Readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year B)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on January 31, 2021
O Christ, the healer, we have come to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored, when reached by love that never ends?
I speak in the Name of the Father whom we glorify, the Son whom we follow, and the Spirit through whom we serve. Amen.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus astounds his listeners because he teaches as one having authority. The Greek word for “authority” is exousia, which literally means speaking out of one’s true essence (ousia). In other words, Jesus was teaching with authenticity and truth. He did not have any formal seminary training. He was not officially ordained as a priest (not part of the priestly tribe of Levi) nor was he part of any guild of prophets, but he spoke and behaved like a true leader, empowering others to be authentic to their true selves, their true essence (ousia). In the book We Shall Be Changed: Questions for the Post-Pandemic Church, the Right Reverend Robert Wright, the bishop of Atlanta, distinguishes between exerting authority and exercising leadership. He says, “the purpose of exercising leadership has nothing to do with the ego needs of the one who occupies a role and everything to do with helping all people realize their full potential, period.” Jesus was exercising leadership (exousia), not exerting authority. He was embodying love which builds up rather than boasting about knowledge, which puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1). That’s why he stood out among the scribes and Pharisees and rabbis. And that’s why he reminded others of that prophet promised by Moses, that prophet whose mouth would be filled with the very words of God, according to our reading from Deuteronomy (18:18). Jesus seemed to be fulfilling the job description of the long-awaited Messiah.
But then, all of a sudden, he was rudely interrupted by a man “with an unclean spirit.” A better translation is actually: “a man in an unclean spirit” (anthropos en pneumati akatharto). This unhealthy spirit was not so much in the man as much as the man was in this sick and unhealthy spirit. It makes me wonder: in what ways do we get caught up in and even controlled by sick and dangerous spirits, causing us to say and do things that we later regret? This sick man interrupted Jesus and Jesus responded by pivoting and stepping into a role and identity that was not expected of the Messiah, a role that Jesus himself may not have been expecting to step into and embody: the role of healer. Today, we take it for granted that Jesus was a healer, but this was not expected of the Messiah at the time. This was not part of the Messiah’s job description; and all of his healings and exorcisms actually made him a much more controversial and suspicious figure.
But this was what the circumstances required of Jesus. He was to be much more than a teacher and prophet who preached the Word of God powerfully and authentically. He was to be a healer. Remember that Jesus was not all-knowing, omniscient. He himself said that he did not know everything (Matthew 24:36). So I imagine his expectations for this early preaching opportunity in his hometown of Capernaum had to be let go when he was rudely interrupted by this sick man. He was not meeting on zoom and, although he had a friend named Thomas, his Thomas could not just press mute to remove the distraction, as our Thomas can. So Jesus had to lay aside his sermon for that event and perhaps lay aside some of his expectations and plans for his entire ministry when he realized the people’s profound need for a healer.
Jesus exercised authentic leadership by exorcising the unclean spirit and speaking from his true essence when he said, “Be quiet and get out of here!” Because for Jesus, all were welcome, but not all behaviors and not all spirits were welcome. The man was welcome, but the spirit and behavior was not. And when the spirit obeyed him and left, Jesus quickly became known not only as an authentic leader but also as a true healer.
This last year (2020) began with some grandiose plans and expectations for the celebration of our 150th anniversary. By January, we had already hosted several special sesquicentennial guests: the Very Rev Don Brown (and Carol Anne Brown), our parish historian Catherine Mace, the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie, and then Pastor Dan Price and Karen Price. In late January of 2020, after the joy-filled and jam-packed wedding of Jim Hendry and Lyn Klay, we celebrated all the past clergy of Christ Church Eureka. Mother Susan Armstrong and Father Eric Duff were here on this chancel when we installed Mother Lesley as our new Associate Priest, joining Fr. David Shewmaker and our deacons in the prestigious ranks of the current Christ Church Eureka clergy. In February, we hosted my clergy coach the Rev. Dr. Mark Anschutz who led a Couples Workshop and a Renewal of Wedding Vows service. And then Lent began with Confirmation Classes, Sacred Saunters at Sequoia Park, Tuesday night Soup Suppers and a class on the Gospel of John. We were exercising true leadership in the wider community by providing tools and knowledge and a safe space for others to be empowered and to cultivate their own theologies. Our attendance was growing as we remained steadfast and faithful to our true essence (our ousia), our mission of glorifying God, following Jesus Christ, and serving all people through the power of the Holy Spirit. We had plans to host Betty Chinn from the Betty Chinn Foundation, and then Anne Holcomb from the Food Bank, and then finally the Right Reverend Megan Traquair, the first female bishop of our diocese, who was going to join us for a Sacred Saunter and then confirm confirmands and celebrate Holy Eucharist with us here, on the 150th anniversary of our parish’s first worship service, which was held in May of 1870. Our founder Thomas Walsh challenged us to bring 150 people here in this church on that day, May 17th, and we were well on our way.
