Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
We live in a world where Babel and confusion have become basic. The world is not just globalizing; it is bursting into diversity. We live "globally"; places where we know only one language and we live globally at the same time, bombarded with thousands of messages, would be authorities and languages.
Jesus has something different about him that the people of his time—who were also challenged by a rapidly changing world— understood as authority. We might call his authority a sacred speech, one that transcends its time and place.
Sacred speech is speech plus Spirit. Speech without Spirit is just speech; speech with Spirit acknowledged becomes sacred. The action of changing ordinary speech into sacred speech is as simple as opening a door: we walk into a new room, and there Spirit is with us. Sacred speech opens doors and takes risks. The markers of sacred speech are these: an acknowledgement of the presence of God in the words we use, a maximization of the possibility of love and care and a minimization of fear. John Calvin long ago made the same point about reading scripture, that scripture without the spirit is only words.
Jesus not only taught with authority. He places a foundation under that authority by an additional astonishment. There was a man in the synagogue that had an unclean spirit. In some way he was ill, mentally or physically or both. It really doesn't matter. He was ill. He was the captive of an unclean spirit. This spirit addresses Jesus and tries to get rid of him, saying, "Let us alone; what have we to do with
you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" The spirit even acknowledges that it knows who Jesus is and declares Jesus to be the Holy One of God.
Great drama follows this interchange. Jesus rebukes the spirit directly and says to it, "Hold your peace, and come out of him." This very direct confrontation with the unclean spirit is very different from the gentleness of Jesus we all imagine to be central to his character. If anyone has ever had a conversation with a mentally ill person, we know that the normal authorities rarely work. They don't matter. Something extraordinary happened between Jesus and the unclean spirit. Jesus commands it to withdraw. And it does! But this spirit also "tears" the man it inhabits and with a "loud voice" comes out.
Now the crowd is really amazed. They have moved two houses up the street from astonishment. The authority with which he taught this so-called new doctrine impressed them. But they were astounded that even the unclean spirits obeyed him. Again, they used that special word, authority. They know that this teacher has a more genuine authority than that which they are used to.
In the synagogue in Capernaum that day, the people found a genuine teacher and a genuine healer. They were impressed.
Jesus becomes famous throughout his district for an astonishing healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue. He has traveled from the Sea of Galilee with his new disciples. He has come into the synagogue at Capernaum, and he has been permitted to teach. Visiting preachers are often a very special gift to a community, and we have to assume Jesus was no exception. We have to assume the rabbis in charge welcomed him into their place—and we have to assume, by the normal accounts of what happened when Jesus taught elsewhere, that this teacher impressed people. This time a new word enters the review that Jesus gets. It is the word authority. "They were astonished at his doctrine; for he taught them as one that had authority and not as one of the scribes."
None of us knows what it must have been like to be in the presence of the charisma of Jesus. He clearly had an enormous personal impact on the people he taught. They did things for him they didn't do for the other scribes or religious teachers. They followed him. He astonished them. They were glad to be in his presence and to feel and hear his good news.
The comment "not as the scribes" must also have been painful to the religious authorities. We who preach know what it is like to be told we have no zing or authority in our words. To be compared to Jesus must have been particularly galling—since he was an itinerant and lacking formal credentials.
We live in a fragmented world. If you have ever had to order a new phone or a service from the cable company, you know that even within one organization one section never speaks to the other. We all live in a very fast moving and changing world which is often exciting but also makes for a lot of confusion and frustration. Every time someone praises diversity as they should we should all wonder out loud if we should not also praise connection. We need a way to link people and that is what Jesus brings to the modern world.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Linkage, connection, contact: sacred speech bridges divides. Jesus linked people; he loved them, and he gave them hope. These were the marks of his authority. Sacred speech affirms and grounds; it also inspires and shakes up. Sacred speech is multi-dimensional and lives intentionally in a multi-dimensional world. Sacred speech is not just between one human and another. Sacred speech assumes a third partner, the Spirit, who carries on wings what we utter in voice. Sacred speech is not just horizontal but horizontal and vertical, simultaneously. It is grounded and winged; air and earth; chronos and kairos; Because the criteria for sacred speech are spiritual, because we open doors and take risks by a borrowed and learned power not wholly our own—sacred speech is less teachable than learnable. We can show the way but not everyone can walk or talk the way. We can go to the threshold but not everyone can cross it. We can give concrete examples and then hope that the Spirit will breathe the sacred part into our breath and our use of it. Jesus taught with authority in a babbling world because he used sacred speech.
