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Dean's Corner
Sermon: January 27, 2018

The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan

Epiphany 4B 2018

January 27, 2018

If you worship regularly here at the Cathedral, you are no stranger to the unexpected.  You know that our liturgy, our congregation’s style of worship, often changes. This is not just change for the sake of change or to be different or provocative.  We shake things up from time to time, usually around the change of liturgical seasons, so that we all may be disrupted out of our complacency and any numbness of routine to encounter the spirit of the living God in our gathering and more deeply within our beings. 

And sometimes, hard to believe this I know, God can even shake things up without help from your clergy.  Here in the midst of our congregation, God breaks through, transforming, challenging, and healing us in mysterious, humorous, wondrous, covert, overt, and inscrutable ways.  All the time, defying our paltry human efforts to define and to prescribe.  Calling us more deeply to community and to the new reign of God that Jesus heralds.   

Some of you might remember Rachel.  A young woman who would sit outside on the steps of our old Cathedral House, now torn down, to get out of the sun and to rest.  We’d offer her a chair and she’d sit in the shade.  When the Cathedral was open during the day, Rachel especially enjoyed dancing on the benches along the perimeter and playing the piano, at which she was quite accomplished.  None of this would have troubled us much, except that Rachel would scream.  She would often scream an unending diatribe that was hard to understand and frightening.  Clearly, she was ill and on several occasions, we called the police in the hope of securing assistance and psychological evaluation for her, but our efforts at intervention seemed not to be working. 

One very hot June day during the noon Eucharist, Rachel returned and danced along the benches in the usual way, only this time, she made her way to the font, climbed in, and started splashing around, with great delight.  Singing and shouting, she picked up the pine branch that was there for aspiring and sprinkled herself and every object within range.  By this time, the little group gathered for the noon Eucharist had formed a nervous and an uneasy circle around the altar table, not quite sure what was going to happen next, but continuing.  We started the Eucharistic Prayer…God be with you, And also with you, Lift up your hearts…And suddenly, Rachel bolted out of the font, dripping wet, broke through the circle, and laid her whole upper body on the altar table.  This troubled young woman watched with such yearning and longing and openness.  And after she received the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ, she became calm and quiet.  And for a little while, it seemed, that through God’s mercy, her spirit was at peace.  I will never forget it.

Those assembled in the synagogue at Capernaum that Saturday morning to hear Jesus teach also unexpectedly saw the power of God breaking through.  A man with an unclean spirit, arising from their midst, is the first to reveal the secret of Jesus’ identity as the Holy One of God.  Jesus tells the spirit to be silent and to come out. The man is healed and the people are amazed by Jesus’ first public miracle.  An exorcism. Something new has been revealed to them through the authority and presence of God in Jesus. 

The word exorcism conjures up for us fairly dramatic images from movies that we have seen. Demons and evil spirits that can make us wonder what any of this has to do with us. But the truth is that I believe that the man in the synagogue is simply the one who has recognized the authority and power of God in front of him and stood up. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” he asks.  What, indeed, because the truth is, I think, that each one of us sits here in this holy place with a less than clean spirit, with a divided soul in need of healing. 

We are often described as a very polite bunch, we Episcopalians.  We generally raise our hands to speak.  We don’t call out.  We are not swimming in the font or dancing around this place—unless, of course, we are invited to do so. We are very adept at hiding our demons behind well-practiced customs of civility.  Demons like our fears of not being worthy, of being alone, of relationships that we cannot seem to fix.  Fears of being in the grip of forces within or without ourselves that we cannot understand or control.

Too often we sit quietly and nod politely. Most of the time, this probably works alright.  Until something unexpected happens. Until we are in crisis or until our fears and pains overtake us and we cannot help but acknowledge them.  Until we find that we are so utterly in need of God’s healing mercy, that like Rachel, we are ready to hurl our bodies on to the altar table in supplication as an offering to God.  

The fact that Jesus performs this first healing miracle in his congregation is, I think, no accident.  The ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum are still standing on the northern edge of the Galilee, next to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house.  The synagogue has a small footprint. It is an intimate place where people from this small fishing village know each other, trust and rely upon each other. If Jesus can rest his weary head anywhere, it is here, in a place of relative safety and relationship. And it is here, in community, to the astonishment and dismay of the religious authorities, that Jesus heals an unclean, broken, damaged man on the Sabbath. Jesus’ first healing miracle in this way and in this place that morning points to a radical and a new way that we know as the Kingdom of God.

Throughout the season of Epiphany, our Gospel stories reveal the Holy One.  Sometimes a voice booms from the heavens. And like the man with the unclean spirit, sometimes someone, often an unnamed character, unexpectedly recognizes the identity and power of God in Jesus.  And sometimes, there is more to say.  The healing that Jesus performs in the synagogue today also directs our gaze to the face of God in a beloved community in the hope and commitment of those who gather in his name, then and in the generations to follow. Lord knows that the Church is an imperfect and very human institution comprised of very human beings who come together mutual trust, reliance, and hope.

And so it is with our own congregation where God breaks through in unexpected ways at unexpected times: When we proclaim the gospel. When we take each other’s hands, and when we gather at the font and the altar table.  And most especially, I think, when we pray.

Our gathering each Sunday IS a manifestation and a gift of the Holy One.  God is with us. Emanuel is here, so take a moment and look around and you will see Christ sitting next to you. And many will see Christ in you.  Each week, we never know what our presence means to the person sitting next to us who may be struggling in ways that we cannot see.
With the awareness of that holy presence among us and within us comes a deepened responsibility to a more mature faith where we speak tenderly, assume first the best in one another, forgive and bear with those who have wronged us. When we speak what we understand to be “our truth”, we do it with humility, remembering that each one of us is only give partial understanding.  We remember that Anglican principle which lifts up the dynamic that our own truth may be distorted, and that the deepest truth is discerned in community.  Truth deeper than we could have ever known or imagined by ourselves. We build up and we never seek to tear apart as we tend to the fabric of a community that generously wraps so many in the love of God.
Like the synagogue in Capernaum, this Cathedral is a holy place where epiphanies still happen.  Here, as Rachel discovered, we metaphorically lift up our sometimes broken hearts and frail and broken bodies in supplication on the altar of prayer, trusting and knowing that we will find wholeness, healing, and the transformation of our pain in the love that is God.

AMEN

Last Published: February 12, 2018 8:07 PM