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Sunday, January 28, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Today hope has narrowed to the vanishing point of self alone. . . .
The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving
Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope
Some would say he came unhinged. In the encounter that day in the synagogue at Capernaum with Jesus, yes, you could say he sort of snapped the expected norms and leapt out of his skin, what skin was still intact. Jesus and the freshly minted disciples had come into town from the lake. Shaking off their fishy smells, they were trying on a new identity—followers on the way, whose call had come from an itinerant rabbi to join up in fishing for people—for their souls, indeed. It was the sabbath. Jesus and his followers came into the temple and, as was the custom, joined the scribes in study and teaching. Jesus’ teaching had a power, a strength, sheer authority as he held forth, that shone the light on him. This contrasted with the erudite scribes, who were the stuffy doctors of the law, biblical scholars. This nobody Jesus’ brilliance astounds them, with his authority. But that was just the beginning of it. Suddenly the whole scene, not just the man, comes unhinged.
Out of the shadows a man, who is not given a name, not given a diagnosis—like blind or deaf or sick or bleeding, but possessed by an unclean spirit—addresses the astonishing teacher: “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.”
Indeed, the interruption, the disruption of a sabbath day, focuses on Jesus, who now is recognized and named by a disturbed personality. Jesus crashes in through the realm of ultimate reality and is named by one who shatters the decorum of the synagogue. And like the tearing open of the heavens at his baptism, Jesus the veil between heaven and earth comes apart, unhinged.
But that is not all that got unhinged that day. Jesus, in responding to the legion demons, does so with absolute resolute engagement. He teaches with power and authority in a way that is so consistent in Mark’s Gospel, continuously bending the arc of the universe toward healing and justice. “Be silent, and come out of him,” Jesus commands, and in that very moment the world changes. Right smack dab in the midst of the synagogue the power of evil is confronted and defeated. Friends, this is no accident. This is the power of God through the beloved Son of God that looks squarely in the eye all that tries to manipulate, maneuver, deflect, or undo the very name of all that is Holy. Jesus teaches with action; this is a confrontation between a man possessed by the Spirit of God and a man possessed by the demonic. And a child of God is delivered from bondage; the convulsing, screaming unclean spirit comes out of him.
In another time and another place, with authority and power, Jesus’ predecessor in faith, Moses, is giving something of a retirement speech. Rather than his inauguration into authority, as in Jesus’ case, Moses is coming to the end of his days as Israel’s leader. Those addressed are the people Moses had led, held in his heart, brought out of captivity through the wilderness. Now they are nearing the Promised Land. The retirement address has the tone of warning as well as wonder related to the next step of the journey. In the new land they will enter they will encounter many practices that may seem tied to religious expression—casting lots, divining with arrows, reading dregs in cups, consulting dead spirits, or seeing omens in natural phenomenon. Moses states in no uncertain terms that these practices are abhorrent to God. Why? Because these practices rely on human efforts and not God’s. The people are a distinct community whose absolute obedience is to God, the One who promises to be with them and here promises to raise up a prophet that will be given by God and whose words will come from God, to utter what will come to be. The wonder of it all is that the prophet will mediate God’s word. God promises a prophet to proclaim God’s word as the people set their sights on the future promise.
In many ways, the promise of the prophet is not unlike what happened in that synagogue, standing over against the powers that be, the power of kings and judges. As a matter of fact, there was terror rendered by many kings and priests. The promised prophet would not be bound by political or religious structures. Rather these prophets would destroy the chaos of exile, of people who walk in darkness, who long to see the light. As one commentary said, “The charismatic power of the prophet is an antidote for the hopelessness and despair of a people who have lost the historic, concrete moorings of their nation (palace and army) and their faith (temple and priesthood).” But the deeper and persistent question that erupts from these Hebrew Bible and New Testament moments is one that we ask in our day as well: Where do we find the presence of God who seems absent? Where is the God who seems to have let this absence happen to us? And the answer is in the promise: “I will raise up a prophet for you.” The stirring, shaking, powerful presence of the prophetic finds its way into a backwoods synagogue in Capernaum, and I daresay that same prophetic impulse is unhinged today by the power of prophets at this time in history. But who are the prophets in our time? What voice is emerging today?
