Sunday, January 28, 2018
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Called to Truthful Love
Holy and awesome God, your Son's authority is found in integrity and living truth, not the assertion of power over others. Open our imaginations to new dimensions of your love, and heal us of all that severs us from you and one another, that we may grow into the vision you unfold before us. Amen.
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and 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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teachingù-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
All readings for this Sunday:
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
- How would most churches react to a visitor who can heal? Does healing belong solely in medical settings?
- What are the "unclean spirits" that hold many people in bondage today?
- What are some of the ways in which we want change without being willing to be changed ourselves?
- Could it be that in disruptions that disturb us the spirit of Jesus is at work, seeking to bring healing?
- How might "disruptions" help us to know Jesus? Can we see through them?
by Kate Matthews
I remember seeing a commercial on television several years ago that showed a woman standing right next to a rhinoceros, as if she could reach out and touch it (probably not a good idea). I also remember reading even more years ago that computer technology was about to transform our perceptions of reality, at least on the screen, by its ability to create just such an effect, that is, a woman standing right next to a rhinoceros. We've forgotten the days when "special effects" often looked silly ("Look at that guy, hiding behind the screen"), because today amazing things routinely happen on the screen, right before our eyes, although it seems to take more to amaze us each year.
At the same time, scientific progress has made us more skeptical of the reality we actually encounter, and the stories that we hear. We may go along with the fun when we watch the cold medicine make the rhino disappear (after all, we get the point), but when we read a story like today's passage from the Gospel of Mark, we're tempted to dismiss it because, well, who really believes in "spirits" anymore?
Maybe, way down deep, we do fear them a little bit, or Hollywood wouldn't employ those technical advances so profitably in the occasional movie about exorcism. In any case, we're uncomfortable with this brief but powerful story that begins the public ministry of Jesus. There are those who think that people long ago mistook what we call seizures for demon possession, so we're not sure what to think when Mark says that Jesus expels an "unclean spirit" from a person. Still, for all of our scientific sophistication, Fred Craddock uncomfortably notes that "not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world."
One story inside another
Today's text is actually a story within a story, and it all holds together, which is how Mark's Gospel works. Jesus, faithfully attending synagogue on the Sabbath, starts off by teaching those gathered--religious experts and the people gathered around them--in a way that is so impressive that it conveys authority. We might say that it carries "weight." Mark, unlike Luke (recounting a similar scene in Nazareth), or Matthew (with the Sermon on the Mount), doesn't tell us what Jesus says, but seems to care more about telling us just how powerfully he teaches.
The word "authority," of course, has more than one meaning. Even a corrupt judge or police officer has "authority," but the simplest, poorest person in the world can speak with a different kind of "authority" if they embody wisdom and integrity that others find compelling. Each one holds a different kind of power, one from the outside, and the other from within.
Let's see your credentials
Perhaps the scribes sound authoritative because they can cite chapter and verse, so to speak, of the Scriptures (our chapter and verse numbers were added later), but that, after all, is their job. Even today, scholars and preachers back up what they say in much the same way, citing Scripture and the scholarship that surrounds it. When Jesus, this carpenter from dusty little Nazareth, walks into the synagogue and speaks in a way that "astounded" the people, more than one person must sense trouble brewing.
Who is this man, they must wonder, where did he go to school, what are his credentials, and who gave him the right to speak this way? Scholars seem to disagree on whether the reaction is positive or mixed; perhaps some love what they hear, and others are disturbed by it. In any case, this is no ordinary "Sunday in church." And "just then" (Mark loves that expression; it certainly builds suspense), things get even more extraordinary, when Jesus' teaching in words becomes teaching in action.
Knowing little, understanding less
It may be easier to picture Jesus there, conducting an excellent Bible study, than it is to imagine what happens next. A man tortured by, in bondage to, an "unclean spirit" emerges from the crowd, right in the midst of the commotion over Jesus' power-filled teaching. Ironically, while others are full of questions about Jesus, this evil spirit is the only one who recognizes who Jesus actually is, his true identity.
Going back to the very first verse of the Gospel, we remember that Jesus is "the Son of God," and the unclean spirit claims to know that he is "the Holy One of God." William J. Abraham says, "It is as if radical evil has a way of immediately discerning the presence of good." Jesus commands the spirit to be quiet (perhaps to protect his identity so early in his ministry?) and then expels it from the man, freeing him from a terrible bondage. We don't hear any more about this man, but the whole region hears about what has happened to him because of this amazing teacher. Jesus has backed up his words, and his powerful preaching, with an action that illustrates what he is "about."
