February 7, 2021

Sermon February 7, 2021   

Jim Harbell

So, have you been watching Schitt’s Creek? It seems that one of the common responses to the pandemic has been to catch up on shows on Netflix. We had not watched it over the years, so have taken the opportunity to become immersed in the quirky, wonderful world created by Eugene and Dan Levy. For the Rose family, the story starts with an abrupt fall from power, grace and wealth. They end up in a rundown motel in a tiny rural community, thinking that they are in the middle of nowhere. Can you imagine what those first few days felt like? They knew no one – and are starting over again, with a life that feels very strange. After all, the dad had purchased the town as a joke! But over time, nowhere becomes somewhere. Out of the chaos of their lives they formed community. Do they give up who they are? Absolutely not. The wardrobe choices alone reflect individuality, character and strong sense of self. Moira’s wardrobe choices seem never-ending – and none of it is what one might think of as dressing down to match small town culture. It is a wonderful example of community acceptance of difference. 

How did they do this? Through wickedly great good humour, lots of love, and courage to take on adversity, immediately come to mind. The result – they find new community, and the community in turn finds them. Somehow, the little town of Schitt’s Creek seems ever more vibrant and connected after the Rose family has been living there for a while. How we form community – what we do as community - matters. How we live in relationship with others is key to our well-being, and the well-being of others. In these strange times, what are we called upon to do, when we have the chance to gather again in person, and while we wait? 

We are assisted in answering this question by the story from Mark I just read. A little background for you. Our reading is from very early in Mark’s story, but the story has been jam packed so far. Mark opens his book, saying his story is about Good News of Jesus Christ – the story of God’s unconditional love - that’s important. We are introduced to John, who baptizes Jesus, Jesus heads into the wilderness for 40 days and nights of temptation by Satan, John is arrested. Jesus selects some of his disciples and preaches in a synagogue in Capernaum where he drives unclean spirts from a man. That is all on page 1! As our story begins, Jesus has left the synagogue and gone to the house of two of his newly selected disciples. He is just starting his Galilee journey of preaching and healing.

Is this role new for him?  – absolutely. On the evening of this first day, he heals the mother-in-law of his new disciple Simon – we will call her Gertrude. This healing may make Simon’s wife feel better about the whole situation. Think about it - Simon has just arrived home, bringing strangers to dinner without texting her first (or the first century equivalent), she has been nursing Gertrude, who is very ill, so she had no time to think about dinner and then he tells her he has quit his job fishing and is going off to wander around Galilee with this guy Jesus because he feels called – well you’re not called to put fish on the table for the family are you?  she responds. But Gertrude is suddenly healthy, and able to provide hospitality for this esteemed teacher, so all is better in the world. 

And then chaos erupts.

The community hears about the man cured of unclean spirits in the synagogue and then suddenly a large crowd shows up at the front door looking for Jesus.  No one had time to put out the 6-foot circles on the ground and to get the bollards up for crowd control so that the sick folks were not crowded so close together. There was only one healer at the front line, and he was doing his best – but you can’t walk on water all the time! It was pandemonium.

 And all this healing – what is that about you say? Really? A touch and a person is healed. Well, the Bible is a miraculous book, not to be read literally, but to be read through the lens of our time. Think about it – if 5 years ago we were told millions of people will become ill and within 9 months of the start of this strange new disease several miraculous vaccines would be available to start protecting people – healing them you might even say – from the deadly impact of this pandemic. Maybe through our lens, this Bible story is not such a stretch. 

In this chaos in Capernaum was community – coming together to do their best to support one another. Think about our community – what do we value? One of our gatherings is Holly Berry fair – yes, it is a lot of work, but we miss it. Mary Lee is always at the sweater table, Bill downstairs carving ham, Joanne at the silent auction table – hugs for old friends, a pat on the arm to commiserate on a recent loss. The next time it happens it will feel extra special – we notice and value what we have lost.

Community is a becoming a rare thing these days. The men’s meditation group has been reading the book Morality, by the recently deceased, former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks. His basic premise is that a massive societal change has been taking place without us fully realizing it. He calls it Social Cultural Change which he simplifies as a change in our culture from We to I. This move to individualism, amplified by social media, played out by special identity groups on the world’s stage – such as at the Washington Capital, leads to weakened relationships, marriages, families, communities, charities and sometimes entire societies. 

