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Sermon - February 1, 2009

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     This morning I’m going to take you with me on a little journey.  We’re not going to actually leave our seats, but rather we’re going to picture a scene far away from here in time and space.  Close your eyes --- and think of a very hot land of sand and stone buildings...of palm trees and camels.  Think of a small city there and streets filled with market stalls, donkeys, and people dressed in flowing tunics and sandals...people from the time of Jesus of Nazareth.  Smell the hot air, and feel the sand on your feet.  Hear the hustle and bustle of the market.  It’s after sundown on a Saturday  - the Sabbath has ended.  And off to our left is a synagogue where people are gathered.  Let’s go into the shaded area and sit down to hear what’s going on.  In front of us is a slightly raised platform, and seated there is a man called Jesus.  He is explaining the scriptures and, as we listen to him, we understand for the first time some of the complexities of our own lives and of our relationships in a way we never have before.  He speaks of our creator, God – Yahweh – and of the laws of Moses with such understanding and wisdom that we are sure he knows God firsthand.  What a change this is for us! Usually there is one of the scribes up there – droning on about the law and how he interprets the law – and how we are not living up to the law – and what terrible things will happen to us as a result.  We are normally scolded and reviled for not keeping every single requirement of the law to the letter.  We often sit on our benches and feel angry and helpless at such an attitude from our leaders.
    Yet this man, this young man from a northern town where nothing ever happens that is good – this young man speaks with wisdom, and love, and authority.  We sit in the heat and drink in his words...we want to hear more because it sounds so new. 
    There was a song that was popular in the 70’s – “Killing me Softly” (sung by Roberta Flack).  It told the story of a young woman who dropped into a coffee house and was listening to a man singing and playing the guitar.  Suddenly she felt that the singer knew her life and her thoughts in some way.  She says she felt he had found her letters and read each one out loud...he was ‘killing her softly with his song’. 
    I think this scripture text points to that same kind of feeling...somehow the people listening to Jesus explaining the scriptures that day felt that he knew them intimately in some way...that he could speak to their fears and their confusion...that what he was saying was so meaningful that the stories they had been hearing for years suddenly became “new” again.
    When someone reaches into your thoughts so forcefully, it can be a very unsettling experience.  How often have you been chatting with a person and realize that they have had the same experience as you...or they were thinking thoughts that you had not yet dared to express?  This recognition often brings with it excitement – and sometimes, even fear.  In the text this morning, the unclean spirit in the man can’t help crying out – “what have YOU to do with us?”  In other words, what right – what authority do YOU have to say these things?  At which point Jesus simply relieves him of his evil spirit and frees him of his burdens and fears.  The man does not speak again, but we hear from the crowd.  “What is this?” they ask.  “A NEW teaching – with authority even to command unclean spirits?”
    If we had been there, how would WE have reacted to this mysterious young man who spoke to our own lives with such wisdom?  I suggest that we too would have excitedly questioned, and been somewhat fearful at his power to see into us and command even our evil spirits to leave! 
    Today, however, I wonder if we are willing to give Jesus such authority over us. Life in the 21st century is both the same and very different from the time when Jesus spoke to the crowd in the synagogue.  We still yearn for the same things: love, peace, meaningful relationships with our families - and with our community, some sense of worth – that life has a purpose.
    We are different as well.  In the days of Jesus the emphasis was on the group or the tribe.  Decisions were made on the basis of what was best for the survival of that group.  Property was maintained in the ‘family or tribal name’.  The people as a whole had a covenant with God – for example, the Hebrew people were often called “Zion” as though they were simply one entity rather than several hundreds or thousands of individuals.  A threat to one person became a threat to the whole society of people.  The fate of one became the fate of the tribe.
    Today, rightly or wrongly, the independent rights of the individual to decide for her/himself take precedence in our society.  Decisions are made by people based on what’s good for them individually – their career, their abilities, their future happiness. As a result, it is less often that people today will accept authority simply because “it’s always been that way.”  The power of God has been diminished in people’s estimation because, as individuals, we now feel we know better how the world works – we have science and technology to explain the world to us.  The authority of Jesus and his teachings is overtaken by the authority of the people who tell us when and how to work, how to secure our financial futures, how to dress for success, how to make our children “rounded” individuals through sports.
