Putting our House in Order

eastern red cedar boardsIn the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins with an experience that sounds unusual and uncomfortable. One Sabbath day, Jesus and his new disciples enter a synagogue at Capernaum, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is likely that this is the synagogue in which Peter and Andrew hold membership.

The members of the synagogue give the guest rabbi an opportunity to speak. Perhaps Jesus speaks with special eloquence. Perhaps he chooses not to quote the interpretations of well-known rabbis. In any case, the people are astounded by his teaching, for they recognize that he teaches as one who has authority independent of contemporary religious leaders.

While many listeners are still working through the mental puzzle of what Jesus is saying, and why he is saying it, a man with “an unclean spirit” interrupts Jesus’ remarks. Do you remember the Lord of the Rings films? Can you picture Gollum, the pale, fragile, nervous creature, prone to bouts of frustrated rage? I imagine the man with the unclean spirit crying out in a voice just as eerie and tortured: “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.” Jesus recognizes the danger that the disturbed man poses to himself and others. He acts quickly and decisively to heal the man, and to restore order to the synagogue, the house of worship for some of his closest friends.

This week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my house. It’s an interesting phenomenon: when the final college tuition bill was paid, I began to notice the ways in which the house is falling apart.

Several months ago, I began to feel spongy spots in the deck on the back of my home, and the attached walkway that runs around the sunroom. I saw the piles of wood dust from where wood-eating wasps repeatedly had burrowed in. In some places, I could reach out with my finger, and put push a hole into the weathered, wet wood. It seemed wise to get repairs done before someone’s leg went through the rotted deck.

This past week, a couple of carpenters finished the project. In place of the old deck, there’s a new one made of red cedar. The old walkway around the sunroom has been removed. The steel I-beam frame under the sunroom has been repositioned to better support the room, and new piers supporting it rest in cement thirty inches deep. Now, I can look forward to days of slaving away to stain the deck, which will never again look as pristinely beautiful as it does now. But, today, the boards are perfectly aligned, and the beams are properly squared. My Presbyterian desire for neatness and organization has achieved tangible expression in my deck: the house has been put in good order.

I imagine a certain satisfaction like that was felt by Peter, Andrew, and their fellow synagogue members, who probably knew and interacted with the disturbed man, perhaps for many years. The evil spirit had been vanquished by Jesus’ Word, and, presumably, his health was restored.

Synagogues were then, as churches are now, places where those with afflictions of all kinds found refuge and support. What was known as “an unclean spirit” then might have a different name today, like a spirit of manic depression, or a spirit of obsessive compulsion. Other harmful spirits lurk in the dark recesses of the human psyche, like self-righteous pride, and a lustful greed for power. When I was young, I believed the Church was an especially pure place, and was disturbed to grow up and find that it wasn’t always so. I’ve watched as others have grown disillusioned by the imperfections of Christians and their congregations.

I remember a mentor who said, “The Church is full of sinners – and it’s the best place for us to be.” I’ve grown to appreciate the truth in that statement. The Church is the best place for us to be because it’s here, more than any other place, except our homes, that we have the opportunity for learning values and observing examples of how to deal with human faults and foibles. The Church is the best place for us to be because it’s here, more than any other place, that we have the opportunity to meet Jesus, and to hear his healing word, the ordering word that conquers our disorder.

I’ve been thinking about the special challenges the Church faces when it hears two voices, each making a claim that contradicts the other, and each claiming to represent the “voice of Christ.” We can find many examples in church history when one party to a conflict appealed to new knowledge, changed circumstance, or fresh inspiration by the Holy Spirit, while another party to a conflict appealed to old familiar standards, unalterable timeless truths, or an inheritance received through a succession of authoritative religious leaders. Many of us know about the major conflicts, like the ones between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Fundamentalists and Progressives. But in any large group that lives together for a while, you’ll see a similar divergence of perspective. Sometimes, the differences lead to hurtful words and actions, and we pray for Jesus’ clear word to be revealed, and we wish he were physically present to settle the matter.

When you examine our Old Testament reading from the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, you see that multiple voices, each claiming to represent the voice of God, were a problem for the ancient Hebrews, too. A promise is made that God will raise up a prophet, then a warning that there will be false prophets. A question is posed: “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” The answer, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken presumptuously.” How we wish we could look years into the future to see if the thing takes place or proves true. How we pray for Jesus’ clear word to be revealed, and wish he would settle the matter.

Next Saturday, I’ll be moderating a meeting of our regional Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, with many items on the docket reflecting our concern to discern the voice of Christ among many voices competing for our limited time and attention. There are several proposed amendments to our Presbyterian constitution, and voices will share pros and cons of approving each amendment. We will hear a brief report from a group that is addressing a distressing schism. What do you do when some Presbyterians believe their minority dissenting opinion entitles them to withdraw members and resources from the denomination in prophetic protest, and other Presbyterians believe that it is their obligation to support the will of the majority? It feels like the Civil War, all over again.

At the Presbytery Assembly, our Leadership Team also will be re-introducing the paper found in your worship bulletins today: Seeking to Be Faithful Together. It’s what you might call a “behavioral covenant,” an agreement about how Christians are to speak and act toward one another. I think it’s one of the best tools that our denomination ever has produced.

Like most Presbyterians, when we examine issues about which people of faith and conscience disagree, I think it’s difficult to discern the voice of Christ. But there’s one of which I am absolutely convinced. When the going gets tough, when levels of anxiety are raised and people feel their future is threatened, I think that God is at least as concerned about HOW we reach a decision as God is about the decision itself.

When considering hot-button issues of our time, we might ponder the question, “What if the purpose of life has less to do with controversial goals, and more with the methods whereby we achieve them?” Practicing “holy manners” like these, then, would be not just helpful in the pursuit of some other primary agenda, or an option to sacrifice when the going gets tough, but at the heart of God’s will for the Church.

Thinking back to the first gospel written, the first chapter, and its record of Jesus’ first act of ministry, I see that Jesus didn’t sidestep the unclean spirit, or leave it for someone else to face. He did something about it. He told it to stop making noise and to stop throwing a body into disorder. New Testament scholar Tom Wright says, “When the church learns again how to speak and act with the same authority, we will find both the saving power of God unleashed once more and a similar heightened opposition from the forces of darkness.”[1]

Pray with me that God will save our presbytery from the forces of darkness, which sometimes come cloaked as temptations to pursue righteous goals in ways that end up being unrighteous. For the sake of faithful, fruitful mission and ministry now and in the future, pray that God through Christ will accomplish his saving work, and put our house in order.

[1] Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 12.


~ by JohnH1962 on February 1, 2015.

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