B: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 The Witness of Intimacy and Freedom

Jan. 29, 2006

1 Corinthians 7:32-35

In the homily today I’m going to step out on thin ice.  So I ask you to be patient and forgiving.  Because whenever a celibate person decides to speak on marriage, things can become embarrassing.  It is like the two elderly Irish women who were leaving church one Sunday morning.  The archbishop of that area had just come to their parish and had preached a lengthy sermon on marriage.  As the two women were leaving church, the one said to the other, “Maggie, sure it was a fine homily that his Reverend placed before us this morning on the holy sacrament of marriage! Was it not?”  “Indeed it was,” said Maggie, “His words were so beautiful, so perfect, so eloquent.  I only wish one thing.  I wish that I could know as little about the subject as he did.”

So why would this celibate take up this perilous topic?  Because of today’s second reading.  In that reading, Paul gives the Corinthians some advice. He compares the celibate and the married life.  Because these words of Paul are so easily and so often misunderstood, they require some comment.  We must remember that Paul, as in all of his letters, is addressing a specific congregation at a specific period of time.  Paul is trying to give the Corinthians advice on whether they should enter marriage or not.  His advice is intended to be very practical.  In fact his central concern is expressed in his introduction to the topic: “I would like all of you to be free of anxiety.”

Now Paul knows that both married people and unmarried people are anxious, and he describes their anxiety.  He says that the unmarried person is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, whether he or she is doing all that is necessary to build the Kingdom. The married person is also anxious about the affairs of the Lord, for he or she is also called to build God’s Kingdom. But the married person is also anxious about pleasing his or her spouse.  According to Paul marriage involves more anxiety.  That is why Paul says that married persons are divided.  They must give some of their anxiety to building the Kingdom and some of their anxiety to pleasing their spouse.

Paul eventually recommends that the Corinthians do not enter into marriage.  It is only a recommendation, and it is not given because Paul thinks that there is anything wrong with marriage.  Paul recommends celibacy because he believes it’s easier, it involves less anxiety.  Paul, like all early followers of Christ, believed that Jesus would return in glory within the next few months, that the world would soon come to an end and a new creation be established. Therefore, his advice to the Corinthians at that particular time in history was: Keep it simple.  Keep it easy.  Don’t complicate your life with more responsibilities because the world is coming to an end.

Now subsequent generations of Christians took Paul’s words and read them in new contexts.  They concluded that celibacy was a higher way of living, that marriage was second rate.  If you look at today’s passage, however, Paul doesn’t say any of that.  He prefers celibacy because he thinks it’s easier, simpler, in light of the fact that the world is passing away.

You and I do not live in a world where we expect the immediate return of Christ.  So what value, if any, are these particular words of Paul to the Corinthian community for us?  To answer that question let us look at another verse of today’s second reading: Let each of you live the life that has been assigned to you, the life to which God has called you. What Paul clearly believes and what the church today teaches is that every person has a calling from God.  The Latin word for calling is “vocation”.  Every person has a vocation to build God’s Kingdom.  Some do that through the married life, some do that by remaining single.  Most of us here in church today know to which vocation God is calling us.  Others among us are still discerning what that call is. This is fine and good.  But all of us should know that each of us has a vocation to serve the Lord, either as a married person or as a single person.

So instead of opposing these two states of life to each other, or trying to figure out which is better, it is much more helpful to recognize that each of these two states of life reveals an essential quality of every full human life.  Marriage and celibacy reveal the importance of intimacy and freedom.  The gift of marriage is that it gives witness to the essential nature of intimacy in every person’s life.  A married person lives his or her life by making a commitment to live a life in mutuality and love with another human person.  Out of that relationship of respect and intimacy, new life comes.  New life for the spouses, new life as family emerges in the gift of children.  Of course, the intimacy of marriage is not all hearts and flowers.  There are disagreements, there are struggles, there are necessary negotiations.  But marriage testifies to the fact that no one can live a full human life without some kind of intimate, committed relationship to another human being.  The witness of marriage, then, is a witness to intimacy. The witness of celibacy is a witness to freedom.  Because the unmarried person does not assume the responsibilities of a spouse or children, he or she is freer to use his or her time and energy for the service of God’s people.  Celibate persons are not to use such freedom selfishly, but to build the Kingdom of God.

