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From Awe to Vocation - 4th Sunday After the Epiphany

Updated: Jan 31

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: Deut. 18:15-20; Ps 111;

1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mk 1:21-28

Annual Meeting Sunday

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

January 28, 2024

            Good morning, St. Aidan’s. On this morning we make our way into the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. We continue to make our way through this season of the glorious manifestation of God among us in Jesus Christ, and of awe-filled response to that glory, an amazement that emerges into vocation, into our collective calling.[1] The Magi have worshipped before the newborn Christ. The grown-up Jesus has been baptized in the river Jordan, the Spirit descending upon him in dove-form and the divine voice declaring him God’s beloved. Jesus has gone out from that river and called his first disciples after an intervening wilderness sojourn (more about that soon at the beginning of Lent). Over the last two weeks we have heard stories of such calling. Come and see, John’s gospel invited two weeks ago, follow me and see greater things than these (John 1:43-51). And then again last week in Mark’s gospel, follow me and I will make you fish for people (Mark 1:17). Jesus had just proclaimed “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent” – turn –  “and believe in the good new” (Mark 1:15). This proclamation, this good news, was so irresistibly, gloriously embodied by Jesus that people turned on a dime, dropped everything, and followed him. Their awe led them into transformation, not only of their own hearts and lives, but to the collective building up of new community, of a world, a divine dream, that Jesus’ ministry invited them to imagine and to join.[2]

            This morning this transformative journey continues in our passage from Mark’s gospel. Having called Simon and Andrew, James and John, the five of them make their way to Capernaum and to a synagogue on the sabbath, where Jesus begins to teach. Something about this teaching strikes all in earshot in ways they had not encountered before. “They were astounded at his teaching,” we hear, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). There is a power to his proclamation that somehow cuts against the expected grain. Even an unclean spirit possessing someone in their midst perceives and declaims the power of Jesus’ proclamation, asking, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). In one sense, it may not sound strange for a demonic source to ask if Jesus was plotting its destruction. Yet in another sense this reaction spoke more broadly to the sheer disruptive force of Jesus’ ministry. All of them were being called into transformation. Even healing – which Jesus went on to effect in this possessed person – could be unsettling. After Jesus has abruptly cast this perceptive demon out of the person, the gathered community is both amazed and flustered. Their reaction of amazement speaks to the glory revealed in Jesus’ action. But awe does not simply freeze them slack-jawed. It opens them more fundamentally to ask an unsettling question: “What is this?” (Mk 1:27) The new teaching, proclaimed with an unfamiliar authority, was changing them.

            Last Sunday a number of us watched the new documentary called The Philadelphia Eleven.[3] The movie wove together the powerful stories leading up to and following from the ordination of the first eleven women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1974. As we talked about the film and our responses to it, many of us were struck by how strongly these pioneering women emphasized not simply the inclusion of women in a ministry that had unjustly excluded them, but the transformative impact of that shift upon the church. It was not simply a matter of slotting a new group of people into pre-existing roles. The Church was already changing and it needed – and continues to need – to change further. As the movie dramatically showed, forces within the Church deeply resisted that change and called it out, in ways that remind me of the unclean spirit’s reaction to Jesus – the Church knew the Holy One of God was unsettling them with new embodiments of authority. Meanwhile, the Reverend Sue Hiatt, who was acknowledged as the chief organizer whose connecting, collaborative leadership was a driving force behind the ordinations, expressed a concern that struck us in post-film conversation. Let those ordained then and thereafter be intent upon the transformation of the church, she urged, avoiding what she called an Animal Farm scenario in which the women would simply fit into the existing power structure and fail to truly seek to change it. The Rev. Merrill Bitner reflected this theme as she showed the front page of a newspaper from the morning after the ordinations. A headline about President Nixon read “Abuse of Power,” but then just underneath was a photo of the ordinations, depicting what Bittner shared was a new kind of power, collaborative, people-centered, trustworthy, transparent. Footage of her first public Eucharist months later, after she had experienced terrible alienation in her diocese, showed forth her vision. Let the Spirit blow through this community with all its transformative power. Let it unsettle and connect us, taking us out into the world in service and love.

            For despite the reactivity and resistance of significant segments of the Church that were terrified of change, the force of that transformation, the power that drove it, was and is love. Paul talks about this in our passage from his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:1-13). The passage reflects communal handwringing about whether followers of Jesus who were Gentiles should feel free to eat meat offered to divinities in the Roman religious system of their context. If they understood God to be one and not multiple, even if the people around them professed and practiced otherwise, did it matter if they ate meat that was part of this system? Not ultimately, unless it caused confusion and undermined the faith of their comrades in Christ who were less clear, less grounded in their faith. The ultimate purpose, the force that should be driving their discernment and their trajectory is love. Love, he says, builds up (1 Cor 8:1). The Greek term here οἰκοδομέω, includes the word οἶκος, household, the word that lies behind our word economy, a system that connects us, a collectivity. Οἰκοδομέω evokes the idea of a house being constructed from a solid foundation.[4] (As opposed to being “puffed up” a word that can’t help but make me think of a bouncy house…) By contrast, this strong up-building reminds me of the moment in our current Eucharistic prayer when we pray, “As we are nourished by these holy things in your presence, form us in the likeness of Christ, and build us into a living temple to your glory.”[5] Love engages us in that formation. It builds us up into the likeness of Christ which is a collective likeness, filled with all sorts of different people, mysterious and changing. We are a people seeking to be built up together as members of Christ’s body, a people responding in awe to the good news Christ lived and proclaimed: God’s reign of justice, of healing, of peace, is near. Turn toward it, again and again, in love. You may be overwhelmed along the way. You may be unsettled. You may be afraid. But in love we are changed, constantly called into growth, built up together. Trust in that.

            Dear friends, as we come to our annual meeting today, I am so grateful to be in the process of being built up in love with all of you. We have been through much this past year, including losses—and this just this week we lost Barbara Purcell, a longtime, beloved member of this community. Through valleys we have walked with one another, we have shared love. We have accompanied one another and built one another up. We have courageously continued moving forward, trusting in the Spirit whose joy sustains and surprises us along the way. We have continued our ministries in this neighborhood, and opened ourselves to nourishment in this holy place, formed anew week by week into the collective likeness of Christ. We have literally and gloriously begun singing a new song, thanks to Mina and our renewed choir. As I look to the year ahead, I am so curious how God will continue our transformative up-building. I wonder what new things God will be up to in our community, building on the foundation of who we are. How might God’s glory and our awe, even our astonishment, form our imagination to turn and join afresh the in-breaking of God’s just reign? I cannot wait to find out. Let the people say: Amen.

[1] On the response of awe and amazement to divine glory and how that opens out into vocation, I’m influenced by Walter Brueggemann’s comments on the energizing effect of amazement in The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018 (1978).

[2] On the language of the divine dream, I’m influenced by Verna Dozier, The Dram of God: A Call to Return (Boston, MA: Cowley, 1991).

[4] Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 439-440.

[5] Eucharistic Prayer G of Common Worship (London, UK: Church House Publishing, 2000), 201-203.

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