St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788

E-mail: office@stmarymags.ca


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us

Sermon

January 31st Epiphany 4, 2021     John Marsh


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



In the middle of the night a crowd of 30-40 people formed – they were an audience of sorts as they watched three people beat the ‘crap’ out of another.

As punches and kicks rained down upon the fallen individual, no one called out for them to stop, no one sought to intervene in any way – they were a respectful audience not interrupting the performance.

They were lost in ‘the play’, possessed of a sense of unreality.

~

We do know, don’t we, that we can be ‘possessed’ of something beyond ourselves…


We know of crowd behaviour where persons do things that otherwise they would not do…


We know that crowds can be possessed of a spirit which takes over…


We know that individuals, neighbourhoods, municipalities, regions, and nations can be swept up in fervours beyond themselves, a spirit sometimes at the service of wellbeing, sometimes directed to dissolution and destructive behaviours, consider, if you will, the deeply concerning situation in the American capital three weeks ago…


We know that we are possessed of many things, things great and small which may cause us to struggle…


While we tend not to speak of literal demonic possession as explanatory of behaviours, we know, metaphorically speaking, that we can be ‘possessed’ by ‘powers’ beyond ourselves - addictions, mental illness, compulsive behaviours, and obsessional thought processes all of which ‘speak’ to us and enable behaviours…


We know that we are possessed of many things which metaphorically need to be ‘exorcised’…


We know that none of us is immune from disquieting thoughts or the possibility of entering destructive paths…


In an interconnected and an interdependent universe, we know - which is not to say that we don’t sometimes resist such knowledge - that none of us is immune from the vicissitudes of life, from uncertainties emerging from within unknowns…


We know that we are subject to forces beyond ourselves, forces political, economic, social, biological, psychological, personal, and interpersonal, all of which dramatically impact us…


We know that we are affected by others; we know that our words and actions – communally and personally – can affect others…


We know – or perhaps we don’t – that while we can open to hospitality and compassion, we can also give way to destructive paths, paths often shrouded in virtues proclaimed…


We know – or perhaps we don’t – that our life is not our own, that we are interconnected with others…


Given our interconnectivity, we know – or perhaps we don’t – that we need to cultivate a compassionate spirituality, a spirituality, which, if it is authentic, is reflected in outer behaviours and value choices…


As Paul intimates – our behaviours matter; our diet matters; our values matter; the disposition of our heart and mind matters to creation, to our gatherings, gatherings inclusive of church…



We know – or perhaps we don’t – that in and through all, spirit is interwoven, that in and through all, perhaps god, that which is stirring within the name, is inviting, impossible though they seem, possibilities of wholeness from brokenness, possibilities of healing from harm if we but pay attention to the work of compassion and justice making in ordinary time…


In the gospel passage, that one with an unclean spirit ‘knows’ Jesus is not surprising – he may have been ‘disturbed’ but he saw, as do many of those we label as ‘mentally ill’, those we label as ‘mentally challenged’, as broken, as other...


In a fractured world such as ours, it may be that sometimes, those so labelled – see; that sometimes those deemed ‘disposable and broken’ are possessed of a vision which speaks, enacting truth, perhaps embodied truths within experiences of brokenness and harm, perhaps a vision of healing, a yearning for ‘a hidden wholeness’. ¹


To illustrate, consider the following story arising out of our collective ecclesial past, a story told with a hope and a prayer that something is still stirring within our ecclesial present, within futures calling to be risked:


Many years ago, I was the rector of an Anglican parish in a small town in southern Ontario. This was during the time of liturgy wars in which battles were fought over prayer books, language, the frequency of the eucharist and the placement of the altar. In this parish, such wars were being fought; the battle of the moment was over placement of the altar, should it be free standing or not. In this parish, much to my frustration, the altar was sacrosanct in its position against the wall, a conversation non-starter.


One Sunday, my younger brother Paul showed up with his brother in-law Brian. Brian had been pestering Paul to take him to church because Brian insisted on seeing ‘Father John’. Brian has Down’s Syndrome, and it was important for him to see ‘his father’.


While it was not unknown for Paul to be in church, it was unusual, so uncommon that Paul sat stiffly, looking as if he was being strangled by his necktie. As his big brother I relished adding to his discomfort, so I would regularly introduce him during his infrequent visits – older brothers can be such a pain in the ass. As was my habit, I introduced Paul, who nodded formally; I introduced Brian, who with the introduction, stood up and said, “Hello, I’m Brian.” The liturgy began with Brian going up and down every pew introducing himself personally to everyone present. Paul tried to hide.


At the Eucharist, I turned, faced the altar and, with my back to the people, began the Eucharistic Prayer.


After the service, Brian approached me looking visibly upset.


“Father John why are you angry with me?”, his eyes glistening with tears.


“Brian I’m not angry with you.”


“If you’re not angry, why did you turn your back on me when you prayed?”


I was floored by the question - Why indeed!


The next day, determined to move the conversation forward, I pulled the altar away from the wall to respect a truth spoken by one deemed broken.


