The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021
One could read the entire prologue of Mark in a few minutes. The prologue is very tightly structured and crafted in bringing us those incredibly important few words for us to hear. We start reading the prologue on the first Sunday of Advent.
With Christmas season and the Feast of the Transfiguration on the winter calendar, the lectionary spreads out the fifteen verses of the prologue over two months. It is divided up and read on or near the beginning of the seasons of Advent, Epiphany and now Lent. Because, as we talked about last week, the beginning of the gospel or most any story is telling, we would be well advised to reflect upon the prologue, and assemble it one unit to do so.
First, it is important to remember just how much Mark wants to get right to the start of the ministry of Jesus. Recall that he skips over the genealogical and birth narratives of the type conveyed by Matthew and Luke. There is a sense of urgency on the part of Mark—when Mark does things he does them quickly, immediately. So, it is ironic that we have to wait months to finish reading the entire prologue. It might be a case of hope being deferred.
You might recall, that on the first Sunday in Advent in December, we read from the gospel of Mark, the first three verses.
It starts off: “The beginning of the good news.” To begin the gospel in this way, reminds us: this is all about the good news and the coming of Jesus Christ. Like a good warm up act at a concert that know how to make a mark but not too much, John left an impression. Some people even confused him for the main act, Jesus.
Mark’s use of the word beginning is also clear reference to Genesis, which starts of “In the beginning” suggesting or rather, indicating that what John is heralding is connected to the first creation, but this will be a follow up, in essence a “new creation” and like the first creation, the power behind it will be none other than God. There will be a cleansing and judgement, but in a world gone wrong, a serious housecleaning was a good and needed thing. Something new was desperately called for.
Over a month later on the second Sunday in Epiphany, we returned to the prologue and picking up at verse 4 and reading through verse 8.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This deceptively simple text, again just a few words, points to Jesus, but upon closer inspection, the text is not so simple at all.
For starters, what exactly does Mark mean by a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” What is the connection between baptism, repentance and forgiveness of sins. What is our role versus God’s role?
Scholars have spilled tons of ink dissecting this complex phrase. As for me, I think all three are connected in a way we don’t have to split hairs over. What the text seems to suggest is that the spirit will be the initiator and the force behind: Baptism, repentance and forgiveness.
This highlights why it is important to keep the notion of the new creation in mind. The Spirit was ushering in a new creation, and these three things are expression of the movement of the Spirit. We cannot do it alone, but the Spirit is there to move us forward in a life giving way.
This also answers the question about why John calls Jesus the more powerful one. Jesus is more powerful because he comes endowed by and infused with the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus is able to baptize people in the Spirit, unlike John who works with water.
This brings us to today’s gospel and the final verses of the Markan prologue, the Baptism of Jesus which we read about today. Mark records the story in a way very distinct way from Matthew and Luke. In it, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he came out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. God speaks claiming Jesus as his Son.
It is interesting that the baptism itself is pretty routine or uneventful. It is what the baptism sets in motion shortly after that is unusual. The tearing of the heavens strongly suggests a world changing event. A rip in the heavens is never normal, but forebodes something huge to come. It is interesting that a dove accompanies the tearing, which connects us to the account of the flood, part of which we read today. The dove signifies the time after the great flood waters are receding.
And, when God claims his Son, it is certain that Jesus is linked not only to the Spirit but to the Father.
Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, or rather to a different part of the wilderness. He is tempted there.
Even Jesus must undergo his trials. No one is exempt from that kind of tempering experience, but he is able to withstand the temptations. Mark again curiously says very little about the temptations, almost nothing.
And then finally, after John is arrested, Jesus proclaims the good news. We have covered the entire prologue. Pretty easy to go over? Yet, we have only scratched the surface of the meaning, detail and imagery packed in fifteen verses. The prologue tells the tell of Jesus, the one who comes to bring a new creation, powered by the Spirit. He will overcome all temptation and he will proclaim the good news.
In our baptism, we are just as Jesus was, are named and claimed by God.
We are called to see that the time is at hand for the Kingdom to come near,
We are called to repent.
We are called to face our temptations during these forty days, just as Jesus did.
We are reminded to believe in the good news, that the Spirit of God which defeats all the powers of evil and defies Satan, that Spirit is with us at all times, in all the circumstances of life.
