A few years ago, I remember hearing an interview on CBC with an Asian man who said that when he was young he starting to hang out with the wrong crowd, did some petty crime, and felt like he was pretty cool. Then his family went to visit his grandfather whom he dearly loved. He said, ‘My grandfather never confronted me about what I was doing, but when we went to leave, he stooped to tie my shoes and started to cry.’ The young man realized that his actions were causing his grandfather such deep pain, that he reassessed his behaviour and changed his actions and attitudes. The authenticity of the grandfather’s love, had authority for the young man, and helped him to be accountable with his life.
Well, there, I just summed up the sermon so now you can go. Just kidding – mostly! Of course it’s always – how do we faithfully live the gospel message in our time and place? In this season of Epiphany, we hear the stories of Jesus gathering disciples and beginning to speak to all who would listen.
When Jesus begins his public ministry, after calling the fishermen – Simon and Andrew, James & John, he walks up the hill above the Sea of Galilee to the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus speaks from the heart; he’s not just going through the motions.
Still, I wonder what it was about the other leaders of Jesus’ day that caused the congregation to say, “This one speaks with authority.” It wasn’t just about being passionate. In their co-authored book, “The Last Week”, Marcus Borg & Dom Crossan suggest that many of the scribes and Pharisees in charge of the synagogues and temples in Jesus’ day where not the legitimate ones, but were on the patronage program for the Roman Empire. They were from wealthy families who didn’t mind compromising their values a bit in return for these positions of power.
Jesus wasn’t backed by the bank, or the Roman Empire. He preached and lived from the heart. His authority is not used as a weapon to control, but is rooted in an intimate holy connection and conviction. He told people what they needed to hear, not necessarily what they wanted to hear – whether it was a word of hope, forgiveness, challenge, or even rebuke in the case of the unclean spirit.
We don’t talk a lot about unclean spirits/demons in the United Church, but there is something here that does not welcome Jesus’ words of `good news’ that the kingdom of God is at hand.
There is a song about this passage in the Voices United hymnbook – unfortunately it has an unappealing tune but the words by Thomas H. Troeger are worth hearing …
- “Silence, frenzied, unclean spirit!” cried God’s healing Holy One.
“Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it, flee as night before the sun.”
At Christ’s words the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed,
while the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.
2. Lord, the demons still are thriving in the gray cells of the mind:
tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight,
guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.
3. Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit in our mind and in our heart,
Speak your word that when we hear it, all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thoughts and calm our feeling; still the fractured, warring soul.
By the power of your healing make us faithful, true and whole.
The phrase `unclean spirit’ then may refer to a mental illness, a negative energy, or that inner critic that is always quick to condemn us, or the societal blindness that lures us away from looking at our actions in light of the gospel.
At an educational event a few years ago, one of the main speakers, Peter Rollins, from Ireland, talked about the `ghosts’ that are around us. He called it the “presence of an absence” – those things we push down and don’t want to acknowledge that find a voice regardless of how we try to silence them. Like the voice unwittingly coming from a man in the synagogue, the seemingly good news that Jesus brings, is really bad news, for those who are quite happy with the status quo, thank you very much!
The Seasons of the Spirit curriculum reflects: “It is never easy to escape the dominant cultural norms in which Christians find themselves. It was the embracing of cultural norms that led Christians to rationalize and justify slavery, the subordination of women, exclusion based on sexual orientation, the creation of residential schools, and the exploitation of Earth. These social norms are frequently difficult to recognize because they are simply a part of what everyone knows and accepts, especially those in positions of power and (societal) authority.”
When Paul, trying to follow a different kind of authority, the authority of love, writes to the church in Corinth, he uses the issue of eating meat served to idols. In case you ever wondered if the gospel was written with 21st Century Canadian Christians in mind, this should put that to rest. Eating meat served to idols? This is not an issue that makes any sense to us.
So what might be today’s equivalent? In our tradition we serve grape juice at communion. Why? The United Church has its roots in the Temperance movement, and that part of the tradition has carried on. (The Temperance movement also gave rise to hot-rodding cars so the rum-runners had faster vehicles than the police – but that’s another story!) At VST we always had bread, juice, and wine – accommodating both Anglicans and United Church folk. I like wine. However, serving grape juice means that alcoholics and children can fully participate in communion. We are accountable for the well-being of those we seek to be in ministry with, and this is one small way we can live that out.
As we prepare our hearts and minds for our congregation’s annual meeting in a couple weeks – let’s ask ourselves these questions:
How are we accountable to God & to our neighbour in our decision making?
What does it mean to speak with authority – from the heart? Do we walk the talk/practice what we preach? Are we authentic?
Do we look at our decisions and ask will this help someone else live more faithfully, or will it make them fall? Will this action cause harm to another being, or will it be beneficial? Can we talk it through together in ways that are honest, self-reflective, and respectful of each other? As Paul reminded the church nearly 2000 years ago, `Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.’ Let’s build up the Body of Christ by what we do in this church, in this community, and in our outreach to God’s beautiful and fragile world. Amen.