UNITED CHURCH OF NEWPORT

January

Two Ways of Looking

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

January 8, 2012

 

There are two basic ways of looking at life. One way assumes that life is completely random, consisting of disconnected events. People live for a painfully short time on earth, and then disappear without a trace.  The other way assumes that everything is connected in some way to everything else, and that you and I are part of a grand, ancient, unfinished story that goes on and on. This second way is the perspective of mystics, who see the invisible threads linking it all together. This is also the perspective of the Biblical epic, which begins in Genesis, and sweeps through the books of the Law and prophets and Gospels and letters, all the way to Revelation.

 

            I suspect most of us have looked at life in both these ways. Sometimes it does all seem random. The universe is obviously indifferent to our puny struggles, and we have to just get along the best we can on our own. Terrible things happen, things we cannot make sense of , and still believe in a living God. But then, there are moments when shining threads of joy, beauty and truth are discernable. We feel that we are part of a larger story, connected with a larger purpose. Life has meaning, and we can reach out and take hold of it.

 

            The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel definitely belongs to the “everything is connected” school of thought. Skipping over any description of Jesus’ birth and childhood, Mark situates the story of Jesus within the whole sweep of the Biblical narrative, from Genesis onward. He does this by beginning with John the Baptist.

            Now the strange garb and diet of John the Baptist make him seem him (to us) like a weirdo, but for the people of ancient times, these details identified him as a prophet.

 

Ted Smith notes in “Feasting on the Word”:

John’s dress marks him as the new Elijah, whose coming some believed marked the arrival of the end times. His appearance in the wilderness recalls Israel’s long wandering between deliverance from slavery, and entry into the Promised Land. In wilderness time, the powers of sin and death have been broken, and the covenant has been kept, but the people of God still wait to receive the fullness of redemption. John baptizes people in the Jordan, the border between the wilderness and the land of milk and honey. He is not just any sort of radical, but the kind of witness who stands right at the edge of the reign of God, and invites people to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it.

            In most ways, John’s time and place, his garments and his speech are far removed from our lives. Our faith is conducted mostly among well-dressed company, in polite indoor spaces. We say prayers of confession, but steer away from dramatic gestures of repentance. Yet like the people who flocked to be baptized in the River Jordan, we also sense that there is something wrong with us, and with our society. We so often lose touch with God, and with our better selves. We can’t seem to get along with our neighbors and our own families, let alone with other nations. Our world is full of violence and poverty, while some have way more than they need. Something is broken, and if everything is, indeed, connected to everything and everyone else, we want somehow, to re-establish that link.

 

            That is why we come to church, and I suppose that is why people came out to hear John speak. That is why they let themselves be submerged in the flowing stream of the Jordan. Baptism signified repentance, the impulse towards change, the desire to be re-connected with God. Baptism linked their individual dreams and struggles with the dreams and struggles of a whole nation, and with an ancient story that went all the way back to Genesis.

 

            Good spiritual leaders always draw passionate followers. But the best spiritual leaders have a way of pointing beyond themselves. “Don’t look at me,” they see, “Look through me to God.” John the Baptist said, “Look beyond me  …to the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

            In his very person, Jesus is the one who embodies the “everything is connected” truth of the universe. Mark shows this to us in more than one way. First, John the Baptist predicts Jesus’ coming and his power. Then Jesus arrives and, surprisingly, submits himself to John’s baptism. If Jesus is so much greater than John, why does he let John baptize him?  For Mark, it’s because they are both part of God's unfolding plan; in different ways each contributes to the salvation story. Mark is also showing us how Jesus’ humility is the key to his power.

 

During the baptism, the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus himself. The perspective widens to include the most specific blessing as well as the most universal. As Jesus comes up out of the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart.”  Cosmic forces are at work here. The membrane that separates heaven and earth is ruptured; glory leaks through. As he comes up out of the water “a Spirit like a dove descends upon him.” God’s presence is visible, fluttering and flying. As he comes up out of the water, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”   

 

Theologians have debated whether God “adopts” Jesus in this moment, or whether this moment merely shows the world what is already (and has always been) true.  Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved child, God’s delight and pleasure. Baptism anoints Jesus for his mission in the world. He will have the protection of the hovering dove of the Spirit, he will proceed in continuity with the Old Testament prophets. In him, heaven and earth will intermingle. And perhaps most importantly, he goes forth with the deep knowledge that God knows his name, and takes pleasure in the core of who he is.

