4 Epiphany: I get discouraged…

I am going to re-tell you
that story we just read from Mark.
I hope to trigger your imagination.

This is how it really happened.

“Jesus was sunburned and malnourished
from getting lost in the wilderness
when he made his first public appearance
as a prophet.

It had taken him a long time
to find his way back from the wilderness
to his home in Capernaum by the lake,
and he was still not fully recovered.

It was on a Sabbath, in the spring,
and he appeared with Simon, Andrew,
and the Zebedee’s boys.
Everyone was surprised, and wary,
to see Simon on the Sabbath —
not in his boat but in the synagogue.

Simon was a huge man, unmistakable
at any distance by those who knew him,
and unavoidable by those who wished they didn’t.
Up close his hands were captivating – awesome, even frightening.
The heart of each hand
was the size of a normal man’s face,
and the long muscular fingers
capable of squashing a melon
as if it were an olive.

Simon spoke with his hands.
They waved and pounded and pointed
and clenched as he talked.
In those movements
his words were almost lost
because the dramatic gestures
stole attention from his raspy voice
and coarse, staccato words.

That Simon, who some called Peter,
was at synagogue, on Sabbath, was an omen.
You know, like when you see birds flock in formation
and you know the season is soon to change.
Simon’s presence
cautioned that something
was about to change.

Jesus entered the synagogue that day
with Simon and the others,
and he took it upon himself
to read from the sacred writings.
He picked up the scroll,
and read aloud from the prophet Amos.

But suddenly Stephen, the proselyte,
collapsed in a cold faint.
Everyone backed away
as he began to wiggle and writhe
on the floor like a snake.
All eyes watched as he growled
and hissed and seethed.
Saliva foamed at his lips
and drooled down his chin
while his eyes flashed white
rolling up into his skull.

Everyone’s attention was affixed to Stephen
so no one noticed when Jesus
set down the scroll
and walked through the ranks
encircling the spectacle.

Jesus knelt down at Stephen’s head
and shoulders, bent down
and whispered in his ear.
Abruptly Stephen’s wild flailing limbs
fell limp.
Following a silence
that seemed to last forever,
Stephen, without even opening his eyes,
muttered, ‘Thank you, Jesus, the demons are gone.’
Only then did Jesus touch him,
gently cupping his hand over Stephen’s forehead
and stroking his skull.

Everyone turned to Peter
and the Zebedee’s
with questions on their lips.
Is he a healer?
A magician?
A sorcerer?
Who or what
have you brought into our synagogue?

Jesus quietly returned to the scroll
and continued reading from the prophet Amos.
When he finished reading
he set the parchment down
and told us what it meant.
After that
the rumors about Jesus spread
all over Galilee.”

Now that was pure indulgence on my part.
It was for me, because
well, sometimes I get discouraged.

I get downhearted
when I am reminded of
the low estate of Christianity in our culture,
and the almost utter irrelevance of Jesus.

You see, this might surprise you,
but I care about Jesus.
Not like some internet preacher —
of which I guess, I am one.
But I care about Jesus
as a source of healing
for so much of what ails us.
Not a magical or supernatural Jesus
but Jesus the Wisdom Teacher.
Jesus the carrier of sacred wisdom.

I spent five years
as an adjunct faculty member
in the Religious Studies Department
at Canisius College in Buffalo.
And man, what an eye-opener.

The course was called, “Abraham’s Children”
after a book by that name.
The subject was the primal narratives
of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Early on in my first semester of teaching,
an evening class that went on for
2 hrs. 45 minutes (in case
you think I am long-winded on Sundays),

I was making some passing reference to
Romans and crucifixion
when I noticed a lot of vacant faces
looking back at me.

So I stopped.

“How many of you know anything
about the life of Jesus?” I asked.
Maybe six
out of 27 students
pushed their mostly timid hands up.

I started asking on the first day of class
how many people
were raised in a household
that practiced an organized religion.
Usually half or more raised their hands.
But when I would probe a little deeper,
usually only about 10% really knew anything
about Jesus or Moses or Abraham or the Covenant…
or anything
that is actually central
to Christian theology and practice.

In other words,
there was not much Church going on out there…

Of course now it is a decade later
and the incredible shrinking church
has continued dwindling.

So sometimes I find myself speechless
at the remarkable degree
to which we have failed to present Jesus
as the amazingly compelling
and utterly bold figure that he is.
I grieve, really I do.
I grieve Jesus.

Actually, I cycle
through the five stages of grief
in rapid succession
every time I confront this reality.
Denial
anger
bargaining
depression
and grudging acceptance.

You would probably laugh
if you heard me muttering to myself
from denial to acceptance…
although truly,
sometimes I get stuck in depression.
I have to really work to get back to acceptance.
And working my way back to acceptance,

I often think about all the stories
that Jews have at their disposal
through the Talmud and Mishna,
in which rabbis filled in the gaps of the Bible.

They collected
and told stories
about what kind of husband Moses was,
and what kind of father Joshua was,
and still they tell stories
about biblical characters you won’t
even find in the Bible.

