Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 7:1-23 The Tradition of the Elders
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’
As I read this week’s scripture about food and traditions, I remembered another story that I read once. I don’t know if it is a story that actually happened in somebody’s family or just a good story that seems true, but, I think it’s worth telling. I read it first in Reader’s Digest. More recently, I’ve found a version of the story shared by a writer named Madora Kibbe. You may have heard this story before, too. The story begins with a child watching their mother cook a roast for dinner. This family seems to be one where the moms have the responsibility doing the big cooking and passing along recipes. The child sees their mom cutting off the ends of the pot roast before putting it in the pot and putting it in the oven. The child asks their mom why she is cutting the ends off the pot roast. The mother, "I don't know why I cut the ends off, but it’s what my mom always did. Why don't you ask your Grandma?"
So, the inquisitive kid called their grandmother. They said, “Granny, mom is making a pot roast and cutting off the ends. She said she is cutting off the ends because that’s what you did when you made one. Why do you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it?" Her granny replied, "I don't know. That's just the way my mom always cooked it. Why don't you call your great-grandmother and ask her why she did it?" What a gift this child had having so many generations of family still living! The child then called their great-grandmother.
Great Grandmother answered her phone on the seventh ring (it was on the other side of the room and she had to get to it). The beloved great-grandchild asked her the question. "Mom is making a pot roast and cut the two ends off before putting it in the oven. She doesn’t know why. She said she learned it from granny. And, Granny said she didn’t know why she did it either. She just learned to do it from you and you were a very good cook, so she just did what you did. So, why did you cut the ends off the pot roast before cooking it? Great-grandmother said, "When I was first married, we had a very small oven, too small for a standard pot roast. If I wanted to make one, I had to cut the ends off to make it fit.”
This activity, cutting the ends of the pot roast, began out of necessity. You can’t cook a roast in your oven if it’s bigger than the oven. It ended up becoming a practice that some people thought was necessary in order to cook well. Then, it became a tradition that one passes on to the next generation. How many traditions in our lives began out of practices passed along with no sense of their root, rhyme, or reason? How often do we do a thing mostly because it is because it’s how we learned to do the thing, not because we actually need to do it that way and only that way? These kinds of actions, traditions passed along and strictly adhered to, unexamined for their relevance to the present moment, are the target of Jesus’ critique in our reading for the day. Jesus wasn’t against tradition, especially religious traditions. What he was against was following the letter of law, and even making more restrictive rules around it, and ignoring the Spirit of the Law God gave the Jewish people.
The tradition that is at the center of the conflict between the Pharisees, scribes, and Jesus is related to questions of ritual purity. The first few verses in the translation we are reading make it sound like it’s just about washing their hands... like their hands are muddy or dirty. But, that’s not what this is about. That word translated as “defiled” shows us that is a question about eating after having done a certain kind of religious ritual. Scholars I read this week indicate that the practices around ritual purity, that is the practices around ritually purifying hands, foods, pots, and pans, were traditions developed around the core of the Law that God gave Moses, like a level of padding around the initial commandments. You don’t want to go against the commandments. So, we will add and add and add practices to our community just to try to cover every part of our lives, doing the best we can to make sure all we do is in accordance with God’s Law.
Dr. Elizabeth Shively, in her commentary on this passage, also noted that the elders saw these purity rituals as a way that their people set themselves apart for their God, preserving both their covenant with God and their particular culture in the midst of the Roman Empire that would happily destroy them. We are being generous interpreters when we acknowledge that these traditions developed out of both a deep faith and important necessity. To be fair, these traditions were not exactly as low stakes as cutting ends of your pot roast just because your mother did. But there is some similarity to the trajectory of a practice becoming a tradition that got passed along in a community. But, in this case, we have Jesus, who felt as though he had the authority to state that those traditions were made by humans, and not by God. And, according to scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Jesus understood that every other teaching offered by the prophets and the community were interpretations that could be interrogated and, maybe even discarded if they were not sufficiently adherent to Love of God and Love of Neighbor, the heart of the Law.
In today’s reading, Jesus uses somewhat of a crude analogy about eating and what happens to food once it has been eaten to make a point about how one can evaluate their actions to see if they are aligned with love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus said that the things you touch and eat are probably not what separate you from the covenant with God. That’s what impurity means here: Separating yourself from the calls to love and justice that are the people’s responsibilities in the covenant with God. It is not the things that go in your body or touch your body that draw you away from God. Instead, it is that which emanates out of you... your slanderous words, your unkind acts, your lies, and your bigotry, that draw you away from God. Most people Jesus knew weren’t able to consistently maintain ritual purity. But, all people could turn their hearts towards God and act out of love of neighbor.