Marriage and celibacy compliment each other because every person needs a combination of intimacy and freedom in their lives.  The unmarried person requires intimacy.  The intimacy of the celibate does not involve sexual expression as it is in marriage. But every celibate person must build and maintain intimate and honest relationships with family and friends.  If the unmarried person does not do this, their freedom becomes empty and sterile.  Without intimacy in their lives, unmarried people become selfish bachelors and self-absorbed spinsters.  Married people require freedom in their lives.  Married people need to know and appreciate that their personhood is larger than the roles of spouse or parent.  Married people grow when they realize that the call to build God’s Kingdom is a larger vocation than simply the call of family.  Without the freedom to extend their love beyond spouse and family, their lives can become narrow and stifling, even a kind of oppression.

All of us, then, require a mixture of intimacy and freedom in our lives.  Therefore, we should all follow the advice of Paul:  “Live the life to which God has called you.”  If you are called to married life, then live your marriage vocation clearly, giving witness to the intimacy in your life.  But at the same time be open to the witness of freedom that comes from celibacy.  If you are unmarried, then use your freedom to serve God’s people. But do not ignore the witness of married life which reminds you that life is not to be lived in isolation, that a complete life requires deep relationships with others.

If we can live the life to which we have been called, and learn from the example of those who live another vocation, then we can together become the people, and the church that God calls us to be.

 

The Power of Example

February 1, 2009

Mark: 1: 21 – 28

Pete was a retired sailor. His best friend was his pet parrot who stayed on a special perch in his house and would travel with Pete on his shoulder whenever he went out for daily errands.  One day the parrot began to cough and cough and cough. Pete became worried.  He began to think that the parrot was dealing with second hand smoke, because Pete smoked a pipe and its smoke routinely filled up the house.  So Pete took the parrot to a veterinarian.  Pete paced back and forth in the waiting room as the vet worked on the diagnosis.  After a whole battery of tests the vet came out and said, “Pete, your parrot is fine. His lungs are perfectly clear.”  “But what about the cough?” Pete objected, “It is constant.”  The vet said “He’s imitating you. Make an appointment with your doctor and get your lungs checked.”

We all influence one another. Consciously or unconsciously people learn from our example.  In that learning, our actions speak louder than our words.  This truth is included in today’s gospel. I wondered if you noticed it as the gospel was being proclaimed.  All the people in the story are amazed by Jesus’ teaching, and yet the story never tells us what Jesus is teaching.  It does not give us any words of Jesus.  What it gives us instead is Jesus’ powerful expulsion of a demon.  What impressed people about Jesus was not his teaching but his deeds.  Not his words but his actions.  If we are going to follow Jesus, then we need to be conscious of our actions and how they influence others.

This is particularly important for parents and grandparents because they are always telling their children and grandchildren what to do.  But what do their children and grandchildren see in their actions?  Can they see, in the way that they treat their spouse, mutuality and love? Can they recognize, in the way that they treat others of a different nationality or of a different faith or race, a respect and recognition of their equality in God’s eyes?  Can the children recognize in the way that they shop or use their financial resources that their parents and grandparents are people of integrity, people of honesty?

What do the people we work with see in our actions?  Can they perceive in what we do and how we treat one another that we consider them valuable?  Or do we talk a good story but really ignore other’s needs?  What do our actions say to our friends?  Can they see in the things we do that we are people who respect life, who care for those in need, who treat other with fairness?  Or are our friendship relations just a matter of entertainment and pleasantries?

What we do influences others.  It influences them for good or ill.  Our actions either display our enthusiasm or our negativity, our commitment or our cough.  Words are important but actions make the difference.  On this day as we hear of Jesus’ great action in the gospel, we should follow him and be aware that our actions matter and in the choices that we make, in the time we invest, in the people that we love. That is how we make a difference.  Small and selfish actions lead others astray, and actions of generosity and justice build the kingdom of God.

 

Demons in Holy Places

January 29, 2012

Mark 1:21-28

Perhaps the most useful question we could ask about today’s Gospel is: What is an unclean spirit doing in a synagogue? It was commonly accepted in the world of Jesus that evil moved around the world in the form of unclean spirits or demons. Sickness, family trouble, even natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes were the result of these evil spirits at work. So why is this unclean spirit in a synagogue? A synagogue was a holy place, a place where Jews gathered to study the law and to praise God. Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches with authority. We have a holy place, a holy assembly, and a holy teaching. In the midst of all this goodness, a demon cries out, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What is this spirit doing there? We certainly presume that he did not come to listen to Jesus’ teaching.

