Last Sunday, I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the students at the University of Arizona Episcopal Campus Ministry, in Tucson, Arizona. I ended up speaking much more conversationally during sermon time, but here is a draft sermon I wrote to collect my thoughts.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (The Israelites fear talking to God directly and God promises Joshua as a prophet)
Psalm 111 (“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”)
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (The weak and the strong)
Mark 1:21-28 (“A new teaching – with authority!”)
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It’s clever and, I think, one of Paul’s better one liners. Much like the opening chapters of Romans, he’s setting us up. Rigor in purity was considered an achievement and a status symbol in Paul’s culture. Look at me; I’m strong enough that I can fast for three days and still go to work. Look at me; I follow all of the commandments in the Torah. Look at me; I’m rich enough to spend my days praying in the Temple while employees tend my land. The economist Thorstein Veblen called them invidious (or envious) comparisons – showing off your wealth by doing expensive, non-productive things. The biologist Amotz Zahavi called them costly signals – proof that you are committed to the community instead of a free loader or possible defector. Just like a peacock is showing how fit he is by hauling around a heavy tail, many scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day demonstrated their wealth, stamina, and commitment to Israel through costly displays of piety. Paul is not condemning them. We should not equate Paul’s “puffed up” believer with Jesus’ hypocrites – “whitewashed tombs,” all clean and bright on the outside but rotting underneath. Paul is talking about good people, people who follow the rules, but make sure to do so in a public way. They are showing off the fact that they are spiritual athletes, and this can be helpful, even inspiring to others. Our first thought would be to call them the strong ones, the strong believers, the professionals, the examples. Paul calls them the weak. Some of us, he says, don’t need to display our piety. Some of us don’t need to follow the strict rules. After all, the new covenant is written in our hearts. And the law was made for us, not us for the law. Thus the “strong” according to Paul are those who do not need strict rules for piety and morality. The strong understand that God is God of all and sacrificing to idols doesn’t really do anything. The statues of Baphomet and the Elder Gods proposed by today’s atheists are pure fiction, So what harm would be done by setting them up? The weak, he says would be tempted. It’s a lovely rhetorical device. We can, like some Anglicans in England, refuse to acknowled women clergy. We can, like some Protestants in the US insist that real Christians read their Bible every day. But, Paul says, to do so we must first admit that we are weak. it is not the strong in faith who need these things, but those who lack faith and understanding. It is our inability to trust God and not God’s inability to act outside the lines of our understanding that limits us. So be suspicious of anyone who tells you that you must live up to their strength while still being compassionate toward those who ask, in their presence, to accommodate their weakness. It makes all the difference. The strong are those who pursue love of God and neighbor directly, not waiting for the proper time and place defined by tradition. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Or, to put it another way. Knowledge is for the sake of something, love is that which knowledge serves. Knowledge is worthwhile to the exact extent that it empowers us to love. That, I think, is what Mark’s Gospel is going for in the introduction. Today’s passage comes from the rather unsettling first chapter. This is a story about Jesus – who was God, but told everybody to shut up about it. WHAT? Really. Take a close look at the first chapter. John the Baptist shows up. John Baptizes Jesus and then Jesus goes wandering in the desert. Jesus calls disciples. Twice Jesus casts out demons before they can tell people about him, before they can tell people who he is. Once Jesus cures a man and tells him not to tell anyone who did it. And once, Jesus seems to be avoiding the people who know about him already, so he can go spend time with other people, or just be by himself. All in the first chapter of Mark. This is not a great start for a book proclaiming the Good News to be shouted from the mountain tops… At least not if the good news is primarily a statement that Jesus is the Son of God. I’m not entirely sure what it is about, but I think it has something to do with how Jesus interacts with others rather than just who he is alone. Yes he is the Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings, but he is also God with us. He is a healer and a teacher and a comforter. The miracle is not that the Son of God exists, but that the Son of God chose to live among us. It is the concrete practice of love we were meant to pass on, not an abstract set of teachings about Jesus identity. So, once again, the gospel is less about visibility and labeling and more about the hard work of living together and loving one another. Knowledge that generates curiosity, concern, and compassion builds us up. Other knowledge only puffs us up. It convinces us we are in control even when we are not. Few people are more ardent than I in defending learning and truth, but I defend them for the sake of a deeper understading. My challenge for you this time around is to ask where you are going. What goals do you have? What service do you aspire to? What place do you have in God bringing about the kingdom of heaven here on earth? The university is a place to learn things. How many of the things you “know” contribute to your goals? What do you want and need to know to get where you’re going? Authority for me is all about this coming together, this congruence of action and trust, of knowledge about and love for. It is not power for the sake of power, discipline for the sake of discipline, nor information for the sake of information. It is wisdom for the sake of charity.