Interfaith Council Statement

I just received this press release regarding from the South Coast Interfaith Council, of which South Bay Christian Church is a participating member. The statement responds to the ongoing violence related to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. May God's spirit of peace and reconciliation overcome the powers of hatred, intolerance, and violence.

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Now that we have had time to reflect on the tragic misunderstandings and violence that erupted after a Danish newspaper published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, it has become clear that this chain of events could have been resolved nonviolently at the local level. Danish Muslims protested peacefully in Copenhagen, petitioned for an apology, and were rebuffed. The Danish Government refused to take their concern seriously, even when foreign diplomats from Muslim countries requested a meeting with the Danish prime minister.

This incident underscores how important it is for local interfaith groups to work together to help resolve these misunderstandings before they become international incidents.

The South Coast Interfaith Council, with a constituency of 250 congregations in the Long Beach-Peninsula-South Bay area of Los Angeles County, as well as in West Orange County, is such a local group committed to fostering interfaith understanding and respect as a path to peaceful coexistence in a diverse society and a global community. We strongly defend the right of free speech while we are nonetheless concerned when such freedom is irresponsibly abused to incite hatred, fear, bigotry or disrespect for any of the world's religions, scriptures, places of worship, races or cultures.

At the same time, we repudiate violence as a response to such insult. Violence, even that borne of frustration or oppression, impedes accomplishing these goals.

We are encouraged, however, that we represent a large, and growing, constituency which includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, Unitarians, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus and other people of faith who agree with these values, pray daily for peace, and witness to tolerance in their communities.

Celebrate Life!

Rev. Ginny Wagener, Executive Director, South Coast Interfaith Council

Rabbi Howard Laibson, Temple Israel, President

John Ishvaradas Abdallah, South Bay Sufi, President-Elect


Sunday, February 19th

The gospel story for this morning holds a special place in my heart. This scripture was the centerpiece of the first time I spoke in front of a congregation. I was eleven, and I had been selected to play the owner of the house in the children’s musical. It was a great part to play. I got to narrate the destruction of my own roof.

The scene is Capernaum once again, and the crowd is even bigger than ever. People are drawn to Jesus as if by an invisible magnetic force. Even though Jesus operates beyond the borders of the cultural and religious institutions, the Galileans recognize his powerful spirit. His reputation for teaching and healing has revealed his spiritual authority, and people want to hear and see more from this Nazarene carpenter.

Throughout the first few scrolls of Mark, Jesus has been transgressing boundaries and bending rules—casting out a demon on the Sabbath, for instance, and cleansing a leper by touching him. But Jesus pushes the envelope a little further in the second chapter of Mark. By proclaiming that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven, he’s practically inviting the scribes to be offended.

Jesus responds to their murmurs of blasphemy by backing up his bold proclamation of forgiveness with another impressive healing. The man whose limbs had been frozen with weakness walks away, healed of body and spirit. He is given new life by the Son of Man—with, of course, a little help from his faithful friends.

We like to think of ourselves as the spiritual brothers and sisters of the paralytic’s friends. Their unyielding commitment to bringing their hopeless friend into the healing presence of Jesus is just the sort of passionate dedication to the gospel that the church is supposed to demonstrate. And sometimes we do tear through the roof to make way for the Holy Spirit. Sharing our resources with South Bay Korean Christian Church and Redondo Beach Community Church is a-tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry. Establishing and sustaining the pancake breakfast is a tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry. Supporting Dean Cornwell’s mission in the Congo through prayer and assistance is another tear-down-the-roof kind of ministry.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tore through the glass roof when we elected Sharon Watkins as our General Minister and President, especially when so many Christian churches struggle to affirm women in ministry.

The Church can and does dig through the roof, and our faithfulness never fails to draw us closer to the forgiving and healing spirit of Christ.

Sometimes, though, the Church resists. Who wants a hole in the roof, anyway? It’s all very cute of the paralytic’s friends to dig their way to Jesus, but someone’s going to have to get up on a ladder and patch up their handiwork.