Authoritative speech that is not sacred is not just secular and not just one-dimensional. Nor is sacred speech the ketchup we put on the hamburger; it is not an addition. It is part of the whole of speech and therefore not divisible into "holy" and "unholy," "sacred" and "profane." Secular speech ignores Spirit and therefore tends to close doors and keep people "safe," so "safe" in fact that they are in great danger of missing life. Sacred speech can talk about ketchup in a way that recognizes Spirit.
James Galway, the Irish poet, points to this essentially spiritual dilemma when he says, "Religion is a noose around my neck—and it keeps me from hanging."
We want our words to make us safe, and we want our words to make us free—and both are possible as we learn the art of sacred speech.
Jesus found a way to talk to people that got their attention. They were able to trust him. They were able to break out of the confusion and the babble into a place where they understood what he was saying.
"The great irony of trust is that in order to rebuild it, one must take risks with the person who broke it…," says Professor Robert Folgers in an article on social psychology in the Chronicle of Higher Education (April 2000). "You're trying to rebuild trust out of distrust…part of the way you would do that would be to be vulnerable. It's tricky. You hate an enemy that you've feuded with for generations. Your first step has to be tiny. That's the fine line. You can't afford to get your throat cut." The professor argues such tiny steps are particularly hard in places of great conflict like the Middle East because people have been trying confidence building measures there for a long time. "You try doing stitches," he said, "Then over the last 18 months, 10 years of stitching together was ripped out. Once it's ripped out, it takes 10 years to make up."
The more complicated the world becomes, the more important it is for us to find the genuine. The authority of Jesus is simple enough to survive: it is love and linkage, with the Holy Spirit always involved. Jesus didn't say anything that didn't come from God, and that's what made him holy.
A conference of Roman Catholic bishops in late 2000 debated the proper way to cast out unclean spirits. The meeting, held in the Italian city of Turin, debated whether exorcisms should be conducted in Latin or in the vernacular. In addition, the Italian clerics considered whether Satan should be addressed with the formal version of the second-person singular (in Latin, lei) or with the more familiar version .
Experts estimate that there are up to 7000 followers of Satanism in Germany, many of whom also adhere to Nazi principles. A murder by two devil worshipers in Germany in early 2002 highlighted the rise of that cult. In that particular case, a married couple was sentenced for killing a friend with a hammer and 66 knife stabs, claiming that the devil had told them to do it. Many modern adherents of Satanism see it as a form of social Darwinism, rejecting religious norms and promoting the right of the strong to dominate the weak. Current forms of Satanism often draw on a variety of traditions, including Egyptian mythology, Celtic cults, and Haitian Voodoo.
When Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1976, he continued to attend worship services regularly at the small church in Plains, Georgia, where he had been actively involved for years. During the campaign, though, reporters often followed him to church each week. As Carter emerged from worship each Sunday, reporters frequently shouted questions at him in the hope of getting some noteworthy quote or comment. One Sunday, a reporter asked Carter, "If you were president and you felt that the law of the United States on some issue was in conflict with the law of God, which one would you obey?" Carter pondered the question for a few moments and then responded, "God's law. I'd obey God's law." His campaign advisors were undoubtedly stunned and probably embarrassed by the seeming gaffe. After all, the president is the one who is solemnly sworn to uphold the Constitution above all else. Yet as Carter saw things, God was an even higher authority.