What was that "spirit"?
What about that unclean spirit? John J. Pilch provides background: "Our ancestors in faith," he writes, "believed that spirits were more powerful than human beings but less powerful than God." In expelling the demon, Jesus proves that he possesses "powers stronger than those of ordinary human beings." Today, we try to find scientific explanations for what happened: Our "tendency to rationalize the ancient understanding of spirits," Pilch writes, "is rooted in the fact that Westerners have much more power over their lives and circumstances than the ancients believed they had." We also know far less than we think we do, and understand even less than that.
How much of this sense of power over own lives is a cultural one, or a socioeconomic one? Not everyone in our world, even in relatively affluent countries and cultures, shares that sense of power, or even control, in their lives. A text like this one from Mark's Gospel, and the discussions we have while reflecting on it, are heard from different vantage points. Where do you find yourself in this story?
What should we expect?
So there is more than one fruitful way to approach this text. Dianne Bergant provides a challenging reflection on the demons that hold us in bondage, demons that she renames as "dysfunction and sin" that trap us "between good and evil...human finitude and failure." Despite our best intentions, "The demonic seduces us in more ways than we can count, and we are often caught in its web before we recognize what has happened." The world, including the church-going, faithfully believing world, stands in need of God's liberating touch, Bergant says, and we long for what can "really satisfy the desires of the human heart."
We're probably no more able to recognize that gift--what will truly satisfy our hearts--when we encounter it than the people in the synagogue were all those years ago. Bergant suggests that our "mistaken expectations" are to blame, because we really have no idea what we're saying when we claim to "want and need a savior": what will that really be like, and what will it require of us? A distant cousin, perhaps, to the adage, "Be careful what you wish for." Like our ancestors in faith, we may find ourselves asking more questions about this Jesus, who he is, and what he means in our lives. Are we truly willing to follow him?
Misunderstandings and mis-interpretations
Much is written about the scribes in this story, and the conflict set up between Jesus and the religious authorities here, right from the very beginning of Mark's narrative, a conflict that many have interpreted as the cause of Jesus' eventual death. However, some interpreters go further when they seem to set this conflict up as good v. evil, with the synagogue as evil, the teachings of the scribes as formal and dry, and their preaching style as well.
Unfortunately, this mis-interpretation contributes to a dangerous misunderstanding and prejudice against the Jewish people and their faith. In fact, Gerald Caron suggests that we must not "ignore or simply dismiss Mark's polemic against the religious (Jewish) authorities," just because it appears "innocuous." We must hope that the horrors of Auschwitz, the culmination of centuries of persecution and violence, would lead us to re-examine such misinterpretations and understand that they have been misused to justify immeasurable suffering and countless crimes against Jesus' own people.
Caron reminds us of the danger of "(Christian) stereotyping" of the Jews that can "[perpetuate] a teaching that all Churches have now decisively rejected." Alas, Mark's claims that the scribes have "no 'real' authority" are part of a tradition about Judaism "that has left its mark in Christian consciousness." It's also fair to say that it has contributed to a history in tragic ways that continue to play out even today. Anything--including the ways we teach our faith--that helps to undergird, however unintentionally, anti-Semitism, misogyny or racism is surely offensive in God's eyes. Are we willing to ask ourselves such hard questions?
Jesus embodies the ancient hope of his people
There is another problem with such an interpretation: Jesus' "new" teaching is actually quite old, even if it is embodied in a dramatically new way in the teacher. Jesus is not a departure from the hope and faith of the Jewish people. Richard Swanson makes a winsome claim about the translation of "Jesus of Nazareth" as "Jesus Netzer," which in Hebrew, "refers to a sprout or a shoot of a plant," like "the shoot 'out of the stump of Jesse,'" and God's ancient promise of "a new beginning, an anointed leader who would begin it all again as a new David."
Swanson traces a line from Jesus back through John to the prophets themselves, all rooted in the deepest hope and faith of the Jewish people: "John appears in Mark's story as a native growth, erupting out of old, reliable tradition and expectation. People (including Jesus) went out to John because their faith (and their faithfulness) led them to expect that God would work something larger and more life-giving in a world that was distorted by dangerous foreign powers and those that consort with them. In Mark's story, the most likely interpretation puts Jesus in the synagogue, teaching, because that would have been the place he would have found other people ready to hear that God's dominion was 'so close.'" Where do we find the ones most "ready to hear that God's dominion" is close at hand?