In my world, “coming out” is a good thing. Coming out is a phrase that signifies a knowledge of self and clarity about one’s identity, community, desire and love. When we come out, we say clearly something deeply true about ourselves, reflecting our values into the broader world, though this truth telling is not without risk. I thought about this as I read Jesus’ teaching about the things we take in from the world and the things that come out from us. The goal of our faith is to have what comes out of us be an expression of the knowledge that we, ourselves, are beloved by God through creation and welcomed into a community of faith through our baptism. We best express, then, our desire to follow Jesus when we re-examine our traditions and see if they are actually meeting the demands of love and justice present in that very moment. If they aren’t, Jesus is telling us that we don’t prioritize maintaining those traditions over loving our neighbor. Or, put this way, we don’t just keep cutting the ends off the pot roast. We find a new recipe... one that allows us to cook something good using the full size of the oven that is at our disposal. It is a risk to examine our traditions. We may find ourselves at odds with what our elders have taught us. Jesus sure did. But, Jesus argues that the risk is worth it because it can bring us closer to God and to each other. I pray that this Lent can be a time examining the faith that is coming out of us and of cooking the full roast when necessary.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Sermon for February 14, 2021: Seeing and Understanding Something New based upon Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The Coming of Elijah
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
I was listening to a Bible podcast this week called Sermon Brainwave and one of the scholars, Rolf Jacobson, I think, said he once heard a really good sermon about the transfiguration. That preacher pointed out that there is a mountaintop at the beginning and the end of Lent. Today, the day we call Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, finds us up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, astounded by seeing Moses and Elijah. God will tell them clearly to listen to Jesus. Near the end of Lent, we will be drawn up a mountain again, this one Calvary. Peter, James, and John will not be there, but the women disciples will be watching from a distance. They, too, will be astonished by how they are seeing Jesus, but that astonishment will be shaped by a deep grief and fear. Bystanders will think they hear Jesus call for Elijah when he is calling out, in anguish, to God. We won’t hear God speak on Calvary, even as Jesus dies and the temple curtain tears. Lent begins and ends on a mountain. It is said that you can see clearly from a mountaintop. What can you see clearly of Christ on these two mountains?
Important things happen on Mountains. Dr. Bonne Bowman Thurston talks about that in her commentary on Mark. In Exodus 19, speaking to Moses, God consecrates the newly liberated Hebrews, covenanting to protect them. In 1st Kings 19:11-18, Elijah hears the voice of God on Mt. Horeb, receiving a divine mission. When the city of Jerusalem is invited to serve as a prophet to the cities of Judah in Isaiah 40:9, Jerusalem will go up the mountain to point towards God. Ezekiel encountered God up on a mountain, too, in Ezekiel 40:2. Scripture tells us that you see God more clearly up on a mountain. Even knowing that important things can happen on mountain tops, James, Peter, and John still seem surprised at their own holy epiphany.
The scholar Melina Quivik, in her commentary on this passage, encourages us not to rush to try to explain, with modern, scientific inquiry, just what is going on up on the mountain. It’s not that science is bad or contrary to Christian faith. It’s that science is not the right language to translate this story. It’s like trying to write a love poem in algebra. The Transfiguration is more art than science, pointing us towards something that is beyond what we normally understand. It is wild and weird and incomprehensible and unnatural. And, importantly, this wild, unnatural, incomprehensible event is similar to other wild, unnatural, incomprehensible events. When it happens to Jesus, according to Thurston, it places him into the prophetic lineage of Moses and Elijah, who also encountered that which is beyond natural up on a mountain.
It's no wonder that Peter wanted to build a structure to commemorate the event. I mean, you have to do something to honor what you saw when you see something as wild as this. Stack up a pile of rocks or put up a memorial marker or take a selfie with the incredible thing that is before you. It’s like Peter thinks there should be a signpost that says, “On this day, Jesus blew Peter, John, and James’ minds.” That may actually be what he’s doing with the dwellings he offered to build: making a signpost. Scholar Ched Myers, in his commentary on this scripture, said that these tents or dwellings were structures built to mark the presence of the Divine, like the tabernacles built in Leviticus 23. Terrified and awestruck, he couldn't figure out any other way to respond to what was happening. But, God wasn’t looking for memorials or markers. God was looking for a commitment to follow Christ.
