Descent, Emptiness, & the Unmanageable Simplicity of Presence
The Wisdom Jesus Sermon Series: Part Two of Four
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Sunday, January 28, 2018 – The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
Today’s reading picks up directly after Jesus has called disciples to leave their boats and nets by the Sea of Galilee and come follow him, and the narrative sees them going first to Capernaum, a town by the sea, which seems to be a centre of Administration for the Roman controlled fishing industry, the importance of which will come into greater focus later in the story when we Jesus meets Matthew, a tax collector, an occupation which would have taken a role in the selling of fishing licenses and the dividing out of each catch, that portion which would be used as tribute for Rome.
So it’s a politically charged space.
The narrative has Jesus and his followers entering the synagogue, where Jesus begins to teach, and here’s where sometimes we transpose our context onto the text and potentially really miss something quite interesting.
I am not sure if anyone here has ever been to a synagogue on the Sabbath?
I’ve not yet had the honour of attending the Shabbat service at Beth Jacob in the South End, but when I was in Ontario, would take Confirmation Classes to the 10am Saturday service at Shaarei-Beth El Synagogue in the next town over.
Now I don’t want to reduce the nuance of uniqueness between the experience of worship in that space versus here, but there are many structural similarities. One enters before 10, and there is not yet a service happening, people are simply chatting, one is handed a prayer book and song book, one finds a seat. The service begins, a liturgy for the day is followed, the torah is read and a sermon delivered.
With the structural similarities, we’d be tempted then to read onto this event in the reading, an equivalency to either a Sunday morning Church service, or a modern day Shabbat service in a Synagogue.
But the problem is, at the time, Synagogue is not a place of worship per say, but a town gathering space. Judaism hasn’t yet emerged as a codified religion, and the faith practiced in first Century Palestine by the Hebrew people who worship Yahweh is still centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, and it won’t be until after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE that Synagogue will be the centre of the emerging Jewish Tradition.
So at the time Jesus’ story is set, and at the time the Gospel of Mark is written, Synagogue is not the house of worship that it will eventually become. So when Jesus enters Synagogue on the Sabbath, he’s not attending a Shabbat service, he’s going to town hub, and the Synagogue leadership is not the religious establishment, they’re in Jerusalem, at the temple, the leadership then are the town elders, the town scribes, and the gathering is not liturgy but a place people come to seek community guidance and wisdom on issues of importance.
A land dispute, a concern about fishing yields, an interfamily conflict, what shall we do about the Romans? No one has planned a sermon, no one is leading a worship service. Of course, this is a gathering place for a people with a Spiritual and Theological cosmology, or understanding of their own world, so there are prayers said, the Torah is read and referred to, but it is in an integrated fashion.
Someone may be bringing forth a concern about money lent from one family to another, and the town elders who have been asked for wisdom, may consult the torah, they may also consult the town records, and the in responding to the particular concern would offer a teaching on the subject.
So Jesus is not shoving aside the preacher who is offering a theological or spiritual commentary, but Jesus is coming into a village meeting, and saying, I have something to offer into this discussion of how you settle disagreements, or manage civic and interpersonal affairs.
If you want to really get into the setting of this story, don’t picture Jesus cutting me off mid-sermon (although you may imagine that for other reasons) but picture Regina City Council, and Jesus coming to the microphone to speak to an issue before the Council for consideration.
And it’s in this moment that Jesus encounters what the text labels “a man with an unclean spirit” and again here is a moment, where liberal readers, attempt to rationalize, and conservative readers attempt to literalize, and readers ask questions like, is unclean spirit a pre-modern understanding of mental health issues or disability are demonic spirits still active today?
And here’s where I think we need to show caution. What to make of healing narratives in the New Testament is a worth while question, and the need for churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples to be a safe place to discuss the importance of mental health is huge, but I don’t think that these narratives are the place to start. These are narratives, someone is stricken with something and then they’re not—this is not the experience of many who struggle with mental well-being. Our Tradition, as do others, has resources and wisdom with which to enter this discussion, especially when we bring them into conversation with psychological and medical understandings, and they deserve dedicated attention, and folks sitting in pews don’t need to hear that with Jesus mental health struggles simply disappear, but I would suggest instead need to know that our places of worship, are safe spaces to be unwell, to find companions who will listen and not reduce your suffering, who will not claim that faith is incompatible with mental illness, and who will affirm the courage that it takes to seek counselling and therapy and medication or to simply get out of bed each day, and that any religious attempt to name mental or emotional illness as simply a spiritual issue to be solved by prayer and piety is not at all helpful
This is a discussion worth picking up another time.
In the text Jesus encounters this person who is unwell and offers healing, and so begins a pattern in the Gospel narratives of Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, and we will find later in the text, that this will become a point of conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment who interpret such acts as contravening the prohibition of working on the Sabbath.
