4th Sunday after Epiphany _ Mark 1:21-28 January 28, 2018
I heard a story the other day about a pastor who had a reputation for being very diligent in making sure he fulfilled all his responsibilities to his congregation. He was diligent in preparing his sermons and Bible studies. He made sure the committees in the congregation met on a regular and timely fashion and he made sure they too were diligent in their responsibilities. In many ways he was a fine pastor, though he was a bit rigid and unimaginative in his efforts to get everything done. By and large his planner and his watch ruled him more than he was by anything else. He was a poster child for efficiency and in order to accomplish his rounds of visitation, which were many, he would set up a timetable, which only allowed so many minutes at each household. If, through any accident, time was lost early in his rounds the later visits had to be curtailed in order that his full task for the day might be completed and he got home in time for dinner.
One evening, entering the home of a very poor and very solitary woman, he looked at his watch and said, “I can only give you seven minutes.” “Well,” she replied, “if that is all, you needn’t sit down.”
He was thinking more of his carefully ordered plans and his punctual meals than of the woman in her chilling loneliness or any trouble she might be in. He left her wounded and insulted, and she never forgot. It was his lack of imagination, and his lack of the human touch that poisoned everything.
I was drawn to this story because in my mind it had connections to the story we heard about Jesus teaching and his encounter with the man with the unclean spirit. How you might ask? Well, bear with me.
If you recall, Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and we are told he was teaching. And Mark tells us that he did not teach like the Scribes and Pharisees in that he actually spoke with authority.
What has struck me about this is that first of all, it is a real slap in the face to the Scribes and Pharisees, but secondly while we are told he taught with authority, we have no record of what Jesus taught here. In fact, if one were particularly observant we might note that within Mark’s gospel there is little in regard to what Jesus taught, that is, the content, but rather Mark tends to focus on the impact of Jesus’ teachings. It appears as though for Mark what is important is that Jesus’ teaching enthuses and infuses the hearer with the hope that things are different than what they seem.
And this brings us back to the difference between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees. It was customary in those days for the religious leaders to teach by sitting around and citing the scholarly work of others. If they were discussing how one might live out the commandment to honor the Sabbath they would quote Rabbi so-and-so and that would settle it. That is unless another person with a slightly different point of view cited another more famous and respected rabbi who might hold a differing perspective. In many ways the teaching in the synagogue might sound more like a political debate or round table discussion.
Jesus, however, didn’t cite other rabbis. He spoke freely and at times he came off as unorthodox. At times he tended to color outside the lines of traditional teachings. He told stories, parables, earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. He was able to engage and connect with the people in ways that were familiar, rather than trying to come off as overly intellectual and talking down to people. But he did more than talk and this is the important part, this is the part that really nailed down his authority—he acted. He lived the truth that he taught.
If he talked about love, he demonstrated the higher love in his life. If he taught about the necessity of humility, he acted humbly in his relationship with others. If he taught about forgiveness, he acted toward others with forgiveness. When he talked of servanthood, he was the servant of all. In every way, he was what he taught.
We see this in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel. While he taught in the synagogue he not only touched people with his words he also physically reached out and touched people’s lives. The people gathered that morning witnessed his authority in his action of reaching out to the man with the unclean spirit. They saw a person who was seen as being possessed, who was trapped, frustrated and unable to act on his own. Jesus reaches out in compassion to that person and releases him. Jesus’ words and action sets him free. This is the authority that overwhelmed them. Authority based not on the ability to argue for or against something, but rather an authority based on graciousness and compassion and the willingness to love unconditionally. It is an authority that is not based on how efficient we might be but it is our willingness to spend more than seven minutes with someone who is hurting and lonely and in need of our tender touch and attention.