And sometimes the Church plays the part of the scribes, doubting the power of Jesus and substituting his including love for our excluding rules.

And then sometimes, the Church is more like the paralytic.

Paralysis is a devastating condition, especially for those who once experienced life with use of their muscles and joints. The memory of that former life, full of movement and motion, full of jumping jacks and dancing, can paralyze the mind as surely as an accident can paralyze the spine.

Back in 1956, very few Protestant preachers would have likened the church to the paralytic. The church was anything but immobile. Mainline congregations were bursting at the seams. The nurseries were full of babies and the Sunday School classrooms were abuzz with off-key renditions of “Jesus loves me.”

Fast forward 50 years. Countless mainline congregations are struggling. While the decline in membership and participation is more pronounced in the west, it is a nationwide phenomenon. While congregations like Saddleback Church and Hope Chapel have thrived, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Disciple congregations have misplaced entire generations.

South Bay Christian Church is not alone in this. When I went to Texas last month for a conference on congregational transformation, I sat in a room full of people who told painful stories of dwindling congregations. A sharp majority of baby boomers that had been raised in church nurseries left for good in their early twenties. Some found a home in other traditions, but many spend their Sundays mornings over coffee and newspapers instead of communion and scripture.

Like so many congregations, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the memory of a time that is no longer. We could easily get stuck in the recollection of yesteryears. But the world is different. Stores are open on Sundays. Little league games are scheduled for Sunday mornings. The television and internet have trained people to be constantly entertained. And in this post-Vietnam and post-9/11 era, many people prefer to attend churches that offer clear-cut answers to human struggles. The strong tradition of diversity and free thinking in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) does not appeal to many people in younger generations.

We cannot turn back time. Because the world beyond the church is vastly different than it was 50 years ago, life within the church is never going to look quite the same. Besides, we might not want to turn back time even if we could. It’s easy to be sentimental about the past, and make believe that it was perfect. The 1950s were great for many reasons, but we can’t ignore the fact that women were barred from serving as Deacons, Elders, and Pastors, even while some congregations had Klu Klux Klan members serving in those same positions.

So what now? Recognizing that we do, in some ways, resemble the paralytic is not a tragedy. Mark’s story of the paralytic who was forgiven and healed by Jesus is anything but a sorrowful tale. It is a story of hope for the hopeless. It is a story full of good news—especially for the paralytic.

I want us to consider another paralytic. In the 43rd chapter of the prophetic writings attributed to Isaiah, the Israelites were as paralyzed as can be. The Israelites had been exiled in Babylon. Spiritually and metaphorically, paralysis and exile are one in the same. A paralytic is exiled from movement, caged from her own body. And an exile is stuck in a foreign land, bound by memory alone to a time and place that is no longer. Isaiah had the difficult job of helping the Israelites prepare to leave Babylon and be a part of the restoration of Jerusalem. But Isaiah knew that even when the Emperor Cyrus released the Israelites from exile, they might still be exiled in spirit. They might still be paralyzed by the devastating experience of losing their homeland, the center of their cultural and religious life together.

Isaiah relayed this message from God to the people of Israel: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

The Israelites were in danger of binding themselves so tightly to their complex memories that they were incapable of continuing their journey. They remembered the amazing things that God had done for them. They remembered the many ways they betrayed the same God who offered them salvation. The sum of these memories made them heavy with the despair of exiles and paralytics.

And the prophetic word for them is to forget about the past. “Do not remember,” Isaiah said. It wasn’t that the past didn’t have its fair share of wonderment. But if remembering how fantastic it was when God made the sea as dry as a bone meant giving up in Babylon, then the Israelites needed to forget. They were promised that God had forgotten their own sins, even though they had not made full penance for their wrongdoings.

And God made another promise: “I am about to do a new thing.”

God released the Israelites from the prison of their past, and led them out of exile.

Jesus released the paralytic from the sins of his past, and commanded him to walk home.

Do you not perceive it? God is about to do a new thing. It is not a repeat performance of the things of old. It is not a reestablishment of how things used to be. It is a wholly new thing.