So is it possible, that we know that as a community of faith, as a people daring to speak of god, taking seriously the name, as a fragile people called to humility and great love, we are to open to possibilities stirring within god’s name, possibilities of truth, possibilities of healing, taking one small step toward wellness and then, perhaps, another…


We know – or perhaps we don’t – that we are invited, perhaps empowered, ‘to speak’ of wholeness by our actions, to not turn our backs on those different, those other…


We know that we will often be frightened, sometimes confused but do we have a choice, is this not where we live?


If, despite our plans, we live sailing a turbulent, unpredictable sea, is it not within this unpredictability that we can open to spectral callings which seek healing in the bosom of hospitality, in risking hearing the voices of those deemed other, odd, perhaps even offensive…


We may be tempted to distance ourselves, to isolate ourselves from the vicissitudes of mind, body and spirit but it is within life’s vagaries that we read sacred texts; it is here, within life’s complexities and confusions, that we sing sacred songs, here that we confess and practice ‘shalom’; it is within ordinary, unpredictable life that we pray and break bread together, here that we are empowered to more than we can ask or imagine, here that we can welcome the lost, the broken, the hungry and the ‘possessed’ because we know all too well the uncertainty, the unpredictability of living and, if so knowing, perhaps, we will be willing, so I hope and pray, to risk possibilities of healing, daring life’s work in ordinary time, in ordinary places…                                                                                                                                                              

~

The sound of the beating awakened a couple in a neighbouring house. Looking out the window, one of them said, ‘Call the police and tell them someone is being severely beaten’. Pulling on a pair of gym shorts, he headed down the stairs and out the door. Approaching the gathered crowd, he used his best parental voice, shouting, “Stop this now!” As if a spell was broken, the crowd turned to see a semi-naked man walking toward them. With the crowd parting as he walked through, he shouted again, “I said stop this now!” The attackers paused. “Back off!” the man ordered as sirens were heard approaching.

~


An Appendix

The passage from 1 Corinthians is one which admittedly strikes most as obscure and irrelevant, possibly meaningless. To better understand it, let’s begin with a story…


I grew up in suburban south-western Ontario during the 50’s and 60’s; this was the locale of the white collar, white skin and white bread. At some point in my teenage years, I developed a taste for a hitherto unknown and hence bizarre food product – yogurt. The presence of yogurt in the fridge was enough to cause quite a stir in the household.


“Betty what’s this in the fridge?”


My mother, looking at the tub in my father’s hand said, “It’ yogurt – I think it’s John’s.”


“Yogurt - who the hell eats yogurt?”


As I entered the kitchen, oblivious to the unfolding food crisis, an obvious threat to life as we knew it, my father bellowed, “John, what’s with the yogurt; are you becoming a Hindu?”


My father’s question was triggered not simply by the presence of what was considered an exotic food but also by my growing interest in matters spiritual and religious. In other words, yogurt was not just yogurt – it was expressive of possibilities of life and practices which went beyond the pale of suburban decency. Yogurt was difference; and difference carried the contagion of change; and change threatened the collapse of convention.


Within my story, eating yogurt was viewed as a threat to suburban normalcy; in Corinth, some of the believers viewed eating food sacrificed to idols as a threat to their understanding of the acceptable conventions of Christian faith². Paul’s response is food is just food and idols are nothing, so eating food sacrificed to ‘nothing’ presents no problem. But life is never that simple! And it is here that the genius of Paul presents itself.


In the authentic Pauline letters, Paul never engages in theological or mystical discourse disconnected from communal considerations or relational realities. To put it more directly, all theological considerations are relational, and all relational considerations are theological, neither can be imposed, outcomes must be considered. Eating ‘sacrificial food’, in and of itself, poses no problem but if such a practice causes ‘problems’ then ‘correct’ theology (knowledge) does not justify the imposition of that practice regardless of outcomes.


All forms of imposition are sins against Christ, sins against love which ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, [and] endures all things’ (I Corinthians 13:7).


However, before leaving our point we must take note of the possibility of tyranny by those utilizing Paul’s communal praxis as a political tool to derail or delay decisions, actions, or any form of change. Paul’s counsel assumes, requiring a commitment to shared communal prayer and respectful practice as a matter of faith.


Regarding the inevitability of making required decisions, the praxis of shared prayer and compassion is determinative for members of the body of Christ. In the face of making choices, appeals to and/or justifications of, separation, isolation, and the politics of factionalism are destructive to the body of Christ.  As followers of the Christ, we may disagree, dislike, and despair of others behaviour but we are to heed the call to love which ‘builds up’. If you do not understand this, you do not understand Paul, to which Paul would add, you do not understand the good news of god in Christ.


 ¹From a phrase of Thomas Merton’s; taking a cue from Merton, Parker Palmer also has entitled a book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

 ²Eating food sacrificed to idols was inherent to the religious, economic, political, and social fabric of the gentile world. Eating such food, whether in the form of leftovers sold at a discounted rate or by participating in temple cultic meals was inextricably linked to the honouring of civic gods who were the protectors and guarantors of life as it was meant to be lived. As such the discussion in 1 Corinthians is far more than a question of lifestyle choice.