Thursday, February 26, 2009

Acting Out

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Ash Wednesday Meditation: February 25, 2009

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

As most of you probably know, the Academy Awards were handed out last Sunday night. We watched little snatches of it, but mainly just saw the awards for best actor, actress and best film.

All in all, I think the week that the Oscars are awarded is a pretty good week for the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of the thrust of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Matthew 6. Matthew gives us Jesus’ words in our reading from the gospel. Remember, Jesus said, “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others…”

While we may think of the Greek word hupo-krisis or hypocrite as a universally negative word for someone who is shamefully false and two-faced, in it’s original Greek it is a neutral word literally meaning “stage actor.” It is used in Jesus’ teaching as a metaphor for those who perform their religious duties with an eye on the human audience rather than the divine one.

One commentator on this feature of Jesus’ words in Matthew said that Jesus takes theater for granted:
“He does not tell his disciples to keep commandments; he assumes they will. He also assumes that they will want to go beyond the commandments. Like any observant Jew, they will want to serve their neighbor by giving alms, worship God by praying and live a disciplined life by fasting. Jesus does not say ‘if you fast’ but ‘when you fast.’

But there is a danger backstage in this theater. For when they leave the land of avoiding misdeeds, the land of ‘you shall not,’ the land of commandments, to enter the land of holy living, the land of ‘you shall,’ the disciples are in a different kind of theater. It can easily become a theater of performance and show … the theater of religion becomes a gaudy charade.”1
The true disciple of Jesus is fine with the theater of faith, but it is a theater which Jesus has transformed from one of show and display into a theater of humility and service, where the entire audience is made up, not of fellow worshipers, but God alone. The place where this theater comes to life is not in great gatherings of humanity, but in the prayer closet, the exchange between the worshiper and one who is needy, better yet, in the gift which remains anonymous, the good deed which in itself is satisfying apart from any recognition for it.
“We choose our audience. If we choose the crowd, we have our reward already. If we choose God, we receive another thing a child loves: we get to share a secret. The secret of holiness that is between God and the disciple is not the stuff of newspaper revelations or talk-show speculation. It is a bond that time and death will never break.”2
So, to belabor the Greek connection with the word hypocrite as a word for an actor just a little bit longer, since we are all destined to be actors of some sort in the drama of salvation, the choice in front of us as we enter a season of contemplation such as Lent, is not about avoiding acting – being a hypocrite in the Greek sense – but about thinkng on the sort of actor we want to be. As selfless and unselfish actors, we do God’s business not by pointing to ourselves in this world, but by re-directing our own attention toward the next.
“The disciple who can fast, who can depend on God for sustenance for a whole day or two, will not be easy prey to purveyors of instant gratification, or to advertising.”3
That is at least one reason why we gather here tonight. To sustain one another in each of our roles in the play of life, to encourage one another, not try to impress one another, and to pray that, as a people of God, we might do some thing that is pleasing to God, and about which perhaps no one but God will ever know. For, as Jesus teaches, for God to know it, it is enough.

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “Holiness: Simplicity,” by Samuel Wells, The Christian Century, 2-23-2000, p. 205.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.

Looking Up: Looking Out

Looking Up: Looking Out

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday: February 21, 2009
Mark 9:2-9

This passage serves as a gift to the church as we prepare to enter into the season of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday this coming week. At the outset, it is important to realize that this fantastic vision of the transfigured Jesus follows upon the hard prediction Jesus made concerning his own death:

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”1

Any of us who have walked through the Lenten season in the church over the years knows that even in the often pale observances in the Protestant traditions, it is not a festive time, but rather a reflective one, somber even. It is a season having to do with the darker side of human life, with betrayal, death, a tomb, fear, goodbyes around the table at a final supper. This is not a season for “Be-happy-attitudes” sermons. This is a season for delving into the fears which are so powerful as to all but disable us in our walk of faith.

So today, on the final Sunday before we enter into the somber season of Lent comes this glorious passage recounting the transfiguring experience the disciples had with Jesus on the mountain. It is a preview of the resurrection to come at the end of our Lenten journey, a gracious glimpse into the final destination of this Lenten way, and in this way it is a gift to the church and to us.

