Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalms 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28 January 31, 2021 – 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
It is people who aren’t ‘in the power game’ or devoted to one point of view or another who can see Jesus for who he is. The Pharisees are only trying to build a case against him that will permit him to be put to death.
The disciples believe he is the Promised One, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but they expect him to triumph over the powers of this world.
They cannot get it into their minds that he has come to lead them to victory over their enemies. They cannot understand that he has come to save them from death itself. They push back against him when he says that he will have to die to deliver God’s gift to them.
They think they know who God is… and they have their own understanding of God’s will for them and their nation. The only trouble is that when you think you understand God, the only thing you can know for sure is that you have created God in your own image.
It is God who has created you in the divine image, and God delivers us again and again into circumstances that are strange to us and wants us to do something…but we can’t seem to know what that something is.
It’s like humility. That’s something I would like to think I have, when I am so proud of how humble I am when I think I have it I only have pride. You would think it would be easy to be humble, but it is hard.
There is that old country western song that calls us to account for this human frailty. It goes, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,/When you’re perfect in every way./I can’t wait to look in the mirror,/’Cause I get better looking each day./To know me is to love me./I must be a heck of a man./O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,/ But I’m doing the best that I can.”
We laugh the best when we can laugh at ourselves…and maybe there is a little bit of genuine humility in that laughter.
But there is one person in our gospel reading that is humble. He is neither a Pharisee nor a disciple. He is an outcast. No one wants to claim him…and he does not have to choose between what the Pharisees believe and what the disciples believe and what his neighbors believe.
His sight is not clouded by a desire to belong or a need to be right. He is ‘wrong’…there has been something wrong with him…he has been all wrong…since the day he was born. What would he give to be right for a change? What a miracle it would be if he felt blessed…even in the midst of his difficulties.
One of the great privileges of my life was getting to sit next to the Dean of the Montana House of Representatives during my freshman session as a State Representative.
Frances Bardanouve was a rancher from Harlem, Montana and when I got there in 1983, Frances was serving his 13th term in the House. He had a hair lip and a cleft palate, and he walked bent forward with one shoulder distinctly higher than the other.
He was a fiscal conservative and a social liberal…to a point. If you needed a hand up, he was all for you; but if you wanted a handout, you got no support from him.
As a boy, he didn’t have any friends, so books became his friends. His world became larger than the other kids’. He came to know that one side isn’t right all the time and the other side isn’t always wrong.
The art he had learned was how to sort things out…how to chew an idea before he swallowed it…and how to chew on old facts again when a similar situation presented itself.
He was an honest man because he couldn’t afford not to be. If you fooled yourself you only hurt yourself. If you played your neighbor false…your neighbor never had to believe anything you had to say after that.
He knew all about cattle and pasture grasses, the weather and the market. He was an excellent horseman and a hard worker.
He thought the State was spending his money and he was famous for driving from Harlem to Deer Lodge and parking outside the main gate of the prison early in the morning to see how many guards showed up for work late.
He also had a habit of turning up at the State Mental Hospital unannounced to see the conditions the residents were expected to live in, day after livelong day.
He wasn’t with the Democrats all the time and the Republicans knew they had to speak truth and good reason to get his vote…but it could be got.
This had a chastening effect on both sides.
He always waited and listened, then spoke last in caucus meetings. Then he weighed everyone’s point of view and he was a leader without a leadership position. He had authority not because he had been elected to it, but because he earned it.
And we all loved him…most of the time. He taught us that there were no permanent enemies at the legislature, because the person who killed your bill one day would help you pass your next bill the next.
He knew that no matter what anyone was talking about, they were talking about money…and no matter what they said, you had to think it through for yourself before you believed it.
Because he had so many challenges, the truth was his dearest friend…and the better he understood that friend, the better things would be…for him and for his neighbors…and for the State of Montana.
Our gospel friend this morning, the demoniac who cries out to Jesus, is just as burdened as Frances was…and just as blessed. He can see Jesus not as an implacable enemy or a staunch ally. He can simply see him as the savior of the world.