I would like to suggest to you that the Gospel situates the unclean spirit in the synagogue to teach us something about evil. Sometimes we think that evil can be limited to only certain places, that unclean spirits can be restricted to the graveyard, the deep woods, or where thieves gather. Sometimes we imagine that if we are very good people, if we love and act with justice, if we have faith in God, then we can keep evil away from where we are. This Gospel warns us that such thinking is naïve. If an unclean spirit can shout out in a holy synagogue and in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, then evil can appear anywhere. Evil in the form of sickness, anxiety, even in natural disasters seems to have the ability to move freely throughout the world. It attacks people indiscriminately: the rich and the poor, the moral and the immoral, those who believe in God and those who do not. Evil seems to have access to every place and person.

Now, two important truths flow from this insight. The first is this: When evil touches our lives, we should not automatically conclude that we have done something wrong. When a family member is killed in a tragic accident, when someone we love is diagnosed with cancer, when we have to deal with a death, addiction, or divorce, we should not necessarily conclude, “If only I had been a better person, I could have kept this evil away.” Evil has more access than we imagine. I assure you if you go down to the Cleveland Clinic and look in the cancer ward, not everyone there will be a criminal. If you survey the people who were so tragically killed last year in the tsunami, you would find that many of them were wonderful people who prayed regularly. Evil moves around our world and has access to every person and place.

This leads to the second important truth: If evil has as such access to our lives, then our strategy cannot be how can I prevent evil from coming, but rather how do I deal with evil when it arrives? If we cannot keep evil away, then we must ask, “How can I confront it?” Here is where faith is helpful. We believe in faith that we have access to the power of God, a power that is stronger than the power of evil. So when evil touches our life, we can draw upon our faith in God and ask for God’s assistance. Faith allows us to have courage in the face of sickness, to have hope after divorce, to find strength even in failure and peace in the face of death. The same Jesus who drove the demon out of the synagogue is our Lord. We can turn to him and ask for his strength as we face the demons in our lives.

If an unclean spirit can appear in a holy synagogue, evil can touch us in any place. Therefore, when evil enters our lives, it does not make sense to ask: “What did I do to invite the demon in?” Instead, we should turn to the Lord and ask him to drive the demon out.

 

The Comma

February 1, 2015

Mark 1:21-28

The United Church of Christ has sponsored a rather extensive campaign to promote the gospel. The title of the campaign is “God is still speaking.” The statement asserts that God has a message and a meaning for our lives today. Another part of this campaign is a red banner on which there is nothing except one large comma. Now, of course the banner is meant to provoke our interest to ask, “What’s the comma?” The comma refers to a quotation from Gracie Allen. In one of her diaries she writes, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Often in our lives when we experience pain or trouble, we conclude that misery will last forever. We place a period and say, “That’s it. I’m finished.” The comma is a sign of hope, an indication that we will not remain where we are forever. God can move us forward. God can do something new.

Now new things are certainly happening in today’s gospel in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus enters with a new teaching and a new authority. The man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit needs something new. The evil spirit that possesses him has robbed him of his freedom and of his joy. The man has probably concluded, “I’m done. This spirit will continue to enslave me for the rest of my life.” But then Jesus speaks and the spirit cries out. The man begins to understand that what he thought was the end was only a pause. Jesus drives out the demon, and the man enters into a new life.

When you and I feel that we have come to the end of our rope, that nothing new can happen, today’s gospel encourages us to hope that God can move us forward. When we find ourselves alienated from our friends, because we said something that was wrong, did something that was cruel, or tried to slip by with a lie, we can find our relationships in shambles. Today’s gospel encourages us to believe that estrangement does not have to be final, that apologies work, and that humility has traction. God can heal what is broken.

When we are dismayed because of the bad decisions made by our children or our grandchildren, we say, “Things could have been so well if they had used money responsibly, if they married somebody else, if they avoided alcohol and drugs. But now they are finished. They have no future.” This gospel asks us to believe that God can still surprise us. God can still move the people we love beyond their mistakes.

When we are devastated because we have lost someone that we love in death, and the hole in our heart is so huge that we are certain we will never recover, this gospel encourages us to believe that God can still save us, still move us to a new place.

Never put a period where God has placed a comma. Our lives may have ground to a halt. But where we find ourselves is not the end. We believe in a God who can do new things and is committed to save us. Jesus can drive the demon out. Our God can move us past the painful pause and lead our lives to a blessed conclusion.