(a sermon for January 28, 2018, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Mark 1:21-28)
I think I’ve shared with you before that my father, who passed away some years ago now, was for many, many years a high school math and science teacher. The majority of that time was spent teaching at the same local high school in the small town in Maine where I grew up; which means that he was also my high school math and science teacher!
That’s right; over the course of my junior and senior years, I had my own father for geometry, trigonometry and advanced math, which was quite an experience and at the start of it, at least, a bit awkward as well. Oh, we got along alright; but Dad, for his part, was very concerned that he not show me any kind of favoritism, and me, I didn’t even know what I supposed to call him (I mean, I couldn’t very well be in class and call him Dad, and I wasn’t going to,and refused to refer to him as Mister Lowry)! But we got through it, and I’ll tell you something else: in those two years I found out that he was a very good teacher!
I’ve been thinking about this lately because recently I was invited to be a part of an online group that’s focused on sharing memories of growing up in that town; and in fact one of the threads of conversation has been reminiscing about my father as a teacher “back in the day.” It’s really been something to read, and it’s done my heart good; and I know that Dad would have been delighted about the positive impact he had on so many students over the years. I will say, however, there was one memory that kept coming up in the comments section that made me shake my head. You see, my father was also a man of many interests; history, for one, and in particular, about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. He knew just about everything about that event, and loved, loved talking about it; and over the years, his students came to discover that if they ever wanted to distract Mr. Lowry, get him off topic and get out of having to do a lot in class on any particular day, all they had to do was ask him a question about the Titanic… and he was off and running!
Let me tell you that as a kid, hearing about that and seeing it happen used to drive me crazy! I’d be thinking, “Can you not see that those kids are playing you?” I could not believe that my father was so oblivious to what was going on! But it was only years later after I’d long since graduated and Dad had retired from teaching before I finally asked him about it. And I’ll never forget his response; he just smiled and said, “Yeah, they always thought that they pulled one over on me… but you’ll remember, they also always ended up working all the harder the next day. You see,” he explained, “I figured if they really needed a break that badly, I could give them a day off now and then… because it would always pay off in the end… they thought they were getting away with something, but they were better students because of it.”
Judging from the positive memories those students were sharing of being in my father’s classroom so many years ago, I’d say he was right about that; because you see, sometimes true authority takes a different kind of form, doesn’t it? That which at one time I’d been too quick to dismiss as some kind of shortcoming on my father’s part turned out to be one of his greatest strengths as a teacher: that he could read his students, and based on that he could create a good atmosphere for learning. Oh, he could have been tough about it – and in retrospect, his standards were very high as a teacher; trust me, you earned your grades in his class – but at the end of the day his authority had more to do with who he was and how he related to his students; everything else flowed from that!
In our gospel reading for this morning, Mark tells of how early on in his ministry, Jesus was teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum, and how everyone who was present to hear Jesus speak was “astounded at his teaching,” and how Jesus “taught them with authority,” and not as the regular leaders and teachers of that temple; that is, the scribes. Understand that as Mark tells the story, we don’t really have any sense at all of what it was that Jesus actually said that day that was so astonishing or so compelling that it would supersede the authority of the scribes. After all, in the hierarchy of the temple, the scribes were the ultimate authority of religious tradition, and by extension the interpretation of the law and prophets. But now here’s Rabbi Jesus, fresh off the path from the backwater town of Nazareth, and the moment he opens his mouth it’s compelling, it’s authentic, and it’s… filled with truth!
Maybe it was in the presentation; perhaps what Jesus was offering about the Word of God was so fresh and vibrant and alive that the scribe’s regular teaching seemed bland and boring in comparison. Or maybe it’s as the Rev. Dr. Charles Qualls has written in his own sermon on this passage, “that so deep [was the people’s] longing for something new, something better in which they could place their hope, that God simply ripped the heavens apart and showed us Jesus.” Whatever the teaching happened to be on that Sabbath day in Capernaum, what’s clear is that suddenly Jesus was the one teaching with authority, not the scribes.
But just as clearly, it was a different kind of authority; and we know this because of what happened next.
We’re told that in the synagogue, presumably as the time of teaching is still going on, there’s “a man with an unclean spirit” who disrupts everything and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Now I understand that given our modern sensibilities we’re not at all sure what to do with the idea of someone with an unclean spirit; and indeed, the translations of scripture vary here: the NIV, for instance, refers to one “possessed by an impure spirit” which definitely points to something supernatural, while The Message speaks of a man who was “deeply disturbed.” And yes, if we’re being honest here, over the centuries there have been those who have erroneously connected this with any and all varieties of mental illness. But that said, we don’t know for sure what was this man’s story; actually I like something I read from David Lose this week: that the most important thing for us to remember about this this man of an “unclean spirit” was that he was one who was held captive to that which “robs him, his family and his community of life;” that God is ever and always opposed “to anything and everything that robs them of abundant life… lives of joy, meaning and purpose;” and that God was about to do battle with that particular unclean spirit in the person of Jesus!
