My sermon this morning

Sermon for 15th February 2009
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL
2 King 5:1-17; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

I look at my cats. They are each black with those gorgeous greeny-yellow eyes. Their needs seem simple. Food is at the top of their lists, followed by sleep. They are devoted to keeping themselves clean. On occasion they will play, chasing each other around the house, or even better, toying with a hapless lizard which has come indoors by mistake. My cats, Ada and Adelaide can be aloof or clingy. Sometimes they will ignore me, other times they beg for my attention. They like me most when I tickle their ears.

I look at my cats. Then I look at myself. My needs are simple too. Food, shelter, sleep: the occasional bit of play. I sometimes crave company. I often like to be alone.

We look at ourselves. At first blush we are clearly animals. Food, shelter, procreation are at the top of our lists. Some of us are solitary animals, other prefer the company of the pack. We enjoy beauty – and perhaps many animals also do. We set our boundaries, and guard our territories in an animal like way. Some of us are like Ada who hides under the bed when a visitor enters my home. Some are like Adelaide who flirts with every visitor.

We look at ourselves. We know that we are animals. But we believe ourselves to be more. We are ever asking the question “what is this life all about?” We cannot know whether or not animals reflect in this way. But we, homo sapiens, upright walking apes – search for meaning.
We find it in relationship with parents, siblings, spouses, children and friends. We find it in learning and study, in vocation and career. We encounter meaning in music, theatre, art, dance, sport, literature and comedy. We have a deep sense of what is right and what is wrong, as we deal every day with that part of us which we call conscience, or that part of our communities which we encounter in law. As well as basic right and wrong, we have a keen sense of what is fair or unfair, of what is just or unjust.

And we, not now the entire human family, but we who are in this place on this day, search for meaning in this strange community activity which we call worship. Something within us says that a weekly gathering for worship may in and of itself shed light on who we are, and on who we’d like to be. Because we believe this to be important we come in our best clothes and with our best manners.

All too sadly we sometimes leave a part of ourselves at the door to the Church. We may be afraid to bring our mean-ness, our despair, our disappointments, our self indulgence, our lusts and our lies into this place. Tis a pity for there is much in our gathering that can heal these wounds; give fresh hope; or lead us into repentance and renewal.

Having gathered, we do the oddest thing. We listen to ancient readings from a series of books we deem to be sacred, trusting that in that listening we shall be moved to equilibrium, equanimity, forgiveness, hope, and a belief that in the ultimate sense “all shall be well”.

Pause to think for a moment of the strangeness of what we have done. We have listened to a tale from the ancient near east, a tale of a servant girl, an army commander, a king and a prophet. There is a lot of wry humour in that tale. We read a snippet from a letter from a first century Christian leader to some Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. We heard a bit of Mark’s breathless and excited romp about the early days of Jesus’ ministry.

We, who have been doing something like this for 50, 60, 70 or even more years slip in and out of listening to these old writings with as much ease with which we slip in and out of an old and favourite pair of slippers. Familiarity has not brought contempt, for the binding of the books proclaims it to be a Holy Bible.

But there is a form of familiarity which leads to a “taking for granted”. Those of you who have been married for a wee while know much about this.

Familiar indeed, yet the clergy insist that the passages be read each Sunday, and the congregation would be astonished if they were omitted. For we know, or we hope to know, that there will be something in these words which will move us towards wholeness. Something which will help us to know who we are. Something which will guide us towards whom we need or want to be.

These old writings are pregnant with a host of meanings. The preacher will help us to bring those meanings to birth, but we too must be in spiritual labour in order to bring forth something new.

I’ll make a few suggestions about two of today’s readings, but there are many more understandings which you may seek for yourself.

First: The way to wholeness may be shown to us by unlikely people, and in unexpected ways. It is the slave girl who told Naaman’s wife that there was hope for his healing in Samaria. It was the prophet, the man of God as he is described; who did not engage Naaman face to face, but instead sent a messenger to him with strange instructions – “go wash in the Jordan seven times”.

(Parenthetically I note that Naaman twice got his come-uppance - first when the King of Israel threw a hissy fit, second when Elisha the prophet did not fawn over him, but simply sent him a message).

A slave girl points Naaman to the way of wholeness. Maybe my Mexican yard man could do the same for me! Naaman is told to do a crazy thing – to wash in the Jordan. It could be in the craziness of serving the poor that we find wholeness and meaning.

Second: Let us not over-value the meaning of a shrine. Naaman wanted to take two mule loads of Samarian soil back to Syria, perhaps there to enshrine it as a totem, a good luck charm, or perhaps as he said to remind him to worship but one God. Naaman needed to hear that God is God of all the earth, and that no earthly place can enshrine God. Not even this lovely building! Let’s also be aware of the danger when we deem any land to be Holy.

The gospel passage yields a similar idea. In last week’s passage Jesus refused to stay in Capernaum, the scene of his great success. He insists on moving on to the next towns and villages. He could well have stayed in Capernaum – it was a decent enough place, and there established himself as the local healer. He’d have been very successful, and the townspeople would naturally have wanted to build a shrine for his ministry.

But he moves on, for he knows that whilst wholeness has to with physical health, there is much more than that to it. It has to so, he will tell us, with forgiving our enemies, with being generous to a fault, with praying for those who wish us ill, with challenging the oppressions of ruling elites.

Perhaps that’s why he groans when the leper comes to him. Our nice English language text says that he was moved with pity but the meaning is deeper than this. The word in Greek suggests that Jesus let out an angry groan from the depths of his being.

Was the groan because he despised the system which excluded the leper from society, synagogue and temple? Was the groan because he loathed all those things in human life which lead to broken-ness and loss of meaning? Was the groan because he did not wish to be pigeon-holed as a magician with healing hands?

We do not know. But I am glad for the groan which suggests that Jesus might be angry. For a Jesus who gets angry is much more real than the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of childhood hymns and adult fantasy.

No shrine for Jesus, for there is a world to be saved: to be brought to wholeness and integration.

Now we are the shrines in which Jesus is to be found. We who seek wholeness are the vessels in and through which our broken families, communities and nations may be made whole.

That’s quite a trip which Jesus has laid upon us.

It’s the trip of a life time!


  1. Hello! I came across your blog while looking up Jerry Koenke and find myself reading. It seems to me that you have greater insight and peace when enjoying your cats. It's funny to have churches located in such beauty and yet still create an atmosphere of distain.

    - Barry Wilhelm


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