A way will be cleared in the wilderness. A river will burst through the desert. A hole will be dug in a roof.

And the way will be a way of love. The river will be a river of mercy. And the hole in the roof will allow the forgiving and healing presence of Christ to reign free again.

Do we believe this, sisters and brothers? Do we believe that in this place, in this congregation, God is about to do a new thing? Are we willing to let the past be past, and open ourselves to the miracle at hand?

Some exiles make a home in Babylon, some paralytics are afraid to take up that mat and walk. And some congregations would rather die than let the Holy Spirit change their old ways. Let us pray we are not such a congregation.

God is extending new spirit and new life to this beloved congregation. The transformation is already happening.

Do you not perceive it?

Sunday, February 12: The Leper and the Olympian

A family sits on a sofa in front of the TV, holding their lottery ticket. As the announcer lists the winning numbers, the parents grow increasingly excited. Each one matches. 12. 37. 9. 14. They are so close to winning. They are already jumping for joy when the last number confirms that they are in fact winning millions upon millions of dollars. Their daughter, however, looks bored. As her parents raucously celebrate, she rolls her eyes and pops a videocassette out of the VCR. It’s labeled “The Day We Won.” The camera zooms out to reveal that the family is reliving their winning moment in a lavish mansion.

The message of the advertisement is, of course, that people really do win the lotto, and you should run out right now to buy a ticket.

For a society that likes to tell its kids that winning isn’t everything, competitions with clear winners and losers are everywhere. Last week, the Steelers won the Superbowl. On any given night of the week, someone wins a date (or even a wife) on a reality show. The Winter Olympics began on Friday, so for the next few weeks, we will see the best athletes in the world compete for gold metals in figure skating, snowboarding, curling, and other games people who live in cold places invented to keep busy until spring. The music industry is still recovering from the Grammys extravaganza, and the members of the Academy are currently deciding if Brokeback Mountain should sweep its categories at the Oscars.

Many of us participate in competition ourselves. Ben and I play racquetball a couple times a week, and we’re remarkably well-paired opponents. I was doing really well earlier this week, but as soon as I started thinking about how my three-out-of-four game lead would make for a great sermon illustration, I lost my concentration and my winning streak.

People like competition. Sure, it’s an honor to be nominated and it’s an accomplishment to run the marathon, but we’re all paying attention to the name in the envelope and the first guy who crosses the finish line.

Entertainment ordered by the rules and regulations of competition is as old as civilization. Winning, and losing, are universal. So it’s no surprise that Paul uses a sports metaphor to illuminate the nature of Christian discipleship. Like a modern man trying to express himself by alluding to a homerun at the bottom of the ninth, Paul recasts the athletic race for a holy purpose. “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

I’ll admit—on first reading, this scripture is a bit of a puzzlement to me. Didn’t Jesus say something to the effect of “the last shall be first”? Since when is the Christian faith about racing past the slow folks to grab the prize first? Aren’t we supposed to be loving and serving the least of these, not leaving them in a cloud of dust?

The context of Paul’s aerobic spin on the Christian faith is crucial. The context helps us understand that Paul is not rejecting a gospel of grace for a gospel of power. The last thing Paul would ever imply is that we win God’s love by merit of our own strength and might. Finding liberation in the gospel of Jesus Christ is certainly a prize, but it is not one we earn.

In the ninth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking about the freedom and responsibility of receiving the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ. The gift of salvation means that Christians are free. Free from the shackles of sin. Free from the religious duty to follow the Law of Moses. And the big question is this: what will the Corinthian Christians do with their newfound freedom?

Anyone who’s encountered a college freshman knows that too much freedom too fast can have an unpleasant effect on one’s decision-making muscle. Freedom is intoxicating, and can cripple our judgment. Paul knows this. He knows that this is true about himself, and his brothers and sisters in Christ. And his response is to make himself a servant, bound by the holy burden of sharing the Good News of God’s love with all people. He desperately hopes that all might know the grace of Christ, and his life and ministry are shaped by this hope.

