Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sermon: Through the Waters

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015, Lent 1B
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Through the Waters

How often do we think about water?
Maybe when we’re thirsty.  Maybe, though I suspect many of us have other liquids that come to mind first.  But I suspect for most of us water is just…there. 
Every now and then it makes headlines, when too much of it falls from the sky or crashes destructively on shore.  Or sometimes it makes headlines because of how we abuse it; only this week  at least five different accidents – four in North Dakota, one in West Virginia – caused either oil or the waste products from oil drilling and refining – to be spilled into sensitive wetlands or into rivers that supply drinking water to nearby towns and cities.  The West Virginia accident was along the same waterway system affected by a massive chemical spill that rendered water undrinkable in a number of that state’s cities for months.
Suffice to say we’re not always very good stewards of what is a basic human need. 
I doubt we’re the first civilization to be cavalier about water, though I question just how toxic the abuse of water in previous generations was by comparison.  Maybe the shocking part is that we know better and do it anyway.  At any rate, the human relationship with water is ambivalent at best, destructive at worst.  And I have not even gotten into how we commodify water, the way it gets bottled and sold at three bucks a pop in some locations.
I wonder how many of the folks who wrote down the books that are found in the Bible would view our seeming disregard of water.  When you spend time with scripture, water turns up in key, if not always noticed, roles in many of our well-known Bible stories.  Even the story of creation features God separating the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth – giving us a story to account for such things as springs, or rain.  Then the waters are separated from the dry land.  The story of Moses’s birth and adoption plays out against a backdrop of the execution of Hebrew boy children, in which Moses’s life was saved by hiding him in the water grasses to be found and taken in by a Pharaoh’s daughter – Moses was delivered through the waters. 
Of course the big water story in the Old Testament is the Noah story, in which the world is overrun with water, and only Noah and his family survive.  Water was the source of trouble and danger in this case, and Noah – as Moses would be in the later story – had to be prepared to survive the tumult of the waters that flooded the earth, with forty days and forty nights of rain.  The author of our epistle reading today explicitly ties that story to the practice of baptism, saying that Noah’s being “saved through water” presaged our being “saved through water” in baptism. 
It’s a funny phrase to use, when you think about it; in the case of Noah, the water itself was the threat, while we really don’t think of that font and pitcher of water down here as particularly hazardous.  Maybe in those traditions that practice baptism by immersion the metaphor is a little clearer; when one goes down into the water for those few moments, unable to breathe or see, maybe that instant carries something of that threat. 
But no, we’re not going to dunk Kailin today.  Still, the epistle and gospel both point to something that she and her parents, and all of us as well, will want to remember.  These are not magic waters.  They don’t turn into a superpower, some kind of magical shield that keeps all trouble or pain away from you.
It’s a terrible thing to think as young as she is, but Kailin will know sorrow in her lifetime.  I hope and pray it’s not soon, but someday, something will happen that will break her heart.  She may know scorn, or mistreatment by her friends, or some other kind of disappointment that will cause her grief.  With the life ahead of her will come disappointment, inevitably, and passing through these waters will not prevent any of it.
In 1 Peter we see that the group of believers receiving this letter is evidently going through some sort of difficulty.  It is never made explicitly clear whether the community of Christ-followers is actually being persecuted for their beliefs, or undergoing some lesser sort of difficulty over them, or simply suffering some kind of setback unrelated to their faith.  Whatever it was, the community was struggling with how these things could be happening to them, demonstrating if nothing else that the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is an old one indeed.
