Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Authority and Right Behavior

Deuteronomy 18:15-22
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

We start today with the passage from Deuteronomy that calls us to be careful, especially as leaders in the church, of what we say, of what we teach.  We are then led to the Corinthians passage which calls us to be mindful of everything that we DO so that we are not leading people astray or down a bad path.  And finally we come to the Mark passage in which Jesus’ authority is made clear. He both teaches and acts with an authority that astounds and shakes people up.
Of course Jesus’ authority shakes people up.  He got it RIGHT.  He was able to do what he set out to do.  He was able to cure and exorcise demons.  He was able to speak in a way that people heard differently.  He spoke, as we are told, “with an authority that was not like the legal experts.”  Have you ever been in a place where someone was speaking and the words touched you with an authority that shook you?  Where the words felt like they went all the way into your heart in a way that was different from what we usually hear or the ways we usually hear?  Have you ever heard someone speak, even to a group, and know that somehow the words that were coming out of that other person’s mouth were spoken FOR you and TO you even if the person saying them wasn’t aware of it?
Several years ago, I was helping out in Aislynn’s classroom.  I was walking with the children to their computer lab when we passed the school janitor.  Aislynn’s teacher said hi to the man and he responded, “Just Keep believing”!  But as he said it, he turned to me and locked eyes with me for just a moment.  And I had that feeling, that feeling of being hit by lightning, that feeling of having heard a message just for me, that feeling of having met an angel, a messenger from God who had something that I needed to hear in that moment.  If this stranger had actually spoken these words to me directly, I doubt that I would have taken them in the same way.  I would have heard them as trite, or would have felt “preached at”.  He was the janitor, someone some people might dismiss.  But through his voice in that moment and at that time, I heard God.  In that moment he spoke with authority.  I don’t know if he was even aware of it, but that doesn’t matter.  He spoke with authority in that moment to me.
This has happened for me other times as well.  A couple months ago at one of our praise services we read a scripture passage from James 3 and 4 that I had prepared to preach on ahead of time.  Mostly it focused on not judging others, but there was one verse in the passage, “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  And while it was one verse among many and not the verses that I had focused on when I was preparing the sermon, when the scripture was read that evening, those passages spoke to me.  They spoke to me differently.  They spoke with authority to me about our relationships with God.  Are we in relationship with God so that we can get what we want from God?  Do we pray so God will bless us and our lives with abundance?  Some preachers preach this idea with a theology called “prosperity gospel” in which the message really is that if we just do x, God will give us y.  It is all about what we can get from God and that is the call they use to bring people into faith.  But this passage from James says something different.  Do we do all of this for ourselves?  Are we here in this place because it will make us happier?  Or do we worship and pray because God calls us to pray, God calls us into a life of faith because God wants us to live lives that serve OTHERS?  Do we ask, how will this benefit me?  Or do we ask, how will this serve God and God’s people?  That verse in James hit me in that moment with great authority, with truth, with depth, with God’s presence.
Sometimes I have been talking with one of you, or more, have been part of a conversation with a bunch of people, and one of you will say something that, similarly, hits me differently.  It will go into my heart in a different, new way as if the words were spoken with authority, as if God God-self had commanded that they be said.  When we hear something spoken like that, when we hear God’s voice behind the words, it is amazingly powerful, and it shakes us to the core.
In today’s passage from Deuteronomy the prophets are being warned.  They are being warned to only speak God’s truth or they will die.  But the reality is we all die.  And perhaps that is in part because we all mess up, there are times even the prophets got it wrong and get it wrong. We know this because we believe there was only one who got it right ALL the time and that was Jesus.  We also know it from the stories of the prophets themselves.  Jeremiah got it wrong by thinking he couldn’t do anything because he was too young.  Moses got it wrong thinking that because of his speech impediment, he could not lead the Israelites.  Jonah got it wrong over and over again – first by running from God and then by being angry that God did not destroy Nineveh.  The prophets were all human and so sometimes they got it wrong.  We are the same.  No matter how faithfully we strive to follow God and to speak what God would have us say, sometimes we get it wrong.  Mostly I’m not even sure we know it when we get it wrong.  We could be preaching with great conviction and still be totally misguided in our understanding.  Sometimes we know we’ve got it wrong after the words escape our lips, and the only thing we can do is apologize.  At my last church I had to do the memorial service for a stranger who was the adult son of a couple of my parishioners and who had committed suicide.  After the service, the father of the deceased man came up to me and said, “That must have been a really hard service to do.”  I looked at this parishioner, a man in his 80s at the time, someone whom I deeply loved and respected and the words flew out of my mouth, “It wasn’t as hard as it will be to do yours.”  The second I said the words I knew they were just the stupidest, most insensitive thing I could have said.  I meant to communicate care to this man whom I really did care about.  But sometimes we just get it wrong.
           Jesus' words and behavior showed us a great contrast to this for he spoke with wisdom, love and authority at all times.  He acted with wisdom, love and authority at all times.  His words and his actions caused even the demons to speak who he was and to be afraid.  His words and his actions touched people and shook them to the core.  His words and his actions caused people to ask why and how he spoke with authority.  And that authority stemmed from love.  That authority came from the place where Jesus cared more about healing others through giving them God’s word and God’s healing than he cared about his own life.  That authority came from the place where Jesus was all about serving and loving US, to the point where he was willing to be killed because of how much he loved us.
In the Corinthian passage we are called to act with that same care.  Yes, we are told, we have been given freedom in our faith, a freedom to live more fully.  But if we enact that freedom in a way that confuses, or misleads another, or worse, causes another to fall away from God, then we have misused the freedom that God has given us.  Does that mean that we are called to make some sacrifices?  Absolutely.  But more, it means we are called to notice.  What are we doing that helps and uplifts others and what are we doing that causes others to turn from their faith, from living their lives as wholly and fully as they can? What are we doing that brings faith and joy and love to others and what are we doing that causes others to stumble?  And are we willing to give some things, not because we have to but because it is the loving thing to do for the sake of those other people whom God also loves?  Are we willing to live lives that demonstrate love for even those people who make us uncomfortable, even those people we may hate, because we love God?  Are we willing to focus on the other, and on God, more than on ourselves?  We have to think about this not only by our actions but by our words as well.  There is a saying that we should THINK before we speak.  Each of the letters in the word “THINK” stand for something.  Is what we are about to say True?  Is it Helpful?  Is it Inspiring?  Is it Necessary?  And is it Kind?
We won’t always get it right.  We don’t have the authority, the wisdom or the love of Christ.  But the more we strive to live as Christ, the closer we become to the people God calls us to be.  Amen.