This is a special day for him. He finally meets another person who does not have to lean with the prevailing wind or find shelter from the storm. Here is another man with nothing to lose and all the world to gain.
They are so different, to be sure…but they are friends…companions… brothers who have been called together to give a sign of God’s enduring love to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
So he calls out from the misery of his circumstances…not telling Jesus what he wants Jesus to do for him…but asking his Lord and Savior what he wants from his own miserable self. “I know who you are!” he shouts, “You are God’s Holy One.”
The man from Nazareth has so many demands on him. He is followed by crowds…and enemies…everywhere he goes. Everyone wants something from him…except for those who want to do something to him. And then there is this man who only wants to know what he can do to help him.
If you were involved in state politics in the 60s or 70s or 80s, you knew who Frances Bardanouve was. Chances are, he knew who you were, too, whether you were a prison guard or mental health caregiver…or the governor or a United States Senator.
If you read your Bible, you know about this man we meet again today… whether you know the disciples’ names …or can quote scripture…or not.
It was easy for him to be humble. He was imperfect in every way. He didn’t want to look in a mirror, because he knew greater pain each day.
As Paul writes to us today, none of us is perfect and we need to do what we can to help all the people we can in all the ways we can at all the time we can and in all the places we can…so long as ever we can…especially people who are weaker than we are.
Jesus understands this better than any of us gathered in worship today…and so does this man who cries out in spite of his pain…or because of his pain, “I know who you are! You are God’s Holy One.”
The world might think the strong and brilliant and beautiful are the rulers of the earth, but if you don’t know suffering…if you have never had dirt under your fingernails…if you have never found yourself alone in the world …if you want to look in the mirror each day…you only know what you think.
And we all want to believe what we all want to believe. But there comes a time when what we are comfortable with comes to an end. A loved one dies. Our champion loses an election. A pandemic descends upon us.
We want to object to this…to not believe it. It’s like the day I met my brother to go to lunch and he said, “Somebody shot Kennedy.” I said, “What?!” and all down the first-floor hall of Shelby High School others were saying, “What?!” “What?!” “What?!”
The truth is the truth and we do not serve ourselves or our neighbors wisely when we refuse to see it…accept it… embrace it…and then ask ourselves, “What are we going to do about it?”
We can be mad at the one who pointed out the truth to us. We can be mad at God. We can want to put an outlander from Nazareth to death…to bury the truth. But the truth doesn’t care. No matter what we say…no matter what we do…the truth is still the truth.
I miss the hours we used to be together, in person and in spirit, before Covid came between us. Calling it something other than what it is, though, requires us to overlook the fact that it has killed…in one year…more people than all the Americans who died in four years of World War II.
The seasonal flu doesn’t do that. The common cold doesn’t do that. Only a highly contagious and virulent virus can do that.
I miss seeing you. I miss singing with you. I miss the handshakes and the hugs, hearing you laugh, sharing your tears…being with you in the realest of ways. Talking to you about nothing so we can find out who we really are.
But I want to see all of you again someday…I want to sing and laugh and visit with every one of you. I want to be free to forget about masks and social distancing without worrying about the consequences.
But we have had to change, as surely and as completely as the nation of Israel had to change at the end of Moses’ day. They wanted him to go on forever, but it could not be.
One chapter was coming to an end and another chapter was opening. They had to turn the page if the story was to continue. They did and it did.
We have come so far. We are the ones who have had to change, not the virus. And as we have changed, we now see the virus mutating itself.
We are so close to getting a handle on this thing. We are finally mounting an effort that is more intentional than anything we have done before…and we need to get our shots…our ‘jabs’, as the English say…and continue to wash hands and mask up and do all the other things, too, if we are going to find our way out of this wilderness to the River Jordan so we can cross over into the Promised Land.
We need to be as humble and as open eyed as the poor outcast who could see Jesus for who he was and took that opportunity not to ask for something for himself, but just to ask with an open mind and an open heart, “What have you to do with us?”
And then to accept whatever it is that God in Jesus Christ does with us. We are not the rulers of the world, of other nations or of nature itself. But we have a dear friend…a Great Friend…who is.
So let us ask him once again this morning, O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us…through me…this day? Amen.