January 28 Sermon: A new teaching with authority
Sunday, January 28, 2018
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Institutions are under fire, and for good reason. Those holding positions of responsibility are entrusted (hear the word “trust”?) to act on behalf of the public good.
Men who hold such positions, like pastors, bishops, those holding elected office, teachers, and celebrities have wrongfully treated women as objects for their own satisfaction and by doing so have damaged bodies, psyches, and abilities to hold intimate relationships in trust. Those who have perpetrated the abuse do so because of their power, inherent to their positions over others whether or not they understand or appreciate this.
Twenty-five years ago now, I was the pastor of a congregation whose previous male pastor crossed that boundary of trust, and it was devastating to that community. My ministry was to somehow and in some way rebuild a sense of safety while consistently and persistently naming the misconduct as egregious. It took the (female) pastor following me to receive the shepherding of this congregation as scarred, but no longer openly wounded.
Navigating this mess of a ministry, I understood and grappled with the concept of my own authority as never before. I knew what evil looked like, though the web of those who enabled misconduct was also insidious, not in a neat little box, and the aftermath provoked soul-searching conversations on the part of congregational members and leadership.
I must say that at the time, addressing this was for me a singular experience of exorcising demons that lurk close to every system, whether they are families, cities, nations, or religious communities.
Relying Jesus and the scriptures’ guidance became an especially real and potent resource for me and those around me at that time, and continues to do so.
What do we know about Jesus in the gospel of Mark?
Jesus acts with assumed authority from the beginning. His actions speak volumes about who is and what he represents. In short shrift, over the course of only twenty-eight verses from the first chapter, the people remark about a “new teaching,” when it appears that how Jesus carries himself in the midst of distress makes as big an impression as anything that he articulates.
The very first thing that we see Jesus do in Mark after he is set up for his ministry with his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and his calling of disciples, is to address the power imbalance in his home synagogue in Capernaum.
He does this directly and with surgical precision. The perpetrator has the potential to pollute the community that honors the holy one on the Sabbath and in keeping Torah. The unstable parishioner surprisingly identifies Jesus for who he is, the Holy One of God, but Jesus is like Teflon and deflects any manipulation or smokescreen and extracts the virus out of the carrier, with choice words, and with authority, like that.
Jesus’ renown, his fame, and his reputation spread throughout the north. It is a good beginning, but Jesus’ acclaim will not last. He may start out as a notable demon-slayer, but will in due time be made known as a rabble rouser, a flouter of the law (already begun in that exorcism on the Sabbath day, which prohibits work), and a friend of sinners.
And the protector of victims will himself become a victim himself.
Jesus begins a movement that clears the decks. Don’t you wish for this kind of overhaul of what is disturbing our world?
What comes after Jesus death and resurrection is actually its own institution, now called the church. And even in its earliest manifestation, it wasn’t crystal clear how to behave. Paul in writing to the Corinthians does not pinpoint the demonic. Rather, he asks the longstanding members in the know to treat those who are easily influenced with kid gloves. Corinth was a sophisticated community, whose leaders believed in the freedom new life in Christ gives (do you know any sophisticated communities?). Therefore, when they were at non-Jewish dinner parties, they ate whatever was served knowing that there was no hocus pocus on them. But there were some that wondered whether in good conscience they should eat the food their non-Jewish friends served.
There was a division in the congregation. Now, Paul cleverly agreed with the theology of the sophisticated leaders, that God is above food offered to idols and eating it doesn’t matter in the least. Except when it confuses those who do not have that sophistication. In that case, Paul says that he himself will never eat meat out of deference to those who are confused.
In that church, and I think in our own church, there are clear actions that address problems, like unruly power mongers, like debt, like things that need to be fixed. In other circumstances, there needs to be a consideration of those more on the periphery, like those who have not been here twenty years, or those who are keenly interested in how to walk together in faith.
Bethesda has much to celebrate for its 130+ years in New Haven. Our doors are still open after well over a century since our beginning, which is remarkable enough. We have our own reputation, for music ministry and a singing congregation. We have attracted new families in recent years, with young children. We have made a concerted effort to more intentionally welcome students and young adults, which has borne fruit.
I wonder what we are willing to risk in order to move along with the rabble rouser Jesus. I wonder if we might stir up some trouble against what might fossilize the church. I wonder what we will be willing to try knowing that we may fail, because we are looking outward rather than inward.
Let’s listen for voices that we may have not heard from before. Let’s pray for leadership to emerge from unexpected corners. Let’s be amazed by changes in our community and welcome them rather them rather than be threatened by them.
In less than one year, we will be welcoming new staff that is as yet not known to us. We will soon be saying our farewells to Lars and student staff.
Let’s not wait for these transitions to build our community, to name our fears, to fight demons, and to find hope, because God is faithful.
I declare this place and this congregation to be safe and saved, and I invite you to allow Jesus to make it so. Won’t you cast aside your fears and brokenness as you take Jesus’ own self into your bodies as the bread of life and the cup of salvation? And see if people who see what we are up to are amazed!
Tags: authority, family systems, sexual misconduct, the gospel of Mark