The gospel presents a different story, but one that also shows us something important about baptism.  Jesus comes down to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and upon coming out of the water he sees a sight both wonderful and terrible; “the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him.”  Other gospel writers who include this story are much milder, simply saying things like “the heavens were opened to him” (Matt. 3:16) , but Mark (as you might have noticed by now) is all about the drama and even conflict.  This baptism wasn’t “cute”; it was the beginning of something unusual, something that made sure this wasn’t going to be an ordinary life. 
And the first thing that Jesus does afterwards, after this baptism and this wild and uncontrollable tearing open of the heavens, was … to go off into the wilderness.  Not voluntarily, mind you; he was “driven” into the wilderness, by the Spirit no less.
So there Jesus is, out in the wilderness for forty days, undergoing temptation directly from Satan himself, and with wild beasts present as well.  Unlike other gospels, Mark doesn’t get into specifics about the temptations Satan put before Jesus – no turning stones into bread, no throwing himself off a high cliff for the angels to catch him.  We are only told that he was “tempted by Satan,” that “he was with the wild beasts,” and that “angels waited on him.”  We are left to imagine what those temptations were, or what wild beasts might have been about.
It might be hard to imagine what particular temptations Jesus might have faced, but it’s not hard for each of us to imagine, or perhaps to recall, the kind of temptations and struggles we might have faced or might face in our own lives. 
Kailin will face her own temptations, and unlike Jesus is likely to give in to them.  It’s entirely possible that some time this week or this month or this year, she just might dump her food on the floor instead of eating it, even though she is being baptized today. As she grows up the struggles and temptations will become more complex and maybe more challenging.
Baptism will prevent none of those things. 
What baptism does, among many other things, is remind us that before we pass through these ordinary waters, Christ has already passed through the waters.  Christ has gone before us, facing temptations like we face, facing the struggles and frustrations and scorn of the world, facing nothing less than death itself, and through Christ’s unkillable love we are already preserved through the waters, saved through whatever temptations and failings and darkness may yet come.  We are reminded, as Jesus says in verse 15, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near.”
I don’t know how often baptisms occur on the first Sunday of Lent, but in this case it might well be very appropriate that we do so. For, as Kailin is baptized into the one holy and universal church today, we are also reminded of our own baptism.  We are reminded that we do not cross through these turbulent and dangerous waters alone.  We are not baptized alone, left to fend for ourselves in the wilderness.  We are baptized into the body of Christ. We are baptized into one another, you might say; we become that fellowship that pulls together in time of trouble, the body that suffers when one member suffers and rejoices when one member rejoices.  We pick each other up when we fall, and we know that the members of the body will pick us up when we fall.  Baptism reminds us that Christ’s life and death and life again have made us his own, and that our redemption is not thwarted or ruined when we fail.  To borrow words from A Brief Statement of Faith (as found in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions), baptism reminds us that “In life and in death we belong to God.” 
And indeed Kailin belongs to God, not because we’re going to splash some water on her in a few moments, but because God has loved and claimed her from the very first.  And God will love her and claim her until she is full of days and goes on to meet her Lord face to face.  In life and in death, Kailin belongs to God.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293); “Lord Jesus, Think On Me” (301); “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” (498)


