Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings – Deuteronomy 18: 15-20, Psalm 111, I Corinthians 8: 1- 13, Mark 1:21-28
Moses was nearing the end of his days. It was time to pass on the baton, to pass on the torch, to pass on the leadership to the next leader of the people of Israel. The Promised Land was in sight following the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after their escape from the Pharaoh’s lash. Moses passed on the leadership to Joshua. With Joshua at their head, they Crossed the Jordan River, and they entered the Promised Land.
Just as Moses walked with God, so Joshua walked with God. In like manner, people of faith of every age walk with God. One prophet summed up the life of faith with these simple words – “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” [ Micah 6: 8b]. Of course, we are always the junior partner, and it is in the partnership that we discover “the peace of God that passes all understanding”. It is that peace we seek, and it is that peace (even in the midst of challenging days) that enables us to witness to God’s Love. To “witness” is not a word that comes easily to the 21st c. Episcopalians. Yet I believe witnessing develops from our love of God, our love of neighbor, and our love of self. Too often we are trapped into thinking “knowledge” will be the great uniter, yet St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. Knowledge can separate – who is the smarter? Love unites, brings us closer together.
Take our nation, for almost a year now we have struggled with the COVID – 19 virus. We have learned much about it over the past year, but the spread continues almost unabated. What have we learned about ourselves? We have learned that while knowledge has increased, it is our love for each other that has struggled. When asked out of love for each other and ourselves, we have resisted self-quarantine; we have resisted frequent hand washing and sanitizing; we have resisted masking up. We have the knowledge of what we need to do, yet the will to do the necessary, out of love, is what comes up short.
In our Gospel reading from St. Mark, we learn of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The text notes that Jesus “taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes”. Jesus had the knowledge and Jesus had the love; Jesus connected his head and his heart in his teaching. He was not “a talking head”. Jesus was witnessing with head and with heart. And that day, a man with “an unclean spirit” was in the congregation. This man called out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us…?”. Jesus responded, calling out the unclean spirit, and with much resistance, it left the man. Today there are frequently found among us an “unclean spirit”. I would call this “unclean spirit” – rugged individualism. It proclaims that all can do as one pleases, all can live with unbounded freedom, all are free to do as one pleases. This is not the first time this “unclean spirit” has surfaced in history; it is always lurking.
However, COVID-19 has shown us all that we are interconnected. Even when we try to separate for our health, the virus still spreads. In a negative sort of way, the virus proves that we are intimately connected. In the 17th c. John Donne confronted the same “unclean spirit” of rugged individualism when he wrote the following poem.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as it a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
We are connected no matter how much we would like to deny it. The poet declared that when one of us dies, a part of us dies, too. As COVID-19 pulls someone down to the grave, a piece of us goes into the grave, too. We are all connected declares the poet. We are all connected declares the virus.
Back to St. Paul, “knowledge puffs up and love builds up”. The truth is before us, how do we respond as people of faith? We respond with love; we witness with love, and we pass it on. Moses passed on his partnership with God and the people of God. Moses passed on his love of God and his love of the people of God to Joshua. And Joshua leads the people out of the wilderness and into a new era, into a new land, into the Promised Land. Those we read about in the obituary pages, they have passed from this life and given to us the baton, the torch, to lead. It is our time to witness with our heads and our hearts. And with this witness, we will discover the peace of God that passes all understanding. It is our time to carry on. It is our time to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.