“A new teaching – with authority!”

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority …”[1] I know you understand this feeling for I’m sure you feel astounded each Sunday – albeit perhaps not for the same reason as that synagogue congregation in Capernaum.

Teaching with authority seems to be the issue in this passage from Mark; but just what is the nature of this authority? I suspect many of us have heard really compelling speakers or preachers that hold us rapt with their oration. But does their ability to captivate us qualify as teaching with authority? Or is it a matter of style, of charisma, of charm?

While I have no doubt that Jesus teaches with style, charisma, and charm, I don’t think these are the elements that cause this congregation in Capernaum to be bowled over by Jesus’ authority. We might be inclined to say, “of course he teaches with authority – he is the Son of God, the Word incarnate for crying out loud.” And we would be correct; but I don’t think that is the lesson we are to take away from this reading today. I think the lesson to be heard today lies in the exclamation, “A new teaching – with authority!”[2] I think this “new teaching” is about how Jesus encounters the man with the unclean spirit.

I suspect many of us have encountered that person who makes us feel ill at ease either because they are disruptive like this man in the synagogue or because they are off-putting for some other reason. Whatever the reason, this is the kind of person that makes us recoil or seek to distance ourselves. Yet Jesus is not repelled – he may be taken aback – but he is not repelled. He remains present with this man. But Jesus doesn’t remain present in order to rebuke him, at least not in the way we understand rebuke as to berate or chastise. You see, the Greek root of the word here translated as rebuke also means to show honor to. Within this word there is the possibility of both rebuke and honor. I suspect this is precisely what Jesus is up to – the both and of rebuking and honoring.

Jesus remains present with this man because he recognizes that this man is both a beloved child of God and a tormented spirit. Whereas you and I might be repelled by his outward appearance or behavior, Jesus sees the both and of the beloved and the tormented. He is not repelled, rather compassion draws him toward that part of this man that is a child of God. Jesus’ compassion allows him to differentiate between behavior and personhood. He honors the personhood even as he rebukes the behavior.

Through compassion Jesus is able to honor the child of God and rebuke the tormented spirit; and in doing so, he is able to restore this man to wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.

You, I and the congregation in Capernaum are very familiar with the adage, “Do as I say, not what I do.” In essence this may be what we hear preached more often than not on the sabbath. Yet today we are confronted with “a new teaching – with authority” from a man whose actions reflect his words – a man who practices what he preaches. This integrity is the authority we – and the congregation in Capernaum – recognize. It is not authority based upon one’s office, rather it is authority based upon one’s integrity. And we know integrity in a person when we encounter it because in that person we see that what they say and what they do are one in the same.

You and I each have the seed of Jesus’ integrity within us; and we each have the seed of a tormented person within us. I pray that we all may we have the integrity to acknowledge this and to bring this knowledge to the communion rail with us so that Jesus may rebuke our torment and honor and nourish the child of God within us so that the integrity of Jesus may flourish within and among us.

[1] Mark 1:22

[2] Ibid., v. 27

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Where did you come to know me?

“Where did you come to know me?”[1] I love Nathanael’s question. As he asks this question, there is a sense of awe in his asking, it’s almost as if he is stunned or embarrassed by Jesus’ greeting, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”[2] Paraphrasing, I would restate it, here is a person who speaks their mind.

While I imagine Jesus is amused, I imagine Nathanael is confused and wondering to himself, how does this Nazarene know this truth about me? We have never met! Perhaps the question Nathanael should be asking is, why was I so quick to ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[3] Why was I so quick to be presumptuous?

Part of my fondness for this ‘where did you come to know me’ question is that it is so much like the questions we often ask when we are trying to get know another person. Such as the how did you meet question we often ask when we want to know someone’s story of coming to know a spouse, a partner, or a best friend. This is usually a safe question in that it often leads to a happy answer – the sharing of a warm and revealing insight about the person we want to know better.

While these stories all have a starting point, they are not fixed in time, they also evolve over time – even a lifetime – as we grow in our knowledge of the other. Yet, despite the safeness of this question, we are often cautious about whom we ask; we are selective about whose stories we want to know. We tend to reserve this question for those we would like to know, not those from whom we wish to keep our distance. I suspect that there are far more people of whom we do not ask this question because it is easier to pass judgment upon them based upon presumptions or impressions; as Nathanael did, we may ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You may insert here the name of any community that comes to mind.

But levity aside, perhaps we are just so engrossed in our own problems that we are blind to what is happening in others’ lives. This is where we meet Eli, the priest of the temple of the Lord at Shiloh. Eli’s sight is ‘failing, as is his ability to have visions. God is turning God’s back on Eli because his sons are blaspheming the Lord and Eli does not restrain them. Eli understandably has a lot on his mind but in his preoccupation he is slow to see the giftedness of his protégé Samuel and that God is calling him. But to Eli’s credit, despite his blindness and worries, he finally gets the picture and is able to instruct Samuel on how to come to know the Lord. Sadly, however, Eli is unable to help his own sons come to know the Lord. Instead it is the outsider who learns to know the Lord rather than the insiders.