Friday, February 20, 2015

Ash Wednesday Sermon: The Fast God Chooses

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2013, Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Fast God Chooses

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
It’s one of those phrases that is so familiar, we assume by default it must be in the Bible, but it’s not; it’s from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dating at least back to 1662.  It is part of the burial service, reminding those in attendance that all of us are subject to the same finality as the deceased.  Not surprisingly, a phrase about ashes pops into the mind of many when the subject of Ash Wednesday comes up. 
Ash Wednesday is not an inappropriate time to consider our own mortality.  It marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the culmination of which finds us at a crucifixion site outside Jerusalem, where even our Savior tasted of the pain and indignity of human death.  It is not inappropriate for us to keep in mind our own finiteness, the knowledge that our days are numbered, and that we don’t know exactly what that number is going to be.  In a few moments you will be invited to take up a Lenten discipline and to come forward and receive a mark on your forehead or hand, a cross of ashes, and you will hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is not at all inappropriate to remember and reflect upon our finiteness on this day.  The challenge is: what will we do with that knowledge?  How will that reflection affect us?
There are good ways to be affected, and there are bad ways.  There are positive ways to carry forward that realization, and there are negative, even damaging ways. 
Matthew cautions us against some of those negative ways.  In these verses Jesus warns his followers against the kind of piety and fasting that damages.  Matthew records Jesus’s warnings in the context of three different kinds of pieties; giving alms, praying, and fasting.  In each case Jesus weighs in against the kind of giving, praying, or fasting that exists mainly to be noticed by others.  As crazy as it sounds, an influential person might well have had a trumpeter at hand to “announce” his gift before the public.  (Today we just hire publicists or spin doctors for the same effect.)  Likewise, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see such a person out on the street praying in a particularly ostentatious manner.  (We have “prayer breakfasts” for that now, I guess.)  And a person on a fast might well go about with a face pulled down into a frown, all the better to provoke others to ask “oh, dear, what’s wrong?”
Note that Jesus is not warning against giving alms or praying or fasting; in fact Jesus presumes his followers will give alms and pray and fast – “whenever you give alms,” “whenever you pray,” “whenever you fast.”  But the heart of the matter is why his followers pray or give or fast; is it to receive the praise of others?  To check off a couple of boxes on the Official Good Person Scorecard?  Or is it to give honor to God? 
Isaiah adds a slightly different dimension to the question of practicing pieties like prayer and fasting.  For Isaiah, it’s not just a matter of the public nature of the piety; it’s also about whether the whole life matches up to that public piety.  For example:
If you sit down to your meal, but those who labored to make that meal possible are living in poverty or abuse despite their labor, is that the fast God chooses?
If you pray and sing and make all sorts of joyful noise in worship, but turn a blind eye when others of whatever faith cannot worship in peace without being harassed or even killed, is that the fast God chooses?
Short answer: no.
To the degree that we do not pursue justice in all its forms, to the degree that we tolerate or even profit from oppression or exploitation, to the degree that we assume hunger or homelessness or poverty or lack of educational opportunity or any of the conditions that plague women and men and children around us, our fast is pointless or worthless.  It is no service to God whatsoever. 
This is how our mortal days, our knowledge of our finitude and limited time, is to move us; to refuse to live with the way things are, to refuse to live in ease because of the oppression and exploitation of others, to loose the bonds of injustice, to set free the oppressed, to share our bread with those in need of bread and on down the list that Isaiah gives us, that is the fast God chooses.  This is our rightful service.  This is what goes hand in hand with the purification the psalmist sings in Psalm 51, and with the right-minded piety Jesus teaches in Matthew 6.  The piety that comes from our deepest longing, the piety that cares only to be seen before God, the piety that changes the world: this is the fast God chooses.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “The Glory of These Forty Days” (87); Psalm 51 (196); “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sermon: With Glory

So I guess this is the first sermon by Rev. Charles Freeman, to the degree that means anything...

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 15, 2015, Transfiguration
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

With Glory

It’s one of those days, liturgically speaking.
One of those days that isn’t quite a major event in the liturgical calendar.  It’s certainly not on the level of Christmas or Good Friday or Easter, not even quite on the level of, say, Pentecost or Epiphany.  It’s there, and it must mean something, but explaining or understanding just what it means isn’t easy at all. 
The Transfiguration of the Lord – there’s an unwieldy name for you – marks in the liturgical calendar the final Sunday before Lent starts.  Its subject is that peculiar incident we’ve heard from Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus takes a few of his disciples up a mountain and something happens that is rather difficult to describe. 
“Transfiguration” itself is an unusual word at best. defines being “transfigured” as “to change in outward form or appearance; transform,” with a secondary definition of “to change as to glorify or exalt,” a definition which is largely based on its usage to describe this event. 
In fact we really don’t use this word very often outside of this story.  We’re more likely to use a word like “transformation,” “transmogrification,” or maybe “metamorphosis,” which is actually close to the word used in the Greek text.  Of course popular culture can affect how we understand any of these words.  The toys and movies about those robots that change into other kinds of machines can easily pop into our minds when we hear or see the word “transformer,” and the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes used the word “transmogrifier” for Calvin’s fanciful machine for changing himself into someone else (that word became so uniquely associated with that comic strip that to this day, readers still think “transmogrify” was a made-up word, though it is quite real).
All of these words carry some implication that a person or thing changes appearance, but not necessarily changing in substance or person.  The robot can still be called Optimus Prime even when it looks like a truck.  Calvin is still Calvin even if he’s “transmogrified” into a tiger or frog or whatever his imagination comes up with.
What happens in today’s gospel is not exactly like that. 

