Up Close and Personal

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany    February 1, 2009    Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28)

“Praise the Lord!” My Grandmother Galliford loved to say those words. She said them with enthusiasm, with spirit, with charisma.  If she got good news, “Praise the Lord!” If her grandchildren did the things she wanted them to do, “Praise the Lord!” A strong-willed person of intense optimism, my grandmother understood her relationship with Jesus to be PERSONAL, and she gave thanks and praise vocally, as if the Lord were right there in the room with her.

Some people like to sit up front in church. My other grandmother, Grandma Spong, did. You would find her in the second row of the Methodist church every Sunday morning, paying close attention to the preacher, following along in her order of service, her hymnal and her Bible. She seemed most spirited to me when singing, her way of being particularly close to God in worship. She sang back to the choir, up there behind the pastor, singing her praises.

I tried finding the right place to sit in church for years and years. The balcony, three-quarters of the way back, near the front with young children, the choir loft and finally the pulpit, where I sometimes wonder if it doesn’t seem like I have my back to Jesus, the way I do here this morning, walking in front of the Communion table.

When we find the place we want to be in relationship to Jesus, how often do we choose face to face? Most of us, most of the time, are content to keep a little further back. Most of us may not feel ready to be up close and personal.

Imagine the people of Capernaum getting ready to go to the synagogue on a Saturday morning. They knew what to expect: that the women and men would sit separately, that the children would behave themselves, that the scribe would get up and explain the lesson for the day, most often quoting some rabbi or other whose opinion about the holy books had been written down and accepted as satisfactory. The scribes had scholarly gifts, or you hoped they did, but they leaned heavily on the rabbis who came before them, rabbis who left detailed notes about the scriptures, then notes on each other’s notes, and notes on the notes on the notes.

Still with me?

We’re in Capernaum, and we’re getting ready for synagogue, and as we get closer we see our friends, the men we meet in the marketplace, the women we see at the well, the children we play with in the neighborhood. We wonder if anyone new will be at services? People always wonder that, wonder if anyone new will come and if they will come back again another time. In first century Capernaum, no one had anywhere else to go on a Saturday morning, or no observant Jew did. Everyone who was anyone would be there.

Of course, there were people who counted as “no one.” People with certain illnesses considered “unclean”—they counted as “no one.” People with mental problems, which might have been thought of as demons—they counted as “no one.” People who could not fully observe the rites and rituals of the religion expected in that community, perhaps because they did not have enough money for them—they counted as “no one.”

But everyone who wasn’t “no one” came to synagogue. You could count on it.

On this Saturday morning, people gathered at the synagogue, people who were someone and “everyone.” They gathered, and the scribe read from the scrolls, the scrolls that held the Holy Word. Not everyone could read those words, and certainly not just anyone could touch those scrolls. The scriptures read, a man stood up and began to teach them. Immediately the people began to murmur to one another.

“This guy sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.”

“Not like the usual guy.”

“Ssh, I want to listen to him.”

And so, they listened.

And the scribe who planned to quote the authorities he preferred on this passage of scripture squirmed in his seat.

And the man who usually dozed peaceably in the back of the synagogue woke up with a start.

And the woman who took this time to make a list in her mind of chores to do the minute the sun went down heard a good word she needed to hear.

And the children who usually had to try very hard to be still found they could not stop looking at him.

There was something about the sound of his voice, the words he chose, the way he stood, the expression in his eyes: everyone who was anyone responded to the man who came among them that day.

And then No One came through the door.

And it was the worst sort of No One you could possibly imagine. Not only did No One come through the door, but No One went right up to the man who everyone else listened to so closely and respectfully. No One went right up to him and spoke.

Picture a group of people a lot like us, people who already had one surprise in a place where usually things went along just as expected. At the synagogue in Capernaum, they had their scribe in place of the preacher, and someone to get things ready like our Deacons and to clean up after the way Ted does. They knew when to stand up and when to sit down and how often to pray and what the prayers were going to sound like. They were more like us than different from us.

And into their midst came two completely unexpected people on the same day: Someone, who spoke with authority and No One, who spoke without reserve.

"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."

And so it is No One who first speaks his name in Mark’s gospel, No One who knows him and names him to the gathered body of the faithful in a little town on a Saturday morning.

No One gets up close and personal with Jesus.

Do we feel that close to Jesus, close enough to say his name as if we know him, close enough to ask him a question that really matters to us, close enough to tell him our deepest fears and our wildest hopes?

No One named and asked and Jesus hushed No One, or rather the thing that drove No One to the margins of the town and the society. Jesus hushed the thing that came between No One and Everyone and sent it away. Jesus got up close to No One and Everyone could see he was Someone, after all.

Like a crowd of Congregationalists at Coffee Hour, the people of Capernaum gave their opinions after the service:

"What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

And the people who heard Jesus that day, who saw him and heard him up close and personal, went out into their world and told everyone they could about the man who spoke with authority.

Now, that’s the end of the reading, but it’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. We’re still living it, you and I, all of us, when we have a moment of knowing him, of feeling his presence, of singing out in joy, of praising the One who made No One part of Everyone.

We may not meet him in person the way they did that day in Capernaum, but we experience the presence of Jesus in many ways, particularly on these Sundays when we celebrate Communion together. When we break the bread, when we share the cup, we participate in a mystery as wonderful as the healing people saw that day. I do not exaggerate. At this table, everyone is someone, and no one is excluded.

Let us give thanks in the congregation. Amen.

7 thoughts on “Up Close and Personal”

  1. This is very good. I love the way you characterize status as no one, someone, and everyone. Blessings on the preaching!

  2. Marvelous! You have really captured the critical moments of the gospel text in a way that makes them very real and alive.

  3. Oh, wonderful Songbird! I felt the immediacy of it… like I was there. Thank you.

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