Again, caution is needed, because this has been picked up by many people as putting Jesus (and by association) Christianity as fundamentally in conflict with Judaism, a trend that continues today with nefarious consequences.
This imagined conflict and competition forgets that Jesus would have himself identified as part of the Jewish people, and that Judaism isn’t an established religion for another century, during which time, following the teachings of Rabbi Jesus was considered by many one of several valid ways of being a Jew in the Mediterranean world.
But it is a point of conflict and it is one that directly relates to Cynthia Bourgeault’s work with Jesus as a wisdom teacher, so here we are, 2 and 1/2 pages into the sermon finally referring to the book whose ideas we’ve been exploring the last two weeks during Sunday services and during a more in-depth study group on Thursday mornings.
Bourgeault offers a reading of Jesus, not as establishing a new religion, in opposition to Judaism, but as inviting entry into a wisdom path of inner transformation, challenging the ego operating system that likes to establish boundaries and rules, and clear delineations—which is not the same as moral relativism.
Where the ego, seeks an upward path of ascent to a higher realm of being, Jesus, Bourgeault would suggest opens a path of descent, through social systems, and cutting through religious ideals that seek to elevate mind/spirit at the expense of body/earth, rejecting notions of holiness found through escaping the mundane or unclean, instead advocating oneness and connectedness.
Bourgeault writes that,
Anyone who is willing to take up the burden of the much more difficult task—not the manageable complexity of rules and regulations, but the unmanageable simplicity of being present to your life in love—that person is walking the path of Jesus. (Wisdom Jesus pg. 88)
To call the path of Jesus a path of love then is not to sentimentalize, but describes a posture towards self and others, towards the earth itself with mutual responsibility. It is to break down narratives of scarcity and habits of clinging and clutching.
This path of love, using language of Jesus’ own teaching is embodied in the greek term kenosis – self emptying, which can sound like self-denial, and the difference between the two is subtle but important.
Long before Jesus lived, in both Judaism and many Eastern religious traditions, practices of seeking holiness by withdrawal and denial called asceticism abound —John the Baptist is a prime example, and while Gospel narratives have Jesus withdrawing into the dessert, he doesn’t stay there, although popular religious perspectives read his dessert days onto the rest of the narrative of his life.
Instead Jesus gets right into the mix of human life, in the home, in the marketplace, in the workplace, eating with people, celebrating, mourning, touching bodies labelled unclean, affirming the goodness of flesh and soil—Jesus doe not, Bourgeault would suggest, reject materiality, but in fact seeks a deeper consecutiveness.
Meditative prayer then isn’t about seeking an emptiness and moving up into a higher state of being, but is about settling into the body guided by the breath (breath being synonymous with spirit in the ancient languages of Palestine)—which is why meditation or centring prayer becomes such a central practice in so many paths, and particularly Christian mysticism, and Contemplative activism.
This sort of spirituality is what makes the path of kenosis possible, because self giving, embodied in this story in Jesus’ reaching out to one in need even when the social and religious conventions prohibit it, this self-giving isn’t possible when one is guided by the ego’s desire to protect and defend the self, worried about purity and pollution.
Just to be clear, I mean pollution in the sense of personal piety, not sludge and gas in the watershed and atmosphere – Pollution, huge issue, contemplative Christianity, huge ecological implication.
So then metanoia the Greek word we translate as repent inviting us into a higher/larger mind isn’t about ascending into a disembodied personal transcendence, but is about transcending the very human, evolutionarily necessary ego and seeing self as connected, and interdependent.
Michael Stone once said that polluted eco-systems and broken economic systems don’t need your personal enlightenment, they need you whole-hearted, bodily engagement in the world around you.
And in this light, Jesus ethic, lifted straight out of the Hebrew tradition, to love your neighbour as yourself doesn’t just mean to love another in the way you’d want to be loved, but reminds us that we are not alone, but interconnected, with liberty that is bound up in the liberty of each other —we love our neighbour for they are not as separate from us as our ego tells us, but we are bound together.
And the call of the Psalmist to Be Still and Know that I am God, perhaps calls us to settle into that space within where from we find ourself grounded in the aliveness and goodness that is to be seen and embraced within each other.
The path of ascent calls us to retreat from that which would harm and pollute us, while the path of descent calls for rolled up sleeves and deep engagement…not self-destructive emptying, which itself is an act of ego, trying to elevate the self, but rooted in a descending spiritual path, and affirmation of the goodness of body and soil, God incarnate in all things.
Jesus plunged into the civic, the economic, the social systems of his day, fuelled by a spirituality of kenosis that rejected the notion that mercy and generosity, compassion and justice need borders and limits, rejecting the notion that grace is for the perfected, reaching out to engage broken bodies and spirits, not necessarily making ailments go away, but affirming goodness intertwined in suffering.
Jesus heals on the sabbath.
Polluted streams and lakes, and broken economic systems need our wholehearted engagement.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone.
This sermon references The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault.