Sunday, January 29, 2012

Prove It

Mark 1:21-28
New International Version (NIV)
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Integrity. It’s one of those words that Ward Cleaver might have used in a heartfelt lecture to Wally and the Beaver. Or maybe a word you might see featured in an investment ad during a televised golf event. Most of us seem to think we have some sense of its meaning but we are ultimately hard-pressed to point to many examples. Integrity has become one of those high-minded ideals that most of us don’t really believe is still possible.

Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied and even disgusted by those who govern. The president, the congress… across the board the disapproval ratings seem to stay at - or near - historic highs. And the disappointment does not seem to be closely tied to party or ideology or even to positions on the “hot button” issues. I think our disapproval has grown out of a realization that there seems to be so little integrity among those who govern. We watch them debate or make speeches and we slowly begin to suspect that they don’t really believe most of what they are saying. We watch again and again, cycle after cycle as presidential candidates lean hard right or hard left to gain their party’s nomination and then move quickly to the center during the general election. We see this, we recognize it, and perhaps most tragically, we have more or less made peace with it… until recently.

So; if we do not find the standard of integrity met within government, then what about the church? The scandals make the headlines and certainly tell a damning story to those want to find fault with the church. But those are mostly easy targets and are really not fairly used as evidence of an integrity problem in the church. But… what about the rest of the church? And if we are going to really examine the church – and ourselves – we need to look hard at the questions we are asking and how we apply the standard of integrity.

In today’s passage, Jesus showed up at church on the Sabbath and he spoke, he taught them. And because of his words, only his words, the people were amazed “because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”
“NOT as the teachers of the law”
It could not have been his seminary degree or his education. The teachers of the law had this and more. It could not have been his title, the teachers of the law had titles (and it was Jesus’ title that would eventually get him executed). It wasn’t his money or the impressive men that made up his entourage. So what was it?

They say that the best salesperson is a man (or woman) who uses the product they promote. I think this is true whether the potential customer knows it or not. We are able to sense it… to feel the passion and authenticity. This is the reason that although virtually everyone in Hollywood is an exclusive Mac user, Apple has never had a more effective spokesman than Steve Jobs. Jobs was not an actor, not a trained public communicator, not a gifted orator. What Jobs was, and maybe what Apple misses most with his death, was a true believer. No one believed more in Apple products and innovations than the man who ran the company. Jobs was not necessarily the smartest or most technologically gifted individual at Apple… he simply believed harder and more completely – and it showed. Job’s authority and integrity came, not because he was right about Apple’s marketplace superiority, but because he completely and fully believed he was right and then acted boldly on that belief. True belief leads to vision and vision… to action.

Jesus spoke, not in dry religious recitation, not in slavery to his culture or traditions. Jesus spoke - He read the scripture, as the man among all humanity who most truly and deeply believed every word. He spoke not as an academic master of exegesis but as the author who understood the deep and mysterious meaning of the words. Not as a high-school American Lit teacher trying to explain the structure of “The Sound and the Fury” (and pretending to understand it) but as Faulkner himself explaining not only what the story means but why he wrote it in the first place what he was saying beneath the story. Jesus spoke, not as an educated observer of creation, but as creator!

And the people heard it… they saw it… they knew that he was different. They knew he had authority. And then…

A man with a demon walks into the room and challenges this authority… authority already established simply by Jesus’ teaching. Jesus speaks firmly to the demon and orders it to leave its host. The man shakes violently and the demon leaves prompting a second astonished response from the gathered crowd:

“What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

Even with the demonstration of power… the focus remains on the authority of his teaching. Jesus’ actions point back to his words… to his teaching.

There is little point in debating the fact that much of our society has lost faith in the words of the church… they no longer believe our message. I wonder if they doubt us because they are no longer convinced that WE believe our message. I suggested earlier that we need to look hard at the questions we are asking and how we apply the standard of integrity. Are we asking the right questions? Are we setting the standard where it needs to be set?

To an outsider looking in, it may rightly appear that the church no longer even HAS a message to those beyond our walls. It might appear that we have stopped trying to share the message of Christ with those who have not experienced his love and mercy. Instead, our energy, our money, our passions are spent shouting at one another… shouting messages and words, not for others, but for those within our larger family who we deem HERETICS. We shout over heaven and hell, over competing atonement theories, over whether or not women should be allowed in ministry or even have paying jobs! We have stopped trying to convince the guy with the Dell PC that Mac makes a better computer… we are, instead, expending our energies by arguing over whether or not the black iPhone is cooler than the white one. And in the process, we miss the simple genius that caused Steve Jobs to offer the iPhone in two colors.

We have a message… a message that we must believe and live if we are to speak it with authority. A simple and yet profound message:

“Jesus loves you”

“GOD loves you”

True belief leads to vision and vision… to action. The first step to integrity, to the authority that Jesus carried, is to believe these words – to believe them fully and deeply and to allow the words to reveal our path forward. And then… we must act. If we believe, we must act. And if we believe, the opportunity to act will follow.

When we speak of God’s love, we should expect to be interrupted by demonic voices daring us to “prove it!” The demons of poverty and hunger… The demon of lonliness… The demons of prejudice and bigotry. Homelessness. Addiction. Abuse. All of these demons will step into our line of sight when we speak of His love and they will say “prove it”. And then… we act. Or; we step around the unclean spirit and move forward, with Jesus’ words still warm in our mouths. Words slowly turning from hope into a type of toxin. And the demons mock us. The demons mock us because we have proven that we do not believe in the love of God; because we have shown that they are only words – spoken with no authority.

“Jesus loves you…”

If we believe this – if we truly and deeply embrace the magic and the mystery of these words… then THIS community can become all that He has called us to be. If we live, and breath, and move, and have our being within this truth, then we will become who we say we are. People of Deep Community – of Generous Mission – of unlimited Inclusion – and of worship born in spirit and in truth.

May we believe deeply and fully in the love of Christ.

May we speak of his love with integrity and authority.

May we prove our words by the work of our hands.

And may we cast out every evil voice that would distract us from our mission to share his love with one another… and with the world.

His kingdom come.