Elise Ashley Hanley
4 Epiphany, Year B, 28 January 2018
Trinity on the Green
“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…”1
And in case we missed it – we hear again just 5 lines later:
“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’2
One of the many, many challenges of living in our current times, can be knowing who or what to treat and trust as authority – for the sake of this sermon, I am speaking primarily about the news, or what might be considered by some as “fake news,” or by others as “propaganda,” coming at us from all and various sides. Fake news is, of course, nothing new – but it seems different in our time.
I am really speaking of the cacophony of voices we hear, especially if we spend time on the internet, especially on social media, or on cable news. These days, it seems anyone can get their message out – we can each have our own soapbox! – and that can be great. Almost anyone, including non-humans – cats, dogs, and hippos – all God’s creatures can have their own blog, website, Twitter or Facebook account, a platform where they can say just about ANYTHING. Thank God for free speech… and free meows? Free barks? I’m not sure what sound hippos make…
Truly, I am for free speech – there are so many good things about being able to say almost anything, but we all know that the good comes with the awful. It is quite problematic when we hear speech that harms and wounds or even kills: especially when other people regard those voices as their authority.
So, who has authority these days? Who teaches with authority? Who do we uphold as our authority?
What kind of authority figures have we had in our lives? What convinced us of their authority? Was it just because we were told they were so that we HAD to respect them? Or was it a parent, a teacher, a religious leader, a favorite newscaster, or even a politician, who seemed better or more knowledgeable, or more trustworthy? What was it about them that was striking, or different, or refreshing? Perhaps some of us have always been wary of authority? Perhaps burned by trusting authority figures, or mistreated, that we don’t trust anyone. How are we authority figures in our lives? In our families, or in our jobs? How have we tried to earn our authority? How have we used it, or misused it?
I often double check authority, especially on the internet. I’ve always prided myself on being a fact checker. I try to not always take everything I see or read at face value, and to be curious. I have long been a user of Snopes.com – you may be too. Snopes prides itself on being “the definitive fact-checking and Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” They have been one of my go-to internet authority checkers. Lately, I find myself using it multiple times a day. Being a citizen on the internet these days can be really tiring, and often upsetting. While I try to follow the advice “NEVER read the comments,” on posts or articles, sometimes I do, and sometimes they are fine, but it seems all the more often that I see people being unnecessarily malicious to one another. Many people want to prove that they are an authority – that they know the way, or that their opinion or life experience is the only way: that they are not open to developing, or learning from others that are different from them.
Over this weekend, I saw two of my Episcopal clergy colleagues rip each other to pieces on Facebook. These are two women priests who I highly respect! Or, rather, I did. Their shouting match back and forth on what started as a posted opinion about Ash Wednesday was ultimately over their own perceived sense of authority, and was ultimately, I felt, rather shameful.
So, again I ask: amidst the cacophony of so many voices, whom can we trust?
We gathered here may disagree about many things. And that is ok! Disagreement, real live conversation and debate are healthy, and I would encourage we all participate! But I hope we can all agree on one authority figure.
Our Gospel today reminds us repeatedly that Jesus is the authority. He was then, and he is now. Those in attendance at the synagogue recognized it in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus must have been a pretty great preacher. He must have had incredible communication skills. Jesus first shows his authority by the way he speaks, by the way he teaches and preaches. He must have seemed radical and new, because he astounded the people in his hearing. And the unclean spirit knows Jesus, and knows Jesus’ authority. The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God. The unclean spirit knows that Jesus is there to destroy evil, which he then does.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus ultimately shows his authority by what he DOES. In our passage today, Jesus performs his first miracle of healing in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus silences the unclean spirit before it can say anything else, and he orders it out of the man. If the folks at the synagogue weren’t already impressed by Jesus, now they must have been really wowed. Jesus commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him.
Ultimately, Jesus sees a man who is suffering greatly, in need of his help. Jesus speaks a healing word, and it shakes everything up. It causes the evil spirit to come out of the convulsing man. Jesus heals this man, and then continues to go on and heal many others. And the news about Jesus begins to spread around Galilee.
So, Jesus has the authority! The power of Jesus, the power of God, will ultimately conquer even death! And yet, Jesus doesn’t go on and on about how great he is. He doesn’t use his authority to obtain wealth, or fame, or prestige. He uses it to serve others. He uses it to help others. As he says to the disciples later in the Gospel of Mark, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Ultimately, Jesus has come to bring about God’s kingdom, God’s community – Jesus has come to heal and to save – and to transform all who encounter him.
Jesus is our authority, he also authorizes us to follow his example of servant leadership. Jesus authorizes us to follow him – to teach and preach about his works of love and grace. Jesus also authorizes us to continue to love and to heal in his name – to work for justice and peace in our world. To rebuke evil when we encounter it, to resist it in all forms – even to trample it!
So, my friends: (let it not get to our heads, but) we are all authorized! How will this community continue to love and heal in the name of Jesus? How will each of us be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world?
1 Mark 1:22
2 Mark 1:27
3 Mark 10:45