I have to tell you, though, preachers find this passage daunting. We are rational creatures, standing in a rational tradition of exposition, accustomed to rendering living experience into words on a page, one thought following logically upon another, reasoned out in order. And here we have something that defies, or at least stands outside, the capacities of reason.

Not long ago I found myself seated on an airplane next to a man who had obviously glanced over my shoulder as I read my book. The book was clearly something religious in nature, so when I spilled a cup of coffee in my lap during a moment of turbulence, he took that as the opportune moment to pop the inevitable question for ministers riding on airplanes: “Are you a pastor?” In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was what I took to be a sort of statistician with his own business. He had helped develop an internet web site with a unique purpose. It is a site where people can make contributions to good causes that have captured their attention, where all the money they give will go to the cause they indicate, but where the receiving organization will not know the source. So funds can be given freely, yet no cascade of mailed appeals will follow, your address will not be sold to other charitable organizations. At the least, it sounded intriguing to me. Then my new friend went on to tell me that as a secondary purpose, he hoped to use the responses of the people making these contributions through his web site to mathematically prove or disprove the Christian concept of grace. He waited for my response. The only thing I could think to say was, “I predict ambiguous results.” It has not been my experience that grace lends itself to the sorts of controls necessary to be proven or disproven. Like our story of the transfiguration, grace stands outside the capacities of reason.

How can we talk about such things as the transfiguration of Jesus? Our much-valued capacity for reason fails us in light of this report of an unearthly, glowing brilliance, of a visitation from figures long-dead, like some story out of Charles Dickens, of a voice speaking from the clouds. When Peter struggled for an appropriate word to say, it didn’t even merit a response from Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t talk about it, in fact, Mark says he ordered the disciples not to talk about it until after Easter; and since they hadn’t the faintest idea then what Easter was or what it would mean, they pretty much, as Mark says, “kept the matter to themselves.” Wouldn’t you? Jesus didn’t talk about it, the disciples were forbidden to talk about it. And here we are, challenged to talk about it.

So what are we supposed to do with it? Just let it stand there, maybe, that’s one option. It does speak for itself, really, doesn’t it? All the elements of the story speak volumes without any elaboration from us. Moses, who stands there as the living embodiment of the law of Israel, the bringer of commandments from Sinai. Elijah, the quintessential prophet of Israel, who with a solitary voice once confronted a tyrannical monarch and his false prophets. In their company stands Jesus, in garments that glowed so brightly it was — to put it bluntly — unearthly. Jesus, in his person, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And in case anyone missed the point, there was the voice from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Clearly, they were in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God.

Coming, as it does, on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, this passage brings into sharp focus a holy moment, made more holy by the very recognition that it shall not last: “Just when we are safest,” poet Robert Browning once wrote, “there’s a sunset touch.”2

John Killinger, teacher of a generation of preachers, once reflected upon a transfiguring moment in his own life. “ hit me one day as I was sitting in the chancel of a church, waiting to deliver the guest sermon. A beautiful woman was playing a violin solo. Her lovely hands worked continuously at the strings and the bow, evoking the most soulful music I thought I had ever heard. There was a rose pinned in her exquisitely coiffed hair. I was transported. Then a dark thought crossed my mind, as if it had been a cloud passing between me and the sun. In a few years the woman would become old. The rose in her hair would die. Her soft hands would be gnarled and wrinkled by age. She would stop playing the instrument. She would be confined to a bed or a wheelchair. Then she, too, would die.”3

Morbid-sounding isn’t it, this line of thinking? But we all must surely know the moments in our own lives when for an instant the curtain is drawn back and we see the future, come to know what tomorrow holds. It is always transforming to stand, even for just that flash of a second, in the presence of the future.