These are the circumstances in which Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to run to win the race. This is how Paul works; he approaches ministry with unflagging energy, passion, and drive. He races to Ephesus and Philippi, Corinth and Caesarea, with the perseverance and concentration of an Olympic athlete, spending every waking hour devoted to making Disciples of all nations—and becoming a better Disciple himself.

This image of Paul’s is one of strength and self-control. But we are encouraged to be strong and faithful not for our own self-interest, but for the sake of the gospel.

Winning this race means serving God and God’s creation with our whole hearts. It means bearing witness to the gospel of love, modeling our words and actions after the perfect example set by Jesus.

Paul, though humble, is an impressive Christian. His ministry had an enormous impact on the spread of the gospel in the century after Jesus’ death. Paul really is something of a Christian Olympian, a ministry superstar. But it is good to remember where he came from. Paul did not start out as a disciple of Christ. Paul started out as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. He was the worst of the worst, dragging Christians off to prison, and advocating the murder of Stephen the martyr. An observer not well-versed in the ways of the Holy Spirit would take a good look at Saul and bet that this man would never see the light. But he saw the light all right—it bonked him on the head on the road to Damascus.

Saul was anything but a holy athlete when he encountered Jesus on that dusty road. He was a weak and mean-spirited man, enslaved to the powers and principalities that would suffocate the gospel. He was reviled and mistrusted.

Saul was not so different than the first leper Jesus cleansed in the gospel of Mark. The leper was the worst of the worst in Jewish society. Leprosy wasn’t seen as just another illness. It was in a wholly different category than a fever or paralysis. Leprosy made one unclean. It barred one from any participation in religious life. If you were touched by a leper, you became unclean as well—even if you did not contract the debilitating and painful condition. Lepers ended up living in the town dump, completely alienated from the community. Saul might as well have been a leper to the early Christians. Just as lepers endangered the physical and spiritual health of the Jewish people, Saul was a danger to the newborn church. And yet both the leper and the persecutor were touched by Jesus. Both were cleansed and made whole—the leper from his pain and alienation, and Paul from his hatred and weakness. Both were given new life, and were so filled with gratitude that they could barely contain their enthusiasm for the faith. The leper and the persecutor became evangelists of Olympic caliber, proclaiming the redeeming love and healing power of Jesus Christ.

Paul coaches Christians to approach their faith as seriously as runners approach a race. I know from personal experience what its like to run a ten kilometer race with no training. It’s slow, and painful, and you get asthmatic just trying to finish. You don’t even consider the possibility of winning. The athletes who gathered in Turin this week have spent years perfecting their sports. They have run drills and rehearsed routines. We’re supposed to be that devoted to the gospel! We’re called to the life of discipleship, and there’s no such thing as a couch potato disciple. There are too many prayers to pray and people to serve. There is too much infinite depth to the heart of God to be half-hearted about his Kingdom.

We might be weak now. The race might seem too long, the challenge too steep. But through the grace of God we have been given the gift of faith. Grace isn’t simply an invitation to sit on our laurels. It is an invitation to a more abundant, generous, and purposeful life. May we run this holy race to win!

On your mark, get set, go.


Sunday, February 5, 2006

Click here to read Mark 1:29-39.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” This is the message that Jesus is proclaiming in the region of Galilee. It took Jesus 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for the beginning of his public ministry. And these are the words that are at the heart of his teaching. His very presence on this earth is the fulfillment of time. Wherever he goes, the kingdom of God breaks into this earthly realm in fantastic ways.

It’s still only Jesus’ first day of work. He’s already amazed the crowd in the synagogue with his authoritative teaching and released a man from the captivity of an unclean spirit. So the word about Jesus is spreading like brushfire. The word has a way of doing that, especially when miracles are involved. Jesus of Nazareth is famous by noon.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus constantly faces new opportunities to reveal God’s lovingkindness. After the dramatic showing at the synagogue, Jesus retreats to Simon and Andrew’s house only to discover that Simon’s mother-in-law is dizzy with fever. Jesus simply offers his hand and lifts the woman out of her bed and out of her fever. And so it is with God, as Isaiah proclaimed so many years before: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

The whispers about Jesus become shouts, and by dusk, the whole village of Capernaum is gathered around Simon’s house. Men and women whose spirits were strangled by demons and people afflicted with all sorts of ailments show up. Men and women, old and young, healthy and sick: all are burning with hope that this strange and amazing man might bring truly good news.

