July 7, 2024

7th Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 9 Year B – Bill Harkins

The Collect

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

Lord, Have Mercy on the Frozen Man

In the name of the God of Creation who loves us all, Amen. Good morning, and welcome to Holy Family on this Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. We are so glad you are here, and if you are visiting with us today please let us know.

In the Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus on what has been a long journey. It is about to get longer. We recall that during his exile of 40 days in the wilderness, and our own Lenten journey, Jesus was tempted by Satan, forced to face his own demons, by virtue of the very power he, and Satan, knew he possessed. When we encounter him in today’s reading he has journeyed to Nazareth, where he is teaching in the synagogue. 

And not just teaching, but teaching with authority, to the astonishment of the people there, who are suspicious of this hometown boy whom they knew as a carpenter, son, and sibling. They question the authority of one whom they knew before he became the prophet standing before them. So, today we continue our journey in Mark’s Gospel, in the long, green season of Pentecost and Jesus, has returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where his reception is less than enthusiastic. In a social system where status was understood as fixed (i.e., your status at birth defined who you would always be) and honor/shame considerations were important, did they simply regard it as impossible for Jesus to amount to anything? The people of Nazareth indicate this negative perception when they identify Jesus as a “carpenter” (i.e., a low-status manual laborer) and as the “son of Mary” (i.e., hinting at a questionable fatherhood). Because people think they know who Jesus is, they end up asking disdainfully, “Who does he think he is? The identity of Jesus is a consistent issue in Mark. In the gospel, we hear the opinions of rulers, religious authorities, crowds, disciples, and family members. For the author of Mark, the important question keeps coming around to “who do you — the reader — say that Jesus is?” And if you do honor Jesus as a prophet (or more than a prophet), who does that make you? Does it mean new allegiances that supersede traditional country and family values? As we answer those questions, Mark is leading us into a confession of faith.

As a former seminary professor, I can tell you that authority and astonishment are not easily achieved in the classroom. The root of the word authority comes from the same Latin root as our word “author,” and this is instructive, because an authority is, in the best sense of the word, someone who creates; one, that is, in relation to whom one finds a life-giving flourishing…a kind of increase in relation to which one feels enlivened. Or, as Irenaeus put it, God fully glorified is a human being fully alive.” Jesus has that kind of authority—to help us become fully alive—in contrast to an authority which comes by virtue of an office or some kind of rank, such as a political post, or judgeship, or, Lord help me, that of a priest or rabbi. Indeed, the people were amazed by Jesus in part because he was not a member of the Sanhedrin—he held no formal authority of any kind. His authority came from within, and it was a gift from God—and so is our authority…which shares the etymology with the word “authentic” as well. In a real sense in this passage Jesus comes into his own –he comes home—in terms of his vocation as a teacher and healer. Howard Thurman has said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.”Perhaps as much as anything this passage is about Jesus coming alive that day, in new ways, and inviting us to do likewise.

I find myself curious, though, about the relationship between his authority—this excellence as a teacher as exhibited by Jesus—and the journey he had been on. I find myself wondering if there might be some connection between his exile in the wilderness, for example, and the suffering he encountered there, and his ability to teach with authority. Moreover, he is not just a teacher in this Gospel reading, he is one who casts out demons—a theme in much of Mark’s Gospel. He is in this sense a wounded healer who struggled with his own demons. Now, I don’t know about you, but discussions of demons don’t occur much in my line of work as a professor who often taught clinical courses, and as a psychotherapist. And I have no idea what Paul is referring to in the Epistle today about the “7th heaven.” In the circles I run in, we are so thoroughly imbued with Western scientific rationalism that talk of demon possession and mystical references to heaven simply don’t occur in polite company. We talk instead of mental illness, and “diagnostic” categories, and neurological substrates contributing to neuro-plasticity, and so on. Is this a more appropriate way of looking at the encounters Jesus had in the synagogue—rejected as a prophet in his hometown—and in numerous encounters with unclean spirits? Were these souls suffering from what we would call a mental illness? I do not know. But I find myself curious about these encounters nonetheless. And what kind of journey had these possessed souls been on? We don’t hear from them at all. In none of the passages about demon possession do any of them speak in these passages, just as many of our homeless mentally ill persons are marginalized, and have no voice. Were we to talk with any one of these individuals, I imagine they were sojourners too…and clearly suffering. Today’s text describes the disciples, now empowered by Jesus, “casting out many demons and healing many who were sick. How did these souls find themselves there on this day? Were they there in the temple, ignored, day after day? Did they once have a family, a job, and a home? Or, were they rather life-long homeless persons whose life had taken a turn for the worse—like a veteran with PTSD, or those dual diagnosis souls compromised by mental illness and addicted in some way? Did these souls even want the kind of transformation Jesus offered? I see people in my clinical office who are ambivalent about the very changes in relation to which they are seeking help. And I get it. Change is hard, and sometimes scary.

