Rev. Joanne Blair
January 28, 2018
1 Samuel 4:1-11; Mark 1:21-28
Our Scripture today picks up right where we left off last week. As you recall, Jesus has just called the first 4 disciples and told them to follow him. Well – Jesus isn’t wasting any time! We are in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and he’s starting out with a bang – teaching in the synagogue and giving us our first miracle story by exorcizing an unclean spirit.
But what about this miracle story?
We know nothing about the man other than he had an unclean spirit. Many believe the unclean spirit represented the scribal establishment. But we don’t really know who he was, or what became of him. Did he even thank Jesus? Did he recognize Jesus as more than just a healer, and become a follower and believer? We never know. And perhaps the reason we never know is because that is not the point of the passage. The focus here is the authority of Jesus. The authority of Jesus. When people came to the synagogue, the teachers would present what they taught as “according to Moses” or “Rabbi whoever said…”
But Jesus taught on his own authority. This is a pivotal point that Mark wants us to understand. Jesus taught – and he taught on his own authority. And his teaching was different. This is a crucial conflict throughout the gospel – the challenge over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment.
As we’ve heard before - those with mental, emotional or physical impairments were kept on the fringes … excluded from normal, everyday life in typical society. They were not only kept from the Temple, they were kept from interacting with their own community.
These laws of exclusion were intended to instill wholeness and purity – but they run contrary to everything Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God. A couple of weeks ago, Roger and I watched a movie called, “Music Within”, which was about the life of Richard Pimentel, whose advocacy was a major factor in the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Richard has a really rocky childhood and enlists in the Army, where he is sent to Vietnam. While there, a mortar attack kills his best friend and leaves Richard with severe tinnitus, which effectively deafens him.
When he returns home, he enrolls in an Oregon college and befriends a brilliant man (Art) who has cerebral palsy and very limited use of his body, and whose speech is quite difficult to understand.
One day they go for pancakes at 3:00am and the waitress calls Art “the ugliest, most disgusting thing I have ever seen”, and they are told to leave. Richard and Art refused, and they were arrested for being “unsightly.” This was a legal arrest under the “Ugly Law”, which made it illegal for “deformed” people to appear in public. (As a point of interest, the last “Ugly Law” in the U.S. was not repealed until 1974.) It’s not really all that long ago, is it? This is what Jesus is teaching us about. The teaching of the scribes involved holding to traditions that had been passed down for generations. I do not say this as a criticism of the scribal system or of first century Judaism.
But the teachings of Jesus are different – and he teaches with the utmost authority. Jesus is teaching that that which is contrary to the love of God is on the way out, including the holds on religious life endorsed by the synagogue and the Temple. Jesus often quoted Scripture to illuminate his teaching.
But he spoke with an authority all his own -- not in disapproval of, but also not based on just the quoting of Scriptures.
We have no idea what words Jesus used in the synagogue for his teaching, but the exorcism story itself is a teaching. Jesus entered the synagogue to teach, and taught with words-- and with action … all with authority. In English, we often use the words power and authority interchangeably. But in Greek there is a distinct difference. In Greek, the word for power is “dunamis”, from which we get the word dynamite. It refers to the capacity to influence the will or conduct of others. Power, might, strength.
As social theorist Max Weber says, it has a coercive element.
The word for authority is “exousia”. It is non-coercive, and it means to have the right or privilege. It refers to position rather than power. And Jesus had divine authority. “Exousia” is the word used throughout today’s reading. Jesus had both power and authority. But it is through his authority as the Son of God that he reaches out. For Mark, Jesus’ miracles are blatantly connected to his teaching, and they tell us about the kingdom of God. And they challenge the organization of power.
Miracles were a re-inclusion into society for those who were kept on the margins. They reestablished right relationship with God, and with one’s neighbors. That which we still desperately need today. We have come a long way from the days before the ADA, but not nearly far enough. The powers and the principalities, while often instituted with good intentions, sometimes work against that for which they were created. And what about those other areas to which we give authority? We allow even magazine ads and commercials to teach us that we don’t measure up to the often frivolous standards of society. We give them unmerited power and authority.
Today’s reading calls us back to recognize the ways in which we are kept from right relationship with God, and with each other. The people were “amazed.” But Jesus wasn’t trying to amaze them, or us -- he was, and is, teaching. Where there is a teacher, there should also be a learner… and we must choose who our teachers are with discernment.
Jesus is asking us to learn from him, and to implement those learnings in our daily lives. Jesus has authority-- not over us, but for us.