Mark’s early readers would have realized that something was up the moment that Mark mentioned that Jesus and the three disciples were going up a mountain.  Anyone who know their Hebrew Scriptures would have remembered that interesting things happen on mountains. 
One of the first such examples would have been Moses and his trips up Mount Sinai to receive the law from the Lord.  In Exodus 34, when Moses came down from the mountain after receiving the re-dictated Ten Commandments, his face was glowing, after God his Moses in a cleft in the rock and allowed divine glory to pass by Moses. 
Another, similar mountain encounter with the glory of God is recorded in 2 Kings, when the fugitive prophet Elijah encounters the glory of God not in fire or earthquake or whirlwind, but in the “sheer silence” that followed.  Mountains are often – not always, but often – places where holy and mysterious things happen, and not just in the Hebrew/Jewish tradition.  Mark’s readers would have likely taken the hint, and expected something unusual to happen.  And in Mark’s usual no-nonsense, no-frills, no-time-wasted fashion, that expectation is rewarded.
Our author quickly tells readers that Jesus began to … change.  To be transfigured, as translators have usually chosen to translate μεταμορφὠθη (metamorphothe), the Greek word found here.  As Mark then describes the event, Jesus changes, but the change that Mark describes seems to be mostly about light; “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (v. 3).  This would also remind Mark’s listeners about those previous mountaintop experiences, with Moses’s face ending up glowing and Elijah glimpsing the dazzling glory of God.
And then, as if any more clues were needed, we get those very figures themselves appearing in this scene.  Elijah and Moses appeared next to Jesus, talking with him – now there’s a conversation you wish somebody had been able to record! 
By this time Mark’s readers must have felt as if they were being hit over the head with the obvious; this man Jesus is of God.  Mark told us way back at the beginning of the gospel that this was the “son of God” (1:1), and the scene before the three disciples seems to us (who after all have the benefit of Mark’s narration and storytelling to clue us in) to be a magnificent and irrefutable demonstration of the glory of God manifested in Jesus.  This would seem to be as much proof as anybody could need, right?  This man is from God, right?  The son of God?
You know how there always seems to be one person, no matter the situation, who always seems to say the wrong thing at the wrong time?  No matter how beautiful, how glorious, how transcendent the moment, they manage to chime in with something that’s just wrongheaded or ugly or maybe just … off?  Peter is a good bet to be that guy in the gospels.  In all of the gospels he manages to be that rare combination of (1) always willing to speak, and (2) not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer.  In this case, these two traits combined to cause Peter to blurt out a suggestion that, for all his good intentions, ruined the moment.  It was as if a resplendently beautiful bride took a pratfall halfway down the aisle.
To be fair, Peter’s suggestion about building three “dwellings” (also translatable as “tents” or “booths”) wasn’t totally wacky.  One of the possible interpretations of Jewish tradition at that time was that the “Feast of Booths,” a regularly-observed event, would be the time when God would intervene in Israel’s fortunes and usher in a new age.  Peter seems to have jumped to the conclusion that the appearance of Elijah and Moses with their teacher was just this sign that God’s new age was arriving.  Peter, though, was forgetting about the very things this teacher Jesus had been telling them, unpleasant things about suffering and death.  Perhaps he wanted to forget them, or hoped that this intervention would make them unnecessary.  Whatever it was, Peter’s blurted-out suggestion, probably babbled in a moment of bafflement and uncertainty, was just … off.
To make that clear, a cloud descended over the mountain, and when it lifted Elijah and Moses were gone and Jesus stood alone before the disciples, with a stern warning from above to “Listen to him!
It was a moment of revelation, in a way.  The Transformers and Transmogrifiers that came up earlier were about concealment.  Even the very packaging on that Transformers toy described them as “Robots In Disguise.”  This, on the other hand, wasn’t a disguise.  Just the opposite; for those few transcendent, dazzling moments, the disciples caught just a glimpse of Jesus as he really is, in all the divine glory that is his. 
It had to be hard for the disciples not to wonder as they headed down the mountain, particularly when Jesus started going on about their not telling anybody about what they saw, why they couldn’t see this all the time, or at least more often.
Why is it that we can’t see this glory?  Why do we have to live in the dark and grey of the world, down in the valley instead of up on the mountain? 
The Apostle Paul may be helpful here.  In writing to the Corinthians he puts forward an idea that God does not choose to be “veiled” from our perception.  Instead, Paul suggests, the “god of this world” has “blinded the minds” of those who do not believe.  Paul is not literally suggesting that there is another god at work, but he is a firm believer that evil is active in the world, and that this evil seeks to separate people from God.  It's not like we need another god or evil to blind ourselves to things we don't want to see anyway, and that glory can be a little blinding sometimes.  Furthermore, this separation is exactly why we are called out to bear witness to the light of God that we have seen, the revelation we have known in Jesus, the indwelling of God that we know through the Holy Spirit.  If others do not see the light, it is our job to bear witness to it. 
This is why we don’t get to stay on the mountain.  There are too many in the valley or on the plain, in the city or out in the countryside, from whom the light is veiled, and our calling is to bear witness, to let that light that is within us shine through us. 
It’s not our light, of course.  It is the light of God’s glory, the light that illumined Jesus on the mountain, dazzling and intense and brilliant.  It is that glory, that transcendence that points us towards hope, knowing that the Jesus transfigured on the mountain goes before us, intercedes for us, suffers and rejoices with us in our sufferings and rejoicings. 
For this we rejoice.  The Transfiguration, strange as it may be, is a moment of hope, maybe one last reminder before the penitence and reflection of Lent that we are not abandoned, we are not forsaken, we are not alone.  To borrow from John’s gospel, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
For light, for transfiguration, for glory revealed, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Immortal, Invisible” (263), “Jesus on the Mountain Peak” (74), “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (411)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sermon: With Healing