A cloud overshadows them. Peter, James, and John could see nothing in the divine darkness. Remember, in Exodus, God appeared in the dense cloud up on the mountain when talking to Moses. This story is supposed to remind us of that and also to foreshadow something important: These disciples will often not see things clearly. They will misunderstand regularly, and they are his closest companions. Jesus will need people to see and understand. So many times, they won’t. As the cloud overcomes them and Jesus, and Moses and Elijah disappear, the disciples hear something that they seem to understand. God speaks, much like when Jesus was baptized, but, instead of speaking to Jesus, God speaks to the three disciples, saying two things to help the disciples figure out how to respond to what they have witnessed. First, God says, "This is my Son" and calls Jesus “Beloved.” The next thing God does is tell the disciples to listen to Jesus. Again, all that is happening is weird and unnatural but also fits alongside the other prophet stories I mentioned earlier. This is yet one more example of God making sure that the people God's sends are listened to. Then, poof, just as quickly as this fog shows up, it clears, leaving the three a little stunned and still confused, but clearer, at least, that they should be listening to Jesus.
After the cloud clears, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they saw. I’ve talked about this a couple times recently. Mark has Jesus asking for a certain level of secrecy throughout this Gospel. For some people, this might have been a relief. This story is so wild. If they were supposed to tell other people about it, surely they would have faced disbelief and dismissal at best, ridicule and mistrust at worst. Imagine what would happen if you started talking about seeing long dead prophets and Jesus. For some people, though, it would be a challenge to not tell everyone, or at least the other disciples, about the about what they had seen. It was so incredible that Peter wanted to make memorials of it. I don’t think you make a memorial about something you want to hide from people. It would have been such an incredible sight. I can imagine that at least Peter would have a hard time not telling people what they saw and heard. But, Jesus said, now is not the time to share this story. So, they do what God said. They listen to Jesus. They tell no one... at least until after the Resurrection.
The scholar Fred Craddock has a sermon about this passage that I find helpful. He said that he wondered if Jesus asked them to wait because there was no way they understood the miraculous thing they just saw mere moments after they saw it. To go around telling everyone about it before they understood it was to risk missing the point of the event. To truly understand what they saw, maybe they needed some more experiences, some more stories, some more mysterious clouds. Jesus knew that and asked them, for now, to hold this piece of information close. Pray about it. Listen to some more teaching, and follow Jesus’ guidance. Dr. Craddock thinks Jesus was saying “Take some time to tell this story right. It's ok to not understand everything immediately. Stick around and keep learning.”
The pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi said about the season of Epiphany that is it really a season of many little epiphanies, small moments when it becomes clearer and clearer who Jesus is and what he has come to do. The Transfiguration, the account that ends the season of Epiphany and points us towards the season of Lent, is perhaps that fanciest of the small epiphanies. But, we should remember that it doesn’t complete the story. The transfiguration is but one shining moment that helped his disciples figure one part of the mystery of Jesus. It is but one mountain top from which they can see Christ. They will have to continue the journey, even to that sorrowful mountain of Calvary, to learn more. They can’t get stuck, here, on this mountain, because they feel like this event was miracle enough. Maybe that’s why they couldn’t build dwellings there. Jesus’ mission was never going to be enacted in the isolation of the mountain top. They would have to return to the people to live out God's vision of love and justice.
In her commentary on this passage, Melinda Quivik made a distinction between transfiguration and transformation that I think is helpful. Transformation indicates a change of substance. Transfiguration is to be changed in outward form, but not substance. The disciples saw Jesus differently, with the glowing form allowing them to see and understand something about his essence that was always there. But, there is promise of transformation: transformation of the disciples and the world. The nature of that transformation will become clearer in the stories between the mountaintops of Transfiguration and Crucifixion. Because the crucifixion won’t change Jesus’ essence, any more than the transfiguration did. Calvary will simply allow those who are watching to understand something about Christ’s essence that was always there. The fierce love was always there. The deep loyalty was always there. The willingness to serve and to speak truth, even in the face of great danger was always there. But, some won’t be transformed by that knowledge until that final mountaintop and the events of the days to follow.