I used to run for exercise until my knee put me out of the running business. I remember when my daughters were little they used to like to race their dad. It was fun, and of course, I could beat them running backwards or sideways. But I would always keep the race close to prolong the fun. You know what happened. The day dawned — I don’t even recall precisely when it might have been, but the exact date doesn’t matter — the time came when not only could I no longer play this game, but I could not outrun them if I went at it with all my strength. And in my more honest reflections, I realize this is a trend that will not stop. It is a transfiguring thought to acknowledge the passing of time in such a way, to glimpse a future in which we are no longer the strong ones, the competent ones, the robust and healthy ones, but where we become the dependent ones, the weaker ones.

On the high mountain, apart from the present world that crowded in around them, those three disciples, Peter, James and John, knew something of the future, that death would not be the end, no matter how final it seemed. They glimpsed the future of a world in which Jesus is Lord. But they were only granted this vision after first learning that the Messiah must “suffer many things, and be rejected...and be killed.”

I don’t know if you ever talk to people who tell you they have visions, I suspect not many of you do, but I’m willing to be surprised. In our culture we have grown distrustful of people who make such claims. But pastors get to hear this from time to time, and while I retain as healthy a skepticism as anyone else, I no longer dismiss these reports out of hand. People see things, they recognize things, things come to them in ways neither they nor we would expect, and they sometimes call them visions. That’s OK with me. The key, I find, is whether their visions are disabling or enabling.

Peter and James and John had their high-mountain vision, they caught that brief glimpse of what the future was to hold, what one preacher called a cracked door “between this world and some other, brighter place...” but then they knew the future had not yet come. They had to descend the mountain, and along the way Jesus told them to keep this little episode to themselves — who could understand it anyway? They could barely figure out what had happened themselves. Down they went, back to a world not-yet redeemed, where that suffering which Jesus predicted for himself — and for them — was still coming. Yet they knew in a way they had not known before that it was not suffering which would have the final word, but glory. The dazzling glory of the Son, the Beloved, the One to whom — if voices from clouds are to be believed — we would do well to listen.

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Mark 8:31, NRSV
2 Robert Browning, “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”.
3 John Killinger, Letting God Bless You, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), p. 75.
4 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 58.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Skin Game

Skin Game1

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time: February 15, 2009

Mark 1:40-45

Let’s think about skin for a minute. Skin is something very precious to us. It is in many ways the toughest organ of the human body, the primary line of defense, seemingly capable of renewing itself almost endlessly following cuts, bruises, even surgery and skin grafting. It can adjust to sunlight, making subtle changes in response to prolonged exposure. Skin is fundamental to our thinking about what is or is not beautiful. Creamy skin is thought to be beautiful, leathery skin, not so desirable. One could have a debilitating internal ailment and still pass unnoticed among friends and acquaintances enjoying their full fellowship and support, escaping the notice of strangers. But that is not the case with anyone who suffers with an obvious skin ailment.

Even healthy skins of different colors have been responsible for division and hatred between tribes, peoples, and racial groups, probably more so than any other feature of the human anatomy. White skin, olive skin, red skin, black skin, yellow skin, combinations of those skin types, all these have been known to provide rationales for walls of enmity and hatred.

How ironic that human skin, a tiny fraction of an inch thick, covering every human body, precious to us, life-preserving and absolutely crucial to our well-being, has also been the cause for so much division and sorrow. I had a friend who used to say, “When you feel intimidated by someone, next time they are speaking with you pretend they are standing in front of you without their clothes on. It’s amazing how that will change your perspective.” That might sound a bit naughty, but in a powerful way, our life in the world should sometimes involve seeing other people without their skins on. Just think what such an approach could do for folks in any racially divided place, or mixed race children in many areas of the world. Imagine seeing one another without our skins on, without our accustomed facial points of reference. The only way we could identify the people we met would be by speaking with them, taking their words seriously, encountering them simply as people, and not as members of this or that skin-color group. I believe that this is part of what Jesus was up to when he healed the leper in Galilee. He had something to say in what he did as much as someone to heal.