 

            Jesus will need all of this reassurance, as he goes out into his wilderness., as he faces the indifference and brutality of the world. There may even be times when it seems to him that life is random, and nothing makes sense. After all, he is human too, and thoughts like these come to all of us. But this baptism, with its layers of symbol and meaning, will anchor him in the conviction that he has been called and sent by God, and that he does not go alone.

            Our faith teaches that Jesus is the climax of God’s story—the ultimate revelation of divine love. But the Gospel loses its power if we therefore believe that there are no more chapters to add. Since Jesus, hundreds, even thousands of leaders and followers have been touched by the mysterious, ongoing action of the Holy Spirit. New chapters are being added with each of our own baptisms, our own attempts to comprehend how it is that God also knows our names, and takes pleasure in the core of each of us, and sends us out into the world to spend ourselves in love.

 

We take inspiration from the words and martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as from Jesus, and from our Sunday school teachers. We exercise our skills as leaders, and sometimes, remember to point beyond ourselves to the true source of courage and wisdom. We study the Bible, and recognize ourselves in its stories of human faith and frailty, courage and risk.

 

            Our church is a source of strength, stability and community. Here we can share our gifts, survive our heartaches, and walk with Jesus. At the same time, our church is finite, imperfect, and struggling, a human institution that takes a great deal of work and more money that we really have, to maintain on a very modest level.

 

            Depending how we are feeling on any particular day, our lives and the life of our church look very different. Some days, we can trace the shining threads of God's love, threads overlapping in all directions, within our church and out into the community. Some days we hear God calling our name, feel the brush of the dove’s wings on our shoulders, and know that what we do here gives pleasure to God.

 

            Other days, it feels as if we are just spinning our wheels, pushing back against a random universe, making up meaning that isn’t really there. And the truth is, we’ll never know for sure, until we die, which it is… Everything is connected, or it’s all random.

            But here’s the thing. If there are connections of love and longing, of delight and meaning, that are interwoven into the fabric of the universe, then it’s a big, big, tapestry.  Maybe we don’t need to see the whole pattern, in order to weave our individual threads into it. Maybe all we need to do is to weave ourselves week by week and year by year, into the work of trusting and sharing and loving one another.

 

            You can choose to be connected to other people, through your acts of repentance and compassion. You can choose to be connected to Jesus and John the Baptist, by your commitments to faith and justice. You can choose to be connected to the sacred earth itself, and to the hovering Spirit that brooded over creation and that still floats above us and within us. You can choose to be a mystic, a saint, a worker in the vineyard. You can choose to stand in the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. And by choosing to inhabit the world in this way, you will make it even more true. Everything is connected to everything else.     Amen.

 

Speak, For Your Servants Are Listening

Psalm 139, I Samuel 3:1-11

January 15th,2012

The old priest Eli couldn’t see very well, and he couldn’t hear very well, but he could still pray. When he had trouble falling asleep at night, the words of the Psalms would flow through his mind. He didn't need to open any scrolls; they were all there inside him. O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up.

Eli sat down, a lot more often than he rose up, these days. His joints hurt, and hardly anyone came to the temple anyway. Fortunately, he had a young assistant, Samuel, who kept the lamps burning and the floor swept. It was presentable enough, for those few visitors who came. You discern my thoughts from far away. You hem me in behind and before.

 

When he was not praying, Eli’s thoughts circled back to his sons. They were a family of priests, a long line stretching back generations. As priests, they led the nation of Israel in the ways of righteousness, presiding over temple sacrifices, and interpreting the word of God. But for a long time now, “the word of the Lord was rare. Visions were not widespread.”

And Eli’s sons had turned out badly. They grew fat on the meat that had been sacrificed to God, and they seduced vulnerable women who came to the temple to pray. Eli felt hemmed in, as he thought about the future.

 

No one was protesting the sate of affairs.. There was no king in Israel to stop the corruption of the priestly dynasties, but Eli knew that God could see everything that was happening, and sooner or later, judgment would come. There was no hiding from Jahweh.

 

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bead in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthermost limits of the sea,

Even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Eli couldn’t see well enough to organize the linens in the sanctuary, but he knew God could see him. He couldn’t see the next step for the nation of Israel, but he knew that God would find a way to lead the nation back to faithfulness, to turn darkness into light. So he lay there in the dark, and he prayed…

 

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me be as night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day.