That scene must have been incredible. A make-shift hospital set up in a rural village. No triage room, no wards separating the diseased of heart from the diseased of mind, no nurses to help shoulder the burden. Just one physician in dusty sandals, filtering out the roar of the crowd to concentrate on each suffering patient. He carefully discerns the nature of their illnesses, and dispenses his power to restore them to health and wholeness.

This matter of miracles is important. The miracles Jesus performed drew in the crowds, and throughout Jesus’ ministry, he demonstrated mixed feelings about the miracles. There is a tendency to miss the power behind the miracles, to miss the truth behind the magic.

Jesus did not perform miracles to impress crowds into a confession of faith. Rather, these miracles of healing and wholeness demonstrate something essential about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Within God’s realm, no unclean spirit excludes a man from his community. No fever hinders a woman from welcoming her guests with bread and drink. Within God’s realm, the power of the Spirit overwhelms the powers of evil.

The Kingdom of God is a just and peaceable kingdom, in which no one is held captive by sin or imprisoned by illness. As this story of God’s new movement through the work and person of Jesus Christ continues to unfold, we shall see that the power of the Spirit shall overcome even the power of death.

Jesus is more than the messenger of the good news; he is the good news. He is the Son of the Living God. His teaching and healing allows his Father’s Kingdom to rupture the powers and principalities of this world.

Even though the village of Capernaum and the region of Galilee were still oppressed by the Roman government, all those who responded to the gospel were liberated. The power of the Spirit was so concentrated in the person of Jesus that their suffering simply evaporated at his touch. The Kingdom of God was among them, near enough to heal the wounds and restore the spirit of an entire town. All within the course of one day, no less.

But the true heart of this gospel lesson happens the morning after that first exhausting Sabbath of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus had barely recovered from his 40 days in the wilderness when he began proclaiming the good news. Yet the next morning, before the rising sun scattered the darkness, Jesus returned to a deserted place. He didn’t tell his new followers where he was going; he simply disappeared.

Jesus crossed the safe boundaries of the city and found a deserted place to meet God in prayer. He single-mindedly sought out an opportunity to be in focused communion with his Heavenly Father. Before the sun ascended high enough to illuminate all the work that needed to be done that day, Jesus carved out a time for prayer. No matter that Simon and his companions were anxiously searching for him. Jesus knew that he needed to rekindle the spirit within him by reconnecting with the Spirit of God.

When the panicked Simon finally found him, Jesus was renewed and ready for another day spent giving power to the faint and strengthening the powerless.

After waiting for the Lord in prayer, he was strengthened to go on to the neighboring towns so that he could proclaim the message there also. That time with God reassured him of why he came to Galilee—why he came to earth at all. In this passage, we see the weight and power of prayer in the life of Jesus, the Son of God.

Isaiah coined the phrase waiting on the Lord, and I think this is the best definition of prayer I have ever heard. The Hebrew word for waiting is the same as the word for twisting, like making a rope. When we wait on God in prayer, he works on us, braiding our spirits with strength and power.

“Waiting on God then, implies an experience of allowing God to bind together our strengths, or to collect our resources. Or as we might say these days, letting God help us “get our act together.” God focuses us, gathers the frayed strands of our being, conserves our resources, reinforces us, enables us. (…)

Waiting is active, not passive. It is not waiting with dismal resignation to our fate, but trusting with confident expectation that God will employ the various strands of our life to the strongest and fullest degree possible.

This is not always a comfortable process. It may involve pain; tough decisions, personal anguish from radical changes as we ask God to reorder our discordant lives.” (Bruce Pewter)

This reordering can happen over 40 minutes, 40 days, or 40 years, so long as we keep waiting on the Lord. Prayer isn’t so much answered as fulfilled—when we stand up ready to share the good news.

The morning retreat Jesus takes in the desert is one of the few moments of calm in the first chapter of the Mark’s gospel. The pace is hurried. There doesn’t seem to be much time to wait on the Lord. There are people to heal, demons to cast out. But there is Jesus, praying in solitude, waiting for God to replenish his strength and authority.

For all the drama of this scripture, for all the joy that reverberated through the streets as the people shared the news that Jesus of Nazareth had the power to dispel evil spirits and illness, it is the quiet and humble act of prayer that is the greatest miracle and the most profound expression of the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are each called to hear and respond to the good news that “time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” We are each called to “repent, and believe in the gospel!” And as we surrender ourselves to the life of discipleship, God calls each of us to participate in the construction of his peaceable Kingdom. We are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, trusting that the Holy Spirit will turn us into vessels of God’s love and healing. Like Jesus and Isaiah before him, we must proclaim hope to the hopeless and give love to the unlovable, for we are the hands and feet of Christ.

But all our good works will be powerless if we are not continually returning to the source of love and life. Around the dinner table and around the communion table, in the loud rush of the city and in the quiet hush of solitude, let us pray like Jesus prayed.

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Click here to read Mark 1:21-28.

My, oh my. I’ve known all along that the day would come that I would be called to preach a text like Mark 1:21-28. Part of Jesus ministry was the practice of healing, and not simply healing people from illness. The scriptures tell us that Jesus also called out unclean spirits—demons, we might say. In our cynical and “rational” culture, miracles are a tough lot to interpret and proclaim. When the miracle at hand is an exorcism—well, let’s just say this is when novice preachers such as myself start calling up their mentors and colleagues for advice.

Conversation number one: my friend and seminary classmate, Rosamond. I called her up and told her about the scripture this week, and confessed that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task of preaching a faithful and relevant sermon about it. She paused and thought for a moment, and I waited expectantly for her response. “Well,” she said, “Maybe you should just perform an exorcism. That should get the point across better.”

Taking an inventory of my spiritual gifts reveals that, no, casting out unclean spirits is not in my repertoire. Back to the telephone. Thank goodness for free minutes on the weekend.

Conversation number two: Julie, my mentor from First Christian Church of Pomona. “Katherine, just put a good word in for Jesus. That’s all you have to do: put a good word in for Jesus.”

With that golden advice in mind, I revisited the text for today, meditating especially on the powerful and healing presence of Jesus. The modern questions that initially clouded my mind started to dissipate. In fact, I think for us to genuinely understand this scripture and to prayerfully consider its import for our community of faith, we have to filter out concerns that are not very essential or helpful. For instance, we could easily be bogged down by questions regarding the nature of the unclean spirit. Well-meaning modern readers of the Bible often connect the dots between demonic possession and mental illness, assuming that the spiritual ailments afflicting Jesus’ contemporaries were actually misunderstood conditions like schizophrenia or depression. We have no way of knowing, but by focusing on the nature of the affliction rather than the nature of the healing, we miss the whole point.

So here we are, in the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. Thus far, John the Baptist has preached, baptized, and gotten himself arrested. Jesus has been baptized, spent 40 days alone in the wilderness, and called four fishermen to be his disciples. This is how it is with Mark; he races to tell this story, and curtails much of the detail we expect from the other evangelists. It’s no surprise, then, that in retelling the tale of when Jesus visits Capernaum on the Sabbath, he tells us that Jesus teaches, but doesn’t clue us in on just what Jesus was teaching that day. When Mark writes that those present in the synagogue were “astounded at his teaching,” he isn’t so concerned about the content of Jesus’ teaching as the marvel of Jesus’ authority. Something about the way Jesus embodies the message he delivers catches everyone completely off guard. Jesus is a man who clearly knows what he is talking about. And given the context, in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, we can guess that Jesus was probably teaching something about God. Jesus was not speaking as someone who had simply studied the scriptures; he was speaking as someone who intimately knew the One revealed in the scriptures. The distinction between humdrum and authoritative teaching is significant. We can imagine this as the difference between reading an instructional manual for flying an airplane and actually sitting in the pilot’s seat of a Boeing 737 during take-off, or the chasm between watching a reality TV show about weddings and walking down the aisle with one’s beloved. You just can’t compare the experiences, but the rush of adrenaline and joy is unmistakably real. So when Jesus comes in teaching not like a stodgy professor but like the very Son of God, people take notice. His authority—the power and truth of his presence—is simply amazing.