The social taboos for lepers in Israel were powerful and, to modern minds, startlingly comprehensive. No leper, under any circumstances, was to approach a non-leper. Ever. Any time a person who was clean came near them, lepers were to stand off at a distance and shout, if they still had voices to shout with, “Unclean! Unclean!” Not the kind of regulation that was likely to do much for self esteem or social interaction. As we might imagine, leprosy was dreaded not only for its disfiguring misery, but because it made sufferers complete social outcasts. Lepers were excluded from the general population and from any contact with the people of God. Participation in the religious life of the community was forbidden, any approach to the temple in Jerusalem was entirely out of the question. Rabbis of the time are known to have expressed opinions on the status of lepers, calling them living corpses whose cure was as difficult as resurrection of the dead.

Something else we should know about this text from Mark’s gospel: After the leper approached Jesus, the common reading says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand...” Most English translations carry some variation of that theme of Jesus’ “pity” for the leper. But an ancient and well-attested version of that important little verse says, “Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand...” Every commentary on Mark that I have — and because of a special course in seminary and a career-long interest in Mark, I have 6 of them — concurs that anger could be considered the more accurate word in describing Jesus’ emotion. If you are like I am, that may come as something of a shock. Isn’t this gentle Jesus, meek and mild? How could a petition from a helplessly outcast and pitiful leper have inspired him to anger?

Inasmuch as we feel that way, we may be like those ancient scribes who, faithfully copying this text, may have thought that the scribe before them had made a mistake, so they wrote in a verb they thought more appropriate to the loving Jesus they had come to know.

Those who have had the courage to translate this word as anger have offered a variety of explanations as to why Jesus would have responded to the leper’s petition for healing with anger. Some say that perhaps Jesus was angry at being interrupted in his preaching tour. In the passage just before, he had told the disciples that he wasn’t going to go back to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house to continue healing the mobs that were there, because he was called to preach. Now another opportunity for healing presented itself, and if he accommodated the man, these critics reason, Jesus knew that he would once again be overrun with petitioners, and his preaching would suffer.

Another justification for Jesus’ emotional state is that his anger was directed at the evil powers that are represented by disease. God’s will at creation was wholeness for his people, and every case of disease is evidence of separation from God’s will for his creation.

I think the reason for Jesus’ anger is more foundational than either of these explanations. Both of these seem to focus Jesus’ anger back at the victim or his complaint. I think Jesus’ anger was felt on behalf of the suffering leper. He takes the part of the suffering, the victims of social brutality. That is the pattern of his ministry as I have come to know it. It wasn’t the disease, nor the demons, nor the interruptions that bothered Jesus so much as it was the social deprivation of the sufferer. These lepers, the neediest of the needy, were deprived of basic human fellowship, forced to flee the presence of any healthy person, forced to live a pitiful life, unable to fulfill the deepest need of the human heart, the need for acts of loving kindness that are part of the normal human scene for healthy people. One ancient addition to the story, which appears in many old manuscripts, has the leper responding to Jesus’ healing by saying, “Lord Jesus, you who walk with the lepers and eat with them in the inn...” This is most certainly not part of the story that Mark handed down, but it is entirely in character. Jesus’ healing was not so much of a disfiguring disease as it was a healing of an intolerable social situation: a religious law that protected the health of the community at the cost of overruling human compassion. Most certainly the significant part of Jesus’ healing was his touch, the touch of a healthy person which no leper was allowed to feel.

Seen this way, then the end of the story makes more sense, when the Bible says, Jesus “sternly charged him ... go and show yourself to the priest.” Jesus had provided something not even the priests or rabbis could provide, a readmission to the human and religious community for people who should never have been excluded in the first place. He had not been prevented from proclaiming his message by the interruption of this unfortunate. Rather he turned the situation itself into a powerful proclamation. Fred Craddock said “All the way to the cross Jesus will be trying to get those who think ‘where the Messiah is, there is no misery’ to accept a new perspective — ‘where there is misery, there is the Messiah.’”2

Naturally, we have our own modern versions of the skin game that was practiced in Jesus’ day. Of course, we can be subtle about it. Yet we have our own sorts of lepers that we put away from the comfort of human community in order not to have to see them face to face. We have in Africa and elsewhere the increasing and tragic role call of victims of the AIDS virus; we have prisons full to overflowing with the refuse of our society, while too little social effort is expended in stopping crime before it happens with education, intervention, and prevention programs. Oftentimes the oncology wards of our hospitals can become places where our modern-day lepers are warehoused, out of sight and out of mind.

We can be thankful that some attitudes are slowly changing, but there are still too many places where suffering people are shunted off to one side, set apart from healthy contact with the human community, and given every reason to believe that we have given up on them and are willing to let them suffer and die alone or with only the resources of their immediate family to sustain them. The fellowship of the church can provide a most precious gift when we offer nothing more than the gift of our companionship.

Perhaps at work or at school many of us can think of modern day lepers who — by social practice or common consent among others around us — are ostracized, belittled, cut off from the normal exchange of human fellowship. It is these very people for whom Jesus would pause, whose situation would provoke our Lord’s indignation, for whom he would respond to a petition for healing by saying, “I will; be clean.” It is his ministry of community and compassion that calls us from this passage in Mark. May he give us the strength and insight to join him in his work of loving those who are lost.

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,,
© 2008.
2 Fred Craddock, Preaching the New Common Lectionay: Year B Advent-Epiphany, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p.160.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Whole City at the Door

A Whole City at the Door1

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Cottage Grove, OR

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: February 8, 2009
Mark 1:29-39

One of my all-time favorite church magazine cartoons pictures a physician in his office, speaking with his bookkeeper. The subject of their conversation is a patient’s bill, which apparently had been in the accounts receivable file for a long, long time. The bookkeeper says to the doctor, “He says that since you told him his recovery was a miracle, he sent his check to the church.”

Our passage from Mark touches on the subject of miraculous healing. This early sequence of events in Jesus’ ministry seems to set the stage for his growing reputation. Mark says, “at once his fame spread everywhere throughout the surrounding region...” (vs. 28), “the whole city was gathered around the door,” “everyone is searching for you,” “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly...and people came to him from every quarter.” (vs. 45)

Invent a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Well, Jesus simply healed people, treated them for the demons that traumatized them and their families, and the people came to him in great mobs and multitudes. Without having moved beyond the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry seems to have turned into an overnight success.

Ask a person on the street what function churches are supposed to fill in our culture, and if they are not outright hostile toward religious faith, they will likely answer that the purpose of the church and its ministry is to do good works, to help make the world a little bit better place. I know for certain that the numerous transients who come through the doors of churches in many neighborhoods every day are hoping they can count on that common assumption that the purpose driving a church is the desire to do good things for people who need to have good things done. What kind of church worthy of the name wouldn’t do that? It’s a pretty nice arrangement, if that is the purpose of the church. We need to do good things, hosts of people need good things done, the world must be perfectly organized. But today’s lesson does not confirm that as the primary definition of ministry, at least not the ministry of Jesus.

From time to time, politicians and others will make broad statements about the churches in our country as organizations whose purpose is to minister to the needs of people, feed them, help them in their search for health care, and so on. I dare say, many of us seated here would join in that chorus of voices which refer to the church and its ministries as helping institutions employing people who are helping professionals. But today’s lesson does not confirm that limited definition of ministry, at least not the ministry of Jesus.

I suspect that this was also the sort of assumption driving the people who came flocking to see Jesus in the early days of his ministry. Mark tells us that following his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus came to Galilee — this region where today’s passage finds Jesus healing and casting out demons — “proclaiming the good news of God.” That is the very first thing said of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel: that he came proclaiming the good news of God.”

This is the clue that helps us understand why, when the mobs were beating a path to his door, and the disciples came to find him so he could continue in his high-growth ministry opportunity, that he did not choose the “do-good” definition of ministry, that he chose instead to move on to neighboring towns so that, as he said, “I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

That is what he came out to do. To proclaim a message. In the process of his proclamation, healings were signs of the message, signs meant to serve the message, not the other way around. Jesus fed his own ministry by retreating to quiet places to pray and reflect. He did not become a hyperventilating TV preacher pursuing a non-stop popular ministry. His own disciples seemed eager enough for him to do this, but Jesus knew the focus of his ministry. It included healing and doing good, but healing and doing good did not exhaust the purpose of his ministry. Likely, if we take our cue from him, it should not totally define or characterize ours either.

There’s a story of a wise old who rabbi saw a man hurrying along the street, so preoccupied with his task he was looking neither right nor left.

“Why are you rushing so much?” the rabbi asked the man.

“I’m rushing after my livelihood,” the man answered.

“And how do you know,” asked the rabbi, “that your livelihood is running on before you so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you need to do is stand still.”2

Have you heard the type-A personality version of the old “Now I Lay Me Down” child’s bedtime prayer?

“Now I wake me up to work, I pray the Lord I will not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my work’s all right.”

It has been said that “most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play and play at their worship.”3 All the essential elements of life are there, but their order, and especially their focus, is upside down.

The disciples came to him in a rush of misplaced enthusiasm, “What are you doing out here praying in the desert? The whole town is looking for you, your ministry is a success, come on back and greet the multitudes.” Jesus’ response was not to go back, but rather to press on in pursuit of what he “came out to do.” And that was to “proclaim the message.”

In a word, he came out to preach. To proclaim the truth about God. Everything else about his ministry was secondary to that ultimate goal, to tell the world the truth about a gracious, loving God, who would stop at nothing to communicate his love for them. Marshall McLuhan was not the first to recognize the danger that the medium could become the message. Jesus knew it too, and saw the danger that his healing ministry might so overshadow his proclamation, that he would be reduced to little more than another itinerant side-show miracle worker. He rejected this role, left Capernaum, and went out through Galilee pursuing his ministry of proclamation, and assisting his message with signs and wonders, but keeping the content of his message ever before him.

The church that takes its cue in ministry from Jesus himself will look long and hard at his statement about his ministry and its purpose. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of conversations I have had with people over the years about the things the church ought and ought not do in order to fill the pews, to get people to want to come out to church. More of this sort of music, less of that, more pizzazz, less dogma and doctrine, more entertainment, less preaching and teaching. I’ve heard it all, and I’ve heard it a hundred times.

Then I look at the example of Jesus in this simple story. He healed, he cast out demons, and right away, everyone who had a bunion was at the door knocking. But is that what Jesus was about? Did Jesus come into the world — to borrow the language of John — so that he could start a popular healing and exorcism ministry? John says, “In the beginning was the Word...” Mark reports that Jesus’ first act in his ministry was the act of proclamation, of preaching.

There are three questions4 that we would all benefit from asking ourselves and our faith from time to time, to help us keep our focus as we walk the road of discipleship.

Where are you looking for Jesus? It doesn’t pay always to look for Jesus in the same place. I may have met him in prayer, but that does not preclude the meeting of Jesus in the face of another person. We may have needed a certain aspect of the ministry of Christ, but that does not limit his availability to us in every other circumstance of our lives. Where are you looking for Jesus today?

What do you want Jesus to do when you find him? Peter wanted Jesus to go back and keep on doing what he had been doing. We all want that. We would all like to go back to mountaintop experiences of our lives, to find him again just the way we found him before. But Jesus has moved on with his message, and to stay with him, we need to move beyond the limits of our own past and into the future where he is proclaiming who he is to all the world.

What does Jesus want to do? That is the key question. With the whole city waiting at his door, why did he forego that promising healing ministry, and move on insistently with his ministry of proclamation? What kind of Savior do we want? Sadly, it is often a Savior to do our own bidding that we desire. But what kind of Savior would that be? Are we going to demand of him what we want, or are we willing to follow, no matter where he leads us?

Especially for church leaders, deacons, pastors, elders, this is an important question. There is a whole city outside our door. What do we have to tell them about Jesus and his love?

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,, © 2008.

2 Martin Marty in Context, 3/15/96, p. 4
3 Gordon Dahl, Work, Play, and Worship in a Leisure-Oriented Society, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972, p. 12
4 Thanks to Howard Chapman in note #34 on Sermonshop 2000 02 06, on Presbynet.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Can Teach, Can Do

Can Teach, Can Do1

© 2009, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 1, 2009

Mark 1:21-28

...when the sabbath came, [Jesus] 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.”

