Archive for January, 2018

Showing Up with Authority

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on January 27, 2018 by timtrue

The_Scream

Mark 1:21-28

1.

Let’s begin with a character study this week, shall we?

There are many characters in today’s Gospel. With whom do you most closely identify?

I bet many of you, after hearing what was just read, would say the disciples. The disciples followed Jesus; we follow Jesus. It seems a safe bet.

But these guys, remember, had only just responded to Jesus’ call. We don’t know why they dropped everything on that beach along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus, leaving behind safety and security for risk, uncertainty, and danger. But they did.

Everything was new and fresh and exciting for them. Adventure was upon them!

However, most of us responded to Jesus’ call long ago. We’re not leaving everything we know behind to follow Jesus into the unknown. Instead, on the Sundays we can manage it, we stop what we’re doing for a couple of hours to come to church and worship; then pick up right where we left off when we get home.

And as for the newness part of it, the adventure? By now our faith is mostly old hat.

So, come to think of it, maybe we don’t identify so closely with the disciples. Maybe for you and for me, we identify more closely with Jesus.

He walks into this local synagogue and teaches with authority. And, after all, isn’t that what we want? To teach the good news of Jesus to the community around us with authority?

What must his sermons have been like?

We hear a little bit about what they were not like: the sermons of the scribes.

And here you might be tempted to remember the absolute worst and the absolute best sermons you’ve ever heard—or, in my case, the absolute worst and best sermons I’ve ever delivered—and say, “That worst example was like the scribes; the best like Jesus.”

Or you might remember that movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and that scene where the economics teacher is calling roll. “Bueller? Bueller?” he calls repeatedly. He’s also the teacher who says, “Anyone? Anyone?”

Do you remember him? The longer version goes like this:

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the—Anyone? Anyone?—Great Depression, passed the—Anyone? Anyone?—tariff bill, the Holly Smoot Tariff Act, which—Anyone?—raised or lowered?—raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone?

The camera pans around: students are bored to tears; a couple resemble zombies; one is fast asleep, his head on his desk in a puddle of drool. And of course we’re all left thinking Ferris was right: how could anyone be expected to go to high school on such a perfectly glorious day?

Anyway, that econ teacher is what comes to my mind when I hear about the scribes preaching so unlike Jesus.

So, now that I mention it, maybe we identify most closely not with Jesus but with the scribes. For the scribes of ancient Israel were those who interpreted the Torah to their people; and we are those who interpret the Bible to the people of our modern world.

It’s much the same as Jesus was doing, except the scribes taught not with their own authority but with an authority beyond themselves—the authority of the Torah.

And that’s how a lot of us feel. We can teach the Bible, sure, and so we do—to our kids, to our grandkids, to our family members, to our friends, to each other—but, unlike Jesus, without any kind of authority to call our own.

Which brings us to the final character of today’s story: the man possessed with an unclean spirit.

Does any of us identify most closely with him?

The wording in the text says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” But let’s just tell it like it is: he had demons—his own, personal demons.

And doesn’t each of us deal with his or her own demons? . . .

Maybe we do in fact identify with this man.

2.

Now here’s an interesting thing to me about this man: he was there, in the synagogue, with his demons.

How long had he been there? How long had this been going on? Was he a one-time visitor?

More likely, he was a regular, a long-time member.

Communities were a lot more settled—people were far less transient—in those days. The synagogue wasn’t like church today—or not like we’re trying to make our churches today—in the sense of inviting and welcoming visitors. Visitors weren’t really a thing for synagogues. Synagogues were part of community life—for all the community, not just those who felt like showing up on the Sabbath.

So, point is, this man with his personal demons was probably known well to Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and the other members of the community, including the scribes.

No doubt he knew just how to interact with the community—just how to put on a game face—so that outwardly he looked like he had his act together.

He wore the right clothes.

He tithed the right amount of money.

He attended the synagogue’s annual meetings.

And he voted.

He’d probably served on committees, or as a delegate to convention, or even on the vestry.

So, just how long had he been dealing with his demons? . . .

And yet no one knew!

The scribes, remember, weren’t like Jesus. They did not teach with authority.

But then Jesus showed up. And he taught with authority.

And we know this precisely because the unclean spirit came out!

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The scribes and the community couldn’t do it. It took Jesus, with his inherent authority, to bring the demons to the surface—demons that this poor man had been dealing with for who knows how long!

And once his demons were confronted, he experienced healing.

3.

Which brings up a probing question.

What demons are you dealing with today?

Like the man in today’s Gospel, do you go to your place of worship and put on your game face, exchange the peace with a smile, commune at the altar, and go to the annual meeting—

But then, when the spirituality and business of the day are over and done with, will you return to your home to continue to do battle with your inner demons—demons no one else knows about: not your parish family; not even your own family?

There is hope. We see that today. With a word, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man; and it does.