According to the mores of the day, contact with that demon-possessed fellow was to be avoided at all costs. If someone were to get too close, the belief was that the contagion of the demon could be passed on. A little over a year ago, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel asked the El Al airline for permission to wrap themselves in body bags when they took off from the Tel Aviv airport. Apparently when planes use one of the runways, it causes them to fly over a nearby cemetery shortly after take-off. Pursuant to ritual law, Jews who are descended from the biblical Israelite priests are not permitted to enter cemeteries, for fear that the uncleanness of the dead bodies will make them unfit for service. But beyond that, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, declared that even flying over cemeteries was to be avoided. He suggested that followers of that particular sect of Judaism wrap themselves in plastic body bags during take-off as a solution. But El Al refused to grant such permission, citing security concerns. Ultimately a resolution was discovered. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are now encouraged to take late-night flights, which, because of concerns about noise pollution, are routed away from the heavily populated suburbs of Tel Aviv, where the cemetery is located.
Desmond Tutu recalls how many of the oppressed blacks were inclined to label their white oppressors as demons. But Tutu insisted that a distinction be drawn between the person and the demon that has influence over them. He commented that "if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons, then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed" (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness [New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 83).
Because of his misfortune, that man with the unclean spirit certainly was excluded by those who prized ritual purity. Yale scholar Miroslav Volf offers this observation about religion's tendency to push out those who do not measure up to the accepted standards: "An advantage of conceiving sin as the practice of exclusion is that it names as sin what often passes as virtue, especially in religious circles." Likewise, he notes, when an obsession for purity is carried into the realm of politics, the result is such situations as the desire to achieve a pure bloodline in Nazi Germany. Similarly, during the Bosnian conflict, the Serbs pursued a goal of creating a pure land, devoid of any non-Serbian intruders. (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996]).
In May 2001, psychiatrists convened to consider why some people commit acts of immense evil. Robert I. Simon, the director of the Psychiatry and Law program at the Georgetown University School of Medicine suggests that "there is a continuum of evil ranging from `trivial evils' like cutting someone off in traffic, to greater evils like acts of prejudice, to massive evils like those perpetrated by serial sexual killers." What is startling, though, is that acts of evil are often committed by people who appear to be quite normal. John Wayne Gacy raped 33 boys, sodomized them, tortured them and eventually killed them. But at the same time, Gacy worked as a building contractor, participated in community projects, and volunteered at the local hospital to help cheer up sick children. Ted Bundy killed 24 women. Yet Bundy's friends described him as being poised and personable, and often assumed that one day he would run for political office. In a recent survey, 31% of all Americans say that everyone has the capacity for evil. In explaining the cause of evil behavior, 33% point the finger of blame at poor parenting. And 53% indicate that religious and moral training is the best way to fight evil.
Many people are looking for some voice of authority to guide them in their decision-making. Last year two men and three women in Britain took part in a reality TV show called Live Your Life. For 15 days, the contestants posed personal life-changing decisions to an Internet audience. The contestants were then required to do whatever the majority of Internet voters indicated. Each person, though, was provided with a "joker," which they could employ if they did not want to follow the audience's decision. At the end of the series, viewers of the program were then asked to vote as to which of the contestants did the best job of living according to the Internet votes. The winner received nearly $15,000.
One of the box office hits of 1993 was Jurassic Park. In the story, authored by Michael Crichton, some scientists discover that they can retrieve DNA molecules from dinosaur fossils encapsulated in amber. So the scientists take the dinosaur DNA to a remote island, and there they bring to life a whole array of living, breathing dinosaurs. Early on, however, several people warn those dinosaur makers to stop. They try to point out that what they are doing is far too dangerous. But the scientists laugh off those warnings, claiming that they know full well what they are doing. In effect, like the man with the unclean spirit, they ask, “What have you to do with us? We are in control here!" In the end, though, it turns out that the scientists did not fully comprehend what they had gotten themselves into. Quickly they lose control over their creatures, as the dinosaurs escape from their cages and begin to hunt the scientists, who are trapped on the island with them.
Several years ago at a mental health hospital in New York, the doctors there were not making much progress with a certain female patient. So they decided to send her to a particular minister, thinking that perhaps counseling from a religious perspective might be better than what they were doing at the hospital. When the doctors sent the woman to the minister, they assumed the minister would bill the hospital the usual going rate for a counseling session. Based on the number of hours that the minister spent with her, they figured that the total bill should have amounted to about $500. Instead, the hospital received a bill for $12,000. When the hospital asked why the bill was so high, the minister explained that the extra charge was
because he had to perform an exorcism on the woman. Exorcisms, he said, cost more than regular counseling. It might come as no surprise, but the hospital refused to pay.
