Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
I was reminded of something interesting during our confirmation mini-retreat a few weeks ago. There were people who sued to keep the United Church of Christ from forming. For those who haven’t been in confirmation class or a new member class lately, I’ll offer a quick recap of the history of our denominational history. The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 as a union between two denominations that were, themselves, products of unions among five other traditions that happened in the early 1930’s. One of those denominations was a combination of the two traditions brought to this continent by German immigrants: The German Reformed Tradition and the German Evangelical Tradition. This became known as the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The other denomination, the Congregational Christian Church, developed from the union among Congregational Churches and two strands of a group of churches known as the Christian Church, one that was predominantly white and one called the Afro-Christian Convention that developed in the tidewater area of Virginia and North Carolina.
Our church was a part of the Congregational Christian Church. And, I know some folks who were active here at the time when our particular Congregational Christian Church began to discuss becoming part of the United Church of Christ. It was actually a contentious issue in our congregation. While I’m sure it wasn’t the only issue of concern, a central issue of concern was one of authority- in joining the UCC, would our church lose the authority to organize ourselves into a body of Christ as we felt called?
While eventually, the majority of this church became convinced that the covenantal structures of the United Church of Christ were strong enough to connect us to other churches in ways that were useful and flexible enough to allow us to follow the Holy Spirit where we were called, some folks were not. They ended up leaving. This is a strength of a covenantal relationship. You can choose not to be a part of it. Some folks chose not to and joined other congregations. We who are here today are the ones who stayed and the ones who came later.
Ok, so what does this have to do with the lawsuits I mentioned? Those lawsuits were also about a question of authority. The Congregational Christian Churches and Evangelical and Reformed Churches were in conversation about a potential union for a long time. Their shared theological backgrounds in European Reformed traditions and their similar styles of being church that de-emphasized strict adherence to creeds while strongly emphasizing service to the world were the foundations of their early conversations. However, within Congregational Christian circles, people began to ask questions about authority- would a union take away authority from local churches? Did elected leaders of the denomination even have the authority to enter into conversations about a union? Some people said no, and they sued leaders who they thought were acting outside of their authority.
An article on the UCC website shares that from 1950 to 1957, “thousands of hours and dollars were spent on court litigation of suits brought against the General Council by autonomous bodies and individuals of the Congregational Christian Churches.” The General Council was a leadership board in the Congregational Christian Churches. Justice Archie O. Dawson, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, who was a part of the lawsuit that the Cadman Memorial Congregational Church in Brooklyn and other Congregational Christian churches filed against Helen Kenyon, who was the moderator of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, had this to say about that particular suit: “It is unfortunate that ministers and church members, who purport to abide by Christian principles should engage in this long, expensive litigation...”
Eventually, all litigants would run out of appeals, with those granting authority to the General Council to engage in the conversation about the union prevailing. The same article, citing a scholar named Fred Hoskins, shared this: “the Court of Appeals issued the assurance that the union ‘would in no way change the historical and traditional patterns of individual Congregational Christian churches’ and that none would be coerced into union. Each member was assured of continuing freedom of faith and manner of worship and no abridgement of congregational usage and practice.” This is the interpretation of our faith tradition that carried the leaders of the Congregational Christian churches into the conversation about union that would eventually create the United Church of Christ, and I think, what ultimately allowed our church to take the time to consider whether we wanted to join the UCC. This ruling assured that we could not be coerced into covenant, and once in covenant, we would be allowed to be the church we are called to be in each generation. It would take us 10 years, but eventually we would join the UCC.
So, what does all of this have to with Jesus exorcising an unclean spirit in the synagogue? While I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the midst of all of the arguments and all the lawsuits that some people might have grumbled something about the demonic character of their opponents, however, that’s not where I’m heading with this. Instead, I want us to note that from the time of Jesus’ own ministry, the people who would come to follow Jesus have been concerned about authority: who has it? who gave it to them? what are they going to do with it? After Jesus had rounded up some coworkers, the next Sabbath, he and they went to the synagogue in Capernaum, and Jesus began to teach. This is where the question of authority pops up. Scripture says, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Richard Horsley’s notes on this chapter explain that the scribes were learned scholars who represented the priests in Jerusalem. Dr. Wil Gafney reminds us in her commentary that these were people who knew their faith well, not people who simply copied scripture and interpretations down to share with others. Dr. Osvaldo Vena says that they were skilled and respected teachers. When Jesus shows up at synagogue that day, we are to understand that he is demonstrating more knowledge of their faith than the most skilled teachers. And, Jesus had not been trained to be a teacher. He’s just some guy who shows up acting like he knows what he’s doing. He has this internal sense of authority that the people around him clearly observe. And, they are amazed. And, the demon, at least, is afraid.
“Have you come to destroy us?” Isn’t this a question many of us are tempted to ask when meeting a new authority? You obviously have power. Will you use it to harm me? Will you use it to overpower me? I would never say that questioning authority is demonic. Jesus himself does it all the time. But I do think the unclean spirit’s question is useful in that it shows us what the fearful believe is at stake around questions of authority. It must be clear how authority will be used. It must be clear what the limits to, and gifts of, any expression of authority are. Authority itself is not a bad thing. But, it must be used in allegiance to God’s priorities of love and justice.
Ultimately, we should read the presence of the unclean spirit as a doing a great harm to at least one person in this synagogue, and possibly to the whole community that knows this person. How we see Jesus using the authority afforded to him at his baptism is to heal the one who has been taken over by a power without his consent. Authority here is clear and assertive, as well as loving. Authority is a tool for healing. And, ultimately, this authority will be shared. It was first shared with Jesus, and Kenyatta Gilbert points out in her commentary on the text, in chapter 3:14, Jesus will share it with his disciples.
Today is our annual meeting, a day when we will practice how we share the authority passed down to us. I hope you took time to read the reports that I, along with the officers, and boards of the church wrote to describe how we used the authority you all have entrusted in us over the last year. We will consider together other questions of authority, like how we decide who is a covenant member and who will be granted the authority that comes with service on our boards. These are no small questions. On our best days, we are living into the authority passed down to us by the Holy Spirit and our ancestors in the faith. May we wield this authority well, for the purpose of love and healing. And, may we step into the next year of ministry together feeling authorized by the Spirit and our covenant with one another to serve our town and our world.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The history article that talks about the lawsuits: https://www.ucc.org/about-us_short-course_the-congregational-christian/
A nice 20 minute introduction to UCC history: https://vimeo.com/showcase/4814431/video/238494317
Richard A. Horsley's notes on Mark in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Wil Gafney, "Advent II," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year B (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2023)
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5
Kenyetta Gilbert, "Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
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.