Sunday, February 01, 2009

One of Their Own: Reflections on the Lessons for Epiphany 4, Year B

Preached at the Episcopal Eucharist at Summit '09 of the Spiritual Care Collaborative.

“Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” So Mark tells us. Jesus clearly made an impression.

In a sense, perhaps it wasn’t so hard. He taught, they noted, “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” I find myself imagining the difference between a well written and engaging sermon, contrasted with the dry, academic Bible study that sometimes gets substituted.

At the same time, I find myself wondering about that sentence, “they were astounded at his teaching.” I wonder if perhaps we might also appreciate it as, “They were astounded at him teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” I can imagine they might have been pleased. They might even have been impressed. But, why were they astounded?

Perhaps it was because, as near as we can tell, at first appearance Jesus wasn’t really all that impressive. For the all the subsequent history of Christian art, with all its sublime faces and gilt halos, from what the Gospels tell us neither Jesus nor his disciples were all that impressive at first appearance. Oh, the spirits knew Jesus. They were all too ready to call his name. But to anyone else, he probably looked like the carpenter he had been raised as; or like any other wandering preacher – dusty, disheveled, and down at the heel. Oh, he got a reputation, beginning with the exorcism in today’s lesson. But otherwise, he just didn’t look so special. Think how he was rejected, even ridiculed, in his own home town; or how the woman at the well initially saw little but annoyance in this strange man. Even after the resurrection, when Peter and John healed in his name, everyone was struck that they were uncultured, unlettered. No, they were astounded because, before they actually met him and the authority came through, he just didn’t look like much.

It didn’t help, I think, that they had a clear idea of what to look for. They had heard one speak with God’s authority before, and they looked to hear it again. They had been promised a prophet, one from their own people, but like Moses. The promise had been given in the text of Deuteronomy; and when they imagined Moses it was the Moses of Deuteronomy that they saw. They saw the Lawgiver, the experienced Leader. They saw the man who stood before them and instructed them for hours, holding them almost spellbound.

And in doing so, I think they missed Moses. That is, I think they confused the Messenger with the Message, the Lawgiver with the Law. They forgot Moses as we know him in Exodus. Here was no great orator, no great leader. Here was a wandering shepherd, who had fled from the people he know and been adopted by a Bedouin tribe. When he saw the burning bush, he came, not with a sense of destiny, but with sheer curiosity. When called to his great mission, he tried every excuse he could think of to talk God out of it. He would never have gone forward had God not provided him with a Bronze Age media system – Aaron for a loudspeaker, and the staff as a visual aid. And even with those, he didn’t look like much at first. Neither Hebrew nor Egyptian saw anything special in him, until they actually saw him in action and the authority came through. Israel in Jesus’ day remembered Moses in Deuteronomy, illuminated and highlighted by all those years of receiving and relaying God’s presence. They didn’t remember the small frail man, too weak, too frightened to speak until God spoke through him.

And so in the synagogue in Capernaum, they weren’t confused about the authority: Moses had spoken God’s word long before. Instead, they were astounded: astounded that it came from someone who looked at first glance just like them, like the Moses who encountered the burning bush, and not like the Moses they remembered.

This is an important point for us, I think - for us as chaplains. If there is any word that seems to dog us, literally to follow our process like a bloodhound, it is that word, “authority.” Early in our training we discover we have an “authority issue.” We all have it. It’s just a matter of how we live it out, whether how we express authority, or how we respond to the authority of others. We are called to claim and express our own “pastoral authority,” certainly as part of our growth in ministry, and ultimately as an integral aspect of our professional practice. That’s true of every person in ministry, of course; but we’re especially self-conscious about it.

And that’s important because we know – we’ve seen all too often - how pastoral authority can be abused. I sometimes pick up on that old joke about the pastor who was asked to pray for good weather, who responded, “You’ll have to take that up directly with Management; I’m just in sales.” My own response is that I’m in Maintenance, working to support the repair and rehabilitation of bodies and minds and spirits. I’m particularly aware of those times when the spirits need rehabilitation because of the damage done by colleagues who misuse authority to shame or reject or abuse. And time after time, it has happened because ministers came to believe their own press, to see themselves as special and set apart. They saw themselves as later Israel saw Moses, as later Christians would see the Apostles: great proclaimers, great law givers and leaders, complete with sublime faces and gilt halos.

When those ministers did that, they lost track of how God worked, of how God amazed and astounded, proclaiming through those who were, really, one of the people. The Hebrews, and ultimately the Egyptians, saw God more clearly precisely because Moses didn’t look like much. The folks in Capernaum were astounded precisely because Jesus didn’t look like much. It was when people heard and saw God in folks just like them, heard and saw God all the more clearly because the messengers weren’t themselves a distraction, that the people realized the amazing, astounding power of God. Ministers who do harm do so, time after time, because they come to see themselves as having solely their own authority, rather than letting God’s authority speak through them.

Which brings me to the bedside. I think this speaks particularly to the vocation we have as chaplains. We work in an environment where, all too often, we feel little authority. Certainly, we don’t have the authority that comes to those who can quote lab values and parse differential diagnoses, not to mention generate revenue. We rarely even have the authority that can be attributed when we speak to someone from our own faith community. But, if we’re clear about where our authority lies, that’s to our advantage. For those we serve each of us can become the one like them, one from among their own people, who can reflect and relay the love and power of God. And the love and power of God can continue to amaze and astound and convict, not because we’re special but precisely because we’re not. We can enter into relationship with another, and allow God to shine through despite the fact – indeed, because of the fact – that we’re not a distraction, not special and set apart.

Jesus went to teach in Capernaum, and they were astounded at his teaching – they were astounded at him, teaching – because he spoke has one having God’s authority. When we allow God’s authority to speak through us, we, too, can share with those we serve in experiencing again the amazing, astounding, convicting love and power of God.

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