Adventurous Lectionary – Epiphany 4 – January 28, 2024

Adventurous Lectionary – Epiphany 4 – January 28, 2024 January 22, 2024

The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany – January 28, 2024

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

Today’s readings join prophesy, diet and spirituality, and, to top it off, demon possession. Quite a cocktail for preacher and congregation alike!  Most of our progressive congregations pay little heed to all three issues. We speak of prophetic faith yet are uncomfortable with people who say they are speaking for God. We go on weight loss programs, but typically don’t connect food with faith.  We have few, if any, religious dietary prohibitions, but seldom consider the social aspects of our diets or promote food equity. What we eat and drink is a matter of personal choice.  And, demon possession: we have psychological descriptions for mental health issues, and don’t look for demonic forces.  And, yet, these passages may be relevant to our current spiritual and political world.  We don’t need to literalize scripture to see its importance in interpreting and guiding our lives.

First, the prophets!  We seldom say we are speaking for God or assume some sort of direct connection to deity for our most perceptive social critics. We assume they are humans, following the gospel, but don’t think of God directly speaking to them.  When we think of today’s words on prophets, perhaps we need to follow the Oracle of Delphi’s counsel to Socrates: he was the wisest of humans because he was aware of his ignorance. Those who share God’s word had best balance “thus saith the Lord” with “first do no harm,” or as little harm as possible.

Our time of technological sophistication has given birth to self-styled and self-anointed prophets, those chosen by God to determine the end times, sexual ethics, and presidential leadership.  We have seen the false prophets and idolatry of the Trump Church. The identification of the antithesis of Jesus as Jesus’ chosen one.  “God made Trump,” as a video proclaims, and Trump will care for “the flock,” will protect them and never leave them, words aimed at Jesus. We  have seen embrace of falsehood whether dealing with the pandemic or election results by Christian leaders. Of course, if you believe that your leader is anointed, or you are anointed, it is a short step to describe those who challenge you as demonic and worthy of retribution!

Many of us believe that we need an exorcism not only in a major political party but in our churches. We need to march around the Jerichos of idolatry so that walls of disease and destruction will fall down and a new city arise.

Discerning who should speak for God is a challenge in progressive congregations. We are typically not laboratories for mysticism or Pentecostal prophesies. Revelation is global not parochial. We 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 direct 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.  We can speak boldly and also humbly.  We can do justice, and also walk humbly with God. Humility and fallibility do not nullify the message we have.

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 along with judges and federal prosecutors, identify natural disasters as punishment for sinfulness, or support presidential comments that suggest that Central American immigrants are thugs and rapists inferior to European Americans? Surely, we progressives also have our “court prophets,” and any one 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 not solely my own. In an interdependent universe and in the systems of family and church, it shapes the realities of others.  I must ensure that I speak the truth and report the facts as I know them, and steer clear of circulating falsehoods as if they are truth.  I must be sufficiently agnostic and discerning to tell the truth from lies, and recognize the fallibility and limitations of my own positions, while promoting these same theological and political positions as the most worthy for consideration.

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. Often we know 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.  We are all in need of healing.  We are all part of a community of persons in need of God’s grace and a loving community.

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.)

We can ask ourselves if our words reflect God’s vision.  We can challenge ourselves to integrity and care for the vulnerable in our midst.  With humility we can confront the “demonic” in our midst by offering healing alternatives and seeing Christ in those who most trouble us.


Rev. Bruce Epperly Ph.D. has served as a professor, seminary administrator, university chaplain, and congregational pastor at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, and South Congregational Church United Church of Christ on Cape Cod.  “Retired,” he continues to teach in the Doctoral of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary, give seminars, write, and rejoice in grandparenting and marriage with Rev. Dr. Kate Epperly.  An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of over eighty books, “The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism,” “Jesus: Mystic, Healer, and Prophet,” “Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism,” “Simplicity, Spirituality, and Service: The Eternal Wisdom of Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure,” and “Taking a Walk with Whitehead: Meditations with Process-Relational Theology.”  His books on faith and politics include, “Talking Politics with Jesus: A Process Perspective on the Sermon on the Mount,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” and “Process Theology and Politics.




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