Sunday, January 31, 2021

Fourth Sunday after Easter

"With Authority"

Pastor Scott Landis

Mark 1:21-28

I wonder how you would respond if someone came into our sanctuary one Sunday morning, just as we were about to conclude our worship service – or perhaps right after the morning’s sermon, and began preaching a sermon of her own? As she preached, rather than folks becoming annoyed that the service was going to go on a little longer than normal, they were actually intrigued. In fact, they were spellbound, couldn’t believe their ears. Hers was a new teaching. Like nothing they had ever heard before. This new preacher taught as one who really believed what she was saying. It was as if she really KNEW what she was talking about – so forthright, so confident, no fact-checking needed. She didn’t even use notes. It all came right from her heart.

Well, if I was the pastor of that church – my nose would have been a little out of joint. My ego would have definitely gotten the best of me. The nerve of this “Visitor” just walking in, taking over MY pulpit, honing-in on MY turf, messing with MY people. How dare she just walk in and act as if she owned the place.

But that, my friends, is exactly what happened in this opening scene in Mark’s gospel. The scribes – known for their expertise in teaching – may have responded much like I would have. They didn’t embody the same charisma that Jesus did when he entered the synagogue on that particular sabbath. The scribes were well-respected, learned men. Freed from the obligations of everyday routines, they spent their lives studying, memorizing ancient texts, writing biblical interpretation, and studying the lessons that were handed down to them – lessons that they, in turn, taught to those who gathered in the synagogue on any given occasion. But on THIS day something new arrived – and this new teaching – “With Authority” – turned the heads and caught the attention of everyone present.

Mark even records that Jesus’ teaching got the attention of the unclean spirits, but their words paled in comparison. When the unclean spirits tried to overpower Jesus’ words by challenging what they heard, they were silenced, thrown out, their power was no match to Jesus’ authority.

It’s a story we love to read because that which is bland, boring, or downright bad seems to be no match to that which is wholly [outstretched arms] and holy [hands directed toward heaven] new. But would we like it? I mean, really? If that very thing occurred right here at Keawala`i Congregational United Church of Christ – or any church for that matter? [Pause]

Most of us tend to like things pretty much just the way they are – and we will do almost anything we can to keep it that way. Oh, a little change here or there may be all right but most congregations like predictability and most preachers have honed the fine are of staying within the lines in order to keep our respective jobs. We like to maintain the status quo and most of the time with good reason, but Jesus was calling for something new. He challenged those desiring to follow him – that simply going through the motions, reciting the words, the prayers, and sacred acts would no longer be good enough.

Jesus was not saying that the scribes were wrong, but they had lost their passion. They were teaching from their heads and not their hearts. They were terrific at passing along information – being very careful to teach exactly what they were taught, but they didn’t communicate Truth – that knowledge or information that comes from a place of “DEEPER KNOWING,” from their “spiritual heart.” [Pause]

I was baptized and have spent all my younger years in one little congregation in the United Church of Christ in Southeastern Pennsylvania. There I went to Sunday school, youth group, and attended church every week. My earliest recollection of ministers was of a man who was pretty conventional – he did everything by the book. His sermons, to ME, seemed interminable – using impressive words that I could not understand. And his manner was – well, kind of unapproachable as I recall.

When I was about 11 or 12 a new pastor came to our church. I was too young to have any knowledge or awareness of the selection process, but the new guy was a breath of fresh air. The new pastor was incredibly dynamic. Rev. (as we called him) was one of those “goat-tee wearing, guitar playing, coffee house singer- types” so popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Rev. was fun to be with. He contained an irrepressible joy that was contagious. His musical gifts got us all singing, clapping, and genuinely loving a whole new style of worship – charismatic in format – Rev. was a Spirit-Filled man, who loved Jesus. Talked about him all the time.

Through his life and teaching he invited us into that same joy. When Rev. preached, or taught bible lessons – he was captivating. Never dry or boring, I now realize his teaching was “With Authority,” and came directly from his spiritual heart. AND he used words I could understand.

When I sensed God calling me into the ministry – it was Rev. who encouraged me to pay close attention to that inner niggling. Boy, am I glad I did. I wanted to be a physician – even spent my first two years of college as a pre-med major, but when I watched the enthusiasm that Rev. exuded as a pastor, I wanted that same joy and, hopefully, to live with an equal level of authenticity – from MY spiritual heart.

Like Jesus in the synagogue, Rev. did not insist we follow his new way of doing things. He just did them. He simply “practiced what he preached.” He lived his life with authenticity – his true self always on display. Oh, there were nay-sayers who disliked the new style. I’m sure there were some who even questioned Rev’s. sincerity, but the proof was in the pudding. Our little church on the edge of town began to thrive. I’m sure there were many factors that contributed to the overall growth of the church, but what I discovered in Rev. was a love for Jesus that brought a kind of authority I had never experienced before. [Pause]

I’m not laying all of this before Keawala`i Congregational UCC as prescriptive for our future. But I do want to shine a bright light on the fact that we are at a pivotal moment in our church’s history. There is so much change occurring in our lives right now – it’s enough to make your head spin. What I have observed in my own life – and perhaps you have noticed the same in yours is – especially in times like this – a deep longing for predictability, permanence, a DECREASE in change. When we are feeling that way, we tend to become very nostalgic – remembering the good old days – however you define them.

As that temptation grows in your heart – and every fiber of your being wants everything to go back to the way things were, I want you to remember this little story as Jesus began his public ministry. [Pause]

Keawala`i Congregational UCC, you have so much to offer our island, our denomination, and Christendom at large. But we will never do that if we get derailed by following the “unclean spirits” (and they’re usually pretty easy to identify and dispel) OR the scribes – those who are determined to maintain the status quo no matter the cost.

Our work will be to listen for the radical and compelling voice of Jesus – the voice that calls us to drop our nets and to follow. The voice that challenges us to see the injustices in the world and do everything we can to right the wrongs. The voice that invites ALL to the table – a table that is big and inclusive – a table where no one is excluded. The voice that implores us to take risks as we seek new ways to “Be the church,” in a world that is far more spiritual than it is religious. A voice that reminds us to do unto others as we would want others to do for us and to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength – AND our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s what this little story reminds us to do. How we do that is ours to discover. To discuss. To debate. To pray about. And eventually – to do. That’s the exciting part. That’s when we learn firsthand what it means to speak and live “with authenticity – in faith – with authority.”


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