5 Epiphany 2021

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Freedom and obligation.  The late teens and early twenties are an exciting and scary time for most people.  Driver’s licenses, dating, jobs and/or college, marriage, apartments, voting, drinking, military service, bank accounts, taxes just to name a few.  There are a host of things that you were not allowed to or didn’t have to do just a few years earlier and as you get to do them you really begin to learn the word “consequences”.  My oldest granddaughter, whom I raised is 21 and right smack in the middle of all of this.  I have seen her make some mistakes and I have seen her grow in the process. We have all been there or will be.   Our spiritual lives mirror our physical lives in many ways.

 In our gospel story we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons.  There are many things that bind us.  It is interesting to me that the most used verb in the New Testament is λμω, I untie or I unbind. Our physical bodies can bind us, especially as we age or if we have an injury or illness. COVID has bound us in many ways.  Care of our own bodies is an obligation as adults that we all have. I am not judging anyone here.  Like Paul I must put myself in the rank of sinners when he says, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15) I want to be physically fit, but when ice cream or tortilla chips call, I fully understand the conflict that Paul is talking about. Sometimes our bodies betray us, and no matter how well we take care of them, something happens to put limitations on our mobility or our senses or even the length of our days.

Jesus also cast out demons.  I cannot either confirm or deny the presence of actual demons, demonic spirits that overtake an individual, but we all have various demons in our lives that keep us bond, that prevent us from being all that we could be.  Physical addictions and just plain bad habits, memories that continue to haunt us, anger that we can’t let go of, fears, real or imaginary, expectations of other people, living or dead. Some of these we can work through by ourselves, but most of us need help, we need someone to show us how to untie the knots, to give us the key to open the lock so we can escape and flourish.  Sometimes a good spiritual friend is enough, sometimes we need profession help, but there is no shame in seeking help.

But Jesus had obligations beyond healing the sick and casting out demons. He could easily have set up shop in Capernaum, become the local physician and made a comfortable living for himself. But he had another calling and he prioritized his obligations. Mark tells us, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1L35-38) Work can be something that binds us if we are not careful.  There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done and the more tools and technology we get that are supposed to make life easier, it seems the more we are expected to do. St. Benedict of Nursia was a wise Christian who lived in Italy, about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.  He left the city and tried to set up a hermitage outside of town, but people kept gathering around him.  Eventually he set up a monastery and developed a Rule of Life for those who lived there based on balance. His rule provided time for prayer, for study, for physical labor, and for rest, and he made his rule flexible enough to accommodate those who were physically or mentally or even spiritually ill or impaired so that they might be part of the community and find their way toward meeting their potential.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian takes up this question of freedom and obligation. Paul had been a very devout Pharisaic Jew.  This particular sect of Judaism in the first century put an emphasis on the oral law, not just what was written in the Torah or the prophets.  He felt a personal obligation to enforce the law, not just upon himself, but upon the whole community.  Only by the whole community following the law was there hope for the nation. But then he met the risen Christ, and he realized that the Law was not salvation, but another form of binding, of enslavement.  Because of humanity’s fallen nature no one was ever capable of saving themselves through the Law, but God through Jesus offered a way to remove those chains.

Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians was at both ends of the spectrum.  Some of the Corinthians had said, that if Jesus saves us by us by believing in him and we are no longer prisoners under the law then we can do anything we please, and they did so.  Others, while verbally affirming that they had been free of the law, still went to great pains to keep it and to impose it on others, even Gentiles who had not grown up in their culture.  We heard him last week talk about the impression we make on others by our actions in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.  This week he continues be explaining that yes, we are free through Jesus, but it is not a reckless freedom, it is a grown-up freedom that comes by acknowledging our responsibility to the people around us, especially those who are still children or teenagers in the faith. 

I was blessed to have grown in the neighborhood where many of the Dallas Cowboys lived during the 1970’s, while Tom Landry was their coach.  I do not know if it was the nature of the times, or the coaching of Landry, I suspect some of both, but with only a few exceptions, they took very seriously the fact that they were looked upon as role models to the youth, certainly of north Texas, and I suspect to many across the nation.  Despite their “superstar” status, they were kind, polite, well-mannered and gave back to their community.  This is what Paul is talking about. Not taking advantage of our assets, be it fame or fortune or for us our faith.   As Christians, we believe that we are saved by faith, but that comes with the obligations of an adult faith.  We need to be conscious of our neighbor’s weaknesses, not to judge them, but to help keep the path before them clear so they do not stumble and fall.  Certainly we should never be what they trip over.  

Paul also mentions that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He is not talking about hypocrisy; he is talking about walking in other people’s shoes.   I have a friend XXX who has lived this out better than anyone I have ever known.  He felt a call at an early age to be a missionary among XXX.  This is extremely dangerous for both him, his family, and the people he witnesses to, but he has been very successful because he did not approach it from an arrogant “I am better then you are and let me tell you why” approach.  He began by living among them.  He learned their language.  He spent seven years in XXX, learning about the XXX culture.  He made friends, he ate and drank and laughed with them.  He read their books and began having intelligent conversations and debates with them about important matters.  He let them know that he believed they were worth knowing for themselves, and doors opened up for him to tell them about the things that have been important in his life, especially Jesus.  This is what Paul is talking about.  Being willing to meet people where they are and see God in them, even if you don’t like the way they look or dress or talk or their politics or their religious beliefs. This is the starting place.  This is love. We are coming upon Valentine’s day and we will put all our attention on romantic love, but the Greeks were right to clearly identify – at least 4, I have seen on some lists 7 different things that we English/Americans translate into love.  Agape – the love that sees people with the eyes of God and treats them as God would have them treated even if we do not feel like it.  That is the biblical love that Paul talks about and that we are called to possess.

I would encourage you this week to look for ways to unbind, yourself or others.  To live into an Agape, a Godly love, even when you do not feel like it.  And let us all as a community lift each other up and help us all reach the potential that God has put within us.

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