I am grateful that we are able to embark on this Lenten journey together. This is year which has felt like Lent in many ways even before the season of Lent began. We have been waiting and wating for a return to “normalcy.” But with the Spirit in our midst, if we attend to the words of the prologue of Mark, the waiting will be worth it, because we will come out the other side closer to the promised land and life as God intends for each of us having repented, been forgiven and free from all that diminishes us as part of the renewed creation.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the Last Epiphany, 14 February 2021
Each Last Sunday in Epiphany, we read a gospel account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and the disciples climb up the mountain and encounter Moses and Elijah.
In conjunction, today, we also read from 2 Kings about Elijah in his final moments. Elijah’s experience with Elisha in those moments before his departure hold relevant insights for those of us on the faith journey—that is, all of us.
The mountain top is a place of transfiguration. But Jesus and the disciples had to climb the mountain first. Does the very process of scaling mountains unlock some faith related insights?
I am not an expert on climbing, but it is clear that an elite climber must possess an extraordinary amount of stamina, tenacity, skill and courage to succeed. And I have learned, there are mountain climbers and then there are free climbers, in many ways the most intrepid of climbers. One such climber is Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell has long been regarded as the best free climber in the world. He was a climbing prodigy. His gift took him around the world.
To train further, he went to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan with some training partners, including Beth, his then girlfriend also an outstanding climber. They were in the midst of a hard climb when gunshots rang out. They were captured by a group of Kyrg rebels. Eventually, left with one guard and fearing for their lives, Tommy pushed the man down the cliff. The climbers were able to make a harrowing escape.
Tommy was deeply burdened by guilt over the man’s death, and took it hard. He was greatly dispirited by the terrible dilemma he faced--that was to take on the burden of killing in order to save his friends. Years, later it turned out that the rebel soldier had miraculously not actually died. Tommy did not know this and this might have been the end of his climbing but slowly he did return to climbing.
He and Beth, then his wife, decided to build a cabin in the woods and continue climbing. One day, late in the afternoon, he was cutting a piece of wood and accidently sawed off his index finger. It could not be re-attached. That should have been the end of his climbing career. Free climbers depend on having all their fingers as all the techniques depend on having a grip of crevices and small rock outcrops. Caldwell figured out a way to climb with the missing finger.
The most challenging free climb in the world is the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, a 3,000 sheer granite wall. Tommy could not climb parts of it even with 10 fingers. So, it would be object of a quest.
Along with his training partner Kevin Jorgensen, who was an incredible mountaineer, but actually had no previous big wall experience, Caldwell spent six years, pain staking planning and mapping out the Dawn wall climb. Each hand grab and each foot hold had to charted and then tested.
Most people in the climbing world felt the climb was an impossible feat. Yet, in 2015, they made their attempt. It went smoothly at first, but the weather started to worsen. They had to spend more time living on the side of the wall on a portage. Each day they got weaker.
Then they got to the most difficult section what is known as pitch 15 a blank spot as it offers almost zero places to grab onto—just tiny, jagged rocks in some stretches. Tommy went first and failed a number of times, but he eventually made it across through a highly creative but exhausting round about climb, less technically demanding but incredibly exhausting and time consuming. The ascent was a one person at a time deal, so Kevin attempted to cross the pitch 15 traverse. Time after time, he stretched across the rock face, holding on by his finger-tips often in a cruciform shape. He fell again and again— his safety ropes catching him each time. Exhausted after each try and fingers completely shredded and bleeding, each renewed attempt meant resting until the next day on the wall.
Tommy continued to ascend and stopped below the top as he refused to summit alone without Kevin even though his dream was within his grasp and the chance could have been lost with a turn in the weather or conditions.
As a large media contingent watched their every move below through long range lenses and telescopes, Kevin eventually made it on what was likely his last attempt. In the process, he mangled his fingers and split one in five places. But clear of the hardest pitch, they both made it to the summit.
Along with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, the triumphant summit of Tommy and Kevin holds a lot of pertinent lessons, not just for climbers but also for those who aspire to be faithful.
It was quite remarkable that Tommy refused to summit alone without Kevin. Instead he risked the prospect of exhaustion or a surprise weather event either or both could have forced him off the wall. He was willing to risk his ascent out of a loyalty to his friend. This kind of loyalty is reminiscent of how Elisha refused to leave the side of Elijah, not once, or twice but three times. Elisha was warned and knew it might be dangerous to stay, but he remained by Elijah’s side.
Climbing also helps us see clearly the importance of community. They relied upon a large, dedicated support team bringing them supplies like food, medicine and other gear like replacement ropes. In the course of their time on the Dawn Wall, over 800 pounds of supplies were lowered down to the pair of climbers. There was also the filming team which recorded the whole endeavor. The climb could not have happened without the support of many. Don’t we know this in the church world too!
And, finally, sometimes the journey will push us to the limit and find us at a particular stopping point where we are stretched to the max. Despite all their planning, the traverse was the point where they needed to push beyond, against all the odds. Elisha did not think he could go on without Elijah, but he did.
In spiritual terms, a point (or points) of great difficulty may come in nearly countless forms. Maybe we find it impossible to get past a past hurt, maybe we find it too much to forgive someone, maybe we find it hard to put away bias and prejudice against certain groups, maybe we find it hard to confess our shortcomings to God,
The list could go on but it is certain that we all face something like pitch 15 in our spiritual lives. That is a place which we find nearly impossible to get over or through.
But perhaps we find our finest moment, our moment of transfiguration, if we tackle the most yawning and difficult spiritual spans in front of us.
To me climbing and the mountains have an incredibly spiritual dimension. In ways, it is not surprising that the Dawn wall, actually first called the Wall of the Early Morning Light, was given its name because when the sun rises the face of the wall is brilliantly illuminated. From the first time he saw it Tommy Caldwell described seeing the light hit the Dawn wall as a spiritual experience which changed him—perhaps you could say a moment of transfiguration.
The stories of Caldwell and Jorgensen, and scriptural account of Elisha and Elisha have much to teach us. These lessons come to us at a time when they can offer us much for our own journey, even if we are not mountain climbers like Caldwell and Jorgensen or prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
In the daily news and on social media we constantly, almost endlessly
-hear of people who refuse to recognize their indebtedness to anyone else
-we see an almost pervasive lack of willingness of individuals and institutions to take on challenges that are daunting and demanding, like immense imbalances in the distribution of wealth, poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and the list goes on.
Even if we are comfortable and even if we hide out in the cozy, yet illusory cave called denial, there remains a sense that all is fraught with risk of loss and it feels to many like we face the impossible without any hope:
But none of this is how it has to be! That is not what God intends for us. The world would be a more harmonious, hopeful place if we each chose to walk the path of transfiguration. We do this not so much to become transfigured, but to live into our identity as the ones who are already transfigured.
For God intends for us to be self-giving and sacrificing, God intends for us to be supported by community and to support the community. And God fully expects us to take on and prevail over the “impossible” things that stretch us to the limit. Recall that Jorgensen’s body formed a cruciform shape on the wall, he gave all that he had to offer, and he came across the traverse.
In all these things, we have described, we have outlined, the life and mission of Jesus, our companion and model for the journey. So, as we end the season of Epiphany, let us resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the way he did, and then with certainty, we will meet our friend and Saviour on the mountaintop in the brilliant light of transfiguration.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 7th of February 2021, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Accomplished writers will often tell aspiring writers that the beginning and the ending are the most critical parts of a narrative or storyline.
After successfully using the reading strategy in high school, I found out it doesn’t get you an “A” on a college paper. Yet, reading the beginning and end of a book does tell you a whole lot about what comes in between. So, we should pay attention beginning of the gospel of Mark as it is markedly different from the other gospel accounts. Instead of dwelling on the background and early life of Jesus, very quickly Mark describes nascent ministry of Jesus.
In last Sunday’ reading from the first half of Chapter One, Jesus broke the hold of demons on those afflicted. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus builds upon his healing ministry. He broke a fever which had gripped Peter’s Mother in Law.
In some ways, the first set of healings demonstrates the character and the raison detre of Jesus’ ministry. Following the will of the Father, Jesus had come to break the bonds that held people and society captive whether were demons, a fever or the unholy cultural, systemic and occupation forces which enforced or which aided and abetted oppression, bondage and exploitation.
Jesus must to some have appeared to be just another healer of which there were many in his time.
Jesus healings were different in important ways critical to our faith. Why are accounts of Jesus healing so critical to emphasize nearly 2, 000 years after his ministry ended on the cross Gethsemane?
There are many reasons of course. I want to explore two that have Roman roots. It may seem unlikely but two Latin words; munus and donum hold a lot of potential for explaining why the healings of Jesus are so important for Christians.
