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.