Text: Mark 1:21-28 (Jesus teaches with authority)
Has a sermon ever changed your life? Or can you barely remember most of them one hour after church has ended?
Sermons rarely stick with me. My late father was a minister, and he must have delivered more than 2,000 sermons over 50 years. But I do not remember them.
Sermons are probably not the top reason people come to church. Music is more important for many of us. For others it may be the spiritual rhythm of peace and compassion we try to create here — a different rhythm, we hope, from the clamorous ones of everyday business and family life.
Mark does not record what Jesus preaches the first time he leads a congregation in a synagogue. But whatever it is, his inaugural sermon makes a big impression. “The people were spellbound by the teaching because Jesus taught with an authority that was unlike their religious scholars,” Mark writes.
This is the first time Mark draws a contrast between Jesus and the religious elite. As we will learn in the rest of the story, the authority of the religious leaders of the Jewish people in Palestine is tied to the authority of the occupying Roman Empire.
Like most religious leaders then and now, those in First Century Palestine try to not disturb their imperial overlords. To do so would risk censure, repression, or even death. So why rock the boat, especially when the possibility of freedom from Roman rule seems non-existent?
Jesus is different. He preaches the kingdom of God in distinction to the kingdom of Rome. His authority is rooted in spiritual authenticity, fearlessness, and a compassion so great it heals a demon-possessed person. In Jesus, people see an authority that threatens both the Romans and the religious elite who collaborate with Rome.
But does this story have anything to say to us today? Canada is not a slave-based empire like Rome. Nevertheless, I believe the spiritual path we walk can create an authority that might disturb governments.
One such attempt at disturbance made the news in Edmonton this week. GraceLife Church in Parkland County has defied public health orders on the past Sundays and encouraged 300 hundred congregants to gather and sing unmasked.
The actions of this church make me angry. But I am almost as angry at the province for how it is dealing with the church.
By organizing large, unmasked, indoor gatherings, GraceLife is not only breaking the law. It is risking disease and death and sabotaging efforts to restore economic and social life in a pandemic-ravaged province. So why severe sanctions have not been placed on the church puzzles me.
The Alberta government calls the COVID-19 pandemic an emergency; and who can disagree. It has led to 1700 deaths in the province, disrupted life in an unprecedented way, and cratered the economy. But in the instance of GraceLife as in others, the government does not always seem to act like it is an emergency.
I have often felt frustration at how governments have handled the pandemic. But unlike GraceLife, my frustration is not with public health restrictions. It is with governments’ competency, spirit, and energy as they try to tackle the disease.
In countries like New Zealand and Vietnam that eliminated the virus last spring and who work to continuously stop it at their borders, public denial of science is low and trust in authority is high. But in countries like Canada that struggle to correct course after a year of falling behind most other countries in the world, both the denial of science and scorn for governments are rising . . .
Perhaps a sermon like that delivered by Jesus’ in Capernaum could turn things around. But since we do not know what he preached that day, I now turn to a sermon that changed my life. I heard it on Sept. 16, 2001 when I went to Kingston Road United Church in east-end Toronto for the first time.
As a teenager, I had drifted away from church despite my father being a minister. After that, I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto. And September 16, 2001 happened to be one of those times.
I was dreading church that day because it was the first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The sanctuary was packed; the atmosphere was tense; and the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.
The minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland, did not use her sermon to bash Islam or cheerlead the military response being planned by the United States. Instead, she called for openness in the midst of mourning, hope in the midst of fear, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.
She told a startling story from when she and her husband worked as Christian missionaries in Peru in the 1990s. They were friends with a neighboring family that, it turned out, had become caught up in a brutal terrorist group; and this story upended my expectations of what a sermon could offer.
In that week of pain and fear, Rivkah stood against Western governments, which were gearing up for the War on Terror. Instead, she upheld a path of humility, compassion, and distributed authority. In the face of a so-called clash of civilizations, she offered God’s kingdom.
I liked her message; and I felt a space opening in my heart into which flooded grief and hope. So, I joined the church and its choir and laid myself open to the gracious effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which slowly worked to transform me.
It may be rare to leave a church service reeling. But that day I did, and ever since I have stumbled down the Way of the Cross from one gracious crisis to another, something for which I am eternally grateful.
I do not hope to ever deliver a sermon that will have a similar impact. But Rivkah’s sermon showed me how the power of story, of words, and of a path of death and resurrection could turn around the life of a miserable wretch like me.
In the First Century in Palestine, the religious elite saw no way to stand against Rome. Happily, Jesus did. In 21st Century Canada, churches like GraceLife stand against the authority of science, public health, and the government; and while I can empathize with some of their frustrations, I judge their stance to be foolish.
As for myself, I support governments when they seem to be effectively tackling social ills like a pandemic. But when our leaders prove unable or unwilling to rise to the occasion – whether in a pandemic or in a struggle for justice – I seek an authority that is broader, greater, and more compassionate than that of any government. In moments of crisis like September 2001 or February 2021, I look for a kingdom that is made up of flames of Spirit within the heart of every partisan of Love in this beloved community and around the world.
Friends let us seek first the kingdom of God and then use its startling authority to heal our wounded souls and tend to the wounds of this weary world.
May it be so. Amen.