6th Sunday OT B ~ Something Messy, Something Big ~ Dr. Susan McGurgan


We are soon entering the season of Lent,

and for the second year,

we will enter it masked and distanced,

sanitized, gloved and Covid compliant.


We will enter it tired.

Tired of bad news,

Tired of loss,

Tired of isolation,

Tired of livestreamed bread and pre-recorded hope.


We want to return to normal.

We want full calendars,

full collection baskets,

full choirs,

full pews,

full festivals,

full communion lines,

full lives.


But those who work in the Church

can’t help but wonder...

once the pandemic is under control…

once the community is vaccinated…

once “normal” returns…

What will normal look like?

Will quiet cathedrals be filled with song?

Will vacant parking lots overflow?

Will threadbare budgets balance?

Will scattered people return?

Or has the pandemic simply accelerated a trend long in the making?

Something unstoppable--

Something inevitable--

an erosion of people

an unraveling of energy

a fraying at the seams of communal life.


Recently,

I heard some theologians and pastoral leaders

asking if this season—

this time of suffering and attrition—

is simply a necessary time of pruning;

a time of winnowing;

a time that will make the church leaner.

Cleaner.

More agile.

More dedicated.

More devout.

More…

well,

More Holy.


Asking if perhaps…

just perhaps,

this season of challenge

is an invitation to purge.

A call to arms, as it were,

to take up our pruning shears and lop off dead limbs.

Cut back diseased branches.

Pinch off spent flowers.

Clear away the undergrowth.

Fire up the stump grinder and put a match to the driftwood.


A “theology of pruning”

can sound kind of attractive--

perhaps even prudent.

After all, careful pruning

could result in greater clarity.

Sharper focus.

More participation.

Deeper commitment.

Greater zeal.

Yep, pruning to reveal a

smaller,

more streamlined,

more dedicated,

Holier Church

sounds great….

That is,

until I consider the very real possibility

that the diseased shrub

or spent flower;

the rough, scaly thing next in line to be purged

is me.

Or you over there…

Or even you.


And it is interesting,

and perhaps more than a bit ironic,

that these conversations about “pruning”

and “re-defining” and “re-branding”

and “re-establishing what it means to be truly Catholic”

are taking place against the landscape of this particular Gospel;

these particular readings.


This is the year we proclaim Mark’s Gospel—

This is the year we strap on our hard hats

and tighten our seatbelts

and deep dive into the

rough,

chaotic,

loud,

abrupt,

exciting,

(sometimes) scary

journey to the cross

that Mark invites us to embrace.


The Jesus we meet in the first Chapter of Mark--

the Jesus just starting his public ministry--

is a Jesus who plunges headfirst into both

mission and messiness.

He was baptized by a man

who dressed in camel hair and snacked on locusts.

He was driven into the desert,

where he wrestled with Satan

and went seven rounds with wild beasts.


The Jesus we meet in Chapter 1 of Mark

Drives out demons,

Confronts unclean spirits,

Astonishes people,

Confounds scribes,

Incites mobs,

Attracts undue attention,

and somehow convinces previously sane, hardworking, respectable men

to abandon

wives

fathers

nets

safety

security

boats and businesses

and roll the dice on a risky bet with a complete stranger.


The opening moments of Mark’s Gospel

are loud and disruptive.

Devils shout,

Crowds murmur.

Scribes mutter.

People are possessed.

Bystanders are astounded, surrounded, and amazed.

Unclean spirits are rebuked, convulsed and cast out.

And Jesus….

Jesus stands in the thick of it all,

right beside the lost,

the polluted,

the rough, the scaly, and the unclean.

It’s enough to make this sanitized, gloved, masked, distanced disciple shudder.


In the passage we just proclaimed,

Jesus closes out this extraordinary day of ministry

by touching and healing a leper--

an encounter that is the very epitome

of rough, scaly, and unclean.


Jesus—

at least the Jesus we meet

in the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel--

doesn’t seem to be in the Pruning Business at all.


In fact,

if we are using gardening metaphors,

Jesus seems like a wild and wasteful gardener--

Cultivating, cross-pollinating, fertilizing, irrigating, grafting on--

Jesus is adding,

not subtracting.

Multiplying,

not dividing.


If we are hearing this Gospel for the first time,

it is hard to even imagine what comes next,

but from Mark’s vantage point,

Jesus stands at the epicenter of something astonishing and new;

something boisterous and untamed and profound.

Something messy.

Something big.


Mark paints the picture of a motley crew of “everybodys”

being gathered and formed and commissioned for work--

a community that will become the polar opposite of

“pruned”, “trimmed”, “clipped” or “groomed”.


And about that leper?

Although most translations read, “Moved with pity”,

there are other translations,

other readings of this ancient text that say,

“Moved with anger.”

Moved with anger, Jesus stretches out his hand.

Moved with anger, Jesus touches him and says,

“I will do it. Be made clean.”


Anger, at us, perhaps?

because we like to avoid rough and scaly people.

Anger, at society, perhaps?

because it is oh, so easy to collectively

turn our backs and close our eyes.

Anger, at religion, perhaps?

because holiness and purity

are too often equated with outward beauty.


And so,

anytime I find myself

seduced

by thoughts of a smaller, leaner, more “pruned”

and more “Holy” Church,

I revisit the opening scenes of Mark’s Gospel

with fresh eyes and an open heart.


Jesus came to do for us what the law could not—

to make us pure in the midst of our pain,

cleansed, in the midst of sickness and sin.

Holiness Incarnate took on our flesh,

took on our roughness, our scaly-ness, our fears.

Jesus stretched out his hands in pity/compassion/anger/love,

and in that gesture,

proclaimed us

healed and whole and His.



(c) Susan Fleming McGurgan




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