Munus has a rich variety of meanings which center on the obligation of a citizen to give back to their city or the state. It captures a sense of the obligation of a single person to the larger group in which they live and from which they benefit.
The meaning of donum is closely related to munus, with a different focus that being a gift or an offering.
The philosopher Robert Esposito set out to explore the roots of community. His work led him to deeply examine the meaning of munus and donum in his quest. His powerful, creative insights can be applied to help break open and deepen our understanding of the work of Jesus, and understand how it informs true Christian community.
In his book entitled Communitas, Esposito arrives at a conception which emerged from through his immersive study of the Roman conceptions of munus and donum.
Esposito re-imagines the obligation as a gift which is too rich and too important to keep for ourselves. The munus, the obligation, and donum, the gift can be described as the obligation to share the gift that one has. Esposito expands further: this is the “gift that one must give and because one cannot give.” The gift in essence is bigger than the holder; it is beyond the control of the one who possesses it. That is the true sense of donum and is a primary component of true community. Esposito writes densely in dialogue with other philosophers. He is not a theologian; yet his work, in a stunningly profound way, he illuninates important aspects of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus.
For instance, was not Jesus’ gift for healing people and for restoring the wholeness of people a gift that he could not keep for himself?
It was a gift which was far too significant and impactful not to share.
Of course, we have the benefit of knowing of the importance of his gift, because his gift emanated from God.
We also know that Jesus was following a much larger plan of salvation by healing people. It was the tiniest of the tip of the iceberg signifying a sea change to come. Offering salve to a small group of people prefigured the salv-ation of all of mankind.
The impetus or underlying motivation for the offering is free from ulterior motive. An ulterior would shatter the life altering potential of the gift, the authenticity of the gift, and more important, the power of the gift to point to an alternative outside the transaction giving, in philosophical lingo—an alterity.
By contrast, a healer peddling their healing power for their own gain cannot be said to be offering a true gift, because it is transactional or in exchange for something in return. This is not alternative pattern, but of the old ways—it is quid pro quo.
When one demands something in exchange for a gift, it ceases to be a gift.
Note there is no record of Jesus demanding anything in exchange for this healing. Because he did not ask for anything.
If we fast forward to the end of Jesus ministry, we see that his own death conforms to the pattern of giving the gift that cannot be kept for himself.
And the gift of Jesus moves us to a new spiritual dimension, because he gives himself, an offering out of love for the sake of the community, that group beyond that of the individual, the community of the entire world and all of creation.
Jesus was himself that gift unexcelled offered freely to the larger community, the munus, in this case, the world.
It is important to note that this giving of the gift may come at some or even great cost. We will explore this aspect of giving in community more next week.
But for now, perhaps, we can focus our attention on how we might offer the gifts that we cannot keep for ourselves.
What must we share? What can we not share?
The answer is something that each of us is invited to pray about, listening for the will of God, as did Jesus in that deserted place.
We are of course not expected to be the Saviour—there was only one and none are expected be Jesus.
Yet, when we act in the way he did, we bring a piece of salvation to the world. What we do when giving freely for the sake of the world has an immediate impact on everyone around us.
Like a stone dropped in the center of a pond, an authentic gift has a ripple effect which spreads across the pond. If you have received a true gift or given a true gift you know of its undeniable power. A true gift always has salutary and healing impact.
Returning to the gospel once more, it is also important to note that after healing the woman and many others, that Jesus departs to a deserted place to pray. This strongly suggests that we need to pray in quiet, which is to listen and not speak in order to hear the will of God—to act without listening to God’s will, what we would call contemplating, falls away from the pattern Jesus set for us.
As Epiphany, the season of the revelation of the light of Christ, comes to a close, we might take the time to see clearly what Jesus was doing in these healings— offering his gift freely and in turn, we might accept the invitation to offer up our own gifts—the very best and most precious gifts we possess which we are called to share.
Jesus was the divine gift with no equal, who went ahead so that we might follow in his footsteps.
What is it that you would like to offer up in recognition of the fact that your donum, your gift is graced and meant to convey offer something precious and life affirming to all those around you, and indeed, the whole world?
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, the 31st of January 2021
“They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)
“They were all amazed and they kept asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority?” (Mark 1:27)
Good morning. In looking through the Scripture readings today, these 2 verses
caught my attention. From my recollection, it's not very often that we see the same
word used so closely together in the Bible. It “called” me to want to dig in a little more to see what Mark was trying to say here.