Whatever we might say about these references to demon possession, I think we are safe to say they were a form of evil… that is to say, the spirits in those who are suffering are called “unclean” because, whatever the affliction, and however we understand it, it caused a separation from God, and others, and from the worship that was going on around them. It was a form of deprivation, of loss, of being cut off from the ability to be his true self and from full relationship with others, in community. I don’t mean to suggest that they are themselves evil, but that, for whatever reasons, their spirits had become frozen and hard…and perhaps those who questioned Jesus that day in Nazareth had become hardened too. And aren’t we seeing more of this in our time as well? Are we not somewhat jaded, and suspicious of authority? Perhaps those who are “possessed” have in some sense shut down; something alive in them has “gone away.” And this certainly happens in mental illness, including more serious, chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia—for which, by the way, there was no “diagnosis” back then—but also in cases of depression, and anxiety, and alcohol and drug addiction.  Gerald May, a colleague whose work, like mine, lived in the interdisciplinary spaces where listening to stories is essential, has said that “God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as mystical or brilliant as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people, but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.” How might the power of stories, and of communities of grace where those stories can be told, teach us about healing, and wholeness in our little corner of God’s creation? And it is precisely Irenaeus’ experience of being fully alive, manifest in each of us, which is threatened by evil. And this evil, however it was described back then, was a particular form of bondage; a binding, choking, life-suffocating bondage. I suspect that– whatever form evil takes– it has its own peculiar manifestation for each of us. The end result, however, is always the same: it threatens to separate us from the Creator, and from relationships with others whom God created to share this journey with us. And so our experience of life, though potentially one full of vitality and wonder, is, instead one of being in bondage. And isn’t this what Satan used to threaten Jesus in the Wilderness? “Use the power you know you have,” Satan told Jesus, “in order to have authority and control over all others, and to have everything you need”? Had Jesus consented to this, I suspect the end result have been the end of his true and fully- alive authority, based on authentic relationship with God, and come to that, with us.

It is Jesus’ own experience of suffering that allows him to act with compassion in the reading for today… compassion, from the Latin com-passio, to “suffer with,” means that one takes action in response to the encounter with suffering. Jesus encountered his own demons, faced them down, and by virtue of that suffering reached out to others, and healed their broken spirit. Most often what threatens to cut us off from God, and self, and other is the experience of our own finitude and vulnerability…those real human limitations our awareness of which put us most at risk for idolatry and bondage, to use these old-fashioned words, when we seek to secure our souls in ways destined to fail. Alternatively, we can experience the possibility of a summons, an invocation, a claim or call to commitment and relationship. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us “Remember me? Something has occurred between us… I know who you are…you are one who comes to take me to church… you are the one who worked at the food pantry… who helped build the Habitat House….you participated in Serve Pickens…you called me when I had not been around and you missed me… you cared for me when I was sick… you saw my face in the face of the stranger…you had compassion.”

Some time back the singer /songwriter James Taylor wrote a clever tune in response to the discovery of the very well-preserved, 5,000-year-old body of a hunter in found it the Tyrolean Alps. I’ve followed this story with interest since this man emerged from a glacier in 1991. The most recent article I saw was in National Geographic, and based on additional research we now have a rollicking good murder mystery to add to this narrative. But I digress… The refrain of Taylor’s song is “Lord, have mercy on the frozen man.” Yes, “Lord have mercy indeed,” because when faced with our demons, each of us—men and women alike—can become frozen in spirit. We face one of the vulnerabilities of being human—namely, that in reality authority and idolatry are intimately related. We must choose carefully, dear ones, when seeking to claim power and authority before gaining humility, and before wresting with the shadow side of who we are.

This is the gift Jesus offers. The Gospels imply that anyone who casts out demons cannot be a stranger to them. In today’s Gospel vignette, C.S. Lewis suggests, we see Jesus clearing out the emptiness and offering instead, a relationship with God. Jesus hears our suffering, and suffers with us, and offers the compassion of relationship and redemptive healing. And this takes place in community. Anything that would rob us of being fully alive, in life-giving ways, limits our ability to fully glorify God. “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” And so we recall the Collect for today… Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. As Wendell Berry has written; The question before me, now that I am old, is not how to be dead, which I know from enough practice, but how to be alive, as these worn hills still tell, and some paintings of Paul Cezanne, and this mere singing wren, who thinks he’s alive forever, this instant, and may be. How to be alive, forever, this instant, in Christ…now that’s a casting out of demons I can understand, and for which I pray. Amen. 

June 30,2024

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 8 – Year B – Bill Harkins

The Collect of the Day 

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel: Mark 5:21-43 

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him. 

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

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June 23, 2024

5th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7 Year B – Bill Harkins

The Collect

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving ­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The Gospel: Mark 4:35-41

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In the Name of the God of Creation who loves us all, Amen. Grace to you and peace,

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June 16, 2024

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B Proper 6 – Father’s Day – Bill Harkins

Mark 4:26-34

4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

4:28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

4:29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

4:30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

4:34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

In the Name of the God of Creation who loves us all,

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