Keep Your Distance: Sermon #3 in the Praying Shapes Our Lives Series

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28

January 28, 2018


Keep Your Distance

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(My parents actually put me in a beauty pageant when I was five years old.  I came in third place.  There were three contestants.  And I managed to tell the game warden–who was present–that my grandfather had illegally killed a deer.  There’s hope, children…)

I know in our years together, I have regaled you with stories of my athletic prowess.  When you have natural athletic ability like I do, it’s hard not to come across as braggadocio.  Right…

This week I was thinking back to my days in Junior High gym class, a space that was like the depths of Sheol in my adolescent existence. We would dress out in these gray gym clothes and head out to the basketball court, where we would immediately begin the process of sorting.

The eight graders with mustaches all took naturally to the space.  Rumor was one of them at least already had a kid in the next town over.  I steered clear of him at all times.  The coach would gather us all up to divide into teams for basketball scrimmage.  The jocks sorted themselves out equally, leaving the rest of us, the lanky wisps of children with glasses and knobby knees all standing there waiting to be sorted.

I would wait with my fingers crossed, hoping that the coach would finally just ask me to hold the clip board and help count rather than risk paralysis.

I know we all have these images of being sorted, of being categorized one way or another.[1]  And I know we all have experiences of categorizing others in our lives, other people and other things: this one belongs here while that one belongs there.  This one couldn’t possibly fit in that group, while this one is a natural fit.  It seems it is human nature that we do this, to try to make sense of the world around us.  There are the jocks, and then the wisps of knobby-kneed kids.  There are the “smart ones” and then the ones that aren’t.  There are the clean and the unclean of whatever sort, and we don’t like it when anything unclean suddenly breaks into our well-organized life—but we’ll get to that dynamic in a minute.

We do this with God as well, with our experiences of God, our relationship with God.  We compartmentalize our lives when it comes to the way we understand God being present to us.  Put another way, we organize our lives so that certain parts of ourselves are made available to God’s presence.  This is what that looks like: issues of health seamlessly connect with how we understand God to be at work in our lives while issues of economics are restricted from God-talk.  This is appropriate while that is off-limits.  In our prayers, we always hear the requests for healing and wholeness for those who are sick, but I have never heard a prayer written for a theological understanding of economic policy.

This urge to categorize is innate to us as human beings, and it does lead to this impulse to place distance between us and God so often—especially when proximity to God might demand that we change behaviors.

We see a glimpse of this in the text today from Deuteronomy.  These texts lay out how the Israelites organized their lives: rulers, priests, courts, behaviors, customs, and expectations.  How do we organize ourselves, sort ourselves, so that our lives make sense?

And we see this interesting little nugget here, when they are reflecting on how God will raise up among them a prophet who will help lead them.  The people say, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.”

In other words, we can’t stand the immediacy.  We need something here.  We need a category to help us contain this proximity to God in our lives.  The pressure is too great.  We need a filter.  This goes back to what the people told Moses in the Book of Exodus (chapter 20): You can speak to us, and we will listen to you.  But don’t let God speak to us, or we will die.

It’s just too much.  It’s just too close.  We need something there to help screen a bit.  Moses, put the veil back on your face, and we will feel much better.

Only we don’t.

That nagging void persists in our lives, and we yearn for something more—even if we can’t articulate it.  “Our heart are restless until they find their rest in you, O God,” as St. Augustine says.

This yearning for fulfillment, for wholeness, is so strong, and we fall prey to thinking that illusory things will satisfy the desire: accumulation, possessions, prestige, positions, etc.  But all these fall short of our true identity as the beloved of God.  All these fall short of God’s dream for wholeness.

In the face of the urge to categorize and compartmentalize, what we really need is a practice of invocation, a willingness to open ourselves to a greater awareness of God’s in-breaking presence.

Here’s where the Gospel text gets interesting.   Look back at this and notice how they were gathered in the synagogue when suddenly “a man with an unclean spirit” breaks in to their well-organized space and upsets things.  Pretty scary stuff.  And we see Jesus drawing out the unclean spirit and welcoming in healing and wholeness.

Here’s where I was pinched with this.  I am much more comfortable imagining the scenario where I categorize this community of people as being “clean” with this man being “unclean.”  The unclean man breaks into the nice clean environment, and then Jesus solves the problem.  Jesus fixes it, returns everything to the way it was.

But the inverse is also true in my experience, and here is where my categories break down.  I think we are all fairly comfortable imagining this scenario.  But how have we experienced resistance when Jesus breaks into our lives?  When Jesus breaks into what we have come to believe is our nice clean environment—but in reality is unclean?

When we read stories like this, I immediately identify with the people in the synagogue—one of the congregation which Jesus protects and defends.  But what about those times when Jesus breaks in on me and my seemingly well-categorized life?

Do I want distance?  How do I feel about Jesus breaking in on my category?  When Jesus busts up my team?  Busts up my well-thought-out structures and plans.  If I’m honest, I don’t like it.

If I’m honest, I can understand the Israelites—I AM the Israelites, “Don’t let God speak to me any more like that or come that close or I will die!”  Moses, put the veil back on your face, and I will feel much better.

So, perhaps what we need is a healthy understanding of what an invocation means in our lives, what it looks like to invite the Spirit in—put another way, to see with new eyes and recognize that God is already present while we try so hard to smudge our own glasses to block out the light.

As Richard Rohr said, “When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.”[2]

Now, in our ongoing experiment to link these reflections with our liturgy, I invite you to turn to page 369 in your Prayer Book, as we look at a detailed part of Eucharistic Prayer B that we will share in a few moments.

There is a line there in the prayers that I want you to focus on: “We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.”[3]

In liturgical studies, this portion of the prayer is known as the epiclesis.  This isn’t something you have removed when it gets infected; it’s a moment in our liturgical prayer, a space that focuses our attention on the movement of the Spirit coming into our lives, coming in to this common shared prayer, through which we all experience transformation.

Normal bread and wine are transformed.  Normal lives are changed.  Categories are broken down.  Attitudes are altered.  Conversion is experienced.

We are united in this transformation—to God and one another.

“By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever.  Amen.”[4]


[1] If you have not experienced Brene’ Brown’s recent sermon at the National Cathedral, spend some time there.  I had written this sermon and watched her sermon from the previous week…deep bow.

[2] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014), 56.

[3] Book of Common Prayer, 369.

[4] Ibid.

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