For darkness is as light to you.

He prayed, and he pondered the inscrutable wisdom of God.

In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed. How weighty are your thoughts, o God, how vast the sum of them!

If I try to count them, they are more than the sand. I come to the end—I am still with you.

 

His own end was nearing. But somehow, in some way, he knew that God would not abandon him, and that Israel would find new pathways towards wisdom and righteousness. God never runs out of ideas. And with that thought, Eli breathed more and more deeply, and fell sound asleep.

 

Out in the sanctuary, young Samuel was trying to get comfortable on his floor mat. He had filled the oil lamp with enough oil to keep it burning all night. He had polished the bowls and lamps and put them away. The flickering flame on the altar gave some light, but there were shadows in the corners. And Samuel, who was only 12 years old , was, to be honest, a little afraid of the dark. Every night he tried to settle down, but he worried about what might be in the shadows. To calm himself, he took down a scroll and sat down right under the lamp on the altar, and opened it up. In the dim light he read,

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down

and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,

you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, I cannot attain it.

It seems like I am all alone here in the dark, he thought, but it’s not really true. God is here with me. God can see everything. God even knows I’m scared. He read further… Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.

For darkness is as light to you.

And then he lay down right there, at the foot of the altar, and went to sleep.

He dreamed at first about his mother Hannah. She had been unable to bear children, and had come to the temple every year to weep and pray. Finally God heard her prayer and Samuel was born. When he was three, she had brought him to the temple to serve God (not as strange a decision as it would be today). Every year she came to visit, bringing him new clothing that she had made herself. She told him, “God knit you together in my womb. Your whole life is written in God's book. You are going to serve God in some remarkable way.”

 

“Samuel! Samuel!” He woke up and rushed to see what Eli needed. But Eli told him to go back to sleep. “Samuel! Samuel!” It happened again, and then a third time.

And finally the old priest with all his regrets, and the young boy who was afraid of the dark, figured it out. God was trying to get their attention. God has something new to say.

 

The third time, Samuel was ready. When a voice called his name in the dark he sat up and said, “Here I am. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

What Samuel heard, and what he later communicated to Eli was a word of stark judgment. The corrupt priesthood would be replaced with a new system. There would be a time of conflict as different leaders jockeyed for power. God’s word does not always comfort. Sometimes it announces changes. Sometimes grief and chaos take over for a time, before something new can be born.

 

Both Eli and Samuel were needed, in order for God's new word to find an ear and a voice. Samuel was the pure heart that could be a prophet for a new generation. And Eli was the wise old soul who could give Samuel courage to listen, and to repeat what he heard.

 

Of course, this is a story about leadership succession, and an appropriate text for us to study, as we think about impending changes in our church life. Many of you will know by now that I will conclude my ministry here in Newport in June of this year. I have lived and loved this church and its people for 22 years, but it is time for me to work less hard, and time for you to experience the energy of a new leader.

 

There is a part of me that can relate to old Eli--- I’ve become perhaps a little blind to the currents of change, a little deaf to the Word of God, a little stuck in old ways of doing things, but still able to pray. …And definitely able to perceive and affirm God’s spirit on the move in the next generation of leaders.

 

But surprisingly, I can also relate to Samuel. Like Samuel, I feel a sense of spiritual openness and anticipation. Yes, I am a little afraid of the dark, afraid of all the unknowns up ahead, when my ministry in Newport comes to an end. But I also know that no matter where I go or what I do, “even there, God's hand will guide me”. And so like Samuel, I will be saying over the next six months: “Here I am, Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

As you begin the journey into what’s next, I suspect that you will have times when you feel like Eli, and times when you feel like Samuel. Unlike the temple establishment of Eli’s day, this church has been faithful and creative in sharing the love of God. We have been a powerful witness for inclusive, open-minded, open-hearted Christian faith in this community. We have much to celebrate. At the same time, there are areas where some of us have grown bored, lack-luster in our faith, inconsistent in our giving, afraid of change. The process of seeking a new pastor will force you to ask searching questions about where you are as a church, where you are going, and what changes you need to make to get there.

 

As today’s scripture passages reveal, the path to the future requires both listening and discernment. God's word can only be heard and interpreted fully, when there is collaboration between old voices and new voices, between long-established ways of doing things, and new models that break the mold.

