February 8, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
What does it mean to witness? Paul lays out his mission to preach the Kingdom of God. In the passage from Mark, we read of the beginning of Jesus' mission to preach the kingdom of God. Paul speaks of an obligation to preach the Kingdom. Jesus creates a community to witness to the Kingdom.
Witnessing is an issue in our pluralistic world. We ask if there are limits to our witnessing? What does it mean to witness in a multi-religious world? Our culture asks, is there an absolute truth? These are not questions asked by the writers of the text, when they say they were obliged to witness. Yet I think we can find some hints for our time.
Obligation. It is a word that can bother us because it seems to demand an unthinking responsibility. It strikes many as an oppressive term. But think for a minute, there can be a non-compulsive, non-oppressive meaning. Every time Gavin visits, almost before he takes off his coat, he walks over to the piano and plays. All the time he is with us, he cannot walk by without playing a few notes. He is inwardly obliged to do so because he has music in his soul. He needs to let those feeling out, needs to hear his inner most thoughts. He is obliged to listen to his heart. He feels beauty and he needs to let it out.
I think that is what Paul is talking about. His experience is such that he cannot stop himself from sharing it. Then he tells us how he will share it. He begins in listening to the context. He has no set formula that he is going to lay on the context. It is true he has an experience and that experience has to be shaped in such a way that it can be listened to, by listening to whom he speaks.
Peter’s mother-in-law gives us another clue. Jesus is in the healing business which means bringing wholeness. Again it is contextual. For you will note he is contextual, goes around his neighboring towns sharing that the sense of God is found in life. The presenting question may be - where do we find a sense of God? For the normal means of experiencing this no longer worked. So he has to listen to the need and then respond. As I said last week - he pin pointed the issue that possessed the person in front of him. In this case the fever. What this means is, what is at issue and the text uses a very concrete term to tells us that. It is not a generalized issue. She knows what she needs. Jesus knows what she needs - he listened.
She is called and then responds. Feeling whole again she serves - or another translation - "taking care of them." Care suggests an interactive activity. Now feeling whole, having been cared for, she now can care for others. The inner call of being loved is now a way of life - she is obliged to care, not compelled. The old social arrangement is transformed, for in the old understandings she had no freedom to care - it was a socially constructed given. Now freed she now freely cares.
The reality of the world is created by relationships. This means we are present in one another. We are connected. Of course we know the down side of this. Some have experience of others forcing themselves on us. We see forces of domination and violence seeking to use relationships to possess us. What Mark and Paul are suggesting is that this fact of relationships - this fact of being connected - can be fulfilled in creative loving ways. By listening to the sense of God - creative love - in our experience we can be healed. By being listened to, by God, we can live in such a way that is careful, care taking of others. We now listen by love. Our creativity is put in harmony with the creativity of God.
We can overcome ancient hatreds. Listening does not require approval of the other; we can listen to others with an eye to who we hope they can become rather than who they are. This is spiritual discernment to know our own hearts. How we can be less than we, and that we share a common good and common failings. The other becomes me.
Even God must begin with listening. After all, God cannot respond to the cries of the world, or share in its joys, unless God first hears those cries and feels those joys. And if there was once a time when God existed all alone – when there was no universe as we know it but only the potentials in God’s mind for there being a universe – then God had to listen to the potentialities. God is closer to us
than our own breathing and yet just as close to the most distant of galaxies on the other side of the universe. The power of God is persuasive rather than coercive. Because the universe has power of its own which even God cannot control.
Because we have been claimed we want to share the power of love that has claimed us. We feel the obligation to do that and here is the other hint in Paul. Not only do we need to listen attentively to the other we need to do that with humbleness. Our claim is that God is working in all other events that work for wholeness, even when the sense of God is not claimed. We do not need to have others make this confession of faith, for it is enough that we work together for justice and compassion that this world needs. For there is salvation in other religions, there are multiple forms of salvation, all of which are saving in their own way. Christians can be saved by awakening to God’s love in Christ. Each way of sensing God – the sheer interconnectedness of things, the bottomless abyss of which all things are expressions, contain some sense of the God who is Love. We can affirm that the truths are many, the paths are many, and the salvations are many.
A person’s flourishing is in her commitment which is best known in the intimacies of dialogue, in which a person shares the richness of his or her own experience. In the Christian’s listening, and humble sharing, the Christian herself can be changed. Moreover, such listening is truly possible. There is more to human experience than its linguistic and cultural dimensions and that, even amid the differences in culture and language, people can understand one another and learn from each other by means of empathy (feeling the feelings of others) and imagination (taking on the perspective of others).
This sense of God allows us to understand that despite commonalities within human experience we are also diverse. We are profoundly shaped by our language and culture which means we can speak past one another. We can have radically different views of reality. What we are called to do in such circumstance is to understand what is at stake for the other. In understanding the radical otherness - the strangeness of the strange - we are called to deep listening.
We are back to the beginning, to be concerned with healing and then let that speak for us. When asked why? We answer, we have listened to the deep love in the universe that seeks healing, works in many ways, and we live out of this faith. We answer, because we are called and we now respond. Watch our caring to find what we hold to be true.