference at Gray Center for priests who are newly ordained, as well as priests who have recently moved to a new parish. The conference leader wrote the words ‘cure’ and ‘curate’ up on the board, noting how they were related, and how those of us at the conference were thus related, all of us taking up new responsibilities, new challenges, new relationships, new journeys.

The next morning, another word had been added to the board, in a different handwriting – ‘c-u-r-i-o-s’. ‘Curios’. It was added anonymously, but I think in good humor and with some insight. Every now and then, when I have to explain my funny old church word job title, when I’m walking up the 23rd Avenue sidewalk before church wearing layers of vestments, when I tell yet another person that no, I’m not a nun, I feel like I belong in curio cabinet, odd and on display.

We all get that feeling sometimes, though, right? When our lives as people of faith, and particularly as Episcopalians, take us in a different direction from the lives of people around us? What a lovely collection of curios we are!

On the last morning of the conference, another anonymous contributor completed the list on the board: cure, curate, curios, curiouser and curioser.

These of course are the words Alice says, deep inside the rabbit hole filled with things labeled “Drink Me” and “Eat Me”. Alice marvels, “This is getting curiouser and curiouser!” as she samples the fare and finds herself growing and shrinking and growing again. Just as she thinks she has gotten the hang of things in Wonderland, a new surprise awaits around a corner or up a tree or at a tea party table.

It’s kind of like being a curate….this Wonderland is filled with people and with things and experiences that call out, “Read Me”, “Study Me”, “Pray Me”, “Pray with Me”, “Visit Me”, “Knit Me”, “Teach Me”, “Hear Me”, “Help Me”, “Preach Me”. Some days I try these things and I get the results I hoped for; some days I don’t. Some days I grow; some days it seems like I shrink. But every day I learn, and every day I discover something new. Just when I think I’ve got the hang of things, a new surprise awaits around a corner or up at the altar or at a bedside or at a vestry meeting.

I looked up the word ‘curious’, and found that it, too, is derived from the Latin word for ‘care’. ‘Curious’ today means ‘eager to learn,’ and it can mean ‘odd or strange,’ but an archaic meaning of the word is ‘extremely careful’. Eager to learn, a little odd (maybe!), extremely careful….curiouser and curiouser is a good description of the life of a curate!

But not just a curate. We are all in this wonderland together, a collection of curios, just trying to get the hang of things before we round the next corner. In a little while we will hear the story of Simon and Andrew, James and John, just getting the hang of a fisherman’s life when around the corner comes Jesus calling out “Follow Me”….and like Alice, they were just curious enough to try. Some days it was everything they hoped for; some days it wasn’t. Some days it seemed everything was going to be okay; some days it didn’t. Some days it was easy to be a disciple; some days it was very, very hard. So it is with us, with Jesus’ disciples in this time and place. “Follow Me,” he offers, and we’ve been just curious enough to try.

I may be the funny old church word ‘curate’ around here, but as much as this is my cure, so have I found myself to be yours. Indeed, we are all in the care of one another, and as disciples of Jesus Christ, all the world is our cure. In this curious, odd, strange year filled with construction dust and growing pains, waves and wind and driving rain, life together has not always been easy. Sometimes it has been very, very hard. But always at the center of our life together is Jesus again, calling “Eat Me,” “Drink Me,” and we kneel side by side to receive what we already are – the Body of Christ.

As the curate, I plan to keep learning this year. Sometimes I will feel fulfilled, and sometimes I will feel frustrated. But at every St. Martha’s Guild and every Senior High Bible Study, at every Prayer Shawl meeting and every budget meeting, at every Healing Service and every Morning Prayer, at every hospital visit and every home visit, I will learn about caring for the soul of another, and I know I will learn how my soul is cared for as well. St. Paul’s has curates because St. Paul’s is full of curates.

The call to discipleship is a call to holy curiousity, the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. In this year may we be curiouser and curiouser together, turning new corners, eager to learn, and full of care. Amen.