 

Lord you have searched us and known us. You know when we lie down and when we rise up and are acquainted with all our ways.

In these months, let us trust God’s hovering presence and accessible guidance. Let us open our ears and invite God to speak a new word and guide us to new seasons of faithfulness. Amen.

Netted

Mark 1:14-20, Psalm 62

January 22, 2012

Methodist pastor Cynthia Weems tells the following story: During Bible Study one day, a lifelong member of our congregation shared a story from his boyhood. William had grown up just north of downtown Miami, and was a teenager when he began taking the bus down to the church with his brother to attend Thursday children’s choir rehearsal. When he hopped on the bus downtown and began to journey north back home, female domestic workers and male day laborers would begin to fill the bus. He noticed that many of these women and men had to stand during the entire ride because they were people of color and therefore restricted to the back of the bus, where all the seats were quickly taken.

Troubled by the situation, William decided to do something. Although he was white and could sit at the front, he decided to go to the back of the bus and take one of the seats in the section reserved for people of color. When there were no more seats in that section, William would stand and give his to the next woman of color who got on the bus.

Weems goes on to explain: Many years later this man is a leader in nurturing a racially and economically diverse congregation. I believe he must have been paying attention in Sunday school when he heard stories like the one in Mark in which Jesus calls the disciples. … “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Where did they go? To places like the back of the bus.

The economy of Mark’s Gospel means that every word and every phrase carries rich meaning. He doesn’t waste his time telling us what people thought or talked about. His is an action-oriented story with frequent use of the word “immediately”. But as with many scenes in Mark, today’s episode leaves us with lots of unanswered questions. Why did the four fishermen respond so quickly to Jesus? Is it possible they already knew him from some previously-unrecorded encounters? Was there something about Jesus that made them immediately trust him, and be willing to change their whole lives in a moment? Was it the look in his eyes, or his tone of voice? Or did Mark simply leave out the part where they hemmed and hawed, and talked with their wives, and checked how much money that had in their retirement accounts, before they said yes to Jesus?

We simply don’t know the answers to these questions. All we have is Mark’s sparse account. Immediately they left their nets and followed him. We do know from later parts of the story that they maintained contact with their families, and that they even went back to fishing at some point. But we also know that, from that moment on, their lives were radically changed.

Some of us can trace a pivotal moment in our lives when we accepted Jesus, when we stopped drinking, when we met the love of our life, when we heard a call to our true vocation. Some of us heard God’s invitation in these moments and said “Yes” and never looked back. But for many of us, the call to follow Jesus has been more subtle, less easy to pinpoint. If we look back over our lives, we can see moments where we left our nets and stepped up to faith’s call, and we can also see moments where we held onto our nets, or tried to drag them with us as we followed Jesus. For many of us, the call has come again and again, and we have answered it only imperfectly each time.

Today, I’d like you to imagine that you are going about your daily routine, at work or at school or at home, doing whatever it is that you usually do. And suddenly, there is Jesus inviting you to “Come and follow.” And unlike the calling of the disciples in Mark, he gives you a little time to stop and weigh your decision. What is in your net?

What will you need to drop, to leave behind, to let go of? What keeps you from giving your all to follow Jesus?

Strangely enough, I suspect for some of us, the habits of our church life itself may be weighing down our nets. Here we find a domesticated Jesus, one who does not challenge the status quo. Here we can rub shoulders with people who are mostly just like us, softening the demands of the Gospel that tell us to feed the poor, release the prisoners, love the unlovable, die on the cross. Our nets are full of the routines of church life; habits that smooth out the radical elements of Christ’s teachings, and replace them with polite niceness that does not rock the boat.

Some of our nets are tangled in logic. We can’t wholeheartedly follow Jesus, because we are not sure that the world of the spirit is as real as the world of material laws and objects. Some of us think too much to do anything “immediately”. We spend years puzzling over whether God is real, whether Jesus is a myth, which of his teachings we agree with, and which we think go too far. Meanwhile as our nets get heavier and heavier, we have a great excuse to stay right where we are.

Or perhaps your net is about anxiety or control. The idea of turning over your decision –making power to anyone, (even Jesus) makes your palms sweat. No, you prefer to maintain the illusion that you are the one in control of your life. Maybe you’ll follow Jesus to some degree, but you’ll bring your net with you, dragging it behind you every step of the way. What’s in your net today? What is the main thing that holds you back, when you hear his voice calling your name?