From back on Sunday, my last un-ordained sermon...

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 8, 2015, Epiphany 5B
Mark 1:29-39

With Healing

What does it take to draw a crowd these days? I mean a serious crowd, throngs of people.
We had one such answer a week ago, of course.  Thousands of people crammed into a stadium, thousands more pouring into Phoenix, and millions around this country and others watching via television, for a football game.  The numbers are pretty impressive.  Nothing like a World Cup Soccer final, mind you, but pretty impressive. 
Who remembers, though, that a little more than twenty years ago that game was the object of a particularly daring and successful stroke of counterprogramming designed to draw off at least some of those crowds for a special, live episode of the sketch comedy program In Living Color?  Timed to begin at the end of the first half and end in time for viewers to get back to the game, the counterprogramming stunt was successful enough to draw about 22 million viewers away from the Super Bowl halftime show, which that year featured singer Gloria Estefan and figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano. 
Well, the NFL was going to have none of that.  For the next year’s halftime show the league booked no less than Michael Jackson, only the biggest performer on the planet at the time.  The pre-emptive strike worked, and in the twenty intervening years the halftime show has become a spectacle that equals if not dwarfs the game itself.  Between the halftime show and the increasingly expensive and popular commercials that air during the game, it can become easy to forget there’s actually a game going on.
What such a story reminds us is that crowds are fickle.  You can attract crowds, to be sure, but once they are pulled in, how do you keep their attention? 
One gets the idea that Jesus knew this, when one sees how today’s gospel reading turns out.  When last we left our story, Jesus had just astonished the synagogue crowds with his teaching, with an exorcism thrown in as well.  This got tongues wagging, as we were left with the statement that “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28). 
So for a follow-up to this smashing introduction to the people of Galilee, Jesus goes to … the house of Simon.  Maybe everybody needed a rest.  It still seems an odd way to follow up that experience in the synagogue. 
As well, this must have been an interesting return for Simon.  Remember, we first met him back in verse sixteen, where he and brother Andrew “immediately” dropped their nets and walked right off the fishing boat in response to Jesus’s call.  Even at the time we noted how that seemed a rash decision.  One can only wonder how Simon was contemplating explaining all this to his family, especially his mother-in-law, perhaps.  You mean to tell me that you just up and walked away from a perfectly good fishing business to follow this homeless preacher? Son, have you got any sense in you at all?  I have to wonder if Simon might have been wishing that Jesus would change his mind and go looking for more demons to cast out.
Instead the homecoming became an occasion for another act of healing from Jesus.  It’s interesting that Mark describes the event rather un-dramatically, even anticlimactically.  Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever; Jesus took her hand and raised her up, and she got up and started to serve.  Simple.  (Yeah, right.  Simple.)
Again word starts to spread, and before the day is over the whole town is gathered outside the house, with all those with illnesses or unclean spirits crowding around Jesus to be healed.  For the people of Capernaeum this must have been an occasion of great joy, with health being restored and wholeness being reclaimed and burdens of suffering and despair being lifted. 
Yet I ask you to consider that this is only the first occasion for healing to be found in today’s scripture. 
I realize that the rest of today’s reading doesn’t use the word “healing.”  Verse 39 does allude to more casting out of demons, true.  But specific mention of healing?  No, not in the rest of this passage.
And yet, after a full Sabbath day, first in the synagogue with the man with the unclean spirit, then at Simon’s home raising up Simon’s mother-in-law, and then with myriad people seeking healing, we need to pay attention to what Jesus does the next morning.
He goes to find a “deserted place,” according to Mark.  Away from the city, away from the synagogue and Simon’s home, away from the crowds which were, according to Simon and his companions, searching for Jesus. 
Jesus went away to that deserted place, and he prayed.
If Jesus, son of God, “eternally begotten of the Father” as the creed puts it, needed to pull away from the crowds and find a deserted place and get back in touch with his Father in prayer, we certainly can’t expect to be able to press on relentlessly without pause or without recharging our spiritual selves.  If Jesus needed to pray, we need to pray.  If Jesus needed to retreat to a deserted place, we need to step away ourselves.