Some people hope the unclean spirits might be used to their advantage. The San Jose State University football team wasn't doing so well during the 1997 season. But instead of scheduling extra practice sessions, the head coach came up with a different idea to solve his team's problems. They took out ads looking for someone who could put a curse on their opponents. The head coach explained that they weren't wanting to get anyone injured, but that they just wanted someone who could put a good hex on the opposition.
In September 1999, the Vatican revealed that Pope John Paul II had failed in his attempt to exorcise a demon from a 19-year-old woman. Previously the church's chief exorcist had likewise failed. Around the same time, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it had appointed its first full-time exorcist.
"Our ministry must truly be about `raising the dead.' Our ministry must be about overthrowing the power of death in all of the forms in which it is manifested" (James Forbes, The Holy Spirit and Preaching [Nashville: Abingdon, 1987], p. 88).
"The less people know about what is really going on, the easier it is to wield power and authority" (Charles, Prince of Wales).
In the Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker gets a lesson in understanding how to recognize true authority. He seeks the great Jedi Master, Yoda, without knowing anything about him. When he lands on a swampy planet and encounters a creature that looks and speaks something like a large toad, Luke is certain the creature cannot help him in his quest. Finally, with the help of the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke discerns that this small creature truly is the greatest living Jedi, Yoda. Luke discovers that neither appearance, nor physical strength, nor a powerful voice give one authority. In the Star Wars universe, it is the spiritual "Force" that gives authority. Yoda connects completely to the Force and so has power and authority beyond his physical limitations.
If you are the kind of person who would not be surprised to see her husband come home and ask, "Do we have a place for our portfolio's ashes?"…
Or if your marriage counselor concludes your first session, saying that "Contrary to your experience, you're actually very happily married."…
Or while down on your knees at the side of your bed, trying and trying and trying some more to pray, you see a sign flashing on the wall, "Access Denied."…
Then you are the kind of person who will be ready to welcome a new authority, something beyond Babel.
Bureaucratic fragmentation appears in many places there are other names for this including, bureaucratic infighting, official infighting, bureaucratic rivalries, bureaucratic, jealousies, bureaucratic factionalism. In order to respond to the proliferation of claimants, constituents and contending groups, and the complexity of issues, bureaucracies become fragmented and specialized; they then tend to compete with one another for information and resources. Lines of organization become lines of secrecy and loyalty: each department restricts information that might advance the competing interests of the others. Such fragmentation may smother initiative. In the case of the extensive bureaucracy of central government, this process may go so far that the whole mechanism becoming too ponderous to be capable of anything other than token change. A good example of how destructive this can be in the real world was found in a report in 1993 where the continued disagreement between Italian and American commanders of UN contingents in Somalia over military strategy had seriously undermined the effectiveness of the 27-nation combat force. (http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/139566)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
We talk too much
And listen too little.
But yearn to speak a clear word.
Grant us clarity, Towering God
And clear us.
We come confessing and acknowledging times of confusion, which weren't necessary, times of stuffing days with insignificance. We ask forgiveness for dawdling and dallying, for the inability to connect to another in speech, for the hope beyond the hope we have lost, and for a small bit of peace we no longer have. Come to us and sweep us clean, Mighty God, so that we may find our way all the way to You. Amen.
Let these small gifts become large in You, Holy Spirit, just as our small initiatives every day link us to Your large and grand purposes. In the name of the one who took five loaves and two fishes and made abundance prevail. Amen.
When we don't know why we are here or why You love us, come explain. Tell us a story. Tell us about the people who learned each other's language.
Tell us about the people who didn't give up when they didn't understand.
Tell us about the time that will come when everybody's language will matter and be understood.
Remind us of our baptism and link us to your church.
Stand with us in misunderstanding and help us find the beginning of the string that unknots the great difficulties and unties the great knots.
And when we are clear again, grant us the authority of your love, the grace of your peace, and the chance to try again.