Sometimes God turns to outsiders to reveal the knowledge of God’s self. And sometimes God uses others to reveal God’s self to the people of God. But what about God’s knowledge of us? The 139th Psalm does a wonderful job of illuminating our understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s knowledge of us. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;”[4] but this knowledge is not a snap judgment, rather it is a cumulative and lifelong knowledge that begins at our conception. “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”[5] Such is our knowledge of our loved ones, warts and all, as our knowledge continues to evolve and be colored by time. Yet, like Nathanael, we can be quite prepared to make snap judgments of others without coming to know them. But, perhaps like Nathanael, we can be stopped in our tracks, stunned by Jesus’ knowledge of us, and be reminded that Jesus desires for us to hear the stories of even the most cynical and broken of us.

We cannot control other’s stories, but we can ask about them, we can listen to them. We can control how we respond to them; we can choose not to be reactive; we can choose to look for the presence of Jesus in other’s stories. And most importantly, we can share our own stories of knowing Jesus and other loved ones.

Our collect for today asks, “Almighty God … [g]rant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known ….”[6] This knowing doesn’t happen in a snap; like our stories of how we know the most important person in our life and the 139th Psalm, it is a lifelong pursuit that bears sharing and re-telling. Therefore, ask and share with abandon that our stories may grow more widely and be entangled more with others that story by story we may begin to more closely resemble and make known the Body of Christ!

[1] John 1:48b

[2] Ibid., v. 47b

[3] Ibid., v. 46b

[4] Psalm 139:5a

[5] Ibid., v. 12

[6] Collect for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, BCP, p. 215

Arise, Shine!

We, as the Church of the Epiphany, are blessed to observe the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ as our patronal feast. Were Epiphany not the name of our church we, like many, might overlook the significance of this day; we may never have contemplated the significance of the Epiphany in our story or ministry. This day, and particularly our celebration of it, colors us as children of the light. But what is the implication of being a child of the light?

To begin answering this question about the implication I think we need to consider how we respond to the light. Or better yet, who do we most relate or respond to in Matthew’s story of the wise men, or in Luke’s birth narrative? Are we frightened as King Herod and all of Jerusalem are? Or are we awed as the shepherds and the wise men are? If we are frightened, we may resent the intrusion of strangers or agents of change into our realm. If we are awed, we may be grateful for the revelation of other people of light and seeking. Do the rumors and later reports of a child born king of the Jews disturb us because they threaten the normalcy of the status quo – our status and the way we do things? Or do they excite us because they promise a new order – a new way of seeing things?

We might by reflex associate ourselves with the shepherds, the holy family, and the wise men because we’ve been taught these are the good guys and this is the side of salvation. But let’s be honest about how we feel if our stake in the stories is real and our position and prestige within the community are on the table. If the stakes for us are tangible and have social consequence the equation becomes complicated and the implications for us are no longer black or white – the implications become gray – there is both and shadow and light.

However, if we consider the characters of Luke’s and Matthew’s stories we can see patterns that emerge among the different parties. Those who encounter the revelation of Jesus as messiah or king with awe and reverence, such as the holy family, the shepherds, and the wise men, are people with an affinity and appreciation for creation – modest people whose livelihood is tied to questioning and eking-out an existence from the natural order around them. Whereas those who encounter the revelation of Jesus as a challenge to their social status among human institutions may not have come to terms with the vanity of their inconsequential existence – people for whom their significance is based on the opinion of others rather than a modest existence as a creature of innate worth and value.

None of us lives absolutely within one sphere or the other, we live our lives spread across and moving back and forth along this spectrum of worth and worthiness. As a result we find ourselves and our interests entangled in both shadow and light. This should not upset us or depress us, rather it should remind us that we are creatures that live within a created order in which light and darkness both play a part, but it is an order in which darkness never prevails – in fact darkness is almost always punctuated with light if not the backdrop for light.

Consider last year’s eclipse. If you observed it within the path of totality, the risk of eye damage was at its highest because the total eclipse lures one into staring as the shadow creates a false sense security when in fact one is still exposed to a blinding brightness. In this the eclipse reveals itself as deceiver, only masking the intensity and power of light.

Alternatively, if you were within the path of partial eclipse, as we were here in Sedan, and you were fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of trees with thick foliage, you observed on the ground an equally breath-taking shimmer and dance of light as the crescent of sunlight shone around the moon and was filtered through the leaves as though thousands of pin-hole cameras were projecting it upon the ground.

Yet in both cases, as in the darkest of night, darkness is but a passing shadow; it cannot extinguish or expunge the light, it only reveals different forms of celestial light. Light prevails ultimately over all forms of darkness whether we look for it or avert our eyes.

The stories this evening remind us that we have a natural affinity for light, even as we may find ourselves choosing darkness from time to time. These stories remind us that while there is an illusion of glamour within the dark: that which is ultimately worthy of seeking and praise is revealed on this night as the one true light. Tonight, perhaps the primary implication of being a child of light is to recall that but for the grace of God, I too might be lost in darkness. In that glimpse of self-recognition may our compassion call us to arise and shine to dispel the illusion of darkness around us and others.