In those moments there is healing to be had.  In prayer there is nothing less than re-energization, from the very source of our being.  In the retreat to prayer God is present to restore our strained energies, our frayed nerves, our exhausted spirits and worn-down souls.  We cannot possibly think that we are superhuman enough to press through the grief, the stress, the weariness when our very Lord and Savior made a point of seeking out solitude and prayer. 
It’s hard to fathom in our world where we are taught never to press the pause button.  If Jesus were being directed by some kind of modern corporation or publicity firm, can you imagine their reaction to his going off to a deserted place to pray?  First of all there’s no way he could have done what he did on that Sabbath day without being hustled out the next morning to be on all the Monday morning news shows.  The pursuing crowds would no doubt be joined by jostling cameras tracking his every step.  Had Jesus been so bold as to slip out and find that deserted place, the handlers and spin doctors would have no doubt gone ballistic.  You’ve got to capitalize on the moment,” they’d say.  If you want to take advantage of this momentum you’ve got to get out there RIGHT NOW and press your advantage.  Rest is for the weak. 
You get the idea; our culture does not reward or even understand what Jesus did that next morning.  At what would seem to be a high point, a moment of triumph, Jesus disappeared.  Simon seems to have organized a search party to find him.  And Jesus didn’t relent and return to the disciples; they had to go and find him.  Jesus took this time of restoration and healing seriously.  We can do no less, no matter how much the world we live in discourages such behavior. 
Of course what happens next is equally intriguing.  Simon and his companions finally find him and let him know in no uncertain terms that he had disappointed a whole lot of people that morning.  And Jesus’s response was…to leave town. 
Not to plunge into the crowds and sign them up for long-term membership.  Not to exploit the masses for fame and recognition.  For Jesus, the next step was to get on with the work of proclaiming the good news. 
Notice where Jesus’s attention was focused; his job, “what I came out to do” as he puts it in verse 38, was to proclaim the gospel.  Given his retreat and prayer time, Jesus came away focused on the core of his mission, taking us back once again to what we might in modern jargon think of as Jesus’s mission statement, back in verse fifteen; “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.  The temptation to continue to work the present crowd, to ride the wave of popularity, would be very hard for us to pass up.  Yet for Jesus, his own retreat and healing and prayer brought him back to his basic animating purpose, and he walked away from the crowds to find the next synagogue in which to teach, and continued to proclaim the good news.
We as a church are at a new juncture.  I’m new here, as you know.  We’re at a place of looking forward, trying to catch a vision of just what God is calling us out to do.  For this congregation it’s been a long time coming, working through a transition period and waiting for that next step to come forward.  My wait hasn’t been quite as long as yours, but we all come to this moment aware of the passage of time, and aware of the uncertainty before us.  What is our next step?  Where do we go from here?  What are we to be as a church, both as a worshiping community and as a witness to our town and our world?
Let one thing be crystal clear: we will go nowhere without all of us, together as a church and individually in our own homes and prayer closets, taking time to step away from the immediate crush of worry and uncertainty and restoring our connection to the One who calls us his children.  We can make ourselves exhaustingly busy doing many things, but without the time of prayer and discernment and searching and listening for the still small voice amidst the whirlwind and chaos, we will go nowhere fast.
We’ve been through much as a congregation.  There have been some wounds, some disappointments, some weariness as this church has sought its way forward.  We cannot find that way forward without some time for healing and recharging, time spent in prayer and searching and discernment, a work that is not done with my call here, but is in fact just beginning. 
For healing that comes in many forms, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “To God Be the Glory” (485), “O Christ the Healer” (380), “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (298)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sermon: With Authority

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2015, Epiphany 4B
Mark 1:21-28

With Authority

In academic circles there is a humor piece that makes the rounds on occasion, with a title like “Why God would never get tenure” or something similar.  What follows is a list of reasons that, while humorously slanted, could be seen through squinted eyes as more or less academically correct descriptions of events in the history of the church or the Bible.  For example, in publication-crazed academia, everyone would recognize the failure reflected in the first reason on the list: “He only had one publication.”  Even I had more than that.
Other reasons on the list include (in reference to that “one publication”) “it was in Hebrew,” “it wasn’t published in a refereed journal,” and “some even doubt he wrote it himself.”  Other more general jokes on the list include “the scientific community has had a hard time duplicating his results,” “some say he had his son teach the class,” and “although there were only 10 requirements, most students failed the tests.”  You get the idea.
One of those jokes, though, actually resonates with today’s gospel reading, just a little bit.  Of the “one publication” the critique observes that it “had no references,” or more clearly, “no footnotes.” 
If you remember your own degree-seeking days, or if you’ve lived the academic life to any degree, you understand about things like footnotes and a bibliography, or a “works cited” or “works consulted” list – a means by which someone writing an academic paper acknowledges the sources that fed his or her research, those scholars whose previous work made the current work possible.  That kind of acknowledgment isn’t completely different from the kind of teaching that was typical of rabbinical scholars or teachers in Jesus’s time.  The scholar, addressing a particular text, would carefully develop an argument from the studies done by scholars before him, carefully balancing the work of one scholar against the commentary of another, weighing distinct views against one another, and carefully acknowledging and crediting those scholars whose work he uses.  A modern scholar uses those footnotes and bibliographies to perform much the same function.
Keep this in mind when approaching the story in Mark’s gospel for today.  In this case Jesus has the opportunity to speak in the local synagogue in Capernaeum.  This was not unusual.  A teacher did not necessarily have to be a synagogue official to be invited to speak in the service.  What Jesus did with that opportunity, though, aroused plenty of attention. 
We are not privy to the specifics of what Jesus was teaching here.  Mark is not interested in our knowing this, for whatever reason.  What he wants us to know is that Jesus’s listeners were quick to know that his teaching was different, and dramatically, surprisingly so.  Jesus wasn’t using the verbal footnotes common to the scribal tradition; his teaching was, as the text puts it, “with authority!”
Somehow Jesus was teaching in a way that didn’t involve all those cautious and careful cross-references.  He taught “with authority.”  He taught as the One – the only One – who did not need to cite and cross-reference and footnote.  He taught not just as one “with authority,” but indeed as authority himself. 
What happens next in the story often steals the thunder here, distracting attention from what Mark presents first.  We’ve already observed, in last week’s sermon, how often Mark uses the word “immediately” in his gospel.  Actually he uses it more than we see here.  In the NRSV verse 23 is translated as beginning “just then,” but in the Greek it’s the same word – εθύς – that elsewhere is translated “immediately.”  “Immediately” there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out… .  This isn’t a crazed uncontrollable person, as will show up in chapter five, wandering about the tombs and ranting and raving. This is a man sitting in the synagogue listening to Jesus teaching, with the “unclean spirit” within unable to bear the presence of Jesus.  While the many in the synagogue might have marveled at the authority of Jesus’s teaching, only this unclean spirit truly grasped just what that teaching, and that authority, meant.
It meant that “the usual” was no longer enough.  It meant that “the way things are” was no longer acceptable.  It meant that those things that destroy from within, those things that hold us prisoner or keep us in thrall to what corrodes and corrupts us, those things are no longer in charge. 
In fact, this miracle – the best thing to call it, even as uncomfortable as it makes us – actually takes us back a few verses, to the proclamation found in verse 15 from last week:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