Today we have our annual meeting and to be honest these meetings sometimes frustrate me and I’ll tell you why. For the past year a number of the folks sitting next to you have been working hard and doing some great ministry on behalf of this congregation. We have Sunday school teachers who show up week after week and they are dedicated to passing on the faith to our children. Along with the teachers we have arts and crafts and library people and musicians who are sharing the faith through creative crafts and music. We have dedicated women who make up our Women of the ELCA organization here at Zion. They are the ones who make sure that when we have a funeral there is some sort of meal or refreshment available to the family and their friends. They are extending basic Christian hospitality. We have a group of women who gather each month to knit prayer shawls and chemo caps and a host of other expressions of love and care for others. We have quilters who crank out a van load of quilts every year that are given to our high school graduates and then delivered to places like the Marie Sandvik Center and our own Lutheran World Relief, who then sends them around the world in order to provide a simple gifts of love for our neighbors in need. We have musicians and choirs who graciously share their gifts and talents in order to enrich our worship and to give glory to God. And there is more, but here is my point—these folks are responding to the authority of Jesus in their lives as they reach out and act out in love. They are not standing around or sitting around pontificating and arguing over this and that nuance of scripture. They are touching people’s lives and because we have this annual meeting they have taken time to write up their reports, sharing their efforts—and you know what---most of them will be overlooked so that we can get to the financial report—to see how we did financially. Did we end the year in the black? How much will the budget be increased or decreased, as is the case this year, and why are we spending so much money on…whatever?
Don’t get me wrong; being good stewards of our finances is important, in fact, being a good steward is a sign of our call as a disciple. But is not the only sign and it certainly is not a sign of discipleship if we are moved more by frugality and austerity than generosity and the needs of others.
I have been involved in parish ministry for roughly 30 years and it is the same everywhere and it causes me to wonder—where do we look for authority? What really matters in our lives and in our congregation? Is in the financial bottom line or the ministry that is being done in this building and beyond? Do we find meaning in the bottom line of the spreadsheet or in the human contact, in the lives that are touched and made whole?
Some time ago as Julia was talking about the start of a new semester at school and how in one of her classes the students were asked to write about their favorite class. One of the junior high boys in the class didn’t exactly answer the question directly, but instead he wrote about the class he had with Mrs. Erickson because she was more of a mom to him than his own mom. I sort of know Mrs. Erickson and I know that she has a great deal of authority in her classroom because she holds those kids accountable, but more importantly, she loves them, she cares for them and in some cases she is more of a mom than the mom at home. We in the church need to be more like Mrs. Erickson in that we are noted for our love, our efforts to care and our willingness to take a risk and love the sometimes hard to love.
I have often wondered whether we appreciate how essential the human touch is to our faith. A church is a poor affair, no matter how beautiful its sanctuary, no matter how stately and reverent its services of worship, if its members lack the love of Christ at its core. Our faith is a poor affair if it is stuck with a “Me and Jesus” attitude. Our witness lacks authority and authenticity if it is never translated into social action, if it does not make us kinder, more patient, more helpful, and more generous in our relations with others. All of our talk of loving others falls on deaf ears if we ignore those children who need a fill in mom from time to time or a lonely old woman who simply wants someone to talk to for more than seven minutes.
As we begin a new year, as we move beyond today’s annual meeting, let us do so determined to make Jesus the ultimate authority in our lives. Let us pledge to ourselves and to others that we will strive to learn from him and follow him and we will pray that our congregation be shaped and defined by his hallmark touch, his compassion, and his graciousness. The world that surrounds us is looking to us to see if we reflect the authority we claim Jesus has in our lives. We live in a world frustrated by those who claim to have authority but only end up being useless noisy gongs. We live in a world where people love to argue but few are willing to act, to love, to risk on behalf of others.
Recently I read about two people visiting with one another and the one says to the other "Do you love me?" The other answers, "Yes, of course." "Do you know what hurts me?" "No, how could I know that?"And his friend responds, "You can't love me if you don't know what hurts me." When I heard that story it occurred to me that this is how it is when we love God and love neighbor. God says to us, "How can you love me if you don't know what hurts me?"
What hurts God? A world where greed directs the actions of those who claim authority. A world where a thirst for power dictates the actions of those who feel insecure. A world that lacks compassion for the neglected, the marginalized, those who appear different from our limited experience.
When we connect our lives with the things that hurt God, we actually grow in our love for God. It's this essential connection that we desire in our common life together. It is this essential connection that demonstrates the authority Jesus has in our lives, and in our community of faith, our congregation.
In 1st John 4:16 we hear wonderful words: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” May the love of God, the grace of Jesus and the compassion of the Holy Spirits not only abide in our lives but also define who we are as children of God. And let us love as Jesus loved with both word and deed. Amen.
Pastor Stephen Blenkush
Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353
Love like Jesus!