Every time I have ever studied this passage with other people, it seems to me that we have been all too willing to get ourselves distracted by the thought of first century people walking around with what Mark called an “unclean spirit.” Conversation about the passage often runs along the favorite twin therapeutic tracks of the twentieth century: psychological and physiological causes for illnesses which today are curable, but which then were chalked up to demons.

The fact is, in the first century, almost any unfortunate experience — particularly in regard to health — was in those days categorized as some form of demon possession. If one had a headache, there wasn’t much to do about it except pray that it would go away. By contrast, today, at any suggestion of a headache, even an avid, Bible-thumping, bad news preacher with his own TV ministry won’t necessarily fall down in prayer for relief from a demon, but very likely will reach for the aspirin bottle first, the prayer shawl second.

So, if you would like to pursue the thought of the health-implications of first century demon possession, I say more power to you, but I am convinced there are other crucial matters here for us to consider.

Mark’s gospel presents Jesus “teaching” no less than sixteen times in the sixteen chapters of his account, but we rarely hear about the content of that teaching. In Mark, when it is reported that Jesus taught, what we usually read about is the result that teaching had on others. About this there is plenty to read: the eyes of the blind are opened, as are the ears of the deaf, the lame find their legs again, and speechless people begin to sing for joy.

Clearly, Mark doesn’t want us to listen for well-crafted words of teaching. He wants us to see the kind of work that Jesus does, to invite us to share in the amazement of the Capernaum congregation, and to become part of that greater congregation.

The focus of this and so many other stories in Mark’s gospel is not on the people or issues or teaching involved. The focus is on Jesus. Why else would the man who had the demon go unnamed? And after the demon leaves him, we hear nothing more about him. Literarily speaking, he is left on the synagogue floor, drained of the unclean spirit, lying in a heap in the corner, healed but ignored, while the congregation presses on with their fascination about this new preacher in their midst. The story isn’t about him. It’s about Jesus. Who is Jesus? That is the question either asked or implied at the conclusion of almost every story about him in Mark.

Some critical Bible scholars have suggested that Mark was just an inept storyteller, and that was why other gospel writers had to wade in with fuller versions of the same stories. Possibly this was true. Others have suggested that he was uncommonly shrewd, forcing us to ask over and over again who this Jesus was and is until we start to answer our own questions.

Probably the biggest question we have to ask in relation to the person of Jesus is the one the folks in that synagogue found unavoidable that very first day of Jesus’ ministry. What is authority, and who has it? I think the question of the believability of Jesus’ authority in comparison to the less-believable authority of the scribes had to do with consistency between teaching and life, between the things he said and the things he did. Jesus taught with uncommon authority because people trusted not only his words but his actions. We are more likely to place our confidence in explanations of life’s complications from a person who has demonstrated integrity in his or her own life, than we are to find authority in the words of a person of low integrity, even if they are the same words.

So naturally, questions about Jesus’ teaching, “What is this...?” led to questions about the one saying and living what is true, “Who is this...?” What is this he says ... who is he to do it? Jesus lived the answer to both questions. Good teaching and good living cast out evil. Theologian and teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent his life as a pacifist, once justified his part in a failed plot to overthrow Hitler by violence by drawing on an analogy. He said that if a madman was in an automobile, careening toward a group of innocent children, a Christian should do everything in his or her power to wrestle the wheel away from him, not just begin making plans for a pious funeral. Jesus’ teaching and his living were in deep agreement. That is why even his exorcism could be called teaching.

How does authority show itself in our own words and witness? Consider the life of a man named John Woolman.2 He lived during the middle years of the eighteenth century, when slave holding and trading was as common and acceptable as automobile ownership is today. But John Woolman saw in the ownership of human beings by other human beings a tremendous evil. He was a Quaker, and decided to set as his life’s goal the ridding of slavery from every Quaker home.

Now, lots of eighteenth and nineteenth century people became involved in this issue on one side or the other, each claiming authority for their position. But this was John Woolman’s method: he did not launch a protest movement or organize a political party or seek to force others to his way of thinking through legislation. He simply got on his horse and set out to visit every Quaker homestead along the Eastern seaboard. When he came to a Quaker home, he did not censure the slave holders, he simply raised questions. What does the owning of slaves do to a person of moral scruples? What kind of institution are we passing on to our children?

Home by home, person by person, visiting and revisiting he persistently pressed his gentle questions until over a period of thirty years, slavery was eliminated from Quaker homes and the Quakers were the very first religious group to go on record in opposition to slavery in 1770, almost a hundred years before the War Between the States that killed 600,000 Americans and crippled the Southern states for generations. What if there had been five or fifty more John Woolmans traveling the countryside, casting out demons? A Presbyterian John Woolman, a Methodist John Woolman, a Catholic John Woolman might have spared the country some of the agony of the Civil War.

How is this authoritative teaching different from the teaching of the world? Consider Jesus in the synagogue, confronting the madman. Put a typical, active-listener pastor in his place. In roars the madman, and Rev. Dooright might say to him, “My goodness, how long have you felt this way?” and “What do you think you should do about it?” Jesus simply says, “Shut up and get out.” The reason that Hitler was a success is the same reason that the evil of hatred prospers today. Hitler recognized the unifying power of hatred, the tribal, us/them appeal of it, recognized that is simply how things are, and made use of it. No one was willing to stand up and say to him, “Be silent, and come out!”

A friend of mine — we’ll call him “Bill Jones” — recently told me about a brave 6th grader who confronted a demon in his own Sunday school classroom. Bill had been assigned a room-full of sixth graders as a co-teacher in his church’s Sunday school in New Jersey. He arrived one week to find that the other teacher had called in sick. The youngsters in his class seemed especially filled with mischief, and seeking to cast out that demon during the course of the hour, Bill found himself yelling at them repeatedly, “Shut up over there!” and “Sit down right now or I’ll send you out of the room,” and “I don’t want to have to tell your parents how you have been behaving!” and other such casting-out-of-demons epithets. Toward the end of what had seemed like an endless hour, Bill decided that he would ask each of the children to think of one thing for which they were thankful and offer that as part of their closing prayer. Finally, mercifully, the room was quiet. Then one boy, in a sheepish, small voice, offered this as his quiet thank-you prayer: “I’m thankful Mr. Jones didn’t hit us today.”

It has been said that Judas was the disciple who cast out demons for a time and then became one. Bill had spent so much time trying to exorcize the demons in that class, he had become one himself. And one boy, willing to say, “Come out!” helped in Bill’s exorcism.

Why would that be? How can well-meaning people sometimes give themselves over to evil, even if it is evil on a small scale? I think it is because we forget to follow the one who casts out demons with an authority like no other. We start asking lesser questions, like, “What should I do about this,” instead of the question Mark would keep before us: “Who is this one who teaches with authority?”

What is the authority of Jesus? I think Paul had it in mind and put it so well in the second chapter of Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...”3 Jesus taught with authority because his teaching was more than content. His life was totally congruent with his words, and people saw that. That is, indeed, a new kind of teaching, whether it is in a classroom, a worship room, a boardroom, or a family room.

Today you have a new pastor standing before you. I will be the first to tell you, I am no Jesus. I have been invited by your session to serve as your Stated Supply pastor for a time. My name, I believe, was suggested through the presbytery. So there are at least three sorts of authority in those actions: the authority of the session, of the presbytery, and — pretty minimally at this point — the authority of this pastor. But in the end, the authority for all we say or do rests not in any of those people or groups, but in Jesus himself, the one whose every word and action caused people to ask, “By what authority?” and “Who is this?” and conclude with the confession that ultimately reached Peter’s lips: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”4

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,, © 2008.
2 See Servant Leadership, by Robert K. Greenleaf, Paulist Press: 1977, pp. 29-30.
3 Philippians 2:5-8.
4 Matthew 16:16.