January 25, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Called Out and Set Free
My Grandpa Milt used to get up early to have coffee with a group of retired men in his little town on Long Island. This group adopted a motto which he just loved: “Often in error; never in doubt.” Often in error; never in doubt. Definitely not a bad motto for a retired preacher! I mean you gotta appreciate the sparkle and swagger of a statement like this. I may not have the facts right, but look at all this confidence! And yet, there is no mistaking glittery confidence for genuine authority. Authority is different. It holds a resounding ring of truth.
But where does authority come from? I’ve spent a lot of time considering this question while standing in the parking lot in front of my building trying to persuade our dachshund, Hildegard, that wouldn’t she like to go for a walk? Now once we get going, she loves going for walks. Getting out of the parking lot is the problem. She will sit down on the pavement and not move. Sometimes she scoots backwards until she wriggles out of her harness.
We’ve tried gentle coaxing, I’ll kneel down and coo at her in my Disney Princess voice. We’ve tried giving assertive commands, dropping her leash to entice her to follow us. All the while, I am haunted by the words of a teacher who once told me, “You know, dogs will not follow a poor leader.” You don’t say.
I’d like to think that authority comes from knowledge and expertise. But not everybody who knows what they’re talking about gets believed. It’s not enough to be right. It’s not enough to hold an impressive position or have access to resources. It’s not about how much power we can wield, how you could just go pick up your twenty-one pound dog and carry her out of the parking lot and down the street, thank you very much. (I have tried that. It doesn’t work.)
Authority does not come from the force imposed by a tyrant. It comes from the trust earned by a teacher. Which means if we’re going to get out of this parking lot, I have to teach Hildegard to trust me. Peanut butter treats are big help. Ultimately, I have to access my own vulnerability to meet her vulnerability. Then I can look into her doubtful eyes and say, “Come on, let’s go be brave together.” And you know, she can absolutely tell whether I’m faking it or whether I’m telling the truth. Dogs can always tell. Teenagers can always tell, so can toddlers, so can everybody.
Ultimately, our authority comes from our authenticity. It’s not cheap sparkle or swagger. It’s not position or status. Instead, what if our authority is actually our deepest truth? What if claiming our authority gives glory to God?
Today we continue our winter worship series which explores Jesus’ ministry in the first chapter of Mark and what this can teach us about our own ministry in the community. All through this Gospel, we hear the questions: Who is Jesus, really? And where does his authority come from? It seems like the answer is given so plainly in our story this morning. Yet, this incident is one trigger in a long struggle that eventually leads to his crucifixion. How can this man act with the authority of God?
Right away his authority is recognized. Our passage begins and ends with the people being so surprised by Jesus’ teaching. When he stands up in the synagogue to teach, he is not like the scribes. The Gospel does not tell us what Jesus said in the synagogue on that day long ago. But whatever he said, he spoke with authority, which can be translated as “sovereign freedom.” It leaves the people astounded and amazed. “What is this?” they ask, “a new teaching —with authority!” Even the unclean spirits obey him.
Because right in the middle of his teaching, Jesus gets interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit. Just then he appears, and he cries out, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” I don’t know how Jesus feels in that moment, but I wonder. Without defending himself or answering the question, Jesus says to this power, “Be silent and come out of him!”
Right there in the middle of the synagogue, in the middle of the sermon, this spirit comes out of the man with convulsing and crying in a loud voice. Just then it disappears! I don’t know where the demon goes. But the man and Jesus are standing there, facing each other, trying to come to terms with what’s happened.
Can you even imagine what this is like for the unnamed man? His spirit, or demon, is called out and exposed right in front of everybody. It’s terrifying and humiliating! Here he’s made vulnerable and ashamed, and what can he do about this.
Can you even imagine what this is like for Jesus? He has just been recognized and called out by a demon. Now in the story, that doesn’t seem to bother the crowd. They’re more impressed that the demon complies with Jesus’ demands. But if you’re wondering how it is that this demonic spiritual force is so familiar with Jesus, I’m wondering that too. This must be terrifying and humiliating! Here he’s made vulnerable and ashamed, and what can he do about this.
I think we can imagine this scene, because I think this is exactly what we’re afraid of. The problem with claiming our own authority means we have to come to terms with our own authenticity. We can’t face our deepest truth without disturbing our demons, running the risk that they will call us out and make us ashamed. Right there in front of everybody.
But see, something happens in that moment when this man and Jesus stand facing each other all called out and exposed. When the vulnerability of the man meets the vulnerability of Christ, truth speaks to truth, and those two men get set free. Both of them, right there in front of everybody.
In this moment, it’s not just their shame that gets exposed; it’s their deepest truth. What if there is truth deeper than our demons? What if our actual authenticity is not the worst thing we ever did, or the thing we hate most about ourselves, or our humiliation so raw and bulging…
What if our truth is really the name spoken by God to each one of us: I love you.
When we claim this authority that comes from God’s love, when we speak from this authority and act from this authority, the thing that happens is we help other people claim this too. We give glory to God. So come on, let’s go be brave together.
You might have heard this famous quote from spiritual writer and teacher Marianne Williamson. She says it like this:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
We saw this happen in our own church, a few months back, when several young people from Youth Hope came to speak to our Adult Forum. I thought they would tell us a little about their experience with Christian Friendliness and answer our questions. And they did. But these young men also shared with us spoken word. This is a type of performance poetry that relies on raw, vulnerable truth-telling. It’s not reciting somebody else’s poem; it’s confessing your own life all terrible and exquisite. Down in the lounge, these young men claimed their authority. They told the truth that casts out the demons, and they taught us that we could do this too. They taught us how to get set free.
Now on this congregational meeting Sunday, we come together to consider what it means to be Church of Peace United Church of Christ. It helps to have our new Statement of Identity and Purpose, but this statement only matters if we claim it and bring it to life. In doing this, we claim our authority as a church. Because you know, our authority is not cheap sparkle and swagger. Our authority comes from the compassion of Jesus Christ, the place where our vulnerability meets his vulnerability.
In the moment when this happens, we see exactly what we’re about and why we exist. We echo the truth of God that goes “I love you.” And I really believe, we have no right to keep this to ourselves. The world needs to see this light. This neighborhood needs to know the love of God. Here we are all called out and set free. So come on, let’s go be brave together. Amen.