And so that’s the challenge for this week: What is Jesus teaching me today? And how am I living out that lesson in my life?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 21, 2018
1 Samuel 3:19-21; Mark 1:14-20
An online article put it this way. “Just 17 years old, the church was drawing an average weekly attendance of 12,329 to 15 locations. In fiscal year 2013 alone, Mars Hill baptized more than 1,000 people, planted 53 churches in India, and supported 20 church planters and evangelists in Ethiopia. It released 50 new worship songs, gave away more than 3,000 Bibles in the United States and Ethiopia, and took in nearly $25 million in tithes and offerings (Gospel Coalition, US Online May 30, 2017).” Then within a few months in 2014 it had totally and completely collapsed. Its founding pastor, after being confronted with his ongoing abuse of staff, misappropriation of money, much of which he used to buy copies of his own book so he could make the New York Times Best Sellers List, and his unwillingness to listen to his elders was asked him to take some time to consider his actions. Rather than doing that, he left and people fled. Some fled to other churches. Many fled Christianity itself. So how could this happen? The answer, from my perspective, is that we human beings have a deep desire to play follow-the-leader.
From time immemorial, human beings have craved to follow a leader who claimed to possess ultimate truth and would lead them into the promised land. From Alexander the Great, whose soldiers fought to the end of the known world, to George Picket whose troops marched into withering fire from Union soldiers at Gettysburg, to people today who believe that their favorite politicians and television pundits are the only people who speak the truth, we seek the leader to follow. We want to believe that these people can save us. There are two problems with this desire. The first is that all these people are flawed human beings who can never deliver on what they promise. They second is that you and I, those of us here this morning, are not to be playing follow-the-leader, but follow-the-Lord. We are not to follow the messenger, but the one whose message we proclaim. I realize that this is easier said than done. Whether we want to believe it or not, the whole Alpha-male, or Alpha-female thing, still causes us to want to follow-the-leader. So how do we do it? How do we go from playing follow-the-leader, to following-the-Lord? Fortunately, the opening verses in this first chapter, offer us some assistance.
First, to quote Jesus, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.” In these words, we are reminded, that the kingdom has come near in Jesus. Which means that it has not come near in the Herods, the Romans, or any other revolutionary leader. Only in Jesus. Because of that reality, we are to change our minds and behaviors to believe that this is so. This is the repent part. Repent literally means to change one’s mind. It means to change our minds that there is some leader, past, present or future, who can bring about the salvation of human kind. We are to change our minds that the leaders we follow are infallible and worthy of the kind of adoration that only belongs to Jesus of Nazareth. We are to change our minds such that Jesus is the one whom we follow. We begin then by ceasing to play follow-the-leader and consciously beginning to follow-the-Lord.
Second, we are to follow. We are to see Jesus, not only as the one who is to lead us, but we are to be those who follow in his footsteps. The most powerful image of this kind of following I have seen in a long time comes from the movie, The Free State of Jones. The movie is based on the true story of Newton Knight, who deserted from the Confederate Army and then led a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. In the movie, he is running from men who have been instructed to hunt him down and hang him. Wounded, he is led into the swamps by a slave who takes pity on him. And then another slave named Rachael appears, to lead him deeper in so that he would be safe. As she does so, she has to lead across what appear to be deep waters. Essentially she says, “You have to place your feet exactly where I put mine. There is only one path in and if you step off it, you will fall in and be lost.” Place your feet where I place mine. This is what we are called to do in following Jesus. We are to place our feet of forgiveness where he places his. We are to place our feet of compassion where he places his. We are to place our feet of acceptance where he places his. This is what following Jesus looks like; placing our feet where he placed his.
Finally, we are to follow-the-Lord together. When Jesus begins calling disciples, he does not call them to simply be individuals in relationship with him. Instead he calls them into community. He calls them to be the new, alternative Kingdom of God. And not only are they to be the alternative Kingdom of God, they are to invite others to be part of this alternative kingdom as well. You and I are called to do and be the same. We are called to follow together; to follow together so that when one of us falters the others are here to pick us up. We are to follow together so that when one of us moves out into the swamp of following some other leader, we can gently bring that person back. We are to travel together because we need each other. We are also to be that alternative kingdom. We are to be that community of love, peace, patience, forgiveness and compassion. We are to follow together.
In a few minutes, we will be ordaining and installing our newest class of elders and deacons. Their task is not to rule over us. Their task is to help us follow the Lord. Their task is to discern what Jesus would have us to do and to be. This morning I would encourage you, as they are asked the questions for ordination and installation, to listen for the centrality of Jesus in their calling. For in those questions you can see that they are called to be intentional followers of Jesus.
