The Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany January 31, 2021 The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
From the Gospel according to Mark, “… a man with an unclean spirit … cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?' I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you find that sometimes all you need to hear is a word or a phrase or even a tune and immediately you start thinking about a particular product for sale? Ad Agencies tell us that is their goal and that a really good ad will have people salivating when they hear a particular jingle, or even better, responding to a question with a classic advertising comment such as Nike’s, “Just do it!” Some might remember the Wendy’s commercials from years ago, where three elderly women, having discovered a miniscule meat patty inside a colossal sized hamburger bun, prompted one of them to cry out, “Where’s the beef?” Remember that ad? Well, it was so successful that “Where’s the beef?” became an all-purpose catch phrase when questioning the very substance of an event or an idea. Instead of asking, Where’s the proof? We’d ask, Where’s the beef?
I thought of that ad when meditating on today’s scripture lessons, especially our lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In addressing a crisis that had arisen in the church about eating meats sacrificed to idols, Paul gets to the very heart of Christian witness. Paul says that it is not what we eat, but rather, how we choose to live in our communities, what we choose to truly value; and how we choose to treat our neighbor that answers the question “Where’s the beef?” that provides proof of a transformed life, proof of that new life in Christ Christians claim to have.
See, in Paul’s day, any meat left over from pagan sacrifices would be sold off. So, you never knew if the meat on sale at the local market came directly from a farm, or if it had been offered to a pagan god, and that concerned many Church members. Well, Paul reminds them and us that we know and serve the only one, true God who is greater than any other god or lord in the heavens or on the earth. Thus, he says, (and I paraphrase here) “Who cares where the beef came from? Whether we choose to eat it or not to eat it has no impact on our spiritual life: the source of the meat is not the issue.” But then, Paul goes to the heart of an even deeper matter that has divided the Christian Church ever since. Paul says, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” If any action, anything we do or say, encourages someone else to do what they believe is a sin, then don’t do it.
Those words have birthed divisive standards of conduct espoused by some Churches that say you can’t do this or that, or what we choose to eat and drink, or choose to do, is somehow unchristian. For example: Some churches insist realChristians don’t drink or play cards or go to movies. Others say real Christian women never wear slacks to Church and Christian men never grow beards. I read an article just this past week where a local pastor reportedly removed books by Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton from the Church library saying such were heretical and to read them, unchristian. And the list goes on. Sadly, such rules suggest that Christians must be outright divorced from their culture rather than engaged with it, let alone have any fun, enjoy the arts, read books that make them think, or just kick back and relax with a cold beer on a hot summer day.
Paul would say that such rules obscure the real issue at hand: Any excess can be unhealthy for God’s people. So, Paul says, if what you are doing will cause someone else to stumble, think twice before you do it. (And that’s good advice!) But then, Paul being Paul, pushes the envelope just a little bit further. He says if we do something weknow is a sin, remember: we never sin in private. Oh, we might think that how we live outside the church walls is our ownbusiness and has no real effect on the Church. But Paul says even things done in secret damage the body of Christ. These so-called “private sins” can influence how we look at an issue and in turn, cause us to influence church mission. For example, if we harbor racism in our hearts, then we might get upset when the Church takes a stand for racial equality in the community and then try to stop her from speaking out. If, in our hearts, we think the poor deserve their misfortune, we might not support programs that offer food or clothing, or we might ignore the beggar on the street and in so doing, ignore the Christ whom, in baptism, we promised to always seek. You see, we can talk all we want about baptismal covenant promises, but unless our neighbors see those promises at work within us, reshaping us, and transforming how we think and live, they wonder, “Where’s the beef?That is the greater issue. That is Paul’s point.
Church history is filled with examples of people - many of them well-meaning Christians – who worked in opposition to the Church’s commitment to foster the truth, mercy, justice, and fairness that that Psalmist tells us comes from the very hand of God. So, Paul, while affirming our total liberty in Christ, says, remember: love builds up. We do not know everything other than the fact that God is always doing new things in our midst. So, watch how you live and watch how you respond lest you quench the Holy Spirit’s work within you and within those around you. Don’t let your actions lead someone away from the Christian faith that, at its core, seeks to bring God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, welcome and wholeness to all who seek a relationship with God.
Still, there are times when the Church might do something today that gives us pause, but down the road we realize her action was prophetic: an affirmation of God’s new work among us. Our reading from Deuteronomy affirms that there are two kinds of prophets: those who call us to return, to repent, and live as God intends for us to live; to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and so on. They remind us of what God has commanded in the past and urge us to not only rediscover God’s values, but even more so, to embrace them and demonstrate them in this moment: today! Then, there are prophets chosen by God to lead God’s people in a newdirection. The problem is that we aren’t always sure if the person is speaking God’s words or advancing their ownagenda. That’s why the scriptures tell us that prophets should be tested, and not simply acquiesced to. The mark of real prophecy is that in disturbing and challenging the status quo: God’s people rethink their lives; see life in a new way; dare to walk onto what appears to be unstable ground; and, thereby, follow God more closely. The reality is that most prophets, truly inspired by God, challenge our priorities. True prophets ask, “Where’s the beef?” and so often, that makes us uncomfortable because the answer always points squarely at how we have chosen to live.
People in first century Palestine wondered if Jesus was such a prophet. In today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark, our Lord teaches in a synagogue and the people were amazed at the depth of his teaching because, Mark tells us, he “taught them as one having authority, and not (like a regular scribe or teacher).” But, is Jesus of God or is he, somehow, advancing his own agenda? To that end, he is confronted not by a parishioner, but rather, by a man with an unclean spirit. (Now, the fact that someone with an unclean spirit was present at synagogue is a reminder that churches are far from perfect!) The spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus rebukes and evicts the evil spirit by saying, “Shut up and come out.” And the spirit does as Jesus commands. And the people wonder is God doing something new among us?
And that leads me to a question this morning – a question that I have pondered over and over again during this pandemic these past 11 months. Where is the beef? How might this time of separation be preparing us for God to do something different, something new, in and through Holy Cross, in and through each of us? Something that will not only transform this parish and community, but our nation, as well. I don’t know. Yet, this I do know: The answer can only be found if each of us will ask ourselves where’s the demonstrated proof of the transforming presence of Christ in our lives, in our actions? “Where’s the beef?” And then, like St. Paul, push that envelope a little farther and ask the same question asked by the unclean spirit: “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” But, be prepared for the answer. For that answer is summed up in one simple, life-changing, life-committing, word. What does Jesus have to do with us? … Everything. And therein my friends, is the beef.
May God grant us the courage to not only ask those questions this morning, but most of all, grant us the grace to accept and to live the answers every day. Amen.