We are living the days after the resurrection, when the disciples are free to tell what they have seen and how it changed them. We are living in a time that feels a bit like we are struggling our way between two mountains. May we pay attention to the Christ that is before us, in our neighbors, in the stranger, in the prisoner, in the hungry, in the foreigner, and listen to him. That is the only way that we can be changed.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
· Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-5
· Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/768-transfiguration-of-our-lord-b-feb-14-2021
· Maren Tirabassi: https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2021/01/29/strongholy-communion-liturgy-for-february-7-2021/
· Ched Myers, "Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
· Fred Craddock, "Tell No One Before Easter: Mark 9:2-9,"The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
In our scripture today, we are still early in Jesus’ ministry, but he is on the move. The scholars I read this week suggest that we should pay attention to these moves... moves between public spaces and private space, and to his movement into isolation, to learn about how the author of Mark thought Jesus worked in the world. This reading begins where many of our journeys of faith began, within a family home, among people who love and care for one another. In her commentary on this passage, Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston reminds us that, in this time and in this culture, several generations lived with each other and, many times, branches of extended families lived together. This home is Simon and Andrew's, two brothers who were among the first disciples, but they weren’t the only ones who lived in the home. Simon's mother-in-law lived there, too, and likely several others. And, this family is well known by James and John, the other two brothers who were early disciples of Jesus.
The first part of the story is in a family home and “family” can be a contentious concept in Mark. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, reminds us that, in chapter three, just a couple verses after this one, when Jesus’ own family comes looking for him, he says his real family isn't necessarily them, but anybody who does the will of God. We should be prepared for Jesus to challenge traditional ideas about what family is and does. And, yet, among the first things he does in his public ministry is travel to his disciples’ family home and meet their extended family. And, the second healing we see him perform is healing one of the family members of his disciples. Even as Jesus will suggest an expansion of what “family” means, Dr. Kittredge reminds us that friends and family will continue to be drivers of compassion and care through the rest of this Gospel. Parents will ask Jesus to heal their children several more times in this book. These two sets of brothers, James and John and Simon and Andrew, will continue to care for one another even as they follow Jesus. Faith in Christ will consistently be situated inside the family, with family members encouraging one another to believe and to be healed. And, Jesus will consistently respond with compassion to those who advocate for the people they love.
James and John become some of the first people to show us how the community members will advocate with Jesus for the people they love. They tell Jesus that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. Jesus responds by healing her. Dr. Thurston notes that Jesus touches her to heal her, a risk for a couple reasons, first because touching a sick person risked ritual uncleanliness and second because touching a woman risked a different kind of ritual uncleanliness. Jesus, knowing the risk of being excluded from fellowship for ritual uncleanliness, still chose to touch this woman and heal her, restoring her to full life and fellowship with the people in her family. When she has been restored to health, she begins to serve.
This word “serve: is a little difficult to parse out. Are we to believe she was healed just so she could feed Jesus and his buddies supper? That is certainly how some have interpreted this verse according to Dr. Osvaldo Veno, even using it to assert that the proper place of present-day women is only in support roles of the Gospel, not in proclamation. Dr. Veno thinks that kind of interpretation is unwise. In her commentary on this text, Dr. Kittredge notes that Greek word for service is used throughout the book of Mark to mean both serve at a table and also to do ministry. Much of the time, it is used to describe discipleship or work that is divine in nature. The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “serve.” The angels served Jesus in the wilderness. The scholar Karoline Lewis notes that, in Mark 10, Jesus will describe his own ministry as service: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Both Dr. Kittredge and Thurston suggest that given the expansive meaning of “serve” in this Gospel, it would be fair to interpret this passage as Simon’s mother being healed and serving them by welcoming them into her home but also, in response to her healing, she began a life of service, that is discipleship, with Jesus. Her discipleship would not have been possible had her friends and family not advocated for her.
As this woman shifts into discipleship, the story shifts from the private sphere of the home and family to the public sphere of a crowd of people who have gathered outside of the mother-in-law's home. Once Jesus healed the possessed man with his words and the sick woman with his touch, he went from one who was relatively unknown to someone the whole town would talking about. Seeking healing, people came to him in droves. And, Jesus healed them, one by one, from their various diseases and possessions. Interestingly, for the second time in just a few verses, we see Jesus communicating with the demons as he draws them out. The first healing was in our verse from last week. Remember the demon who tried to say out loud who Jesus was, and Jesus stopped him. In today's reading, he does the same thing, forcing them to be silent because "they knew him."
