Amazed by Authority

I’ve written a couple of times on the topic of authority, but it seems to be a popular one in the Gospels.  Sunday’s lesson is bookended by it.  In the Synagogue, the crowds were first astounded by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one with authority.  Then, after he heals the man with the evil spirit, they are amazed (a different Greek word, btw), again because of the authority with which Jesus both taught and acted.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  I don’t mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus had such authority, though if we believe him to be the Son of God, we shouldn’t be.  What shouldn’t surprise us in this story is the reaction of the crowd.

True authority is so rare in this world.  It is true today.  One need only to look at Washington, DC or Frankfort, KY to see that many who claim to be leaders lack any real authority.  It was, it seems, equally true in Palestine in the first century.  It is also true that people are hungry for leaders who have true authority.

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My favorite definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on the “all authority” passage in Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability.”  Many people follow many leaders because they have to.  Plenty of governments, businesses, and even churches operate this way.  Someone is in a position of authority because of a job title, and others follow because they say so.  In the case of the authority of Jesus, it seems clear that people followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  People were drawn to Jesus not because he was born in the right place or studied at the right school or was the son of the High Priest, but because God had poured out on him the gifts that are necessary to bring people along.

One of the things we don’t like to talk about in the church very much is this type of real authority.  In the name of the cult of nice, we don’t put much stock in followability when it comes to raising up leaders, both lay and ordained.  I can’t help but wonder if we do this to our own detriment.  The Gospel writers were not afraid to name the authority of Jesus.  Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples to be apostles, was not afraid to name their authority.  As the Church seeks leaders, we ought not be afraid to seek those who have that natural followability, the true authority that comes with giftedness rather than position and education.

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Our Unending Prayer

As I write this post, police are on the scene at yet another school shooting.  This one happens to have occurred in the geographical confines of the Diocese of Kentucky, where I am canonically resident.  I have a friend who graduated from Marshall County High School.  Because of these things, in spite of living in a world that has made me numb to such tragedy, this one feels different.

It won’t take but but few hours before the lives turned upside-down by this act of violence will be traded for political capital.  The sides will line up as they always do, wagging their fingers at the other.  Religious leaders will follow suit.  People will offer thoughts and prayers.  Others will respond by lambasting their thoughts and prayers as hollow.  I fear that we are on the verge of an era in which things are so politicized that as Christians, we forget what a powerful force prayer is.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I received word of the Marshall County High School shooting while reading the Collect for Epiphany 4.  According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, this prayer was originally found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, which means that it is roughly 900 years old.  For 900 years, the people of God have prayed this prayer.  For eleven hundred years of Christian history before that, it can be assured that people prayed that God might grant peace.  Even before the advent of Christ, the Jewish word of greeting to stranger and friend alike was Shalom, a wish for peace and wholeness.  It is our unending prayer.

I agree with Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  When we pray for peace, it requires that we are ready to work for it.  This doesn’t mean that we work only so our political agenda can win the day, but rather, we work toward the restoration of all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  It means praying for and working toward a spirit of cooperation, in which our government can make sensible choices around gun control, mental health spending, and law enforcement policy.  It means praying and caring for those who are ostracized and marginalized.  It means sacrifices on our part in order to make the world a safer, healthier, and holier place than it is right now.

Prayer works.  And so, today, I invite us all to add our voices to the unending prayers of the saints who have asked God to bring peace to our world.

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

Are you ready for Jesus – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon.  Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text.  This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life.  With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning.  Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.”  I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach.  I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship.  Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon.  I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years.  I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.

It was certainly important for Mark and his Church.  This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of  Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.”  I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me.[1]  They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons.  Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt.  Some were there hoping to see and be seen.  Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands.  They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions.  Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God.  Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week.  Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.

No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine.  Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week.  The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much.  What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak.  Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word.  Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text.  I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it.  It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said.  No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority.  He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so.  There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys.  Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning.  Would we be inclined to listen?  Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized?  Would we find ourselves amazed?  Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon.  This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth.  Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes.  As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile.  The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word.  My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind.  “Great job,”  “I’m so proud of you,”  “You’ll do great things,” they said to me.  Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking.  The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like.  He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails.  Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly.  The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.

Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news?  Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous?  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like?  Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much?  Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies?  Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?

We are all here this morning for different reasons.  We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things.  Some of us are tired and in need of rest.  Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy.  Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week.  Some are hoping to be changed.  Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth.  In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death.  Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus?  Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?

[1] I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene.  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.5WeKqYDU.dpuf

Why I don’t like the word prophetic

It started in seminary, this dislike of the word “prophetic,” but it has lasted a lot longer than I expected.  I went through the discernment process in the shadow of two world altering events: 9/11 and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Both events had their impact on my call as strong external forces.  For what now feels like a fleeting moment, in the days following 9/11 America stood united.  We were in some ways united in two directions.  We were united inwardly as we sought to heal a tear in the very fabric of our culture, the assumption that we were safe from foreign foes was lost forever.  We were also united outwardly as we came to realize that adherents to an extremist form of Islam were to blame for the tragedy.  Over time, however, we began to keep back toward division as our nation’s leaders tried to figure out how to respond.  Some argued that in the interest of national security, we had to find the leadership network of Al Qaeda and crush it.  Others argued that we had to follow the example of Jesus and turn the other cheek.  It was the classic just war vs. pacifist debate played out in real life.  Both sides had compelling reasons, and both were claiming that God was on their side.  I first heard the call to ordained ministry on late February 2002, five months after 9/11.  Certainly the way the world had changed in those five months were a part of my realizing this call.

