The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany – January 31, 2021
I Corinthians 8:1-13
In this time of protest, pandemic, and insurrection, today’s readings may seem irrelevant to many congregants. In mainstream and progressive churches, we typically don’t talk about unclean spirits, the authority of prophets, or food sacrificed to idols. We are loathe to establish theological or doctrinal litmus tests; in fact, many of us, even in creedal churches are open to a variety of interpretations of faith. Our spirituality tends to be horizontal rather than vertical. If we find God anywhere, it is not in terms of law giving from high or transcendent sovereign dictates, but the ethical processes of daily life. Few of us presume to speak for God, and mistrust preachers who speak from God’s voice to our ears. We don’t diagnose illness as caused by evil spirits, we’re a bit suspicious about those who claim “thus says the Lord,” especially if they call down fire and brimstone for our nation’s waywardness, and our diets are determined by health issues and personal taste rather than religious restrictions. But perhaps there is more to these passages than meets the eye.
We have seen the false prophets and idolatry of the TrumpChurch. We have seen embrace of falsehood whether dealing with the pandemic or election results by Christian leaders. We have heard Christian leaders speak of God choosing a particular presidential candidate and even overcoming the popular and electoral votes.
Many of us believe that we needed an exorcism not only in the White House but in our churches. We need to march around the Jerichos of idolatry so that walls of disease and destruction will fall down.
Discerning who should speak for God is a challenge in progressive congregations. We are typically not laboratories for mysticism or Pentecostal prophesies. We also affirm God’s presence in a variety of religious experiences, including the insights of non-Christians. Our faith is pluralistic and syncretistic in many ways. Yet, our denominational ministry committees regularly make decisions regarding ordination. Seldom, do they presume to ask about the candidate for ministry’s mystical experiences. We understand the notion of “call” on a horizontal, incremental level, and at times are suspicious of dramatic religious experiences.
Still, while we subscribe to the ubiquity of divine inspiration and the priesthood of believers, we set certain people apart to share God’s good news, celebrate the sacraments, guide our spiritual lives, and provide comfort and guidance in the transition from this life to the next. God is “in this place,” our lives, and we can experience God in ways that transform our communities and politics as well as ourselves.
How are we to discern those among us who speak words most revelatory of God’s nature, especially if we recognize no one-to-one correspondence between human words and divine revelation? Our humility about having the whole truth and our affirmation of God’s many voices does not nullify the reality that some revelations are superior to others, some speakers more insightful and transparent to God, and that God may choose to be more present in some persons than others. Revelation is uneven both in its conveyance and its reception. We must immerse ourselves in prayer and meditation so that we may become prophetic healers and contemplative activists.
As a pastor, I receive all sorts of professional and spiritual authority I may not initially deserve, or feel that I deserve given my own fallibility, and this challenges me to walk the talk as well as to grow spiritually, intellectually, ethically, and professionally. People put their spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of their children and vulnerable parents in my hands. Spiritual leadership is, accordingly, a matter of character and experience as well as training. Perhaps it is also a matter of “awe” and “fear and trembling” as Psalm 11l asserts.
On what basis should we decide if a prophet is speaking untruths? Would this apply to preachers who justify God overturning legal elections, expelling undocumented immigrants who grew up in this country, who speak of jail sentences for gays and lesbians, identify natural disasters as punishment for sinfulness, or support presidential comments that suggest the citizens of certain nations are inferior to European Americans? Surely, we progressives also have our “court prophets,” and anyone of us is tempted to skim over the truth to avoid conflict and dissension or to make peace in our congregations.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians address both spiritual leaders and lay people. “Don’t get in the way of other peoples’ spiritual growth to satisfy your own need to be orthodox or theologically correct. Don’t let your own liberalism or latitude on certain rules harm those who scruples differ from your own!” Our calling is to be faithful in our relationships with those entrusted to us. Our public and relational lifestyle is not individualistic but communal in nature. My words and actions can, inadvertently, lead others astray. I know this as a parent, grandparent, and spiritual guide. Someone is always watching and I need to cultivate inner spirituality that is reflected in my outer behavior and values choices. My life is solely not my own. In an interdependent universe and in the systems of family and church, it shapes the realities of others.
We know that we don’t always measure up to our highest spiritual, ethical, or relational values. We are fallible, sometimes ornery, impatient, and defensive. I know this first-hand not only as a pastor but as a parent and grandparent. My young grandchildren will learn much about life from me. My actions inspire their growth; and, as a daily grandparent, the “homework grandparent,” my interests shape their interests. My care supports their sense of self-esteem and trust in the universe. In relationship to them, my calling is to provide the best possible vision of mature, playful, growing, compassionate, adventurous, and committed humanity. Paul reminds us to go beyond self-interest and self-involvement to care for others as much as I care for myself. It is not about us but God’s vision for the world, our communities, and our fulfillment occurs in light of the wellbeing of the whole.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians have to be read in light of his image of the body of Christ. Our lifestyle brings health and illness to the body as a whole and may have unique impact on certain bodily organs. Our diet matters. Our behaviors matter. Our values matter in our overall well-being; and the same applies to the church. Our attentiveness to God enables our lives to speak for God, and this is grounded in listening for God’s guidance in our lives. As Paul recognizes elsewhere, our erudite and prophetic words are ultimately judged by our love and care in the context of our faith communities and personal relationships. Can you truly be a prophet without love? Can you truly be a prophet without seeking to reconcile as well as challenge?
In the gospel reading, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit. In ancient times, mental health issues were often identified with spiritual possession. Something was believed to “take over” a person’s psyche, imprisoning them by forces greater than themselves. While we cannot rule out spirit possession, we know that we are possessed by many things that need to be exorcised. Virtually all of us have behaviors that we struggle with, addictions and compulsions large and small. We know often what’s best for us, but often also succumb to temptation. Like the man in the story, we need assistance from an energy and wisdom greater than our own.
At the same time, we need to embrace persons dealing with issues of trauma, emotional and mental health. We must not stigmatize mental health issues but see them as opportunities for healing and loving embrace.
In today’s reading, the unclean spirit is more perceptive than the synagogue audience or Jesus’ first followers. The unclean spirit clearly knows who Jesus is, and the nature of Jesus’ power. Was the unclean spirit recognizing Jesus as a threat or was there something in the spirit’s make up that was seeking healing and wholeness? Do the evil spirits have a sense of “original wholeness” toward which they aspire? Divine inspiration touches the clean and unclean alike; the faithful and the wayward both receive divine guidance.
Today’s reading invites us to take seriously persons with mental health issues and persons whose self-presentations make us uncomfortable. We don’t speak of “unclean” people but we all have people – and groups – we avoid. All of us are connected and no one can claim immunity from the vicissitudes of mind, body, and spirit. God is concerned with every aspect of our lives and wants to restore each of us to wholeness. We can speak words from God to each other, and support each other’s well-being and movement from sickness to health. We need to remember Mother (Saint) Teresa’s counsel to see God in all God’s distressing disguises. (For more on Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly, “Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B” and “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.)
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 60 books, including FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR PEACEMAKERS AND JUSTICE SEEKERS; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and A CENTER IN THE CYCLONE: 21ST CENTURY CLERGY SELF-CARE.