Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2013
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

There are two stories that appeared in the news this past week that are really quite remarkable. Each of them has captured the imagination of many in our country and, yes, the world. “Captured the imagination;” remember that phrase. These stories are true, at least to a point. But they also are so much like the classic morality plays of old that they invite comparison. And, because there are no accidents in God's world, they serve as perfect illustrations for today's gospel message.

 

St. Mark's gospel, the shortest of the four gospels, begins abruptly. It begins with the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, we find no extensive genealogy as we do in Matthew, no wonderful journey to Bethlehem as we do in Luke and no beautiful, poetic merging of the creation story with the coming of Jesus as we do in John's gospel. There are no preliminaries in Mark's gospel; he gets right to the point. Though all gospel writers stress the connection of Jesus to the Old Testament prophets, Mark makes this connection much more quickly and efficiently.

 

He begins with John Baptist, the prophet who was sent to “prepare the way,” to “make his paths straight.” John was sent to “preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” These words connect the Old and New. John has come to call his people to the way of God. That way is the way of living into the truth of God's world, following God's law and living into the reality of the purpose for which we are created.

 

I asked you to remember the phrase, “captured the imagination.” I now ask you to remember another phrase: “hold onto the reality.”

 

The two stories we have been so interested in this past week have to do with imagination and reality. They both involve famous sports figures. They both involve truth and illusion, reality and imagination. They are both troubling in their own separate ways.

 

The first, that of one Lance Armstrong, tells the tale of a major sports hero. This man pursued a dream; he wanted to win. And win big. He wanted to win the Tour de France, the cycling world's Mt. Everest. Well, he succeeded. He won big. He won his trophies. He earned fame and glory. He got very rich. But, we wonder, at what cost? His triumphs came, by his own admission, through lies and deception. But, even more, he destroyed the professional careers of many associates, people who seemed to have wanted to face reality and to tell the truth. Mr. Armstrong didn't want that truth to be told, he didn't want to face the reality that truth would bring. When people regard reality and truth to be enemies, we are on dangerous ground. Mr. Armstrong lived on dangerous ground for many years. But the thing that troubled me most about Lance Armstrong's admission of guilt was this: “I never regarded what I did,” he said, “as wrong.” Perhaps someone might send him a copy of Proverbs, the book Mark quotes in today's gospel reading (“make straight the way of the Lord”).

 

Lance Armstrong's story reminds me of the greatest morality play ever written, Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth also wanted fame and glory, power and riches. And he got them. He got those prizes through murder and deception. On the night before his first murder, he considered well his options, he weighed his decision carefully. And when he had talked himself into believing that murder was ok in this particular case, he acted. The idea of becoming king captured his imagination and he forgot the reality of God's world. Macbeth is a profoundly theological play; it shows what happens when someone slowly and relentlessly embraces evil.

 

The other current news story also plays with imagination and reality. A young and very successful college football player had a girlfriend. She was his true love, the girl of his dreams. Alas, on the eve of a big game, the dream girl died of leukemia. The young man, a star running back for Notre Dame, was crushed. But the football player went on to play in the game (“she would have wanted it,” after all). Despite his grief, he helped his team win that contest. What an absolutely brilliant movie script: “dream girl dies on the eve of big game; hero boyfriend wins despite shouldering enormous grief.” A box office smash for sure! But it was all fiction, pure illusion. It was all made up; the girl never existed. It is still not clear who created this elaborate story, whether it was an evil joke created to fool the football player or whether he invented it himself. But what is clear is this: the imagination created a fraudulent story that worked against the reality of God's world.

 

Now, we have John the Baptist. A messenger sent to prepare a way, to call God's people to repent of their sins; to let go of evil and to return to God's way. John knew God when he saw him. He recognized Jesus; he knew God when he met Him and he fulfilled his responsibilities to God and God's world. John baptized Jesus. He could tell the difference between good and evil, between illusion and reality. He knew clearly what is of God and what is not.

 

Our imaginations are gifts from God. God has given us this wonderful gift to use for His purposes. When we use this gift to do God's work, to express the fulness of God's love and to tell the stories of God's love in the world, we are doing the work for which we and our ability to imagine were created.

 

I pray that Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame football player, may face the reality of what they have done and seek reconciliation and repentance. It is not easy, especially for the hero types who believe they are all powerful. But it is necessary.

 

In Christ Jesus, the imagined reality of God come among us in human form becomes a truth more powerfully realized than anything that has ever been known. It is a reality that was intensely present with John Baptist; more vibrantly alive in his heart and mind than any other simply human thought or illusion or reality he had ever known. John Baptist knew God; he embraced God with every fibre of his being.

 

Let us pray: O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen