Sermon for Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021 B

4 Epiphany – B January 31, 2021

Deut 18: 15-20, Ps 111, 1 Cor 8: 1-13, Mark 1: 21-28

It was a bright sunny day in Jamaica, and the streets were full of color and music and joy. Mike and I were wandering through a wonderful marketplace, entranced by the whole experience. At the edge of a shop we stopped and watched in fascination for quite a while. A woman was braiding the hair of a young girl into the fanciest, most complicated set of braids I had ever seen. The braids were tight, and they were braided into other braids, as a beautiful pattern of interwoven plaits emerged on top of and on the back of her head. It was pure artistry, and defied replication, at least, in my hands. The braids were completely interwoven and interlocked, distinct, and yet all of one piece. The image in my head today is as clear as it was on that day.

This is just to say, I’m going to violate one of the rules of sermon writing. We have always been taught to choose one of the readings—and only one—to work into a sermon. But today, all four readings weave themselves together just as in a braid, tight and beautiful and unforgettable. They speak of wisdom and authority, love and action, prophecy and truth.

The reading in Deuteronomy falls in the major body of the book where a collection of laws provide a peek into a major cultural renewal. In this particular passage Moses seems to remind his listeners that a prophet only comes from God, and as such, speaks words that God sends to his people. Churches do not produce prophets, nor do idols. God speaks through prophets and imbues them with wisdom and authority. You can tell, Moses reminds us all, if a prophet is really a prophet. You can tell by the works that he/she does, by the words that he/she speaks. The words “wisdom” and “authority” become the standard of truth.

Psalm 111 is a song of praise for the ultimate wisdom of God. The psalmist sings to us, “The fear (respect) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. All those who practice it have a good understanding.” We are reminded to listen with respect, heeding the words that come from the ultimate wisdom, and that brings us to a point of understanding.

Paul writes to the Corinthians about the difference between knowledge and love. “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” We may know better than others around us, but acting out of love keeps us from causing others to fall. I kept a little sticky note with these exact words, “knowledge puffs up, love builds up,” right at my desk all the years that I taught. Wisdom is knowing how to love in spite of our infinite knowledge, in spite of knowing better than anyone around us. The words come back to haunt me in these times of odd political stances and so much polarization between those who are right and those who are right. Looking beyond knowledge keeps us in the wisdom and love of God. It keeps us Christian, it keeps us disciples. It keeps us on the way of love.

And in the gospel, Jesus amazes those in the temple with his authority, with his wisdom, with his ability to cleanse and drive out evil spirits. Jesus acts with the authority of a prophet sent by God, with the very word of God acting in truth and power and love. The word “authority” acts as a bookend on each end of this passage—“they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes…What is this? A new teaching—with authority.” Why did Jesus speak with so much authority? He was in the presence of scribes, dedicated and intelligent men of the Jewish faith who had spent their lives in study. They were no slouches. The passage is not meant to put down their faith, but rather to indicate new teachings. The scribes taught from a position of deep tradition, handed down through the centuries. They were charged with keeping the Jewish religion pure, free of idolatrous teachings. Jesus brings new thoughts, new positions. What is this new teaching? What is this wisdom? To heal, to cast out evil, to speak truth, to act in love and compassion. To take care of the least of us and to do it all in the name of the one who is Love, who is our authority. It was radical, really, and still is. It was a call to the church then, and just as clearly is a call to the church today.

This understanding and awareness of authority, wisdom, love, and action comes to us in an important time of transition. We are watching the federal transition of power, threatened with violence, play out in a renewed atmosphere of authority and wisdom. But beyond the national and very political scene, we are seeing everywhere, on every level, a new call for wisdom, for reacting in love, for action imbued with authority that comes from true wisdom. The call comes to end racism and bias, to provide for the least of us, to rescue the Earth from her people’s carelessness, to heal ourselves of illness and blindness, to reach out to all people with understanding and trust. It is a time of upheaval—and hope, actually. It is a “big work,” as Godly Play puts it. We are called to be Jesus people, with all the wisdom and authority that goes with that calling. We are called to make a difference, both in our actions and in our words. The weaving of authority with respect, of wisdom and love, of action and faith, form the fabric of our faith and of our lives. That weaving should be like the most intricate of braids, interwoven, secure, unbreakable. And beautiful, bespeaking of power.

We have come to a new understanding of church, thanks to Covid. Oh how we miss meeting together, singing our beautiful songs, worshiping in our particular church home, hearing and saying the familiar words, and sharing the sacraments. Oh how we miss the hugs and hand shakes, the back of our friends’ heads, the special pew that is ours, the way the light plays through the sanctuary. Oh my, what a longing I have for all the various forms of worship, from the smells, bells, and songs of the Saturday evening service, to the quiet reverence of the 8:00, to the exuberant and happy gathering of the 11:00.

But we (I) have learned to do without that, and still know what church is.

We still gather, pray, listen, worship, sing, and know that we are a people together. It doesn’t look or feel the same, but it is our church at the moment. Beyond taped and zoomed services, we are still church, still a Jesus-people doing Jesus-work, even though the walls that bind us and comfort us are not accessible. The work of our church, as indicated in all those annual reports from the missions of the church, continues strongly. Hospitality Village, Stephen Ministries, Children’s Ed, Vestry—to name only a few. People working internally and externally to carry on with the work we are called to do. We have discovered something important. We survive because we keep doing Jesus-things. We love, we care for, we bind up, we provide, we reach out, we speak the good news of God’s love, we keep on keeping on. For Jesus. For the love of our fellow people. For the healing of the world and ourselves. We are a lot like the early church in that respect—meeting as we are able, in small groups, finding our way in new forms of worship. And never failing to reach for those that need our help.

I think Jesus would approve of that. He was never one for fancy buildings and church services. He was always out on the hillsides and village streets, reaching and teaching, healing and loving, speaking with authority and wisdom and love. He never once said, “worship me.” But many times, then and now, he says, “follow me.” “Follow me” into the places that are hard to go, speaking words that aren’t so popular, finding ways to worship on hillsides and in boats. “Follow me” as we speak with authority and love to our enemies, to those trapped in demoniac illness, to the very people who would try to destroy us. “Follow me” and we will make a difference in our world, with our actions, with our love, with authority that comes from God, with wisdom.

God calls us. Let us all and each one listen, respond and go forth in love.

Amen.Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2021 B