Now, I’m not Jesus. Your spiritual friends and leaders—they’re not Jesus either. Try as we might to preach and teach with authority, or to command an unclean spirit to leave you alone, at the end of the day we’re just scribes, interpreting the Bible the best we know how.

But here’s the thing: Jesus often shows up in spite of us.

When we’re doing what we do, living the lives we live, fulfilling our vocations as God gives us strength and ability, suddenly and without warning Jesus is there in our midst.

We know this; we sense it when it happens.

And you know who else knows this?

Our personal demons.

And they shudder!

Those unclean spirits at war within you know Jesus whenever and however they hear him—in church through the bread and wine, on the phone with a friend, or in an argument with an opponent.

Whenever and however Jesus shows up, your inner demons know, and they shout out so that you can almost hear them audibly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

4.

If the overarching Epiphany message is about anything, it’s about transformation.

Jesus was baptized and the skies between heaven and earth were torn apart. He has ushered in the kingdom of God. He is the ladder forever uniting earth and heaven. He is showing himself, God Incarnate, to the world. The healing of the world has begun.

But, as we know, transformation is not a quick conversion—like praying a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call. Transformation takes a lifetime, an era.

We, the church, have thus been called to carry on the work of transformation, to continue to heal the world, to love outwardly.

Yet transformation reaches inwardly too.

We have our inner demons. Transformation necessitates that we deal with them—that we wrestle with them until they convulse us, let out a scream, and depart. Only then do we begin to experience true healing.

My prayer today is that Jesus shows up and continues his work of transformation—both out there, in the hurting, dark places of the world; and also in here, in the deepest, most secret hiding places of our souls.

Advertisements

When Faith and Beliefs Collide

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2018 by timtrue

Verkehrsunfall1

Mark 1:14-20

1.

Jumping right into today’s Gospel:

  • John the Baptist has been arrested
  • Jesus has carried John’s message of repentance to Galilee
  • Four fisherman hear this message
  • And immediately they leave the lives they have always known to follow Jesus.

Consider: theirs were lives of safety, security, predictability, stability, and confidence; left behind for risk, danger, insecurity, uncertainty, and self-denial.

Why would these fishermen do such a thing?

Did they know Jesus already? Had they seen him somewhere before? Was it his charismatic personality?

Or, maybe, was it his connection with JB? There’s some scholarly speculation, after all, that JB was an Essene, possibly even of the Qumran community. Prior to his public ministry, Jesus might even have been one of JB’s disciples. We don’t know for sure. But did Jesus perhaps dress like JB? Would the four fisherman have recognized Jesus at sight—by the clothes he wore (similar to people recognizing me as a priest when I wear my collar in public)?

Or, was there something about the authenticity of Jesus? Here was a man who not only proclaimed a message of repentance but also lived out the way of love. I like to think so: that the message and messenger were authentically one.

Whatever the case, the truth is we don’t know why these four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus. This detail has been left out of the story.

But we know that they did.

No speculation here! On that day long ago on that beach, four fishermen left behind stability, certainty, and predictability for a life of risky faith as disciples of Jesus.

2.

And we know the result: through their faith they were transformed. Jesus called these disciples as fishermen and transformed them into fishers of people.

Peter’s story is probably the most familiar.

He was called on the beach, the sand; and later called rock.

Jesus called him rock; and then, in the next breath, Satan.

Peter said he’d never deny Jesus; and yet denied him the next morning.

Peter became a stalwart spokesman for the church; yet disagreed and disputed openly and publicly with the apostle Paul.

Peter even waffled, tradition tells us, in the days leading up to his execution, one moment escaping from Rome and fleeing for his life, sure of his freedom; the next deciding martyrdom was the better way and returning of his own volition to face Nero for Christ’s glory.

Transformation for Peter—and for the others—was not a one-time experience, like repeating a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call.

Faith in Christ meant continuous conversion throughout his life, being conformed increasingly—more and more—from Adam’s fallen image into Jesus’ perfect image.

Transformation takes a lifetime!

And if it works this way for Peter, Andrew, James, John, and you and me, as individuals; then transformation also works this way for the corporate body of Christ, the Christian church around the globe.

3.

Which brings up a good point.

Here is the beginning of the church—the earliest community to gather around the person and mission of Jesus Christ. And this earliest body of believers lived a life of faith.

This life was risky, even dangerous.

It was insecure.

It was unstable.

And—not a point to gloss over—it required them to let of their egos.

And their faith resulted in their transformation.

Yet where is the church today?

Is the church, the collective body of Christ around the globe, still transforming? Is it still living a life of risky faith, following Jesus into unknown, even dangerous realms as it tries to fulfill his mission?

Take financial risk as an example. Certainly these four fisherman followed Jesus at great financial risk to themselves and their families. Yet, obviously, they didn’t sit down beforehand and plan out a budget subject to board approval.

