Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whose authority? Whose teaching?

Text: Mark 1:21-28 (teaching with authority)

What power do mere words possess to heal a broken life or change a troubled situation? And what good can can come from a mere speech or sermon? These are some of the thoughts that came to mind as I reflected upon today's Gospel reading.

In it, we hear of the start of Jesus' public ministry and how Jesus astonishes his newly-called disciples with his teaching. Unfortunately, the Gospel writer Mark does not tell us what he teaches. In fact, the only lesson we get from this passage comes from the mouth of the evil spirit who has possessed a man in the synagogue and who correctly shouts out that Jesus of Nazareth is "the Holy One of God."

But the passage implies that simply by speaking and teaching, Jesus makes a difference. And it is often this way in the Bible. John begins his Gospel with the evocative phrase, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Likewise, the Hebrew Bible begins with God's speech in Genesis -- "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light," and so on.

For the past 2500 years, Jews and later Christians and Muslims have been known as People of the Book. We centre our worship around Holy Scripture and on sermons that comment on it. And we continue today in this manner even though today's culture is dominated by audiovisual media. Has our focus on reading and discussing Scripture perhaps become outmoded?

Also, we are often reminded of the need to move from words to actions -- to not let our speeches or sermons remain mere words on a page. Instead, they are supposed to inspire us to act in order to change our lives and communities.

And yet in church we continue to read and talk -- especially preachers! Should we perhaps find a different way to make an impact on the world than just teaching in a synagogue as Jesus did 2,000 years ago or preaching in a church today?

And yet words seem to have power in and of themselves. One of the last books by the great United Church minister and literary critic Northrop Frye was titled "Words with Power: a Study of The Bible and Literature." And psychoanalysis has now had more than 100 years to demonstrate the power of its so-called "talking cure." Simply talking about issues with a patient often helps to heal a troubled mind.

Our very minds and personalities are constructed with words. And so a central part of learning is focused on words and their meanings. Take a simple word like "sun." As children, we learn that the bright orb that rises in the sky on a cloudless day is called the sun. And in the ancient past this might have included the understanding that the sun was a god that circled the earth each day bringing light, life and healing.

But today we learn that, despite appearances to the contrary, the earth revolves around the sun and that far from being a god, the sun is one of trillions of stars, which are huge balls of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion. So just by becoming familiar with the word sun and the concepts behind it, children are introduced to ideas about the immense age and size of the cosmos, the structure of our solar system, nuclear power, and other astonishing facts of science.

It is the same in the church. Here each week, we discuss crucial words such as sin, redemption, grace, eternal life, justice, mercy, compassion, and love. What do we mean by these important words? How can we be defined by these words? And how can talking about the ideas behind them bring us closer to God in Christ?

The latest book by the influential biblical scholar Marcus Borg is called "Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning." I haven't yet read it, but I am intrigued by his title. Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are using the cherished words of our tradition in out-of-date ways -- that, for instance, we use a word like redemption as though it had undergone no changes over the last 500 years unlike a word like "sun."

Since God is love and since love is what we most yearn for in life, my fondest wish when I was studying at Emmanuel College was to learn more about what we mean by the word "love." And while there were some discussions that I found useful in that regard, overall I was disappointed with that aspect of my theological education. Of course, we can best learn about love by living in trouble- and grace-filled families and communities. But discussing love has a role to play as well. And so I come to worship each week to reflect upon and search for love in the light of our current situation. And as you know, this is often not an easy task.

When I was in Toronto this past month, I was pleased to attend other church's worship services. I went to a different United Church on each of the four Sundays. I was at a friend's ordination service in an Anglican church. And I went to one of the Wednesday afternoon services at Emmanuel College. And while I appreciated each of these services, I was also a bit disappointed in most of them.

In only one case would I have said that I felt I was in the presence of one who teaches with authority -- this is a preacher who almost never fails to make me laugh in astonishment, to think, and to feel changed after listening to his sermons.