Some historians of culture have said that every 500 years there is a massive shift in the order of civilization. Some call these times “hinge” time; others call it the axial age. Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, calls it a once in every 500 years rummage sale, an upheaval in culture and worldview that reshapes our faith. Not unlike the Great Schism of the eleventh century and the Great Reformation in the sixteenth, the “tsunami of change is well under way, marked by the postmodern and post-Christian sensibilities of the millennial generation” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, p. xix).We are living in times when the old order is coming to an end and we stand on a threshold glimpsing what might be coming as the hinges are opening and closing. One contemporary author speaks of the New Copernican, referring back to Copernicus, who shattered the belief of his time by postulating that the universe revolved around the sun rather than the earth. The question that arises is whether the generation who came of age when the twenty-first century emerged from the twentieth is ushering in a new age. The guiding insights of the millennial generation or the New Copernicans might begin to be summed up in these assumptions: “Life is spherical. It is lived in 3D. It is better understood from lived experience than from abstract categories. It is messy, provisional, and intrinsically relational.” Author John Seel says, “We are currently living in the pregnant pause between the flash of insight by New Copernicans and the thunder of adjusting to its emerging social reality” (John Seel, “Think Different: The Rise of the New Copernicans”).
I suggest to you today that young adults who stand on the threshold of the new in our time may well be bringing the prophetic word to us, in this time in history and in this place, Fourth Presbyterian Church. Many of you know that I spent my career, until I left Harvard, as the University Chaplain. Through the years I watched and listened and leaned into the imagination of generations of young people who unhesitatingly told me of their worry about the future and of their deep longing for something that would sustain them through fear and worry and loss, not only through death but lost dreams. This generation is one of the least engaged with religious communities of any in the history of this country. The religious nones are not necessarily atheist or agnostic. They simply stand outside of traditional religious structures, watching, waiting, wondering. They, in some ways, are like the people in exile or in a state of wandering, trying to make sense of life and longing to be met by authentic and awakening life.
When the search committee for the Senior Associate Pastor and I got honest with each other in discussing this job, when the dance of candidate and committee moved from waltz to tango, grace to passionate awakening, I heard God’s call to Fourth Church through their voices and through the vision of this community. I realized that this congregation, with its rich history, unique location, unapologetically grounded in the Reformed and always reforming tradition, might just be one of the places where the next generation of Christian followers can find their footing and give expression to the hope that the world is not going mad but it is just a bit unhinged. I knew that I could stay at Harvard and work with the range of multiple faith communities. But I realized that I want to honor God’s call to me to work with those who find themselves wondering and waiting for the story of Jesus’ life to intersect with their world. I long to listen, to support, to be startled, and at moments be taken aback by their courageous brilliance.
The shaking, erupting life forces of this world come from the shadows of the church—just as the demon-possessed man tore open a remarkably unremarkable scene in that synagogue—and find their way to this church. As New Testament scholar Brian Blount says, “In such a world you either go with the man (Jesus) and help him create the holy chaos he’s creating or you find a way to do everything you can to stop him so you can get your people back in line” (Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 33).
Krista Tippett, in her new book, Becoming Wise, talks about an interview with Nathan Schneider, a journalist, social activist, and millennial public intellectual. He is a category-defying young adult raised by parents who exposed him to every spirituality until he was baptized into the Catholic church. His choice was the radical choice of orthodoxy. As he described his experience of exploration, he realized that the religious traditions engage with the questions that are keenly important to young adults: forging “the way in which [we] express God in and through an account of relationship between people” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 172).
Rediscovering the power of Jesus’ ministry of grace and hospitality, Nathan took his cues from others who, in his words, “reimagined” the church and spiritual life. He learned of a group who founded an intentional community called the Simple Way. This community took its mandate for Christian living from the Book of Acts, where believers shared all things in common. There were no needy people among them; they shared all possessions in common. He realized that they had been railing against the church that had either been too doctrinaire or too loose in its expression. They decided on a radical alternative: to try to become the church that they had dreamed of. They moved to a neighborhood with homeless people, kids who needed help with homework. And they opened their doors to those who needed a gospel-bearing, lif-giving hospitality.
Nathan says, “Most people my age that I see . . . really are wanting to know how to create a better world. They say, we need to figure out how to live differently ourselves and to live with some imagination and creativity and give themselves to something bigger than their own little circle of friends.” But Nathan then concludes, “If the Christian church loses this generation, it will not be because we didn’t entertain them, but because we didn’t dare them with the truth of the world. It won’t be because we’d made the gospel too hard, but because we made it too easy” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 178–179).
“I will raise up a prophet” is the promise, and the work of the prophet is not easy! The work of a prophetic community in our time is not easy either! But it is absolutely essential for the life, the very life, of this planet! There are many in our day—not only the famous ones, but the ones who are haunted with beauty, with silence, with raves, and riotous life! They are unhinged from all that masquerades as truth and are speaking, singing, slamming, opening the imagination of our day to the vocation of trust and truth for this world that God loves. This is the world that is shaken up by the power of Jesus, who not only loves the world with a madness that causes the demons to quake but loves you and you and you so much that he calls you this day to be fully alive, ready to claim the authority that is given by God’s Spirit, ready to follow Jesus out into the daylight, out into the dimness, out to claim God’s realm in every corner of this city and this planet.