And Jesus does just that: confronting the unclean spirit by saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And immediately we’re told that the spirit, “crying with a loud voice,” came out of him. And now the people in the temple are really amazed, and they are buzzing about it: “What is this,” they ask. “A new teaching – with authority?” And let me add this from The Message: “What’s going on here… he shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” It’s a great and miraculous act; a sign for all to see of God’s kingdom coming: a teacher with true authority; but once again, it’s a different kind of authority.
What strikes me about this story is how many different ways it could have gone. For instance, the resident scribes could have simply ushered the man with the unclean spirit out of the temple so that they didn’t have to deal with him at all; or else they could have started spouting the finer points of the law, just to see how many charges could be brought against him for the sake of what they saw as spiritual judgment. Maybe they would just torment him, using their words as weapons that would create wounds that would never fully heal. Or, maybe worst of all, they could have chosen to ignore him completely; labeled him as hopeless and made sure that he was completely ostracized from society. Understand, friends; more often than not, this was how it was for those in Jesus’ time who were of “unclean spirits.” This was, at least partly, the very nature of religious authority!
But Jesus’ authority was different. In amidst the distress, the anguish, the fear and the utter hopelessness of this man’s situation, the very first thing Jesus does in response is “to free this man from the hold of his unclean spirit and restore him to himself, his loved ones, and his community. The very first thing.” (David Lose) And it would be the first of many authoritative actions on Jesus’ part; authority that values persons over rules, inclusion rather than exclusion, healing over endless hurt, love over hatred… life – life abundant and eternal – over death. It was, and continues to be, a different kind of authority; and then and continuing even now, it’s what has made all the difference in the world and in our lives.
And moreover, it’s the example we are called to emulate as followers of Jesus Christ. Truly, Jesus’ authority is what compels you and me to re-examine the authority by which we live; understanding, of course, that speaking, or acting, out of authority is not about being perfect. It’s like wisdom. Eugene Peterson, who was the translator of the The Message, has written in a book entitled “Living the Message” that to be “wise refers to skill in living. It does not mean, primarily, [that here’s] the person who know the right answers to things, but [here’s] one who has developed the right relationships to persons and to God.” Peterson goes on to say, “ The wise understand how the world works; [they] know about patience and love, listening and grace, adoration and beauty; and they know that other people are awesome creatures to be respected and befriended.”
It probably goes without saying that you and I are living in a time and place where the “authority” of the Christian church and of Christians is rarely recognized, much less assumed. But I wonder how much of that might be, at least in part, our own fault; and how often we have missed the opportunity in our times and places to speak and act with the authority of Jesus: times when we could have looked into the hearts of those around us and offered up an alternative to the hatred fueled and pain-filled “unclean spirits” that have taken hold and seek to diminish the abundant life that Jesus came to bring each and every one of us. Because I think you’ll agree with me when I say that there are a great many varieties of “unclean spirits” infesting this world and destroying all those that it would possess; in addiction, poverty, sexual assault… I could go on and on. I wonder how many times we’ve had the chance to reach out to those crying out for hope, courage, insight and love; but then walked away, for fear of upsetting the status quo. And by the same token I wonder just how different our lives, and indeed this crazy, convoluted and oh-so divided world might be if would let ourselves to be led into the same truth that guided Jesus into his ministry.
I pray this week that you might be wondering about these things as well, and that we go from this place… and be bold! You know, in a prior church, there was an older woman in the congregation who every Sunday used to give me a hug and greet me with the words, “You be bold, pastor… you go out there and be bold!” Every Sunday… and I always appreciated the affirmation, but I must confess that I always kind of wondered exactly what she meant by that; that maybe she was suggesting that my sermons be a bit more of the “hellfire and brimstone” variety, which in my late 20’s I’m not sure I could have ever pulled off! But I came to understand that her prayer for me was as a preacher, but most of all as a believer, that I listen the truth of God’s word for all of our lives and have the courage to be bold enough to speak that word with authority, and letting everything else flow from that. A good prayer for all of us, I’d say.
It’s a different kind of authority than what the world assumes; it’s the authority that comes in the presence and power of God in Jesus Christ, and it will make all the difference.
So so go and be bold, beloved… just be bold! And may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry