February 1, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty… perfect in power, in love, and purity.” There is an old tradition in many Presbyterian churches to begin Sunday worship each week by singing “Holy, holy, holy”, as we did this morning. It goes along with a Reformed Christian focus on the transcendence of God. God is holy. God is over all. God is almighty and powerful and wholly other.

Beginning the weekly worship service by singing “Holy, holy, holy” also keeps the focus of what we do together in this place. We don’t come here just to be together with friends. We don’t come here for a purely academic pursuit of learning about God. And we don’t come here simply to pray and ask God for what we need. No, we come to this place each week to worship God — to acknowledge God’s holiness, God’s power, and God’s love. We come to bow down before the Creator and Author of all that is, and to give glory to God.

We believe that God is the Author of all that is. That’s an interesting way of thinking about God, isn’t it? Think of the author of a novel. The author creates the characters. The author chooses the setting. The author determines the plot and crafts the dialogue. The author controls everything that happens in her book. She has the power to affect the behaviour of her characters — to have them do what she decides.

I’m not sure that God controls things or people in the world quite so tightly, determining every detail of what happens… but perhaps those of you who have done some writing have discovered that novelists don’t micro-manage everything either. They develop characters, but then they allow the characters to make their own decisions. But the over-arching theme in our scripture readings this week is “authority”. And I’m sure that someone who has “authority” is (like an author) one who has the power to affect the behaviour of others.

Though our Christian faith calls us to acknowledge the power and authority of God in the world and in our particular lives, if God doesn’t speak to us directly and obviously, we are faced with the question of who speaks on behalf of God. Who has the authority to speak God’s words? Whose words can we trust as God’s authentic message for us? What sources will we listen to? Which ones will we believe? And whose words will we allow to affect our lives, our behaviour, and our choices?

I must say that I’ve never really been too excited about authority. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many people at the top who have chosen to misuse their power, or who have simply made terrible mistakes that caused harm to others. Maybe it’s because my parents “came of age” in the 1960’s when everyone was rebelling against authority. No one wanted to “be told what to do” by someone else, to blindly follow the rules, or the ways things are always done in “proper society”. I guess I grew up with permission to question authority — to think things through and determine for myself what seems good and right. I don’t mean rebellion for the sake of rebellion, but not an automatic acceptance of an idea or principle simply because an authority figure says that it is so.

Sometimes I wonder why you’re all listening to me. Of course, we gather together here on Sundays to worship God — not simply to hear a sermon — but you do tend to sit quietly and listen. It’s rare that anyone disputes what comes out of my mouth, and I’ve learned that many of you take my words quite seriously, that the Sunday sermon does actually affect your lives and your behaviour… That’s what authority is about — the power to affect the behaviour of others. So, to a degree, what I preach here in this pulpit is authoritative. (That sure sounds strange to say out loud!)

But why is it authoritative? Do you listen because I’m the minister? Do you listen simply because I’m speaking from the pulpit in the church? Do you listen because you know that I’ve had certain training and education to write and preach sermons? Or do you listen, perhaps, because I’ve been called out from among the Christian community for this task of preaching the word of God?

I must admit that I am a terrible sermon listener. I can’t seem to just listen and to quietly reflect on what God might be saying to me through the preacher. Instead, I test, and weigh, and consider all the things that I hear. I check the preacher’s words against my own experience, against my own reading of scripture, and against my own concept of God. I don’t assume that when I hear a sermon that there will be anything in it that might affect my life, or my faith, or my behaviour. At least, I don’t assume that until I’ve gotten to know the preacher a little bit. Just being the person in the pulpit isn’t enough to give a person authority in my life. It’s not enough for me to let their words change me.

In our reading this morning from Deuteronomy, we get the impression that there was some concern amongst the Israelites about what would happen when Moses died. As you know, Moses was the prophet through whom God would speak to the people. God was just too holy and too other for the people to approach, but Moses would go up the mountain to meet with God, and God would give his commandments and instructions to the people through him. Moses was like the ultimate preacher! He laid out all of God’s commands and desires, and the people took his words as God’s words. Moses had authority.

But what would happen when Moses was gone? How could the People of Israel continue to live in relationship with God? In fact, God was going to call out other prophets to lead the people after Moses had died. Many more faithful people would play the authoritative role of speaking the words of God. Often the people wouldn’t pay much attention, of course… but then, they ignored Moses at times too, didn’t they?

In the time of Jesus, there were likely still prophets around speaking God’s words to the People of Israel, but the primary way that the Jewish people heard God’s voice was in the synagogues. You probably remember that the temple was in Jerusalem, but there were synagogues in all the towns and villages — sometimes in people’s homes. Synagogues were simply gathering places where the Jews would meet to read and study the scriptures, to interpret the texts together, and to pray.

The authoritative teachers in the synagogues were the scribes. These were men who were well educated. They had learned to read, to write, and to interpret the sacred writings. They had dedicated their lives to this work, and they had become the experts — the ones you could count on to get you the answer. Now, Jesus wasn’t a scribe, but he did know how to read, and he clearly participated regularly in the synagogue of whatever town he happened to be staying in.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and his new disciples go to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath day comes, it says that Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches. Mark doesn’t tell us the content of Jesus’ teaching — whether he explained the greatest commandment or whether he clarified the meaning of one of Isaiah’s prophecies. Perhaps when this story was written down, nobody could quite remember what Jesus spoke about that day. When his friends later told the story of his first sermon in Capernaum, what they remembered was the response of the people.

“They were astounded,” Mark writes, “because he taught them as one having authority.” Now it wasn’t by virtue of his position in the community that his words were authoritative. He was just a stranger passing through. It wasn’t because of his calling out from among the people and their affirmation of his role as a teacher. They didn’t know him from Adam. It wasn’t because of his extensive education and training. The scribes had as much education, and likely more, but the people said Jesus’ teaching was different. It was new. It was authoritative — I mean, it had the power to change their lives.

One commentary I read this week suggested that the difference was that the scribes were just lawyers. They could read and write, and they knew the letter of the law. They might have even known much of it by heart, but they couldn’t really interpret it for the day and make it meaningful for the people. They didn’t really “get it” the way that Jesus did, so their explanations just didn’t have the life-changing quality that Jesus’ sermons did.

Our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians gives us a good example of what I’m talking about. The Christians in Corinth in the first century were really struggling with living the Christian life in the multi-faith environment of the city of Corinth. The particular issue at hand was the question of whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been offered to idols. The problem was that Corinth was dominated by people who believed in many gods. They set up all kinds of statues and idols and sacrificed animals as offerings to their gods. What it meant was that pretty much all the meat available to buy in the marketplace had previously been killed in honour of one god or another. The Christians didn’t believe in these gods, but they weren’t sure whether eating the meat was right or not.

We get the impression that they’ve been arguing over whether or not it’s allowed, and so someone decides to write to the Apostle Paul (their founder) to get an authoritative answer. If they wanted a simple “yes” or “no” from Paul, they would have been quite disappointed, because Paul did not just check the law and tell them whether it was allowed or not. Instead, he considered their particular circumstances and gave a pastoral response that focussed on building up their community in love.

First he said, “we are no worse off if we do not eat [the meat], and no better off if we do.” He reminded them of what they knew as Christians… that no idol really exists, and that there is no other god that is real except the One God of Israel, the Maker of all that is. So it doesn’t really matter if you eat the meat that has been sacrificed for “pretend” idols. They’re not real… so the meat is just meat. You know that.

But, not everyone knows that. Not everyone understands what you understand… so, you need to consider how your decision to eat the meat might affect others in your community. Will others watch what you are doing and assume that you believe in those other gods? Will they follow your example and eat the meat also, while believing that those gods are real? Paul determines his conclusion by considering the whole community. Each person’s decision affects others, and “if food is a cause of [anyone’s] falling” then he declares that he “will never eat meat, so that [he] may not cause one of them to fall”.

It’s an authoritative statement on the question that the Corinthian Christians were struggling to deal with. Paul’s teaching would direct their Christian lives — perhaps because he spoke decisively, perhaps because he had been their first teacher, perhaps because he knew the law and understood the way of Jesus better than anyone else they knew… but I wonder, also, if his words were authoritative for many in the early Christian churches because they could see that he did his best to live by them as well.

I think that may be the reason why the people in the Capernaum synagogue were so astounded by Jesus’ teaching. He probably said many of the same things that other rabbis had spoken before him… stuff about the One God who made everything that exists, stuff about God’s love for the people, and stuff about how God calls us all to obedience to his commands. They would have heard that kind of preaching before. But in Jesus, the words turned into action.

In the middle of Jesus’ sermon, there was a sudden disruption. It was a man screaming at the top of his lungs: “What have you to do with us? What have you to do with us? What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know you. I know who you are. I know you are the Holy One of God! I know you!”

The man was so angry. The man was so confused. The man was so scared. And he was yelling out loud and stomping about right in the middle of Jesus’ sermon. The biblical account says that he was possessed by an unclean spirit (the opposite of the Holy Spirit). We might think of him as a person consumed by fear and rage. We might consider him a man with a terrible mental illness. We might imagine him as someone who has been deeply hurt, who is lashing out at anyone who will accept his anger.

Jesus’ response to the man confirms the authority of his words. Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the demon, or the unclean spirit, or the terrible pain or anger or madness disappears. And that’s when the people really get amazed by Jesus. It’s not just words that he speaks. It’s words that affect change! That man was completely out of his mind, and now he is transformed. That’s when some of them start listening to his teaching too, and letting his words change their lives as well.

I think there’s a reason why Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about what Jesus SAID, but does tell us about what he DID. Jesus’ action is part of his teaching. The fact that he paid attention to the man, the fact that he took time for the man, the fact that he helped the man who seemed to be openly attacking him in the middle of the synagogue… those things tell us so much more about Jesus than the content of his sermon could have.

And it’s those stories about Jesus’ life — the things he did, the people he hung around with, the way he touched and transformed people’s lives — it’s those stories of Jesus’ life that were first preserved and gathered together into the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus’ whole life was his teaching, and that was the message that was so powerful and authoritative. Jesus’ action that day in the synagogue said, “God is more powerful than evil.” It said, “This possessed man is worthy of God’s time, attention, and care.” It said, “God is the source of healing and transformation.” It said, “God’s love is more than just words.”

Writing a sermon and preaching a sermon is not really that hard. It takes some training, some education, and some practice. It takes some time and attention to make space in the week to read, to pray, to write, and to prepare. But it’s nothing compared to trying to live according to the words of that same sermon.

As a preacher, if my words carry any authority — if they have any power to affect change in anyone’s life — I hope that the reason for that authority is not because I’m a minister, or because I’m standing in a pulpit, or because I have certain academic degrees. But I hope that any authority will come from the fact that I am trying and struggling and keeping on trying, together with you, not just to understand and explain, but to LIVE the way of Jesus.

As I think about it more and more, I realize that I cannot limit my reflection on this Gospel text to the authority of preachers. As Jesus embodied his message in the way he lived his life, those who preach are challenged to live by our own words as well. But all Christians are invited to join in the task of sharing the good news of Jesus with our neighbours.

One of the continuing challenges of our faith in our multi-religious and non-religious world is the question of how to share God’s words with our neighbours in a way that will transform their lives, rather than cause offense. If all they hear from Christians is words, they will likely get annoyed with all the chatter and quickly tune us out. We will become a nuisance at best, and we’ll be called hypocrites at worst, as we have been so many times before.

But if we follow Jesus’ example, then what we say will not be as important as what we do. Like him, we probably will use words… but people will likely remember what we DID in a lot more detail…

When we fed the hungry,
when we cared for the sick and the dying,
when we comforted someone who was grieving,
when we gave shelter to neighbours who were homeless,
when we took time to befriend an outsider or to welcome a stranger.
When we cared for and loved someone who was difficult to love.

That is the life that Jesus lived for us — the authoritative things that he did that transformed our lives, that called us to change, that drew us close to the holy, almighty God. When we do those things, that’s when people will begin to look at us Christians and be amazed and astounded. That’s when they will see the power of God at work. That’s when our words will start to make sense, and those who hear us and see us will be astounded, and they too will give honour and glory to God. Amen.