Facing the powers that be
Yes, there was conflict with the powers that be. As I mentioned last week, James Carroll's book, Christ Actually, offers a compelling case (building on the work of scholars like John Dominic Crossan and others) that those powers were the Roman Empire, not the Jewish people who have paid such a tragic price for this misunderstanding (lamentably, an often willful misunderstanding).
Yes, Jesus challenged the religious authorities on many occasions, as he challenges us today, in church leadership. However, he did not represent a departure from the promise: Megan McKenna notes that in Mark's Gospel, Jesus' teachings and deeds recall the prophet Isaiah's own description of what God is about in regard to Israel, and "of what a servant does that brings pleasure to God." Carroll, then, provides a convincing case for the Gospels' depiction of these controversies within the Jewish community (between Jesus and the "authorities") as representing the later intra-community struggles between Jesus' Jewish followers and other groups with Judaism.
We are part of the story and hold to the same promises
We trace our own faith back through the long story of Israel, and we hear in today's reading from Deuteronomy (18:15-20) the same promise they heard long ago, of a prophet who speaks in the name of God. To us, Jesus is that promised one. Richard Swanson urges us to see "Jesus as the eruption of what the scribes had long taught and described. The scribes teach and preserve and prepare; Jesus blazes, explodes, and erupts." In this season of Epiphany, "the season of revelations," Swanson reminds us of our call to "participate in a revealing of what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like, for real." There's a sentence, and a call, to sit with for a time, and to consider carefully.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by going into the synagogue and introducing himself and his ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. In Mark's Gospel, we don't hear such beautiful words. Instead, we hear words like "destroy," "rebuke," and "convulsed." However, in Mark, we see actions, powerful, dramatic ones that proclaim just as surely that the promises of God are true, the promises of old that are new in the person of Jesus. And those promises are about justice and healing, which Jesus demonstrates here in deeds of great wonder and words of both authority and power.
Manifestation and transformation
We are deeply into the season of Epiphany, a season of manifesting and revealing. Swanson urges us to reveal "what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like," but to do so in order to take the next step. That second step is as important as the first: opening ourselves and our communities to being transformed, shaped by God's hand at work in the world. Consider, for example, the current debates about the world's responsibility toward people in need: refugees, those most urgently affected by climate change and natural disasters, victims of war and disease and hunger (in a world that has more than enough for all), and those who find themselves hated by others because of bigotry and ignorance. Does our life of faith, the teachings we profess to follow, affect the choices we make? Do we use the power we have for good, and is the love that we strive to live a truthful one, even if that truth is painful to hear?
In any age and any religious setting, words can easily stay just words. Words, however, spoken in the name of God, have power. Mike Graves writes that they can, like the words of Jesus, "cause things to happen." That's why, for example, preaching is so important in the life of the church. All good preachers, Graves writes, "want the same thing, come Sunday. We do not desire simply to provide more information about this text. We do not desire to add to all the other words ever uttered from pulpits, just because that's what preachers do on Sunday mornings. No, we hope that our words, infused with the power of the One who speaks through us and on whose behalf we speak, will cause something to happen." How do you experience this claim?
Undoubtedly there will be many words spoken from pulpits and in Bible studies this Sunday, and much information shared, but we pray too for transformation, for "something to happen," in the United Church of Christ, and in the whole church, as well as the world it which it witnesses and ministers: healing, peace, liberation. Then, all will be amazed, not just by what they think they see, but by the reality they encounter in God's love made known, made manifest, right before our eyes.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Plato, 4th century B.C.E.
"The measure of a man is what he does with power."
Toni Morrison, 21st century
"As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think."
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
"Miracles...seem to me to rest not so much upon...healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always."
Alice Walker, 20th century
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."
Blaise Pascal, 17th century
"Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just."
Howard Smith, 20th century scientist
"I'm religious not because I'm ignorant. I'm religious because I'm in awe."
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
"When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."
Leighton Ford, 20th century
"I am advocating that we see the gospel as story, and that we understand evangelism as living and telling the Story of the One who has entered and changed our story and will do so with theirs who also encounter his story."
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Faith Formation Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, ⌐ 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is ⌐ 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.