First Congregational Church
January 28, 2017
4th Sunday after Epiphany, Annual Meeting Sunday
“Our Authority and Witness”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Halfway between New York City and Washington, D.C., the train's engine fell silent.
"I've got good news and bad news," the conductor announced. "The bad news is we lost power." The passengers groaned. "The good news," he added, "is we weren't cruising at 30,000 feet."
Lew Schneider says that his family uses a really strong sunblock when they go to the beach with the kids. It’s SPF 80: You squeeze the tube, and a sweater comes out.
In an all-too-probable reality, Lena couldn't decide whether to go to Salt Lake City or Denver for vacation, so she called the airlines to get prices. "Airfare to Denver is $300," the cheery salesperson replied. "And what about Salt Lake City?” "We have a really great rate to Salt Lake—$99," she said "But there is a stopover.” “Where?" "In Denver," she said.
The scripture passage for this morning finds Jesus traveling, or having traveled. From Nazareth to Capernaum, Google Maps says it’s just 48 miles by car. Since Jesus was hoofing it, it would have taken somewhere in the vicinity of 9 hours. Saturday came and it was time for Jesus and the crew to go to the synagogue, just like any other Saturday, just like any other synagogue in that part of the world, back nearly 2,000 years ago.
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Thank you, Denis. It was an ordinary Sabbath day, in an ordinary synagogue, and one of my nightmares happened: someone from the congregation yelled out something that was more than edgy, and more than rude - a cry for help that was really and truly beyond any there that day.
(Yes, I have really played out such scenarios more than once in my mind, because I am convinced that someone named Murphy’s Law lives in the white house to the west of the parsonage. "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” is not about the people that live in that house, but about how life can sometimes be. From a fire to a person with a gun to a person actually dying, I’ve tried to think about how I - and we - might react vs. how we could react. Not that I’m paranoid, mind you, but I think of those times as boy scout and girl scout mental fire drills - always being prepared.)
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean, President and Professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas said, “The cultural distance between the world of this text and contemporary society presents challenges for interpretation.” I beg to differ.
Whether it’s a synagogue, church, temple, mosque, school, shopping mall or playground, there are people possessed with “impure spirits,” as the scripture says. Some of those possessed wave and shoot guns and bombs, but I have a feeling that there are a good many other folks, that come to our church home that are working to suppress such spirits that seek to serve as stumbling blocks. Not all those who suffer from such impure spirits are at such high levels of violence. In fact, I think those instances are more rare. But those with spirits that are grieving, sad, lost, searching, lonely are far more abundant than we may realize. And I applaud Britain’s appointment of a Minister of Loneliness in their realization of such an invasive malady.
Ms. Kittredge went on to say, “To attribute symptoms of shouting and convulsing with possession by an unclean spirit is not consonant with our understanding of the causes of mental or physical illness.” I think a good many of us can agree with that statement. Mental illness, as we find out more about it, is not a crime, except in our ability to label it and our non-treatment of it.
More often than most any of us realize, there are people who come into our circles that are struggling with issues and individuals that are keeping them at arms length from healing and being whole. And while it may seem like an odd topic for a day in which we will hold our annual church meeting, it is somewhat appropriate, in that for the last 150 years or so, this church family has been the place of respite for souls that are troubled, pained, broken and needing rest. Week after week, the people sitting next to you, or to the person who sat in your spot last week, or the week before that, have needed our prayers and embrace and acceptance. So we begin another Frankfort Congregational Church year, reminded that simply showing up on a Sunday morning is a much bigger deal than merely getting out of bed.
I find it interesting that the impure spirit refers to itself in the plural and the singular. Its even more interesting when we remember that in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, that God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” I’m sure there are probably books and doctoral papers written about the plurality of spirits in the religious world, and perhaps God will put it on the schedule for preaching one day down the road. But for today, it is also about voice.
Cynthia Kittredge was writing mainly to preachers, but her point is easier is for all of us. “A preacher might play with the motif of voice in the opening scenes of Mark: the voice of the prophet crying in the empty wilderness, the voice from heaven speaking at the baptism, and here the voice of the man, which is at the same time, the voice of the unclean spirit, who shouts and cries out the name of Jesus, not with admiration but with fear. Is the cry with a loud voice with which he comes out, a death rattle, or a curse? As the story proceeds the opposing forces will gather strength, will do more damage, and will seem to silence Jesus himself (Mark 14:61). Jesus commands the spirit to “be silent” with the same word as he commands the sea to “be still” “be silent” (Mark 4:39). He rebukes the unclean spirit, the sea (Mark 4:30) and even Peter (Mark 8:33).
I think Ms. Kittredge’s point is important in understanding the next sentences of our passage for this morning - the part about Jesus teaching with authority. It was an ordinary sabbath in an ordinary synagogue, and on top of a man calling out, challenging and identifying Jesus, there was something different.
There was once a time when two men recited the twenty-third psalm. One was a well-known actor, the other an old and rather unsophisticated minister. The actor’s rendering of the psalm was beautiful and commanding. Everyone enjoyed hearing the rich words of the beloved psalm spoken in his clear baritone. All the inflections and pauses were perfect.
Then the old minister spoke. He stumbled a bit and the words were broken with unnatural punctuations of silence. But when he finished there were tears in the eyes of the listeners. Something had happened and it was the actor who gave the interpretation: “I know the psalm,” he said, “but this man knows the shepherd.” That is the difference authority makes.
In a comforting way, some things don’t change, in that Jesus is still our shepherd and part of our job is getting out of the way so that those who sit among us - we, too - can hear his voice. He is still our authority and witness. It isn’t brought up too often, but as Congregationalists, one of the very first things we tout is that 1. “Christ alone is the head of the church.”
As Congregationalists, we don’t adhere to any particular confessions of faith or creeds, but we do embrace the ideas that 2. All church members are spiritually equal and called to the work of ministry. 3. Every local church is autonomous and complete. 4. Each local church is called into wider associations of fellowship. 5. Believers are bound to one another in voluntary covenant. 6. Every Christian possesses full liberty of conscience in interpreting the Gospel and 7. The Bible is fully sufficient as our guide in matters of faith and practice and will inspire individuals and direct the church with fresh light and truth for every generation. - or “More light yet to come,” as it were.
As a last word to preachers - and ultimately to all of us, Ms. Kittredge said this: “There are risks in identifying the forces of evil and of God in contemporary struggles too, specifically, particularly if one assumes oneself and ones’ own “people” to be on the side of God. Contemporary preaching in communities with political and economic power should be cautious about this. However, the community that performed and heard Mark’s gospel, was powerless and poor in a country occupied by a powerful empire. The theological imagination of the victory of God’s power over illness, disability, and danger was for them, lifesaving good news.”
Regardless of who runs these United States, no matter our personal rank in the economy, despite the woes and “impure” spirits that cause people to stumble, our call is to continue to witness to the authority of Christ to lead us, guide us and enable us to lead others in our collective challenge to be great people after God’s heart. To that end, let us pray.
Holy God and Gracious Spirit, thank you for sending your Son, that we might better understand not only your love for us, but our ability to respond to your love, in our callings and witnessing. Help us to be strong when we feel weak, to be humble when it would be self-righteous to gloat, and merciful when we could be vengeful. Remind us of our call to be witnesses to your authority in our lives, to the authority of your name and the power you have to teach us your ways. For the blessing we all have in being called your children, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.