Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today’s gospel lesson depicts the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. We know in the gospel of Mark things move along very quickly. They’re often short on detail and the action is always urgent. The first chapter of Mark is no exception. In the 20 verses that precede what you just heard this morning, Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan by John, proclaimed by God as God’s own Son with whom God is well pleased. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. He’s driven into the wilderness where he is tempted. He recruits four disciples and that’s in the first 20 verses!
As we pick it up today, Jesus and the disciples go to Capernaum to the synagogue and Jesus teaches. We hear very quickly that there’s something different about him. The gospel writer makes it clear that there is authority in what Jesus has to offer that sets him apart. If that’s not enough—after the people are reportedly astonished by that—Jesus, with a few words, calls out an unclean spirit in an unnamed man. The Holy Spirit drives out an unclean spirit, evil or otherwise, that is no match for what Jesus has to offer. Jesus quickly marries word and deed in his ministry and his fame spreads throughout the Galilee. I think it’s fair to say that Jesus makes quite a splash with his first appearance in the synagogue.
I was thinking and praying about that passage and remembered another time in this very cathedral when someone fresh out of the gate made quite a splash, as well—although it wasn’t intended to be so and it turned out in a slightly different way. I’m remembering August of 2016 when Dean Randy Hollerith, for his very first Sunday, prepared to step up in this extraordinary pulpit to offer us a word. Now, a few days before the service, the Head Verger Torry Thomas and I met with Randy to walk him through the service so it would be familiar to him before Sunday came.
There was something Randy said when we were walking through the service that occasioned my telling him that, “You know, on occasion, there are people who show up in the service who may not be totally well and will disrupt a service. But I don’t want you to worry about that, new dean, because we have a protocol for that. If something’s to happen, just know that we’re on it, but, of course, it’s rare and it won’t happen.” I’ll never forget it: Randy said, “Oh, I come from an urban parish in Richmond. I’m accustomed to that”—sort of been there, done that.
So the great day comes with our new Dean. He steps up into this pulpit and he just gets “Good morning. It’s a joy to …,” when three protestors show up out of nowhere and start making a ruckus. I couldn’t believe it! In my mind, I’m thinking, are you kidding me? They weren’t really that disruptive. Truthfully, they were really very peaceful. They had homemade signs that were so small, I couldn’t quite read what was on them and they were singing a song. Thankfully, Randy didn’t need to offer any words of exorcism. Once they finished their song, they quietly left the cathedral. But Randy didn’t miss a beat. He picked right back up and he showed all of us what grace and generosity look like under stress and that has marked his ministry with us ever since.
But what particularly stays with me is the sermon he preached that day. You’ll recall, in August of 2016, our country was terribly divided. We were in a very ugly presidential election and things were getting unsettled all across the country. It was a tough time. Randy, on that day, chose the scripture passage from Isaiah 58 that was appointed for the day that calls us to be repairers of the breach. He made the important point that we were broken and that we were called to heal that which is broken in our own lives and broken in the lives of those around us. That this cathedral would commit itself to being repairers of the breach; that we were called to be healers, reconcilers, peacemakers, seekers of justice and bridge builders. It was a powerful message four plus years ago. It’s an urgent message today. I don’t need to tell you how broken all of us are. Our country is broken. It’s hurting. It’s anxious, afraid, and many are quite angry. Never has this message been more important than it is today.
Our Scriptures today offer us a glimpse and a reminder of a way forward. The passage from Deuteronomy speaks to listening for the true prophet that’s been offered—God’s words of authority—that there will be false prophets, but we’re not to be led astray. Jesus speaks shortly before the passage you heard today that the kingdom of God has come and that we are to repent, to be of a new mind, to be of a new purpose. The question for us is who are we following? Who are we listening to? Whose are we?
As much as we all admire and respect our Dean Randy Hollerith—and we do—he and we are clear. He’s not the savior of this cathedral. Jesus is. As much as I love my denomination, The Episcopal Church, we have our problems, too. As much as we admire and respect our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry—and we do—he and we are clear, he’s not the savior of The Episcopal Church. Jesus is. As we look at our country that is so broken, it’s important that we remember that no administration, no president, no group of elected officials, current or past, are the savior of our country.
Yes, they’re responsible to lead us and represent us, but it’s incumbent upon We the People to bring us together with God’s help. As Christians, we follow Jesus. I think in this time when people are examining our Constitution to ensure our rights, that it’s incumbent upon us to dust off the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments—to get our grounding and our bearings on what God and Jesus lift up as the core foundation of who we are and whose we are. The Ten Commandments make clear that there shall only be one God, no other gods before God. God is God and we are not.
We are called not to steal, not to kill, not to bear false witness, not to lie, not to covet. You see the Mosaic Law is grounded in those commandments. They show us what it means to be in right relationship with God and with one another. Jesus goes on to interpret and teach us what it means to follow him. He was an observant Jew. The Mosaic Law was his grounding as it is ours. The largest body of Jesus’ teaching in scripture comes in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning at the fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew. He teaches us much in that, but he also says this, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus never said it was going to be easy. He said it was essential. That if we were to bring about the Kingdom of God in our time, those are our guideposts. Those are the goals that we try to bring about as best we can, one with another, with God’s help. I know this is a challenging time. I know that we are broken. We are hurting and we are worried. Remember also that Jesus said he would never leave us or forsake us; that he would be with us always. We stand on that promise. Henri Nouwen wrote that “The great mystery of the revelation of Christ is not only that Christ came, lived, died and rose among us, but that He continues to come to live, to die and to rise in our midst.” We are not alone in this enterprise and with God’s help, we can do this together.
We’re in the closing days of the Season of Epiphany where we remember the light that came into the world and the darkness did not overcome it. It can’t overcome it. In the brilliant words of the Inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman:
“. . . there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it,
if only we’re brave enough to be it,”
My brothers and sisters, look for the true light, follow the light and be the light.
We can do this with God’s help, together. Amen.