Saturday, January 27, 2018

Year B, Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Mark 1.21-28, By What Authority?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
I studied philosophy during my undergraduate work.
Philosophy, by definition means: “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline”.
To put it differently, philosophy’s primary question is “what is truth?”
As a student of philosophy one of my favorite passages, and one of the most ‘philosophical’ passages in all of scripture, is the interchange between Pontius Pilate and Jesus.
Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
What is truth?
We have a crisis of truth in our world today.
We simply do not know what is true and what is not.
And there is no criterion for establishing truth that is accepted by everyone in our society.
Who are the trusted sources for truth?
Who can you believe?
Remember when we had trusted sources?
Walter Cronkite, for example.
Fifty years ago, Walter Cronkite was considered the most trusted man in America.
Of course, he was the anchorman for the CBS Evening News, and when Cronkite said it, people believed it.
Today it is different.
We have no Walter Cronkite.
Instead we live in an information age, but none of the information we have at our disposal is universally accepted as truth.
Everything is subjective.
We are torn between two extremes.
At one end of the spectrum, there is the tendency to believe anything you hear and read.
At the other end of the spectrum, is the conviction that you cannot believe anything.
There is no Walter Cronkite.
Instead we have a mishmash of news sources that have not been able to separate their presentation of the news from partisan alliances.
Conservatives love Fox News.
Liberals love MSNBC or CNN.
Sean Hannity or Anderson Cooper.
                Who will it be?
Neither one is Walter Cronkite.  That is, neither one has won the trust of the nation. 
Donald Trump has coined the phrase “Fake News”.
On the one hand, there is news out there that is in fact fake, some of it intentionally so.
But on the other hand, just because the news reported is not favorable to the president does not mean its “fake”. 
All of this leaves us asking Pontius Pilate’s question “what is truth?”

This crisis of truth is part of our life as a Church as well.
Who do we trust to speak the truth?
In our lesson from Deuteronomy, the Lord said:
 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
Who are the prophets among us that are called to speak the Word of God.
Well, one answer to that is our pastors.
As pastors, we are held accountable to the Word of God.  Its part of the promises we make at ordination.  Failure to preach and teach in accordance with God’s Word is one of the things that can result in our being removed from the roster of ordained pastors through the disciplinary practices of the Church.

Can you trust me to speak the Truth.  Or any pastor?
The Lord says in Deuteronomy that it is the responsibility of the people to heed the word that the “prophet” is called to speak.
Further, it says that if the “prophet” speaks any other word than the Word of God, that prophet shall die.
We are accountable to God’s Word.  That’s the message here.
And yet the question remains, “what is the truth of God’s Word?”
Twenty Seven years ago I preached on this text, saying that both pastors and congregations were accountable to the Word of God, the pastor to speak it, and the congregation to heed it.
One of my parishioners was absolutely livid.
“How dare you use the pulpit to promote your own opinion?” was the essence of her objection.
How dare you suggest that the word you speak is God’s word. 
When I tried to clarify that my point was that we were all accountable to God’s Word, she still objected because interpreting God’s Word is all very subjective.  You can find passages within it to back up many different positions, and to claim any sort of authority is suspect.
Of course there is some truth to what she said.
The reason we have so many different denominations is that each one believes that they have interpreted the scripture truthfully, though they all disagree to one extent or another with each other about what that truth is. 

Jesus came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught.
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Jesus said to Philip:
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
And in response to Pontius Pilate he said:
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  
Jesus spoke the truth, and died on the cross because of it. 
You see, we are not the first generation that has not wanted to hear the truth, and who has resisted it when it is spoken.
The problem is that when Jesus speaks the truth, he not only speaks the truth about God and God’s holiness, but also the truth about us and our sinfulness.  And that we don’t want to hear.
We’d rather believe that Jesus would come to us and tell us what we want to believe about ourselves.
We’d like Jesus to agree with us.
And when he doesn’t, we don’t recognize him. 
One of the ironies of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is recognized for who he was by only the centurion who crucified him and watched him die, and by the unclean spirits who he cast 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.”
It belongs to Jesus.
Even the demons and unclean spirits recognize this and obey his word.
Do we need another Walter Cronkite, or will Jesus do?
And if Jesus IS the truth, who IS Jesus?
The two most important questions we in the Church should ask ourselves are:
“What would Jesus do?”
And “What is Jesus saying to us?”
That seems so straight forward, so obvious, and yet, apparently harder than it seems.
Today we will be having our congregational meeting.
When I think back over the course of my thirty years in the parish, I recall congregational meeting after congregational meeting.
Some were great.
Some were horrendous.  Really ugly.
It’s a mixed bag.
But there is one congregational meeting that never occurred, which I continue to long for. 
I’d love to be part of a congregational meeting where everyone was committed to only one thing, and that is determining what Jesus would have us do.
We will look at a budget today, but will we ask the question:  “Is this what Jesus would do?”
To be honest, when I and the council prepared and approved the budget we are going to present to you, we probably spent more time asking the question “What can we afford?” than the more important question “What would Jesus do?”
And when we consider the future of our congregation are our decisions based on what we are willing to do, or what Jesus would have us do?
Our congregation’s constitution states:
All power in the Church belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ, its head. All actions of this congregation are to be carried out under his rule and authority.
Nice sentiment, but do those words carry any weight?
One of the most interesting things about our Church, and many Churches in this country, is that we are organized on democratic principles.  We vote. 
But if all power and authority in the Church belongs to Jesus, what is needed is not a vote, but discernment.
Once we discern Christ’s will, there is no vote necessary.
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
The question for us, always, is “will we obey him?”

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