And so, if Jesus were here in this sanctuary – sitting here and explaining how God is a God of love who needs you to know that forgiveness of your brother, for example, is required before you come to worship because that will make you both whole and well, would you give Jesus the same reaction?  Or would you be thinking to yourselves...”what does HE know – my brother is a total loser and I don’t want anything to do with him.”
    If Jesus were here and told us to pray for Osama Bin Laden – because he too is a child of God – what would we think of him then?  Is it simply too unbelievable that we should pray that Bin Laden would have the courage to turn away from evil and injustice – that Bin Laden hear the promptings of God and God’s insistence that we love God and also love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
     Doing things differently – placing forgiveness ahead of pride; praying for our enemies; walking the extra mile without being asked – sets people apart from the society in which they live.  People who live the gospel of Jesus Christ are different – and being different is an uncomfortable place to be.
    And that is the problem that the gospel writer, Mark, is trying to address.  Because Mark is writing AFTER the Easter event.  He is writing to a community that continues to struggle with WHO and WHAT Jesus was – and struggling with the life he called them to.  This community around Mark is needing to hear that Jesus bears listening to – that we are to pay attention to him: because Jesus has the AUTHORITY of God.  What does the spirit call him? “The Holy One of God!” 
Writing to explain the person and divinity of Jesus after the Easter event was done to convince those who were followers – the earliest Christians – that they were placing their trust in a figure who had the authority to forgive and to save – MAKE WHOLE – through a power that is God’s power.  The gospel writer needs to affirm for his community that, although they were suffering some persecution because they were being different from their neighbours, friends, and sometimes even their families – that they could be secure in turning over their lives to the God they had come to know through Jesus.  Being different was OK.
    In our world of the “rights of the individual” – in our world where science and technology seem to have all the answers – in our world of various material gods competing for our loyalty, it is time to sit up and take notice in the same way that those people in the synagogue did so long ago.  “What is this?” they asked.  “A NEW teaching – one with authority!”
In our world where the rich and powerful have been given authority in financial matters and have run roughshod over both the practical and the moral guidelines – advertising, selling houses and mortgages to people who simply couldn’t afford them – and then offloading those mortgages for huge profits to bankers around the world – how are we to reign in this arrogant attitude of “me first” and the rest are losers.
In our world where the spiritual needs of people and families is smirked at and dismissed as outdated and irrelevant so much so that we who put a premium on the need for meaning and purpose that is spiritual in our lives feel reluctant to talk about Jesus and Church in our own families – how are we to provide a place that is safe for discussion and learning that embraces difference and dissention?
In my reading this week, I came across the suggestion that people in mainline churches feel despair and doubt about the future of the church, but hide it under a thin veneer of hopefulness.  What a dreadful situation we have ourselves in...sitting on the sidelines of society in our churches on Sunday morning and hoping that people will somehow stumble upon us and start attending our worship services.
Last week we heard the phrase “come and see” in our scripture readings.  We also read about the call and response of two people – James and John – and the plight of their parents when they followed Jesus without a second thought.  Today we hear about other people hearing – likely for the first time – that they were loved by God and invited to become their best selves by following God’s purposes for the world...purposes that included freedom for those who were captive to their own hurtful habits, or their own attitudes that held others in bondage.  Jesus’ teachings about inclusiveness, compassion and service are teachings that everyone needs to hear in our world today. And the only way people will hear these teachings is through us – you and me – the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  It won’t happen any other way.  And when we realize that – accept that it is up to US – then we too are called to follow...we too are called to use the phrase to others “come and see!”
Tell people in your family and among your friends if you are being nourished by your Church family in any way...let them know that this is a safe place to discuss and debate and learn about ourselves and how we can relate to the Sacred Spirit in life and in this world.  Tell people and then issue the invitation...”come and see”.  And let’s see if we can help turn this world of misplaced hopes and dreams around ... let’s see if can make a difference in the lives of people we know and love.              Amen.