I think about how fortunate Muslims are
to have at their finger tips
the tradition of the Hadith
with its numerous reports of things
that Mohammad said
and what he meant by them,
and things that did not appear in the Qu’ran
but were carried on
by those who knew him.

In Christianity
we stopped telling the story.
I don’t think we meant to,
but we did.

We collected a few of the stories
but created a very stern limit
to what is acceptable story-telling
and preaching
based upon the actual, literal words
put down into writing by
Mark, Matthew, Luke, & John.
We do not have the free spirit
of interpretation
that lets fly our imagination,
so that Jesus
can be re-introduced
in each and every generation.

We do not have the bold
imagination
that releases him to speak in the parlance
of each new language,
and each new cultural dilemma,
and each new historical moment.

Jesus is stuck,
stuck like a duck in mud,
stuck way back there in First Century Galilee,
while Buddha
and Mohammad
and even old Lao-tzu, are being given new
and meaningful incarnations
within Western culture.

Anyway, back to Mark
and why I re-told Mark’s story.
Here is the trigger on that story:

In both Mark’s story of Jesus
healing the dude in the synagogue,
and in my revision,
Jesus never touches the guy.
Jesus never touches the guy!
At least not until afterward.
And the point is:
it is Jesus’ teaching
that had power…not his touch.
His teaching.

Think about that…

Somehow what Jesus taught
or how he taught it,
had authority.
That kind of authority is a power
that opens doors and windows
into the brain and even the soul.
People granted him authority
to get under their skin
and come inside
and tell them something.
Somehow, because his teaching
had authority,
people let him in
even if they would throw him out later.

I had a mentor like that once.
It was when I was a student intern
at a Boston Church
and a student chaplain
at Northeastern University.
His name was Colin.
He was an Episcopal priest
and college chaplain
and he was my field education supervisor.

He had been a baseball pitcher of some note
until he lost partial vision in one eye,
and then became a priest.
He also had a cleaning service on the side,
personally cleaning offices
on evenings and Saturdays,
in order to make enough money
to put his kids through school,
and so he could still be able to work as a priest.
In short, he was down to earth
and as unpretentious as anyone I ever knew.

He had a way of seeing
through my crap,
and I had even more crap in those days
than I do now.

He didn’t tear down my walls,
but frequently,
at the very moment I thought he
was on the outside of my facade looking in,
I would turn around
and there he would be.
He wasn’t specially trained for that,
it was just him.

The fact that he recognized me,
and the fact that he cared for me anyway,
evoked in me
something that I was hesitant to grant anyone —
authority.
He spoke with authority to me,
because I gave it to him.
And because I gave it to him,
he was also someone I could be
more fully and truly myself with.

We’ve all known a teacher or two
with that kind of authority.
They may not have been teachers, maybe
it was a grandparent or neighbor or friend.

But I would bet we have all known someone
whose very personhood had the kind of authority
that we could learn from them.

Imagine Jesus as that kind of teacher.
Don’t worry about whether he was God or not.
Don’t worry about whether he was a messiah or not.
Don’t worry about whether he was the Son of God
or the nephew of God
or the great-great-grandchild of God…
or in no way related to God
other than how
you and I are related to God.

It is enough to imagine him
as a teacher whose teaching had power
and whose very personhood had authority.
It is enough to imagine him,
if we can,
as an incredible teacher
not unlike those wonderful

teachers we have known.
Then we can begin to imagine
the power of his teaching,
and perhaps even feel the power
of that teaching.

All through the Gospel of Mark,
which is the Gospel we are reading
most of this year in worship,
it is the power of Jesus’ teaching
that is remarkable.

The Teacher
stills the storm.

The Teacher
raises a dead girl.

The Teacher
feeds the hungry crowds.

The Teacher
cures a person with epilepsy.

Mark says Jesus was different from scribes –
they were the experts on religious doctrine
and guardians of orthodoxy.
They knew all the prayer book rubrics,
and they could quote canon law effortlessly.

Mark says Jesus was different from the Pharisees –
they quoted freely
from the awesome teachers of the past
in order to support what they espoused.

And they could tell you
what every obscure theologian
ever said on any topic.

But Jesus,
Jesus did not point to religious rules very often,
and he rarely quoted teachers of the past.

Jesus did not do
what so many religious authorities do
even these days:
he didn’t tell us what Martin Luther said,
or what Martin Luther King, Jr. did,
or caution us to remember what Paul taught,
or remind us of what the Pope believes.
Jesus did something altogether different.
Jesus spoke
from the authority of his own experience
and it was powerful.

His teaching,
not his charisma was powerful.

His teaching,
not his touch was powerful.

His teaching,
not his following was powerful.

Mark exclaims:
“They were astounded at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority.”

Jesus is speaking to you…and me.
I do not mean that in any whackomystical,
supernatural, spooky kind of way.

But Jesus has a word for you
or maybe even a whole sentence!
But you have to go looking for him.
I believe it is time for you and Jesus
to get reacquainted,
and that if you do,
you will be changed by it.