He sees it as the weakening of civil society, the glue of shared morality that holds us all together, leaving only the competitive arenas of the market and the state. One result of the gutting of civil society is the dramatic loss of attendance at rotary clubs, charitable work, girl guides and cub scouts, pickleball tournaments, regular congregational dinners – many of those activities that help us form and retain community.  One result, we are lonely. Another, we consume too much. But all is not lost he says, there are places of resilience. One of them is strong congregations, “held together by moral bonds” because we humans are ultimately defined by our relationships – staying faithful, true and committed to one another despite differences, tensions, stresses- we want to transcend our solitude.  What was happening in this community of Capernaum and how might we learn from it? 

There are some key messages that help inform our next steps. 

First, Jesus and his new team of disciples were working together. They were, with courage, taking on the extraordinary task to proclaim the message, the good news.  They formed community and moved out into the larger community. But first, Jesus prayed. He was listening to God, being supported by God, being loved by God. Think of what he was feeling. This is a new role for him. He was alone, or was he? as he is in communication with God. The message he proclaimed is that God’s love is there for all of us, unconditionally. 

Second, our congregation’s self-declared mission is to learn, to grow and to serve. We learn through worship, through prayer, through community with each other and we grow through communion with God. Today we celebrate this ancient tradition of communion of our loving connection to God and our relationships with one another. We do so in an odd way, on video, but we live in hope for the day our prayers will be answered, and we will reconvene in person, with hugs and laughter, to celebrate physically being together.  

 Third, Jesus also set out in Galilee to do one more important thing – to cast out demons. There are several modern-day ways to interpret this concept – perhaps it is to acknowledge and seek help for our mental health illnesses, for ourselves or our loved ones and to acknowledge there should be no stigma - just love and healing for this serious disease. There is also a community perspective to casting out demons. In our role to serve, our congregation has a long history of casting out the demons of poverty, of difference, of neglect, through, for example, our work with the Christian Resource Centre and Out of the Cold, and the refugee sponsorships. 

The pandemic has revealed more demons that must be cast out. Chronic underfunding and neglect in our long-term care facilities, discriminatory impact of Covid-19 on the working poor, intersecting negative impact on communities who are predominantly Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. This ministry of Jesus was complex – proclaiming the love of God while casting out demons. For him there were no easy answers to these complexities.  

 It is equally complex for us. We know when we come back together as community, it will not be the same. This is an opportunity to learn different ways to support ourselves, through learning and growing, and to take on new roles to serve, with renewed purpose. Jesus headed out into Galilee, forming a new community of followers as he went, strengthened by God’s love and with purpose. This message gives us hope, that we too, supported by God’s love, can come back together as community, with new purpose, to serve our broader community.We have tremendous resources, organizational strength, heart, love for one another, perseverance, and a shared belief in what is right, what is just. Our way is clear. 

In following this way, we will transcend our solitude, imposed by circumstances beyond our control. Now, until it is safe to fully gather together, is the time to plan, to pray for guidance, to reach out and support one another as we can, for as disciples, we too are called. What are we called to do?  How do we renew our sacred vows of community? How will we be open for others to join our remarkable community, as is the moral imperative? How will we respond to demons of racism, discrimination, neglect, mental illness and poverty   - so cruelly revealed in these past months? 

This is not a question of will we respond – this is a question of how we will respond. We are called to action - to be a community of purpose - to support one another through worship and pastoral care, to support the spiritual journeys of each other – to support those not part of our community who suffer, who struggle, who need us to walk alongside them. 

As Sacks encourages us, we are called to reinvent civil society - a place that holds the moral high ground between market and state – a place that upholds truth and justice. Think of all the possibilities that were yet to come when Jesus headed out from Capernaum forming community and healing as he went. The journey for Jesus was not easy – our journey too will not be easy – but O what comfort there is that we are in it together as community, with all the collective resilience we bring. Onward, in God’s unconditional love and hope we go. May it be so.