As One With Authority – Julie Yarborough (2/4/18)

Rev. Julie Yarborough
February 4, 2018
Mark 1:21-39

“As One with Authority”

There was something special, something unusual about Jesus. Time and time again, the gospels tell us that people noticed something different when they encountered him. Some wondered with awe, “Who is this man?” Others scoffed, “Who does he think he is?” Either way, it is clear that there was something about Jesus that set him apart from others, even from the other religious leaders of the day. Whether you want to refer to it as moral authority or as an aura about him – there was a spiritual component to him – a confidence and a demeanor that commanded attention – even from the “demons” of his day.

Let me say a word about the demons in this story, lest we get sidetracked with our rational 21st century minds. If we read this story literally, we might miss the truth inherent in this passage. Let’s read it metaphorically instead. For demons, we might substitute the word addictions, mental illness, evil intentions or even simply things that block spiritual progress. The first demon Jesus encounters in this passage is in the synagogue – even in the midst of the faith community, demons exist – those powers that be that want to block spiritual progress and transformation. The demons recognize the spiritual power and authority of Jesus and want to put a stop to it, but he silences them with a word and a glance. He won’t even let the demons say who he is, which means that the demons don’t hold any power over Jesus.

Jesus’ authority came from a source of deep inner strength and moral fortitude. It wasn’t conferred upon him by anyone or anything. He wasn’t given an official title, he didn’t have a high-ranking position. He didn’t earn his authority through education, financial wealth, privilege, political maneuvering or any external source. His authority came from an inner confidence and knowledge that he was on earth to do the work of God – to teach, to preach, to transform, to heal and to cast out demons. Jesus’ authority was palpable and powerful – and many would say it was unique to this Holy One of God - but others are able to exude spiritual and moral authority in their daily lives. There are people with deep internal strength and fortitude that comes from serious spiritual practice and from knowing that the work they are called to do is the work of God.

One that comes most immediately to mind is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose prophetic preaching encouraged non-violent actions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

I also think of Ruby Bridges, who even as a young girl of 6 years old, prayed for the white adults who yelled racial slurs and spit at her as she walked into the all-white elementary school, when a judge ordered that the schools should be racially integrated in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960.

I think of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her actions led to real changes in Jim Crow laws in the American South, but as a result, she lost her job and received death threats for years to come.

I think of Nelson Mandela – known lovingly by his many followers as Mandiba - who spent 27 years imprisoned in South Africa. Following his time in prison, he led the movement to bring about the end to Apartheid there. He was elected President of his country in 1991 and later established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring about true healing where so much violence and oppression had occurred.

These examples may seem extraordinary, but when grounded in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary people are able to do extraordinary things. People are healed, demons are exorcised, transformation takes place – both personally and politically.

In his new book, Barking to the Choir, Father Greg Boyle tells a story about Lefty – a resident of a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles, who is late to confession one day:

“He arrives later than I would like but he is quick to explain why: I was Walkin’ across the field. Everybody’s at rec time, but this one vato who is always looking for a beef with me stood right in front of me. He called me leva, chavala, lame. The crowd circled around us because they wanted us to fight. I told the guy I wasn’t going to fight him. I told him I was going to make my First Communion today. So I put my hand out to him and I said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And damn… he shook my hand back.”

Ordinary people, transformed by grace, are able to heal and transform the world.

How do we ground ourselves in the transforming power of the Spirit? We follow Jesus’ example.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never asked to be worshiped? He wasn’t interested in fame or glory. What he asked of his disciples was to be followed. When he meets James, John, Peter and Andrew and calls them to leave their boats and fishing nets, he says, “Follow me – do what I do – and I will make you fish for people.”

Following Jesus means spreading the good news of God’s love, healing, casting out the demons of our day, transforming lives – but first and foremost, it means spending time with God in quiet meditation or prayer, and surrendering our lives to the work that God would have us do.

In order for Jesus to be able do the work that he needed to do, he went off early in the morning to a deserted place to pray. This is a pattern for Jesus that we see over and over in the gospels: as the crowds encroach, he withdraws by himself to pray.

Jesus wasn’t interested in external fame or fortune, he didn’t care what others thought of his actions. When the disciples come to him with excitement, saying, “The crowds want to see you!” Jesus doesn’t get caught up in the hype. I imagine that he might have shaken his head, or even rolled his eyes as he said, “Come on, let’s go to the next town. I have work to do.” He was not interested in applause or in appeasing the crowds. He had a mission and would not be distracted. And in order to stay focused, he spent time in prayer.

In fact, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his whole ministry – his first act after being baptized by John - by spending forty days in the wilderness, preparing his heart, his soul, his mind and his body for the work that lay ahead of him. And it was that grounding in the Spirit, that inner moral authority, that people noticed when they heard him preach and exorcise the demon in the synagogue, and when he healed Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever (which, by the way, would have been seen as a sort of demon in that first century pre-scientific world. Mark writes that the fever “left her” just like the unclean spirit left the man in the synagogue.)

It was also that grounding in the Spirit that people witnessed when they heard Martin speak, saw Ruby walking into that school, witnessed the quiet strength of Rosa and were swept up by the moral courage of Mandiba.

As we look closely at the life of Jesus, who wants us to follow him, we realize that Jesus preached, not to impart wisdom, but to heal, to forgive, to transform lives. His message was one of transformation, not just information – he wanted to provoke changes in people’s hearts, not just their heads. Believing in God is the first step, but it’s not the end goal. Believing in God is something that takes place in our heads, not our hearts.

Marcus Borg makes a distinction between believing in God and being transformed by God: “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

Even the demon in the synagogue recognized and believed in Jesus!
Having faith is more than believing in God. Faith is a relationship, a surrendering, a sinking into, a release, a profound transformation within us that can lead to change in the world as well.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines transformation as, “a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved.”

Having this kind of faith does change us for the better. It lightens our load, it relieves anxiety, it offers a way forward on the spiritual path. As Marcus Borg explains, “At the heart of Christianity is the way of the heart – a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being. At the heart of Christianity is the heart of God – a passion for our transformation and the transformation of the world.”

May our faith transform us, so that we may be agents of transformation in our world, exuding quiet moral strength and authority that comes from the heart of God.

Amen

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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