Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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)
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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.