My challenge then to you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I more and more following the Lord, rather than following the leader?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-18; Mark 1:4-11
It was one of those mornings. Our daughter Katie was a sophomore in high school and I was her transportation to high school. We lived a little too far for her to walk and a little too close to get bus service. So, every morning I would drag her out of bed (she is not a morning person) and watch as she moved at snail speed getting ready to leave. We finally made it into the car and off we went. She was almost dozing in her seat. I was thinking about my sermon. We turned right, then left, then another right. I pulled into the parking lot and said, “Katie, we’re here. You need to get going. She fully opened her eyes and as only a teenage daughter can say it, “Dad, this is the church, not my school.” And she was absolutely right. My inner driving instinct had taken us not to her school but to my work. It was one of those powerful reminders to me that we human beings are as much creatures of habit as much we are thinking people.
I realize that what we want to believe about ourselves is that we have free choice. That we are thinking creatures who always make the best, and most rational decisions. That we are fully capable of choosing the good, the thing that God would have us do, every time. Unfortunately, studies have shown that we seldom do just that. We don’t because we are programed. We are programmed by our cultures; by our families of origin; by our genetic makeup. Scripture understands this, when Ezekiel says, “Like mother, like daughter.” And “The sins of the fathers will be handed down to the third and fourth generation.” This programming comes with both positive and negative aspects. The positive is that much of this programming can align us with Jesus’ alternative kingdom of love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. The negative aspect of this programming is that it passes on prejudices, fears, actions and beliefs that deter our living fully into our role as citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The question then becomes, how do we change our programming? How do we become those people God designed us to be? There are many ways we could look at this question, but the first is listening to and for God.
First, we are to listen to and for God, openly. This is Eli’s story. My guess is that few of us really know much about Eli. He is one of those minor Biblical characters who we normally move right on by because we are more focused on Samuel, first as a boy then as a man. But this morning, Eli, who was the great high priest of God in Shiloh, decides that he will be completely open to whatever Samuel has to tell him. The setting for the story is that Samuel’s mother, Hanna, could not conceive. She prays to God and tells God that if she does conceive, she will dedicate her child to God. Hanna gets pregnant, and Samuel is born. When he is weaned, she takes him to Eli, to serve in the Temple of God. Eli loves and trains Samuel. But one night God comes to Samuel and not to Eli with a message. Eli knows that this is not good news for him and his family. Yet in the morning, he tells Samuel to speak exactly what he has heard from God. To hold nothing back. As Samuel spells out what will happen, Eli does not claim that it is fake news, but says, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.” Even in the face of bad news, Eli is open to hear what God is saying.
You and I are to listen openly. What does this look like? It looks very much like Samuel and Eli. It looks like us being willing to listen for God telling us things that we do not want to hear; things that challenge our programmed prejudices and notions of how the world is going to be. Things that challenge the cultural feedback loops through which we operate. Things that cause us to say, maybe I have been wrong all along. Things that are new and thought provoking. Things that maybe only God would say to us, because we might not have a Samuel around to be the bearer of bad news. To be clear, God often speaks to us far more like God did to Eli, through others, than God speaks to us directly as God did with Samuel. I don’t want to pretend thatlistening openly is an easy thing to do, because it is not. It is in fact a very difficult thing to do. Yet it is critical if we are serious about being citizens of Christ’s alternative kingdom.
Second, we are to listen to and for God, discerningly. This is the Jesus’ story. The Gospel of Mark does not give us any birth or childhood narratives of Jesus’ early life. Even so, what I think we can discern from the other Gospels is that Jesus is about 30 years old or so when he arrives at the Jordon, where John is baptizing. What this means is that for the first thirty years of his life he lived a rather conventional Jewish life. He was the good son. He was the good eldest brother. He was the good Jew, attending synagogue on a regular basis as he learned the Word of God. In addition, what we learn is that he was constantly listening for God’s direction for his life. He spent time in prayer and discernment. I would argue, that it was this listening to and for God through discernment that caused him to leave his normal Jewish life and not only be baptized by John, but upon hearing God’s voice, set out on his mission as an apocalyptic preacher intent on establishing God’s alternative kingdom.
You and I are to listen with discernment. What this means is that we are to hold up everything we hear and ask questions such as: Is this true? Is this in alignment with what Jesus taught? Is this in alignment with how Jesus lived? Is this how a citizen of Jesus’ alternative kingdom would think and act? Or, is what I am hearing simply a reflection of my programming? Is what I am hearing appealing because it appeals to my programming, my prejudices and my particular upbringing? Listening with discernment, is more difficult, than listening openly. It is more difficult because it forces us to look deep inside ourselves. It forces us to challenge the programming that we have internalized over the years; programming that might be liberal or conservative or libertarian or I-don’t-really-care-atarian.