This theme of secrecy is unique to the book of Mark. Why would Jesus not want the demons to say clearly who he was? Dr. Thurston thinks this has something to do with how Jesus prefers that people come to know him in the book of Mark. It is one thing for people to observe him themselves and choose to follow. It is another thing for people to be convinced of his power by the word of supernatural beings. According to Thurston, for Jesus, it is most important that people observe him themselves and then choose to follow him. Faith can’t just come through word of mouth. It is best for people to see and believe. I mean, at one point in Mark, Jesus will even tell Peter not to tell people he was the Messiah. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact, that during this era, it was understood that any kind of magician could perform miracles. Jesus wasn’t any old magician. Maybe he didn’t want the public spectacle of the healings to overshadow the grace and compassion that was the reason why he was healing people in the first place.
As the story shifts into the third part, we see yet another shift in location... into a deserted place. When Jesus needs to reconnect with God, this is what he does. God is the source of his power and the foundation of his identity and this time in the wilderness in prayer is how he rebalances his life after intense bouts of teaching and healing. Thurston asserts that periods like this, where he is in the desert praying, remind us that all of his authority is rooted in his dependence on God, not in flashy feats of magic. They are necessary times of respite and reconnection in the midst of his hectic ministry. But, his disciples didn't seem to understand that. He is so far out of the way that the scripture says his followers have to "hunt" for him, as though he was lost. Their hunt isn't necessarily described as a good thing.
We should remember that Jesus was not interested in popularity. He would have directed everyone, human and demon alike, to spread word of his miracles if he was. But, he wasn’t. His ministry was grounded and compassionate, not flashy and theatrical. In his time in prayer, Jesus came to some clarity about their next steps. As Dr. Thurston put it, “[his] task was not to be a wonderworker but to ‘proclaim the message’ in the towns around Capernaum.” And, that’s what he tells the disciples that they will do. So, they began the Galilean mission in earnest, bolstered by prayer and reconnection with God.
Covid is strange. It has disrupted so many ways that we think about public and private life, about isolation and connection, and this change has affected how I read this portion of scripture. I have new questions after reading this story of a Jesus functioning in three spheres, in public, in private, and in isolation, particularly in this era where we are trying to live out our faith when our private homes have become many of our offices and classrooms, and when we are navigating crowds and public spaces while managing two important necessities: public health and social connection. When work is home and home is work, how do we find space for prayer and reconnection? How can we shift the aloneness that this era requires away from a kind of harmful isolation and into the something that is more like the prayerful connectedness that Jesus found in deserted places? And, how do we continue to be drivers of compassion and care, like James and John, who helped Simon’s mother be healed and begin her own discipleship, an act which is the foundation of discipleship? I don’t have good answers for all of these questions yet. But, I can see that Mark, a Gospel where Jesus moves through public and private and into isolation, will be a good companion through the rest of the lectionary year. May what we see in this scripture point us to Christ the healer and helps us follow him in healing this world.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39-5
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3547
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Mark 1:21-28 The Man with an Unclean Spirit
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he 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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
It has been not at all the year that I expected at last January’s annual meeting. It is hard to even begin to sum up a year marked by pandemic, isolation, and world-wide disruptions of systems that most of us count on for daily life. So much of this year has been dominated by questions of authority: who has it, how is it appropriate to wield it, how do we, as a nation, recognize it? While these questions are often on our minds, particularly as a country that describes some of our cultural divisions in terms relating to responsibility, both individual and communal, and freedom, both individual and communal, the stress of the pandemic put these questions of authority in sharp relief.
How much time have we spent since last March trying to figure out who is a trustworthy authority about Covid-19? So much time! The sharpest divisions among neighbors and family members right now, in January of 2021, are very much shaped by decisions we made about who was the most trustworthy source of public health information way back in March and April of 2020. As you know from worshiping with us over the last year or from even just glancing at our annual report, as a church, we chose to trust public health professionals as the one’s with the greatest authority in regards to Covid-19. Our decision to do so shaped and reshaped our church in some significant ways. We have never stopped being church, but we had to be church in ways we never had before.
Some things we were able to make feel pretty close to right quickly. Digital worship, which we shifted to on March 15th, 2020, feels like worship to me and has for a while. It is certainly different from worship in the sanctuary and, we will be glad to return to worship in the building. But, people continue to show up, this time on the internet, and pray, sing, and listen to one another. I don't know that I could have imagined digital worship services could feel as holy as Marie Hatfield’s funeral service and Christmas Eve did. I’ve also participated in some anti-racism programming with Wabanaki REACH that has been intimate, connected, and more holy than I could have anticipated. I am deeply thankful for that.