Maybe you think that you are not gifted enough, or not “spiritual” enough, to be on Jesus’ “top ten list” of called disciples. I have always imagined that Jesus had a kind of x-ray vision; that he called each of the disciples because he perceived in each one of them special aptitudes that would be needed for the building of his church.

But they were mostly uneducated working men, fishermen with dirty hands and smelly clothes and bent backs. How special could they have been? So maybe it has nothing to do with being special! When Jesus called them, he created a link between the work they already knew, and the work he would give them. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers for people.”

Maybe we all start out as nothing special, and it is in responding to Jesus’ call, that we find out what we are good at, and subsequently we grow into the fullness of who we were meant to be.

God does not coerce. Whenever Jesus calls, we always have a choice: Keep on doing what we’re doing, or follow him. Hold onto the nets we’ve mended and fished with for many years. Or drop them on the beach, and try another way. It’s a choice, but it’s rarely as simple and easy as Mark’s Gospel makes it sound. We are netted in so many ways.

Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to be netted into a community of sisters and brothers who are on the journey with him. He invites us to use nets in a different way, to pull others into the blessed community, to offer experiences and conversations that themselves become invitations to discipleship for others.

There is a lot of noise in our lives, many other voices calling for our attention and our commitment. It can be hard to hear the voice of Jesus. It’s hard to drop your nets, if Jesus is only a vague idea—not a living presence in your life. So if you are serious about following him, you need to stop and ask what it is exactly that he is calling you to do….

Jesus not only chooses us, we need to choose him. In the end, maybe it is as simple and as plain as Mark makes it seem. Eternal life, freedom, joy are ours for the taking. The 15th century Hindu Poet Kabir spoke about letting go of entanglements, and finding your true Teacher. He did not know Jesus, but I hear in his poem the same invitation that Mark’s gospel describes:

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.

Jump into experience while you are alive!

Think…and think… while you are alive.

What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive

do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic

just because the body is rotten—

that is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now,

you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now,

in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is

Believe in the Great Sound! …

Find out who the Teacher is. Listen to what he is asking you specifically to do.

So far as you are able, let go of your nets. Let yourself be netted instead by his love and wisdom. Follow him. Amen.

 

Who’s In Charge Here?

Mark 1:21-28, Psalm 111

January 29th, 2012

As we work our way through the opening chapters of the gospel of Mark, it is striking how quickly Jesus takes charge. He recruits followers with a word and a glance. He enters the synagogue and opens up scripture in new ways. He expels unclean spirits. His authority is immediately apparent, and seemingly unquestioned.

We could wonder about many aspects to these stories. There are many details foreign to our modern world-view. But the word that I kept coming back to this week was the word “authority”. Mark is showing us that Jesus had a natural, nearly irresistible authority, felt by nearly everyone who met him.

So I began to wonder… Does Jesus have the same authority in our world today? Of all the millions of church-going Christians, how many of us submit willingly to Jesus’ authority? What does that submission look like?

Now I came of age in the 60’s, when the slogan was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”. Respect for authority was at low ebb. And, I was raised in a spiritual tradition that valued honest questions and even doubts; that was suspicious of any leader who promised to give me all the answers. But it’s not just baby-boomers and Congregationalists like me who tend to resist authority.

It is part of our human nature to push back against anything or anyone who restricts our freedom. Watch a two year old whose favorite word is “No” or “Do it myself!” Live with a teenager, so sure that she knows best, and life would be fine if everyone would just leave her alone and let her make her own decisions. We all want to be able to be free agents, and to learn from our own mistakes.

In addition, some of us have been hurt by heavy-handed authority figures, who have in turn been supported by structural hierarchies. Child abusers thrive in cultures of silence and respect like churches and sports teams. The German theologian Dorothy Soelle analyzed German family life between the First and Second World Wars, and concluded that obedience was the most highly cultivated virtue for children, while parenting styles were harsh. She speculated that this emphasis on unquestioning obedience was a major factor in allowing Hitler to rise to power.

Authority can sometimes be excessive or evil, but still, we can't get along without it. We need laws and leaders to guide us. It is possible, in a healthy and free society, to choose to give authority to government, to police and military, to teachers, parents and clergy. … and to Jesus.

So, with all that as preamble, let’s look again at Mark’s little story and try to discern the source and scope of Jesus’ authority, and how we might submit to it.

