First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
January 28, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
So, we’re about a year and three months into this phase of the life and ministry of First Congregational United Church of Christ with me as your minister. All in all, it seems to be going well. We’re about to find out because tomorrow night, the Pastoral Relations Committee meets for our quarterly chat. Now, one of the roles of the Pastoral Relations Committee is to hear the concerns (and compliments) about the church and the minister from those who prefer not to do so directly. Members of the Pastoral Relations Committee in the room, stand up: Dick, Tom & Jan, Hank, June. If you need to air something about me (or the church), and would prefer to not shoot those arrows directly at me or the others involved, these are the folks you need to be in touch with. Please don’t shoot any arrows at them. In the spirit of Christian love, just graciously hand those arrows to these fine people and they will equally lovingly hand them over to me. This way, no one gets hurt and the church won’t get sued.
So far, the Pastoral Relations meetings have been pretty good, pretty positive. Which isn’t bad for a year and three months in. Not every church can say that. And, God knows, not every pastor can say that.
Now, if Jesus had had a Pastoral Relations Committee, things might have been different. They might not have been able to hold off meeting quarterly. Jesus starts his ministry off with the two things clergy are encouraged never to do in a new setting: Don’t cross too many cultural boundaries right away and don’t tick off the powers that be. The hard part is, sometimes you don’t know who the powers that be are. Usually it includes the choir director and the church secretary. Oh, and if there’s someone whose responsibility it is to keep a glass of fresh water at the pulpit, you really don’t want them to be upset with you…. There’s a lot of things that can be done to that glass of water without you knowing it…. until you take a big gulp of it just before you open your mouth to preach the good news. You don’t want to upset the person who can get revenge through something as innocent as a glass of water.
Well, back to Jesus and today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is barely new. We’re still in the first chapter of his life and ministry, as Mark tells it. He’s only called four disciples and he hasn’t even made his first official pastoral call because, before you know it, it’s the Sabbath. So, he takes the first four disciples, and they go to synagogue. And that’s a good thing. As a new minister, you don’t want to be absent on your first Sabbath. But that’s where the trouble begins.
As the visiting Rabbi and he has the opportunity to read and interpret the scriptures and he does…. and he knocks their socks off. We don’t know just what it was he said or how he said it but he left folks stunned, amazed! This guy’s good. He knows what he’s saying. Apparently, there was a bit of disappointment with the scribes, the guys that were already there and had been for years. I guess you could say that the new guy showed them up. Perhaps they should have met more often with their pastoral relations committee. But, just like that, the new minister steps into taboo-land #1: don’t tick off the powers that be. That’s going to come back to bite him later on.
Regardless of what the deal was with the Scribes, right away, people recognize something different about him. There’s just something that catches their attention. It’s as if he really knows what he’s doing. He’s confident. He’s smart. He knows the scriptures, that’s for sure. …..Hmmmm…. Authority. That’s it. He speaks with authority.
Well, no time to dwell on that little revelation because right away, there’s a guy in the back somewhere that’s having a little trouble containing the demon that has possessed him and he cries out and there’s this little interaction between the demon and Jesus, and the demon leaves the guy.
And there’s taboo #2: crossing some pretty major cultural and religious boundaries and getting involved with someone who is unclean.
We’re not talking about a guy who hasn’t bathed for a couple of weeks. It’s not that he had holes in his jeans or unkempt hair or anything like that. There was something about this guy that rendered him ritually impure, a disease, an illness, a condition that led the good folks of Capernaum to believe that he was possessed by a spirit that alienated him from God and made him actually hostile towards God.
Today, we would look at this guy and recognize that there’s something going on and try to help him. Not so in Jesus’ day. Ritual impurity was something that could be caught from someone else and so the practice was to stay away from them…. way away from them. Don’t talk to them. Don’t engage them. And, by all means, don’t touch them. There were some pretty strong boundaries placed around people who were considered to be possessed by evil spirits. And Jesus crossed them all the time. This was the first of many.
So, yea, within a week on the job, Jesus has ticked off some pretty powerful people and crossed some major social and religious boundaries. Not the kind of entry you want to have as a new minister in town.
But, it’s Jesus. Not just any new minister. It’s Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one we follow. The one we claim as our Lord and Savior. And he starts things off by 1) being faithful to his tradition by going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, 2) revealing his authority (even though it ruffles a few feathers) and, 3) crossing social and religious boundaries to reach those that that tradition had kept separated from the community and from God.
Jesus’ identity, authority, and his modus operendi are all revealed in one brief visit to the synagogue. He claims his place as the anointed one in the midst of his tradition and begins breaking down the barriers which that tradition had put up.
As followers of Jesus, we strive to recognize and understand the authority he claims and places in our lives.
So let’s talk about that authority for a bit. We’re Congregationalists and that means we don’t do well with authority. Our Protestant reformation heels are dug in pretty deep when it comes to authority. There is no one who will tell us what to do as a congregation. No one, no matter what their status is in the church hierarchical structure can tell us how to go about being the church. We call our own pastor. We choose our own Sunday School curriculum. We go forth the in mission in the way we understand God to be directing us. We set our own budget and we fund it. No one does that to or for us. Then, add all that into being Montanans and that sense of independence and autonomy gets multiplied. Authority is not something we take lightly. There’s only one person, one being who has authority over us and that’s Jesus. As God’s chosen, anointed, resurrected one, it’s the authority of Jesus of Nazareth that we have chosen to direct who we are and how we will function in the world.
Now, authority isn’t just a situation of having power and control over something or someone. There’s a reason authority is named and claimed and it has to do with the basis of the word itself. When you break it down, you can see that the word authority is related to author. An author is one that is the original composer of something. When we claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one that has authority over our life as a congregation, we are claiming that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the original composer of our faith. Christ is the one who not only proclaims the good news of God, Christ is the good news of God for us, revealing God’s love, mercy and grace over and above all else. All else.
Mark’s gospel reveals that Jesus so fully lived into that authority that people were inspired to leave their way of life and follow as his disciples. The impact of his authority as the chosen one of God disempowers the forces of evil that have hold on people’s lives. His authority is revealed as he rises above the constraints of his society that, even though they were long-held in tradition and law, restricted and oppressed people. When culture and tradition kept people from entering fully into the faith community, as was the case with the man he encountered in the synagogue on that first Sabbath of his ministry, he broke down that barrier. When those in authority perpetuated the mis-reading and mis-representation of the scriptures, he challenged that authority and revealed another way.
In short, Mark’s gospel is about the revealing of Jesus as the author of the faith we claim. At the heart of that faith is the crossing of boundaries that restrict and oppress. At the core of that faith is the confession that the author of the faith we claim to follow is this chosen one of God. It’s a faith of love and justice. A faith of caring for neighbor and creation. A faith of challenging the injustices in our community and around the world. A faith of speaking truth to power. A faith that is not afraid to go to the places where others do not to bring the realm of God a bit closer.
As we continue in this journey of life and faith, may the one who has gone before us bless us with faith and courage to follow.