I’ve learned so much this year. Some of what I’ve learned has been disappointing. Watching our government's lack of leadership and coordination and care in response to the global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of deaths has been deeply disheartening. As someone who used to work in healthcare, I have been concerned in particular for the amount of strain on healthcare workers who have often been understaffed and ill-supported. They have been putting their lives on the line for months to care for the sick and the dying. They aren’t the only ones who have been put in harm’s way by poor leadership (janitors, teachers, grocery store employees, restaurant employees have all been at risk), but, they were some of the first ones I truly worried about.
Other things I have learned are just handy. I can produce more and better media than before the pandemic. It wasn’t always easy, and some things, like music mixing, I was never able to get the hang of. I’m really grateful that Connie Mayette took on so much of that work during Advent. I couldn’t have done that work and it made Advent richer. But, some kinds of media, like the Psalms in the Woods videos, turned out to be just what we needed to stay grounded and connected. I’ve appreciated both the weekly process of looking through the Psalms to see what feels like the right one for the week and the walks through the woods and our gardens to find a place to record. I’m grateful to Becky Walker and Rev. Susan Reisert from Old South in Hallowell for joining me in making the recordings. The pictures of the altars I make for Sunday have been surprisingly meaningful to me, too. I’m in the process of collecting them all on a website as a way to remember what the visual aspect of worship was like when I didn’t have deacons and New Directions to help me set up our worship space.
I’ve been learning how to be a mentor, too. Before Coronatide, I had approached the Maine School of Ministry about our church being an internship site to help people learn how to be a pastor with the support of a solid congregation. I’m grateful that Becky Walker, our intern, has been learning how to do this with me. We were even able to secure some funding that functions as an intern stipend for her during this time. Thanks, in particular, to the Teaching Church Team (Kristin McLaren, Ann Mitchell, and Doug Whittier) for supporting Becky as she has been learning to be a pastor, too.
There were some things that weren’t exactly new learnings, but on-going confirmation that the strength of this particular church lies in its commitment to hospitality and service. For as hard as things have been, the church continued to do the work of the church. A little later in the service, Wendy is going to share more about ways that we shared our funds with folks and institutions in need. I won’t go into all that. But, it was great. Also though, people kept showing up for board meetings. That is also great. People in elected positions in this congregation worked hard to fulfill the responsibilities they took on. People were flexible and grace-filled towards each other, letting go things that were not priorities and keeping up the most necessary parts of our communal life. Particularly in regards to public health directions on how to most safely meet, the church leadership has taken good advice from trustworthy sources. As I said in my report, I know pastors who left congregations during this pandemic season because the churches were pushing to disregard public health recommendations. I am glad that is not our situation.
For a small church, we have so many resources, mostly because we have committed people who are both realistic about what we have capacity for and willing to use the tools we follow through on promises we made. Kristin is going to share more about how Christian Education was affected by changes we made in response to Covid-19. The changes wouldn’t have been possible without clear assessments of what we were committed to do and investments of both time and money in order to do it. We’ll need to keep doing this in the months and weeks to come as we continued to learn to live out our ministry during Covid.
There is certainly so much we’ve lost this year. We miss seeing each other in person. We miss worshipping in the same space in our warm and welcoming building. We miss singing together and coffee hour and working together at food pantry and organizing the church fairs. I haven’t been able to visit you in the hospital or hug you in the greeting line after church. Visits to your homes have had to be short, when I could visit at all. Not everyone in our church has the internet and not everyone likes zoom worship, even if we’ve managed to make a pretty meaningful version of it. While I feel like we’ve made more good decisions than bad, I know that we have lost so much this year. We can’t fix that so much as mourn the loss, and try hard to continue to make choices that prioritize care for those most vulnerable, apologize for the mistakes we’ve made, and try to do better in the future.
In our scripture for today, Jesus surprises people with his teaching... not just the content of his teaching but the demeanor and manner in which he teaches. He teaches as one having authority, as the one who has the right to teach. The people observing him are most convinced by his teaching when they observe it in light of his ability to heal someone who is deeply, spiritually ill. His authority isn’t just about confidence, it’s about compassion. The healing, an act of compassion, is what ultimately convinces the people that his authority is worth trusting.
As we look towards the next year, with more hard decisions coming down the pike and a pressing and need for leaders who express their authority through compassion and healing, I hope that we can remember Christ’s example here and model our actions on it. When I look at the last year of our life together, I think, more often than not, we’ve used our authority to offer compassion. If we want to continue to live out our mission and visit as a church, we can’t lose track of the compassion that got us this far. Indeed, it will be the thing that will carry us, with Christ, into the future that is so uncertain. May we never mistake authority for privilege and never lose Christ’s compassion as our guide.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.