The contrasting picture today is one of sweaty hands wrung together, knuckles popping and fingernails being bitten off, frantic phone calls, bitter arguments—in fear of insolvency.

We’ve come a long way in some ways; though I’m not sure we can say transformation is one of them.

And what of stability? We talk an awful lot about having buildings to worship in, in geographic locations. We are the presence of Christ to our community, after all. Better make sure we look like we’re built on a rock then and not on shifting sand!

Yet Christ was transient in his ministry, meeting in an upper room or speaking from a boat or sitting on a hillside.

Since the beginning of the church, a lot about Christianity has changed. But I don’t think this is the kind of transformation Jesus had in mind.

And what about ego? . . .

4.

Considered as a world religion, Christianity is commonly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Each of these divisions can be further subdivided; and there are further subdivisions within these subdivisions; and so on; and so forth—leaving one dizzy.

A Catholic group says there are 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world; Gordon-Conwell Seminary claims there are 47,000.

But, of course, it depends how one defines “denomination.” Is an independent, so-called non-denominational church in effect its own denomination? Many would argue so.

If so, then, yes, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, in the USA alone there are more than 35,000 Protestant denominations.

But if, on the other hand, you lump all independent and non-denominational bodies into one group—a kind of anti-denomination I guess—then the number becomes a much more manageable 200 or so.[i]

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot.

And why is this?

Far and away, because of doctrinal differences: one church leader’s interpretation differs from another. And so, in the spirit of protest, channeling the Protestant Reformation, rather than seeking agreement a new denomination forms and breaks off from the old.

And if that’s not ego at work, I don’t know what is!

But, to be fair, you can hardly blame Martin Luther and the others! For the Roman Catholic doctrines of Papal Infallibility and magisteria (to name but two) are themselves exclusive systems of belief: if you don’t ascribe to them you can’t be in the club; and who wants to be in that kind of club anyway?

God is immutable, they say; and thus the church should reflect God’s unchanging nature.

To which I say, Immutability? Infallibility? (And I might as well add) Inerrancy? These words hardly sound transformational.

On that day long ago, Peter, Andrew, James, and John had a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of them. We, the church, continue to have a lifetime of ongoing transformation ahead of us.

It seems to me, however, that our belief systems today are far removed from that beach where those four fishermen dropped everything and followed Jesus in faith.

Our belief systems are impeding our transformation.

5.

You know what I think’s going on here? I think we—the Christian church—have confused our belief systems with faith.

Once upon a time I was a director of youth ministries in a church, overseeing programs for students in middle school, high school, and college.

The college students frequently volunteered to work with younger students and thus were seen role models.

One day, one of the college women who volunteered with the high school program came to the pastor in tears, confessing that she was pregnant. The father-to-be was a young man who didn’t attend church.

Now, this church’s system of beliefs held that believers should not marry unbelievers; that abortion is murder; that sex outside of marriage is a sin; that sins necessitate repentance; that pregnancy is a public sin, for a swollen belly is soon obvious to everyone; and that failure to repent should result in excommunication from the church.

This system of beliefs had come from much prayer and Bible study, to be sure.

But it also led the pastor and elders (who were all men, by the way) to conclude, therefore, that the young woman must either publicly apologize to the congregation during Sunday morning worship or face excommunication. It probably goes without saying that abortion would have resulted in excommunication too; and unless he converted, marrying the unbelieving father-to-be was discouraged.

As you can imagine, this whole scenario put me into an ethical dilemma.

On the one hand, I was a vital part of this church. I ascribed to its belief system. I supported the pastor in his vision for the congregation.

And yet, on the other hand, I had gotten to know this young woman well. She had taught, prayed with, and otherwise provided spiritual leadership to a number of the youth. She demonstrated a life of love to these kids.

And love, after all—wasn’t this Jesus’ main message?

“Lord,” I prayed, “of all the beliefs in my belief system, which one is the greatest?” And he answered, “The greatest of these is love.”

How was this local church loving this young woman now, I wondered? By telling her not to marry her boyfriend because he didn’t ascribe to the church’s belief system? By publicly humiliating her in front of the congregation? By excommunicating her? Really?

The dilemma was real: My belief system collided with my faith.

But I’d learned my belief system from Jesus!

But I’d also developed my ethic of love from Jesus!

As these two worlds collided, I realized I couldn’t hold both without significantly compromising my integrity as a disciple of Christ. I had to pick a side: belief or faith. Which would it be?

Well, what side had the four fishermen picked?

As with the four fishermen, Jesus is calling us to faith: to live out a risky ethic of love rather than to hold tenaciously to some rock-solid, immutable system of beliefs we call our own.

Through faith, not a belief system, we shall be transformed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] Cf. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/sbeale/just-how-many-protestant-denominations-are-there