But like Jesus in Capernaum, we were interrupted by an unhealthy spirit called COVID-19, that compelled us to lay aside most (if not all) of our plans for in-person gatherings and to pivot to online worship. The coronavirus threw us all an unexpected curve ball and we found ourselves tackling tasks that were not part of our job descriptions, at least not explicitly. But like Jesus, circumstances required us to meet the moment, and to step into our role and identity as a conduit for God’s healing love, in the midst of such sickness and sadness.
Thanks to the leadership of Royal, Thomas, John, Pam, Paul, Merry, David, Anne, Lesley, and many more, we were able to continue offering Sunday worship online without skipping a beat. We also offered several safe, in-person gatherings, including an Advent Sacred Saunter on Deacon Anne’s property. We provided a variety of mid-week discipleship opportunities like Compline and Lectio Divina and studies of Psalm 119, Thomas Merton (whose birthday is today), and the Twelve Apostles, inspired by paintings from Fr. George Leonard Shultz which we are currently installing in Lewis Hall. And now thanks to Fr. David Shewmaker, we are offering Centering Prayer meetings on Monday nights.
Thanks to Mother Lesley and Deacon Anne, we have been able to uphold our core value of fellowship by offering virtual Coffee Hour every Sunday. Pam and Paul spearheaded our Birthday Brigade trips in the Summer and Fall so we could be in each other’s presence while socially distancing as we sang and shared happy birthday blessings; and our Prayer Circle has been more important than ever as we hold each other in and heal each other through prayer, especially as we continue to grieve the loss of those who died this year: Irene Hannaford, Jeanne Fish, Jack MacDonald, Judy Rex, Oliver Reese, and Jim Diebold, whose memorial service we held online yesterday afternoon. (If you missed it, you can still watch it). I personally continue to grieve the loss of my father, who passed away the day before we were all required to shelter in place, as COVID-19 spread, claiming the lives of over 440,000 American souls. We have remained steadfast in our mission, and, like Jesus, the circumstances have been calling us now to be healers.
We continue to support the homeless and precariously housed through the Betty Chinn Foundation, the foster care community through The Forgotten Initiative, the hungry in Humboldt County through the Food Bank, and children with special needs through Sandy in Honduras. Our church quilters made masks for the Senior Resource Center and prayer quilts for those of us recovering from surgery and cases of extreme anxiety. We have actually engaged in an enormous amount of outreach this year and I urge you to read the outreach report in the Annual Meeting booklet. And I also invite us to see our online worship as a form of outreach and a source of healing for ourselves and for the world, since our videos of Holy Eucharist, concerts, teachings, and prayers have been viewed over 15,000 times this last year by people all over the world. In this time of global pandemic and deep division within our nation, Christ Church Eureka has risen to the occasion and met the moment and rediscovered our identity as healers for the world, as authentic conduits for God’s healing love. And I believe we are being called to live into that identity as healers even more so in 2021. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but one way we will start to explore and embody that calling is by offering Healing Compline services led primarily by Deacon Anne on Tuesday nights at 7 PM starting on February 16.
Today’s Gospel reading of Jesus living into his identity as a healer after an interruption was the same Gospel appointed for my first Sunday here, three years ago, one day after our beloved friend and priest Fr. Doug Thompson, the last long-term rector, passed away. I’m so glad I had a chance to meet Fr. Doug and pray with him and see the twinkle in his eye. For over two decades, Fr. Doug exercised authentic leadership in this church through the healing power of humor, hugs, and camp songs like “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life.” His healing light continues to shine in this community, reminding and empowering us to be healers as well. Three years ago, I concluded my first sermon here with these words, “My hope and my prayer is that this community be known throughout Eureka as an icon and emblem of God’s healing love, full of people who find their power and authority in that love and in the One who embodied that love most perfectly, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” That remains my prayer today, perhaps now more than ever, as our county, country and world cry out desperately for God’s healing touch and seek an authentic voice that will drive away the spirits of death.
O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored,
when reached by love that never ends?
Grant that we all, made one in faith,
in your community may find
the wholeness that, enriching us,
shall reach the whole of humankind.
 Robert Wright, “Authority is Exerted; Leadership is Exercised” in We Shall Be Changed: Questions for the Post-Pandemic Church, edited by Mark D. W. Edington (Church Publishing: New York, 2020), 82.