Before getting deeper into today's Gospel reading, I thought it might be helpful
for us to remember that the Gospel readings for the past few weeks are from early on
in Jesus' ministry with a focus on the Gospel of Mark. Early in January, we heard the
beginning of the Mark's Gospel which start with the story of John the Baptist. Last
week, the text continued with the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John.
From these accounts in Mark, it appears that Jesus began his teaching in Galilee, about 100 miles from his hometown of Nazareth. This week we learn of Jesus' traveling to the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here according to Mark, he performs his first “public” miracle/act – cleansing a man of an unclean spirit, the spirit knowing both by name and mission. By virtue of this cleansing act, the demon's knowledge of Jesus and the impact of his teaching I think it is safe to say that the local's had not seen the anyone like Jesus in those parts. There are so many words that could have been used by the the folks in Capernaum, but Mark chose the word “authority” and reinforces that by using it twice in this passage. And even more interesting, the use of the word “authority” is not used to describe the removal of the unclean spirit, but focuses on Jesus' teaching. It seems here that Jesus' words, a “new teaching”, left more of an impact on the people of Galilee.
So what is this “sense of authority” that is described here?
The word “authority” can have a number of different definitions and meanings,
but I was interested in limiting my focus in how it might be used in the context of the Bible and particularly the New Testament. After some research, I discovered an article written in 2003 by Arland Hultgren which was helpful and concise. Mr. Hultgren is a New Testament Scholar and Professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He describes three types of “ideal authority” which is demonstrated in the New Testament. These include:
•The traditionalist type, whose grounding is in the "elder" (prince, patron, etc.) of
a social unit, who maintains what has been.
• The charismatic type, in which an extraordinary person (prophet, leader) acts
with inspiration and conviction, gathering a following.
• The third is the legal type, which is administered by bureaucratic structures, and
that is typical of modern societies, with the three of these types manifest at
different times and places in Scripture.
For me, it seems clear that Jesus acted with “charismatic authority”, teaching in
parables of what is to come and what is to be, in contrast to the scribes, whose role it
was to act and lead solely through interpretation of Jewish law and who followed a
more legal sense of authority. Based on what heard and seen in the synagogue, the
people of Capernaum took Jesus' teaching as being credible and reason for his name to be spread throughout Galilee and surrounding regions.
What made this sense of authority so “special”? Jesus' primary mode of preaching and teaching was through Parables, a simple story with a deep and powerful meaning. He did not focus on the intricacies of Jewish law which had bee the “way to live” for centuries, which focused on diligence and obedience as a way to attain
salvation. The impact of his teaching addressed a radically “new law” or way of living
which was one of love and forgiveness. His acts were what caught peoples' attention,
but that was not the focus – it was his teaching. Words powerful enough to draw
crowds and with so much impact to start a totally new movement where Jewish Law
was not the focus but love, forgiveness and salvation were the prime forces.
Throughout his life Jesus shared this “authority” with others. After assembling
his 12 disciples, and before he sent them out “two by two”, he gave them authority
over impure spirits (Mark 6 – the commissioning of the 12). Very late in Jesus' ministry, after his Resurrection before leaving his friends for the final time, he once again shares the authority that God bestowed on him with his now 11 disciples and commands them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. I am with you always, to the close of the age (excerpts from Matthew 28:16-20).
By virtue of Christ's suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, and living as Christians in community I'd like you to consider that we are also invited to share as active participants in Jesus' authority and teaching. While we might not be able to command unclean spirits, walk on water, or calm the winds, we can all have an amazing positive impact on the world walking a similar path of the disciples over the ages.
The original disciples were given special gifts to help Jesus solidify his ministry.
As time passed, other disciples have walked and continue to walk along side of Jesus
Christ though living out Jesus' Great Commandment that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30 –31). They used their gifts and talents given to them to build up Christ's church to create a community of sharing, love, charity and compassion much like the legacy created by the founders of The Church of the Saviour and what we do as we faithfully move our way through the pandemic and focus on our 4 year Plan of Faith through prayer, community, justice and joy.
My friends, we are called to live into Christ's new teachings and live into them
with the authority that Christ demonstrated through his 33 year ministry and shared
with his disciples and followers. We are reminded every Sunday on how we are asked to model and carry out our lives in love with grace and in service through our
“thoughts, words and deeds” and “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”