On June 7, 2003, V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, was elected Bishop Coadjutor.  His election was ratified at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, MN.  Convention ended on August 10th that year, and I recall my meeting with the Vestry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church being scheduled for that night.  What was once a meeting to discuss the validity of my call to ordained ministry was now the special meeting of the vestry in response to the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The divisions were easily seen.  One side argued a prophetic calling toward justice.  The other, a prophetic calling toward restraint.  Both sides were certain that God was with them.

I grew to hate the word prophetic during this time because two prophets saying the opposite thing is no fun.  We tend to run to that word, prophetic, when we want to win an argument, but the thing is, we don’t get to say who speaks for God, only God gets to do that.  To paraphrase what Moses told the people of Israel in Sunday’s Deuteronomy lesson, “you best be careful with that word.”

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die”

I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to justice and peace.  I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to holiness of life.  I do think we need to be careful about claiming a prophetic voice every time we do it.  Prophet is not a title that I desire.  Being a prophet is really difficult and is only possible with God’s constant support.  Speaking a prophetic word is a sacred and powerful thing, which I’m afraid we take too lightly these days.  So let’s listen for the voice of God, let’s speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, but let’s let God call the prophets.

Fear and Awe

As Jesus taught in the Synagogue at Capernaum, the congregation was “astounded” (NRSV).  After Jesus cast out the demon from the man with the unclean spirit, they were “amazed” (NRSV).  Mark uses two different Greek words to describe the reaction. of the crowds, presumably to point out that while both were reactions of awe, they came in different forms.  This makes sense to me.  The reaction I might have to a excellent teacher is going to look markedly different than the reaction I might have to seeing an exorcism first hand.  Both are awe inspiring, but one is perhaps more visceral.

As 21st century Christians, we’ve become pretty comfortable with awe being our go-to reaction to the divine.  Who doesn’t love to sing “Our God is an Awesome God”?

What we’re decidedly less comfortable with, however, is the fear of the Lord, which is what makes our recitation of Psalm 111 this Sunday so delightfully counter cultural.  The closing line of this instructional, acrostic poem of praise reads, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: all those who practice it have a good understanding.  His praise endures forever.”  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.  For the ancient Hebrews who sang this psalm, who used to it teach their children in the way of the LORD, that fear wasn’t about the Saw movie franchise or the feeling you get just before a roller coaster.  The fear of the LORD is the awe you feel in his presence.  It comes when we realize that God is so wholly other, so utterly holy, so unimaginably loving and desires a relationship with each of us.  Sure, they were afraid that they couldn’t handle the holiness of God and that it might wipe them out entirely,

but if that’s all we think of when we read “the fear of the LORD” in the Old Testament, we do a great disservice to the chosen people of God.  Our proper approach to God is with fear and awe, recognizing the great power of God while attempting to comprehend God’s great love at the same time.  Pondering that for a while is no doubt, the beginning of wisdom.

Jesus Gets Famous

Maybe it is the celebrity obsessed culture in which we live, but as I read the lessons for Epiphany 4B this morning, one word jumped out at me like never before: fame.  “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”  I began to wonder what that word meant in first century Palestine.  There was not paparazzi, as far as I can tell.  Cameras weren’t invented until 1816.

Jesus didn’t face a crowd like this

Like any normal person would, I went digging into the text.  Most of the English translations I looked at, from Young’s Literal to the English Standard Version uses the word “fame.”  Even ol’ King James uses the word.  I wonder what fame meant in 1611?  Anyway, I was not satisfied, so I went into the Greek and found the word translated as fame to be akoe.  In the Greek alphabet is looks more like akon, which sent me down a short Gwen Stefani rabbit hole.  See, Gwen did a song called “Sweet Escape” featuring an R&B artist named Akon.  I had hoped that Akon took this stage name because he was a fan of Mark’s Greek New Testament, but alas, his full name, given by his West African parents is Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Bongo Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam.

Where was I?  Right, fame, akoe.  The funny thing about this word is that the definitions for it never mention the word “fame.”  The BibleWorks Greek translation is report, news, or preaching.  The Vulgate, interestingly enough, translates it as rumor.  So where’d we get this word fame?

I’m gonna live forever!

What exactly does it mean that Jesus got famous after this event so early on in Mark’s Gospel?  Let’s look back at the story.  Jesus is baptized by John, driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit where he fasted for forty days, and he returns to town preaching the good news of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!”  As he walked and talked, he met four men on the shores of the Sea of Galilee: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John; and invited them to follow him, which they did.  Our story picks up here, as the five of them make their way to Capernaum, the hometown of Simon and Andrew, where on the Sabbath, Jesus, as a visiting Rabbi, was invited to give a word.  The people were amazed by what they heard, he taught with authority that they had never before seen.  Not everyone could handle his teaching however, and a man, possessed by a demon confronted him.  With that same authority, Jesus sent the demon packing, and the crowd is again amazed.  Note what Mark has the crowd saying, “What is this?  A new teaching – with authority!  He command even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

Jesus gets famous because his words match his actions.  He speaks of repentance and good news: release for the captive, sight for the blind, care for poor; and he lives it by setting free this man who was bound by an unclean spirit just as each of us is bound by sin.  Jesus walked the walk and talked the talk, and he did so with a new authority, one that only comes from an intimate relationship with the Father.  That’s what made him famous or made the news spread about him or had people preaching about him.  Whatever word you choose to describe it, Jesus had the attention of the people because of the authority given to him by his Father in heaven, and his fame spread throughout the surrounding region.