But while preaching, prayer and worship are not easy tasks, many of us feel compelled to return to them. So we come back again to the texts, to church, and to our prayers, and rituals -- even when church services sometimes disappoint us . . .

The other thing that came to my mind this week in relation to the idea of "teaching with authority" is the role of speaking in political campaigns. At present, we have the spectacle of the presidential campaign in the United States, and this is an arena where speeches make a big difference.

The speeches of President Barack Obama are what I like best about him. Like many people, I have been disappointed in Obama's first three years in government, what with continued war in Afghanistan, economic and environmental problems, and social inequality. But I love his speeches.

This past week, Obama gave an hour-long speech to Congress, his annual State of the Union Address, which I only read about. But I have been quite moved by some of his past speeches including the one he delivered after the attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabbie Gifford a year ago, two he gave on race relations during the 2008 campaign, and his victory speech from that year. Obama's speeches often remind me of sermons, complete with biblical references; and I have concluded that he might make a better "Preacher-In-Chief" than a "Commander-In-Chief."

On the other side of the U.S. campaign are the Republican candidates. The current leader in that race is former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. He may yet be defeated by Party establishment favourite, Governor Mitt Romney. But Gingrich won the primary election in South Carolina last weekend, and he was leading in the polls federally as of mid-week.

I have only ever heard Gingrich give one speech, and it astonished me. He delivered it to a meeting of Christians United for Israel, a group led by the right-wing televangelist, John Hagee, in 2007. I had heard of Gingrich when he led the Republican Party to victory in Congress in 1994, but this was the first time I had seen him in action. I caught his speech while surfing around the TV dial one night when I couldn't sleep.

I was impressed by how smart and articulate Gingrich seemed to be in that speech and by his passion. But I was also appalled by his ideas. Christians United for Israel is part of the wing of Christianity that sees the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as a sign of the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ, perhaps through nuclear war. It predicts mass destruction and death as an inevitable part of God's plan. And unfortunately, Gingrich is right in the thick of this part of the church.

Gingrich seems to speak as one with authority, which is why he has done well so far in the campaign. But I do not perceive his authority as holy or biblical. I disagree with the theological and political stances of Rev. Hagee and Gingrich. I hope that Gingrich does not become the Republican nominee for President and I certainly hope that he doesn't become President of the United States. Such a role would give him too much scope to bring "biblical" fantasies of war in support of Israel to reality, I fear.

Obama also seems to me to speak with authority, and his strikes me as an authority gained through an interesting life, including a spiritual crisis that led him to be baptized in a United Church of Christ in Chicago in his 20s. Compared to Gingrich's authority, Obama's is one that I largely trust.

But of course, I could be mistaken in my perceptions of both of these men. And when I experience strong distaste for a figure like Gingrich, alarm bells should probably go off in my mind about the dangers of my own arrogance and possible blindness.

Given my negative thoughts about Gingrich and his brand of Christianity, I was glad that the first service I attended back here this week was an ecumenical one that Carla Yost and others in Wesley United organized in Rockglen on Friday afternoon. The service was part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and I greatly appreciated it. [And thanks again to Carla, Anne, and others who led this service.]

Friday's service reminded me that, regardless of the differences between Christians, when we gather in worship to focus on love, healing, and God's grace, our differences can disappear -- perhaps even with people like Rev. Hagee and Newt Gingrich!

Passionate commitment -- whether political or religious -- can sometimes lead us astray. The Holy Spirit is our guide and our companion, but spirituality can also lead us into self-righteous anger and other traps. And this is as true for a "liberal" Christian like me as well as a "conservative" one like Gingrich.

Better, I believe, to be reminded in worship, as I was on Friday, that we are supported by God's Grace and that with God's help, we can give our will over to His.

I don't always find ministry easy. But I love this path and I feel grateful to be in ministry with you here in Borderlands in this new year of 2012.

Today, we hear again of Jesus as the Christ teaching as one with authority. He speaks a Word that breaks us open and transforms us. It is a Word of Power. It is the Word of God.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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