This miracle – but more so, this authority, this teaching that is like no other teaching that anyone has heard – is indeed a sign of the kingdom of God come near.  That demons, or unclean spirits, or any of those things that would enslave and break human beings cannot stand in the presence of Jesus, is indeed a sign of the kingdom of God come near. 
But notice something else about this scripture.  Aside from the man with the unclean spirit, how do the people in the synagogue react to what happens?  What is their reaction to Jesus’s teaching, or to the silencing and casting out of the unclean spirit?  Let’s go looking for adjectives and verbs here to see just what Mark is saying.
Well, the NRSV translation gives us “astounded” in verse 22 to describe the people’s reaction to Jesus’s teaching “with authority.”  By verse 27, they are all “amazed,” and chattering to one another.  Finally in verse 28 we find out that Jesus’s fame begins to spread all through Galilee, which at least suggests that those who heard and saw went out and told others what they heard and saw.
These are certainly evocative words.  But it seems there is something missing in them. 
Where is the rejoicing?  Where are the “hosanna”s or “alleluia”s?  People are amazed and astounded, but are they glad?
This points to something we might want to take with us from this passage.  Again remembering last week’s passage, Jesus comes proclaiming that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent, and believe in the good news.”  We say that the church is commissioned to proclaim the “gospel,” the “good news.”  Taken by itself that sounds good, but let’s be honest; there aren’t many people who like the sound of repentance.  It makes a demand on us.  It says we aren’t just perfectly fine and hunky-dory the way we are.  It says things have to change – no, it says things are going to change.  And that’s a little scary.  And if it scares us, why should we think that those outside the church are going to be particularly comforted by it?  This whole coming near of the kingdom of God upsets the established order of things, and that’s not something that everyone welcomes.
The second point has to do with that “authority,” and it might be a particularly appropriate lesson for this day in which our church ordains and installs elders to the session.  Some scholars have observed of this story that readers through the ages have made a mistake in interpreting the reference to Jesus’s authority as a slight or criticism against the teaching of the scribes of the temple.  No.  That can’t be the point we take away from this story.  How could the scribes do otherwise?  They are but human beigns.  Jesus’s authority was bound to be different because of who he was.  The very first verse of this gospel tells it straightaway: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  The scribes could not possibly teach or advise or govern with that kind of authority any more than a contemporary academic or student can get away without citing their sources in their next paper.
And neither can we.  This is a lesson to remember for me, in my being ordained next week, as well as for those who are ordained and installed today, and for those who are already serving on the session, and for those who may serve in the future.  The authority of the session – indeed the authority of the church itself rests in Christ alone.  It doesn’t come in titles or rituals or majority votes.  To the degree we claim authority in anything outside the head of the church, which is Jesus Christ – certainly to the degree we claim authority to rest in our own position or title – we are not followers of Jesus Christ.
But to the degree we immerse ourselves in seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we involve ourselves in studying and meditating upon scripture, we open our eyes to see where Christ would lead us to minister and to reach out both within this church and outside these walls in the community and world around us, then the coming near of the kingdom of God is good news indeed.  When we are grounded in the authority of Jesus, the Son of God, we are ready to hear and to follow where Jesus leads, to live as Jesus has already shown us how to live.  And then we are ready to be witnesses to what really is good news indeed.

For authority that will never be ours, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH '90): "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above" (483), "Blessed Jesus, At Your Word" (454), "There Is a Balm in Gilead" (394)