4 Epiphany

Pastor Barbara Thrall

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Amen.

It keeps happening.  These lessons we hear on Sunday mornings roll around every couple of years and with the way life works, that you’re never standing in the same river twice because it’s always changing, the Scriptures have a fresh application each time we read and consider them anew.  In this Epiphany season we keep hearing about the nature of this God we worship and adore, the one we call our brother and friend.  We keep hearing about what God is like and what he does, and the petals of the Epiphany flower just keep opening and opening and opening.  I hope you join me in finding the possibility of this continuing revelation exciting.

Deuteronomy tells us through Moses that God will raise up a prophet who will be the Truth with a capital T.  And what are we to do?  Listen to him, follow him, obey him.  It’s the same message that we heard at the scene of Jesus’ baptism, it’s the same message that Jonah was sent to impart – God has something to say to you, so take notice.  And in case we aren’t getting the point, there will be a test.  God is holding us accountable for having read the material, if you will. So much for sitting back and watching from our easy chairs. God has expectations of us, Moses tells us, so we’d better get involved.

And then we have this wonderful scene in which Jesus travels to Capernaum, a tiny village at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, and he goes into the synagogue.  He begins to teach and a ripple runs through the crowd.  “What is this, who is this, we’ve never heard or seen anything like this before.”  A man with an unclean spirit makes a scene and the unclean spirit actually calls Jesus out, by name, while the others are wondering what just happened.  What is the authority by which this teacher does these things?

Authority.  It’s a powerful thing, whether you are the president of the United States or a citizen of that same country.  It is a meaningful thing if you are up for election in Uganda or if you are the populace trying to make your vote count in that country.  I think it’s fair to say we all like a bit of authority, whether as parents or members of our family, or as bearers of some kind of truth, or in our work or in our communities. We may not carry a badge or have big credentials and an entourage, but having authority is something to be held carefully, something to be earned and used wisely and judiciously.

My Episcopal tradition teaches that our authority as a church lies in three things – scripture, tradition and reason.  We use these to make decisions for our corporate life.  For the Lutheran brand of the Jesus Movement, authority lies in Scripture, period.  These understandings have served us well for a long time, and believe me, it is a challenge to walk the line.  So many have been diverted by what they deem authoritative.  Let me give you an example.

The author Monica Rodden wrote recently that up until about 5 years ago, she could very well have been one of those people who stormed the capitol, full of the conviction that they were right in both action and sentiment.  This got my attention so I read her account of being an Evangelical Christian at one time and how that influenced everything she thought, said and did.

Rodden writes that she found her way into a very conservative so-called evangelical church where the Bible was central and the reading and interpretation of it were literal and tightly controlled. It was a case of, “Here’s what it says, and this is what it means.”  That was rather nice and comforting for an anxious and insecure young person who was looking for answers, rules and limits.  She was assured by the leadership that all this would result in her success and happiness. “Stick with us, the only true believers, stay in your place, don’t deviate, and all will be well. Indeed, you will be saved by Jesus Christ our Lord when the End Time comes, and you will live for ever in Heaven.”  For a while Monica Rodden was happy, and even fulfilled by being a part of that church.  It was easy, just follow the rules, but then something started to creep in that made her uncomfortable.

She realized that for all the following of Jesus and his church that she was hearing about and being told to do,  for all the studying and obeying and memorizing she had done, she had built up quite a reserve of faith in a small group that controlled her and her every thought and  move.  Her devotion was to the church, and in fact she was being taught to love her church and its teachings and to hate the world, with a vengeance.  After all, isn’t it apparent that everyone else out there is knee-deep in sin, awash in transgressions and is headed straight for Hell if they didn’t get on the same wavelength that she and her church were on?  The world is tainted, it is evil, frightening and threatening and it is doomed, so the best thing you could do is to avoid it, and to keep inside your circle where you are safe and protected by the power of a very angry Christ to shield the faithful and smote the unjust.

That kind of thinking, she feels, was some of what was on display in the Capital a number of weeks ago.  Remember those crosses and those T-shirts?   A group of Christians who are at war with the world, and were fighting to bring the evil ones, and the country, back from the brink of destruction before it is too late. In the name of Jesus.

For us as members of another type of Christian Church, it’s hard to see just where this distortion jumped off.  Maybe it’s right there in the story of the scene in the Capernaum synagogue, when Jesus displays his authority.  Those around him are astonished at how and what he is teaching.  They are amazed and somewhat disturbed at the power of the presence of God they felt by being near him.  They are amazed that not only can he interpret the scriptures, he can school an unclean spirit and heal a desperate man.  They see one who is new, different, expansive, open to the needs of a people who are wandering and lost, who are searching for something real in the midst of a world that offers a lot of artificial, simple, narrow ways out.

I think it’s fair to say the Jesus we love and serve is not that same one we saw supposedly leading the crowds several weeks ago.  The Jesus we love and serve does, yes, offer a strong critique of the world, but he does it because he loves it and wants to save it, not because he is eager to bring its ugly life to a bitter and violent end. Everything Jesus did — coming to earth, healing, teaching, feeding, dying on a cross and rising again, was for us, to bring us closer to God and one another.  He gives us the choice to follow him, and there will be consequences to granting him that authority, but he assures us that choice will bring us life.  Having God as our life-source – that is why we reach out to the people at the Survival Center with food and clothes.  That is why we are meeting with the people of St. Peter’s, to grow in love and understanding.  That is why we want to support our neighbors in Springfield whose church was torched.  I think that is why we gather today at all, because we recognize the authority of Jesus in our lives and that makes all the difference for a better world. I hope Christ’s authority is a ruling force for each one of us.

At our house we have a saying that gets used when something at church or elsewhere doesn’t go quite as we had hoped.   We say, “Well, the Kingdom has not come yet, but we’ll keep working on it.”   I’ll confess, that’s a little self-serving actually, since in our opinion the Kingdom we are working on is one we’d like ourselves and everyone to be a part of.  That Kingdom would have Jesus as its head, and its doors would be open to include all people and all of creation.  That’s the kind of Jesus I’m looking for in the Capernaum synagogue.  That’s the kind of Kingdom of love I believe we are trying to build, one based on the authority of a loving God who commands us to love Him, and our neighbors as ourselves. What about you?  What kind of Kingdom, what kind of authority do you envision? Amen.

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