Listening openly and discerningly is what led Abraham and Sarah to leave their families and journey for God. It is what led Moses to give up the comfortable life of a shepherd and set God’s people free. It is what led the Apostle Paul to cease jailing Christians and become the church’s leading evangelist. It is what caused Martin Luther King to set aside the comfortable life of a pastor and speak out not only for the rights of people of color, but for the rights of the poor and oppressed. It is what caused him to challenge the programming of people both north and south. It is what caused him to give his life for the cause of Jesus’ alternative kingdom.
You and I are called to do the same. We are called to listen openly and discerningly such that we can hear more and more clearly what God is telling us to do and to be. My challenge to you then on this Sunday before MLK Day, is to ask yourselves this question. How am I listening both openly and discerningly for God’s word to me, such that my life might more and more reflect my place as one of God’s people; as a citizen in Christ’s alternative kingdom?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 7, 2018
1 Samuel 2:22-26; Matthew 2:1-6
“It’s obvious”, he said. “It’s obvious why this program doesn’t work. See this semicolon here? It ought to be a colon. Change that and the program should run.” This conversation took place when I was a freshman in college. I had enjoyed my first computer science class and was on to my second one where we were learning a couple of languages. I had carefully typed out all of my punch cards, taken them to the computer center, turned them in and then waited over night for the program to be run. When I got the results, and it hadn’t run, I was crestfallen. Taking the printout back to my room I diligently scanned every line, looking for a mistake and nothing. Fortunately, my older brother made his one and only trip to see me in college. He was a computer whiz and so I asked him to take a look. With a simply, quick scan, he found the error, and told me what to correct….again mind you, telling me that it was obvious. As I stared at my obvious mistake the only thing obvious to me was that I was not meant to be a computer science major.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever been there when someone says, “it’s obvious” to something you can’t see or understand? If you have then not only would you fit in with me, but you would fit in with everyone in our story this morning, because it is all about things being obvious to one person and not to anyone else. Let’s begin. First there were the Wisemen. What was obvious to them was that the heavens were telling them, as astrologers, that a new king was to be born in Jerusalem. We know this was not obvious to anyone else because when they get to Jerusalem, their news puts everyone in a panic. Second, there was King Herod and the people of Jerusalem. What was obvious to them was that if there was a new king of the Jews being born, and it wasn’t Herod’s kid, then things were about to turn ugly. The Wisemen didn’t see this risk at all, which is why they almost fell for Herod’s plea that when they found the child, they should return and tell him where the baby was. Finally, there were the religious authorities. What was obvious to them was where this baby was to be born. You could almost hear them going, “Duh, everyone knows where the messiah is to be born. He is to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. In the city of David. Didn’t you guys go to Sabbath school?”
What is fascinating about this story and about the way that Matthew tells it, is that each of these characters could see something obvious that the others couldn’t see and yet, even when they put all their obvious insights together, they missed what ought to be obvious to us, that this coming king, to be born in Bethlehem, was not what any of them expected. He was to be an alternative kind of king who ruled over an alternative kind of kingdom. What I mean by this is that Jesus was born to be a king who came not to seek power but to live as a servant. Jesus was born to be a king who came not to condemn but to forgive. Jesus was born to be a king who came not to seek vengeance but to bring about reconciliation. Jesus was born to be a king who came not to seek submission to himself but faithfulness to God. Jesus was born to be a king who came not to take life, but to save it. He was born to be a king whose kingdom reflected all of these alternative ways of being in community; of being God’s people. His kingdom was to be unlike any other that had ever existed because it reflected the love of God that was poured forth into the world in his birth.
This insight, that Jesus came to be an alternative king in an alternative kingdom is what is supposed to be obvious to us, and yet I am afraid there have been and still are too many times when it is not. I say this because the church, the followers of Jesus, the people of God have not always acted as if they were part of an alternative kingdom. They and we, at times, have acted as if we are still part of Herod’s political economy. I say this because the church, as soon as it got a taste of power under Constantine, in the early 300’s, began to persecute those with whom it disagreed. It organized itself as a powerbase that ultimately led to pogroms against Jews, to the slaughter of other Christians, Jews and Muslims during the crusades, to the forcible conversion of entire races in the New world, to slavery, to the burning of witches in New England and to the oppression of LGBTQ persons in our day and time. It was as if every time that the people of God found a way to grab hold of power, they used it just as Herod would have, rather than as Jesus would have. They forgot that they were to be an alternative community who followed an alternative king.
Today we begin a new sermon series entitled, Being God’s People. Over the next five weeks we will look at five critical components of what it means to be a citizen of the alternative kingdom ruled by an alternative king. We are doing this because we still live in Herod’s world in which it is not always obvious what it means to live as God’s people. For this week, however I want to leave you with this challenge, to ask yourself, how does my life reflect that of the alternative King I have chosen to follow? How does my life reflect that alternative king of love, forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation?