Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
1st Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
I know you've all been waiting for word from the pulpit about whether it is okay to eat food offered to idols, so I'm prepared to hand down my final word on the subject. All jokes aside, this reading is really about what it means to be in community, and that is that we are going to have disagreements about how to live our faith. On most things, especially regarding food and other matters of taste and opinion, it doesn't really matter to God. What matters is that we show love to our neighbor the best we can. For the Corinthians, that meant not eating food offered to idols, not because God cares, but because our neighbor might misunderstand and be led to worship other gods because of our eating habits and preferences.
I don't know what our modern day equivalent would be, but we do have a lot of strong feelings and associations around food. Take coffee hour—oh here we go! Want to get a lot of feathers ruffled, bring up coffee hour. It's just food people! Or is it?
There are some who have provided us with beautiful, luscious coffee hour refreshments. This is a ministry they provide. They reason, this keeps people visiting longer at social time—as long as there is food to eat, folks stay and visit and support one another. From this point of view, the measure of a good coffee hour is that you can't get people to leave and there is food left over—a sign that there was more than enough. A biblical example of this would be the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.
There are some who are more of the mind that coffee hour should be spare. It shouldn't be elaborate, because there are people here who might feel too intimidated to sign up to bring treats for coffee hour. They might feel they have to match the amount and quality and variety that some others provide. Furthermore, some believe that with a hungry world out there, it is a problem for us to dine so heartily on so many treats. A biblical example of this kind of coffee hour would be the story of Jesus tempted in the Wilderness, fasting for 40 days.
Some want to just bring cookies, like the good old days. But there are diabetics and children whose parents don't just want their kids eating sweets, so we bring in the cheese and crackers and pretty soon the fruit, and the veggies who are more health-conscious, etc. Are those who do a more elaborate coffee hour wrong? No! How about those who do a more simplified version? There is nothing wrong with that approach either.
So if we can have all this controversy and drama around coffee hour (I can attest that I have literally heard hours and hours of opinions on this), think what kinds of feelings and beliefs come up around Holy Communion—who is welcome to receive, how many Sundays a month it should be offered, what kind of bread, what kind of beverage, what kind of cups, who can serve it, should we stand or kneel, should we sing or not during distribution, and so forth.
The good news is, it doesn't matter to God. What matters is that we get together as a community and figure out how to talk about what works best for us and, more importantly, what works best for our neighbor, who may not be used to the way we do things. It is good that we are in community with a wide variety of styles and preferences at coffee hour. That way everyone knows it is safe to be yourself and have your own style in this and any other area of your life. No matter what, you are welcome here and may participate in whatever activities you want to on whatever level suits you.
The bad news is, we waste a lot of time and energy talking about this stuff that doesn't matter to God, when we could be using that energy to help somebody. Furthermore, outsiders see us arguing about stuff that doesn't matters, whether it be coffee hour, human sexuality, organ versus piano, what color to paint the church, and they don't want to be part of that. They also correctly perceive that these arguments are often hiding some other disconnect between us and possibly keeping us from sharing our deeper feelings and values with each other.
I rarely take arguments about food or traditions at face value. Often they are about trust, insecurity, power and so forth. For instance, when my husband I have debates about how to load the dishwasher, I figure there is something else going on, because really the dishwasher doesn't matter. I was listening to a story on NPR this week by an author studying couples and singles and this story reassured me that couples are doomed to a lifetime of arguing about household chores, but in the end, if you could stand it and you didn't kill each other, it was worth it to have someone to take you to the doctor and provide some companionship in life. I have to ask myself, if Nick brings up that I snuck the knives into the dishwasher instead of handwashing them, is there some other part of his life that he isn't feeling in control that he feels he needs to control this? Has he had a bad day? If I bring it up, it is because I'm not feeling valued and supported with the household chores? There is something going on behind most petty arguments, and maybe even all of them.
So here comes Jesus in the Gospel this morning—the real authority on every matter. Of course I always figure Jesus is on my side. I like to be right more than just about anything else. Jesus, please tell us, what kind of coffee hour is the right kind, paper or cloth napkins, wine or grape juice for the Lord's Supper, forks up or down in the dishwasher? He sees right through our petty disagreements and he isn't giving them the time of day. He doesn't get dragged into the discussion. I find that ignoring is becoming a valuable tool in my toolkit, especially as the mother of a toddler who is trying to get my attention with temper tantrums. Jesus ignores those in power and starts teaching right over them. And Jesus also looks around. He sees there someone who is hurting and he goes to him and frees him.
We are not Jesus, but we can learn from Jesus and follow him. I know I have a lot of learning to do. We all do. I hope that some time soon, when we find ourselves ranting about something so insignificant, we notice it and stop. We might, then, take a look inside ourselves and just be curious about why we're so angry or put out, what is really going on inside us that this is where we put our focus. I don't know what we'll find. I might even be a little afraid to find out. But it will be good for us to see ourselves clearly and then be able to express what need really is there that we haven't addressed—what grief, what fear, what shame. And secondly, I hope we would do as Jesus did and look around at those around us and see who might be on the fringes, who might be feeling left out, who looks a little lost and approach them.
It is Jesus noticing this tormented man and approaching him that changes everything. This changes the focus of the room from the teaching of the scribes that wasn't authoritative. It changes the center of the room as Jesus approaches the outer edge. Jesus doesn't walk in and say, “Look at me, everyone!” He focuses on someone who needs his healing presence and he invites us all to see those in our midst we never noticed before and to see their pain and suffering, acknowledge it and approach that person despite our fears and hesitation. It wasn't just Jesus blessing this man and freeing him. This man is the the only who recognized Jesus and named him and because of him, stories about Jesus start to spread. This man blesses Jesus. Blessing goes both ways. We have a sense of foreboding that eventually this will lead to Jesus' death, but we also know that there are three years of ministry ahead of him, that this fame will lead many to come to Jesus where they will find healing, where they will be freed, where petty disagreements about dietary preferences won't take center stage, but where topics like healing and disease and separation and fear will be addressed as well and where these suffering ones will be part of the conversation, contributing to the discussion instead of always just being talked about as if they aren't there.
These readings and our faith invite us to step out of the role of authority, to stop making ourselves the center of everything. Instead we place Jesus there and all the people he represented who never otherwise got noticed. Instead of putting our needs and preferences first, he invites us to think of others and the effects our choices and actions might make on them, to pay attention to them. Then our own petty arguments and differences will disappear and we can focus on the healing and life that matter to Jesus and ultimately matter to all of us.