“Love Builds Up”
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018
Psalm 111 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Mark 1:21-28
First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho
Pastor Andy Kennaly
Today I’m going to show lots of pictures from the Sabbatical during the potluck and after the Annual Meeting. Shawna and I have over 2500 photos, and it was a lot of work, literally hours and hours, days and days, involved with organizing, filing, and thinning the picture selections to make a presentation that is exhaustive but not exhausting. Finding photos that tell the story without overwhelming people with details is tough when there is so much behind each photo, so many stories to tell, and even more things that took place that never got a picture.
For example, I have some photos that show the Royal Mile in Scotland, which is an old part of Edinburgh, about a mile long stretch between the Queen’s Palace and the Castle on the hill. Lots of shops, restaurants, churches; places that feature historic figures like John Knox from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s, to contemporary, popular people such as J.K Rowling and the café where she wrote many of the scenes for the Harry Potter series, taking names of characters off the tombstones in the church graveyard next door, a Presbyterian Church by the way. But as impressive as the Royal Mile is, and as fun as our tour in Edinburgh with our friend, Ali, was, my pictures don’t show it all.
They fail to show, for example, the people sitting along the sidewalk with cups and cans held out for spare change. It seems many of them are women, a few men, with darker colored skin, like they were not born in Scotland, and they are really struggling. The pictures fail to show the man who was drunk or on drugs, relieving himself as he walked along, pretty much blitzed and he seemed very agitated. They fail to show women carrying purses holding their bags strapped over their shoulders and clutched by their hands so they are not targeted by purse snatchers. In London, we actually saw a robbery take place just ahead of us as two people on a motorcycle came up on the sidewalk, stole a woman’s parcel, then took off.
But those are Big City problems! Glad we don’t have those kinds of problems here: theft, addictions, homelessness, refugees, poverty, despair, violence. We are so blessed to be surrounded by beautiful nature, lovely homes, food on the table, grocery stores with stocked shelves, bank accounts, cars and trucks, families and friends. We can be proud of the responsible lives we lead, of the success we’ve built around us. Do we deserve it? Probably not, but there’s nothing like comfort and security to help you feel great!
We spend a lot of energy being respectable, defending ourselves, of projecting the world’s woes towards other people, thinking it’s their fault things are so screwed up. But what if our pride gets the best of us, and actually contributes to the pain, violence, and suffering in the world? What if our way of life simply reinforces our resistance to enter into suffering? What if we, ourselves, limit our experience of the fullness of life?
We’re pretty good at inoculating ourselves. Since the only thing that can challenge our human pride is our own broken heart, it really takes a lot to get past our strong defenses, to get our attention, let alone bring about action or change. In France, there was a woman outside the big Cathedral we visited and I put some money in her cup. I have no idea what language she was speaking, but she was very thankful that I’d shared some coins. I gave her a couple Euros, not just the little stuff, it was a healthy amount to give away. Usually I don’t give cash because people tend to take it and buy drugs or alcohol, just feed their addictions. Maybe that’s what she did, I have no idea. I don’t who she is or what language she was speaking. Maybe it was French, I couldn’t really tell.
For some reason I just looked like a soft target, pretty much the whole trip. I had one guy come up to me, not to Shawna or our friends, but me, in a cross walk, speaking some language I didn’t know, asking for money, supposedly for food. He was an older man, had a leg deformity and a limp, so he used a cane. I gave him a couple Euros too. None of that stuff is in the slide show. Big City problems, out there, didn’t make the photo album.
Why do these people ask for money? What happened in their life to get them to the point where they thought it was okay to target tourists for spare change? Are they mentally ill? Do they have addictions? Is there someone extorting money from them, like a bad pimp ready to beat them up? Is there no social safety net to help? Are they just looking for extra income, or found a way to make a good living off suckers like me? I have no idea! I don’t know them, I will never see them again, and we don’t even speak the same language. In some ways, I wish I could write them off.
Maybe I was a soft target because I would make eye contact, look at them, and wonder, “Who are they? What’s their story?” Sometimes, I think about them, and wonder if I didn’t give enough. I should have paid them, given them more for ‘snapping me out’ of a tourist daze, for reminding me that reality is more complicated and layered than our typical binary mode of thinking and values of a leisure culture tend to encourage. When I’m feeling more compassionate, as I think about these people with their struggles, in my mind I call them, “brother” or “sister.” I hope their lives are improving and God is being revealed more and more. I also hope that same thing for myself, not so much in a materialistic way, but in the depths of love, a love that builds up, that recognizes through the heart Christ in our midst, honoring God in all things. But it’s an honest to goodness struggle.
In Mark’s Gospel the very first thing Jesus does when his ministry begins, as his disciples follow, involves casting out demons. In the synagogue, a man with an “unclean spirit” has convulsions and screams as the demon comes out. In the dialogue, the demon uses plural language, wondering, “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” The passage, with all it’s drama, shows us what Christ continues to do: reveal the fullness of God’s love and how it creates an abundant life rather than a diminished life, a stronger community, rather than a troubled world. Love builds up. When this man is healed he is restored to society, so this has to do with social justice. When this man is healed, his family is delivered from shame, so this has to do with healed relationships. When this man is healed, the people are amazed and Jesus establishes authority as a religious leader who doesn’t just talk about God like the prideful and powerful scribes, but lives to reveal God through compassionate action, so this has to do with the power of the living Christ revealed. In other words, there are layers of what this passage reveals, and it has to do with lots of things.
Notice the demon, for example, the unclean spirit, whatever it is that has this man captured, doesn’t come out easily. The man goes through convulsions, the man screams and shouts. I imagine it got pretty ugly, kind of scary, certainly unnerving, and yet leads to healing and wholeness. Jesus heals the man, and silences whatever it is that is resisting this. It is removed.
We can link that demon in Mark with all sorts of things in our world. Addictions, greed, violence, whatever the title for the vice may be, most of the time we think those demons don’t live in us! (And they are plural)!
Yet, if we think the demons only belong to others, and we are somehow except from this type of spiritual struggle, this wrestling of our inner natures, then we are setting ourselves up for the very pride mentioned earlier. Paul uses the word “knowledge” in 1 Corinthians. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge, without humility, is very dangerous, toxic to our own soul and to those around, very hazardous.
It’s through the eyes and ears of the heart, especially a broken heart, where we are encouraged as we wrestle and convulse and scream out in struggle for the pain of life’s suffering to stop.
One man shared on a radio show the other day about his adult daughter having complications during pregnancy, and she delivered twins a few months early and eventually one of the babies died. His pain as a grandfather ran so deep that his thoughts turned suicidal. It surprised him because he doesn’t usually think like that. He was ready to jump from a tall building, ready to crash his car into trees or poles. One thought after another kept invading his mind. He didn’t act on any of these impulses, and he said he did not want to die. He just wanted the pain to come to an end, a pain and suffering that ran deeper than he could control. He was ‘out of his mind,’ and in uncharted waters. Being a very stoic white, middle class, older man, it wasn’t until about a week later when he finally talked with his wife about this, and she said she had the similar feelings, the same struggles, just to stay alive in the face of deep pain, finding strength to go on somehow.
Friends, we can domesticate Jesus and the Gospel story. Or, as Christians, we can recognize the Living Christ in our midst going about the gut wrenching, heart shaping work of God in our own lives. Through our own struggles and pain, tearing down our prideful arrogance, we can let those demons go. But they only go kicking and screaming.
Through life’s struggle, the authority of Jesus, the Christ, is building our world on the foundation and solid rock of God’s love. God’s work is wonderful, full of honor and majesty, reminding us that there are no beggars, only brothers and sisters in Christ worthy of redemption. There is no “them,” only “us,” created beings united and bound together in our humanity by the infinite and intimate love of God. God is with us, appealing to our better natures, calling us to make a difference in this world. As love builds up, may we too be amazed at what God is doing in our midst, and let God heal us and our world by breaking our hearts wide open, and filling that space with love, peace, justice, and compassion, so we may show who this Jesus is whom we follow.
God be glorified, now & forever. Amen.