They went to Capernaum and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. Jesus’ ministry unfolds in the context of sacred tradition. He does not start from scratch, making up a new religion, but participates in a time-tested tradition of communal prayer, reflection, and study of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ authority is therefore grounded in divine authority, and in the teachings of the Law and the Prophets.

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. Secondly, there was something about Jesus’ teaching that broke open God's Word in fresh ways. In every generation, perhaps, the Word of God gets frozen, encased, in a way, in the institutional maintenance of church life. It takes a fresh voice to free the living word, to make it leap off the page and startle us. Jesus’ teaching did that. It made people think, it made them uncomfortable, it excited them, and it moved them to changes of heart and changes of life.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out “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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice came out of him.

Jesus’ authority is manifest in two ways here. First, the unclean spirit recognizes in Jesus a powerful adversary. Ironically, while the disciples and temple regulars are just beginning to have an inkling of who Jesus is, this troubled outsider calls him “the Holy One of God”. Jesus’ focus is not on the demon, nor on his own performance and people’s reaction to it. Jesus’ focus is on healing the tortured soul who stands before him. He sees beyond the demon to the human being. He leads by healing. He teaches by healing, He demonstrates his authority by touching and restoring those who are outcasts, those normally ignored by those in authority. In this first chapter of Mark alone, at the very beginning of his public life, Jesus will heal three times: the man with the unclean spirit, Peter’s mother-in-law, and a leper. His authority is demonstrated, not to build up his own reputation, but to set others free for lives of love and service.

I can't help but think about the various ways in which our national candidates have been trying to project images of authority. We’ve been watching them tear one another apart, exposing any weakness they can find. They seem to think that strength is demonstrated by how fiercely they attack one another and the members of the other party. But in the end, I want to think that the American people are wiser than that, that we will elect leaders who exemplify integrity and kindness along with strength. I want leaders who notice the outcasts, and who offer miracles of healing and community

accountability, through the tools of wise government. And I want leaders who are humble enough to know that they are not God, not Jesus, and not infallible.

The truest authority figures earn our respect. They do not command it. The most compelling authority figures model God-like virtues, as described in Psalm 111. They are gracious and merciful, faithful and just, trustworthy and upright.

So who is in charge of your life? How do you experience the authority of Jesus?

Martha Graybeal Rowlett described it as a choice we make:

When we choose to respond to God's offer of open communication, we choose to give power or weight to that relationship. We make an intentional move to give attention to the ideal possibilities that God offers to us. Without relinquishing our free will, we can freely choose to be Christian disciples, to live authentically in dialogue with God.

Gretchen Ziegenhals notes that although we do not commonly speak of being possessed by demons, we still struggle with compulsions, and yearn to find a life that flourishes in the garden of faithful obedience. She writes:

if we are honest, we recognize that we are all possessed – by jealousies, addictions, pride, unhealthy life-styles, excessive worries, or unforgiving spirits—issues that need to be exorcized in order for us to live the lives that God intended for us. Mark shows us that when an unclean spirit animates or possesses us, it is in opposition or contrary to the spirit of Christ, the spirit of a healthy and whole life.”

Another writer, Tilden Edwards, defines following Jesus as a process of putting aside our ego and false independence, and committing to a discipline of growth throughout our lifetimes. He writes:

Spiritual awareness for Christians, at its fullest, means seeing life through God’s sound eye. [Saint Paul described it as] ‘not I, but Christ, lives in me’. The ‘I’ that no longer lives then is the one that sees itself as an ultimately self-willed self-centered being. The new ‘I’ is one that lives moment by moment in the awareness that we are an intimate and unique expression of God's joy and compassion, living freely by grace, called to reverberate the joy and compassion, utterly interdependent with Creator and creation.

The test of any spiritual discipline is whether or not it assists this deep awareness for us.

When we submit to the authority of Jesus, we find an ongoing corrective to our natural tendencies.

We want to be in control of our lives. Jesus says: “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

We are possessed by unclean spirits of greed, pride, sloth, fear, and anger. Jesus says, “Come to me, and find rest for your souls. Be healed.

We are confused by all the ways in which our society and media tell us how to live, how to consume, how to compete, how to be popular, how to be successful. Jesus says: “Follow me. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. Peace I leave with you—not as the world gives. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

Who is in charge of your life? What would change if it were Jesus? Amen