In the midst of this unexpected amazement, a man enters the synagogue. This man is in bondage to an unclean spirit. What’s more, this is an unclean spirit that knows beyond the shadow of a doubt who Jesus truly is. He comes bounding in, startling the amazed crowd, breaking the seal of their amazement, and shouts. “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.” Now, if we’re paying attention to the way Mark is telling this story, we’ll remember that this is the second time a spirit has named who Jesus is. The first happened during his baptism, when the Holy Spirit tore the heavens asunder and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What Mark is trying to do here is simple: he wants us to see that both holy and unclean spirits alike recognize who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit is well-pleased, descending like a dove to rest upon Jesus’ river-drenched body. But the unclean spirit is terrified. The unclean spirit knows that if God is in this synagogue, its days of strength and power are numbered.

The man who had been in bondage to this unclean spirit is something of a mystery. We don’t know how long the unclean spirit had enslaved the man. We don’t know if his captivity caused the man to be marginalized and rejected by his community. We don’t know if the man had done anything to deserve his poor fate, or if he, too, recognized that Jesus Christ would be his salvation from the dark force engulfing his life. All we know is that Jesus silenced the unclean spirit and commanded it to leave the man. The man convulsed, the spirit cried, and this victim of oppressive evil became free. And Mark, in his usual brevity, moves on. He doesn’t bear witness to the man’s tears of gratitude. We are not privy to the rest of his story, how he reclaimed his life after Jesus liberated him from suffering.

Nope. All eyes are on Jesus. Even after this dramatic miracle, the people are still hung up on his astounding teaching. “What is this?” They exclaim. “A new teaching—with authority!” The exorcism of the unclean spirit is almost an afterthought; it merely confirms the authority revealed by his teaching. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

I love that question, “What is this?” It captures the breathless amazement of these astounded worshippers. They came to the synagogue that morning, believing that it was going to be an ordinary Sabbath. After a lifetime of hearing lackluster teachings that lacked the authoritative pizzazz of Jesus’ message, they probably didn’t expect to encounter the Holy One of God that morning. Or maybe they did. Annie Dillard says that we don’t dress properly for church, with our hair fixed just right and our nice clothes on. She says we should gather for worship wearing hard hats, because we never do know when the Spirit of God is going to shake everything up.

In this passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus is powerful, wise, and obviously attuned to the grace and wisdom of the scriptures. Jesus is deeply connected to the Spirit of God, who calls him Beloved Son. His unprecedented teaching startles a tired congregation into amazement. And in this passage, we realize that this holy authority comes at a cost. The unclean spirit arrives as a direct consequence to the presence of Jesus in the synagogue that day. That spirit comes specifically to call out Jesus as the Holy One of God, and to find out if this rabbi from Nazareth is as powerful as it fears.

In the brief interaction between Jesus and the unclean spirit, we see a glimpse of the whole life and ministry of Jesus Christ: he comes, he teaches, he is challenged by the forces of evil, and he is victorious. He liberates the man from bondage to the unclean spirits, and gives him new life.

This is our good word about Jesus for the day: this Great Teacher reveals that God is infinitely more powerful than the powers and principalities that enslave this good Creation. By the sheer force of his words, Jesus silences the wicked spirit and offers lasting salvation to its victim.

Thanks be to God, for the gift of his Son, the Holy One, who is our Lord and Savior. Amen.