Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
29As soon as Jesus left the meeting place with James and John, they went home with Simon and Andrew. 30When they got there, Jesus was told that Simon's mother-in-law was sick in bed with fever. 31Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.
32That evening after sunset, all who were sick or had demons in them were brought to Jesus. 33In fact, the whole town gathered around the door of the house. 34Jesus healed all kinds of terrible diseases and forced out a lot of demons. But the demons knew who he was, and he did not let them speak.

What’s your cosmology? Do you have one? Students of English literature will recall reading Milton and encountering a multi-tiered cosmos that essentially begins on earth and heads in either direction. Head skyward and you will enter the realm of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and eventually you will reach God. Head south (down) and you will encounter demons, fallen angels and soon the devil himself. Dante assigned hell a series of rings, and by the time you reach the ninth ring, things get rather unpleasant. Better to mind your P’s and Q’s, as my mother would say, then to contemplate a journey below.

It’s a simple leap to recall the cosmology picked up in English Literature and read this backward into the Bible. This cosmology, which reached full flower in the middle ages, has become the caricature that springs most readily to mind when we try to imagine the structure of reality. Think of Looney Tunes and the angel-on-one-shoulder-and-devil-on-the-other-shoulder that acts as convenient shorthand for the forces that tug at us when faced with a difficult decision. Think of Halloween and the number of angels and devils that come to your door year-by-year and it becomes clear that this well-worn cosmology surrounds us.

30When they got there, Jesus was told that Simon's mother-in-law was sick in bed with fever. 31Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.

To begin, I want you to ignore the fact that this poor nameless woman had to go—without pause—from sick person to hostess. Trained as I was to read the scripture with a feminist interpretive eye, this passage gets a failing grade in an almost absurd way.

Back to the healing, notice that the language is less “healing an illness” and more like ending demon possession. The illness “left her” in much the same way demons were cast out in the verses immediately before and after the healing of Peter’s moth-in-law. The fever cast out, she was able to resume her normal life. We have no way to know the precise way in which medical people would have regarded fever in this time and place, but for Mark’s purposes, demon possession was the appropriate and favoured way to imagine the departure of this fever.

Back to cosmology: The biblical scholar N.T. Wright corrects any multi-tiered cosmology we might want to read backwards in the New Testament period. A better way to imagine the cosmology of this period according to Wright would be to a people surrounded by the supernatural. There are no ups and downs in this worldview. His best example would be to describe the resurrection of Jesus not so much as ascension, but as Jesus stepping into a room next door. I’m certain that a hint of John 14 is intentional here: In my Father’s house there are many rooms. Would I have told you this unless I intend to take you to myself?

Suddenly ideas such as the communion of saints hold new power. Surrounded by the supernatural, people in this period had a far greater sense of connection to those that had gone before.


There are some cultures that have never sold on the multi-tiered cosmology of the middle ages. Celtic spirituality, rich with the supernatural, spoke (and speaks) of “thin places,” places where the membrane between this reality and the other reality becomes quite thin. In the places where the membrane is very thin you find pilgrimage places, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, and there the Spirit seems more present and the path to wonder is well trod.

In addition to “thin places,” Celtic spirituality allows for “thin people” (not skinny) who in their very being seem to bring us closer to the divine. Think of Henri Nouwen or Bishop Tutu or Maya Angelou and it’s easy to imagine this Celtic cosmology and the “thin people” that bring us closer to God.

Let’s add one more element to this thinness then: I would argue that the font and table are thin places, places and moments in time when the separation between our ordinary reality and the extraordinary reality of the Spirit come together.

Remembering your baptism, experiencing the joy of having a child or God-child baptized, joining in the ritual of renewing you baptismal vows–all of these seem to draw is closer to God. In the same way, coming forward, receiving the simple elements of bread and wine, recalling body broken and blood shed, being refreshed at this table with the presence of the Risen Christ–all of these moments are thin insofar as they draw us nearer to God and the joy of fellowship with all believers.

The sacraments of baptism and communion are thin places, places where the supernatural world that surrounds us bears more heavily on our consciousness and our sense of reality. And thinking of Peter’s mother-in-law, the gift of healing is a thin place, a mysterious place where God touches us with a great gift.


There was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it back this morning. I spent the week in Florida with four theologians getting a recharge and the return flight was delayed. Luckily I anticipated this and had Brian on standby to preach in case I couldn’t get back. But here I am–a bit weary–but here, nonetheless. One of the things I didn’t make provision for was communion. According to the rules of the United Church (a denomination with few rules) I am the only one in this community of faith that can consecrate the elements of communion or baptize. I’ll try to explain why and then I’ll tell you why this is wrong.

The standard argument is that “ordered clergy” (me) have the training and the appropriate license (by virtue of my ordination) to administer the sacraments. I am called to a ministry of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care and placed here in your midst to undertake this ministry under the oversight of Presbytery. After that, the argument wears thin (not the Celtic thin or the skinny thing, but the vague thin). More likely it is a holdover from Roman Catholic and Anglican days when the minister was still the bridge to God in whatever theological rational the tradition could construct.

Let’s go back, instead, to the thin places. If the table and font are thin places, places where the Spirit moves with greater intensity, or the Spirit would surrounds us more completely, then why limit the role of celebrant to just one person? If the congregation is the body of Christ and the table is the table of our Lord, then surely it doesn’t take me to bless these elements and commend them to you.

You are the ministers (according to Martin Luther, the architect of the Protestant Reformation) and therefore anyone the congregation chooses should be able to stand behind this table. Maybe I’m a dangerous radical, or maybe I’m just tired, but it seems to me that if font, table, bread and wine truly belong to the people of God, than anyone this congregation calls leader should find a place behind this table.

I think the roots of this dangerous thinking go back to Queen’s and my days at the theological college when the then Principal made an unlikely ruling. The Principal, Dr. Clifford Hospital, decided that students should be able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and have the experience as part of their training. Not wanting to break the rules too thoroughly, he decreed that he could personally preside over the communion service from anywhere in the room, even sitting at his usual place at the organ (he has many talents). Thus a new tradition was born and the students gained valuable new experience.

I think it follows then that surrounded as we are by the whole of the supernatural realm, with the Risen Christ himself as close as this room or the next, then the celebrant who truly presides over this ritual is clear. The one who says “this is my body broken for you and this is my blood shed for you” is fully present whoever speaks his words.

May this be a thin place for you. May you sense the presence of Christ as we celebrate together. Amen.