“By What Authority?” – Sermon for February 1, 2015

Categories: Sermons

“Word of Life” (mural in stone), Millard Sheets, 1964, at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

“Word of Life” (mural in stone), Millard Sheets, 1964, at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

“By What Authority?”

 A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 (with Deut. 18:15-20) for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached February 1, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


Just as you’re getting to the good part, it seems, something or someone always has to interrupt, right? We’ve been getting to know this all too well at my house in recent months, with our ever-so-cute and yet ever-so-challenging 10-month old beagle puppy Daniel. Daniel has quite the sense of timing, you see. Perhaps the most frequent occurrence of his stellar timing would be around dinnertime. You get everything cooked and ready, the table set, and you sit down to begin enjoying a nice meal. Then, usually, somewhere between the second and fourth bite of food, that’s when Daniel decides he needs to go out to go potty… immediately. Or, then, there’s Saturday nights—a time more-often-than-not taken up with sermon-writing, for both my partner and I… and also the night when both of us would prefer to get a good night’s sleep—Saturday night it seems, more than any other, is when he ends up getting a barfing spell. Which, of course, is irritating and gross enough in-and-of-itself, but the impeccable timing of it all, when we’ve got work to finish and want to get to bed, just makes it all the more frustrating. (And no, just to be clear, this did not actually happen last night.)

You don’t have to be dealing with a puppy, though, to experience this kind of perfectly mis-timed interruption. There’s the moment when someone’s cell phone goes off during a concert, right at that quiet and sensitive place in the piece. Or that time when you’re trying to catch a particular story on the news report, and someone else starts trying to talk to you right when that story you’ve been waiting for for 20 minutes finally comes on. You get the picture, I think…

It’s easy, I imagine, to hear this morning’s story from the gospel of Mark in much the same vein. Here we are just as the story is finally getting going. We met this Jesus guy as he came out to the Jordan where John the Baptizer was baptizing, we’re told Jesus gets driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness, and then finally we see Jesus back in Galilee where he gathers the first four of his disciples. That’s all that’s happened thus far in the storyline as Mark tells it to us.

So we follow into today’s scene, walking to Capernaum along with Jesus and his four followers. On the Sabbath, we go along as Jesus heads to the synagogue and teaches there. Mark tells us that the people who heard him at the synagogue “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Finally, now, we’re getting somewhere, it would seem. Just what is this guy teaching? And what makes it so astounding and different that the others would remark on it?

But alas, we won’t find that out, at least not right yet. With such impeccable timing, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out”. We have no sooner just met this Jesus, begun to at least wonder what he might be about, and started to give rapt attention to what he might be teaching, and then whatever it was Jesus was planning to do, or teach, or show us, it gets interrupted by this outburst, this crying out, this “man with an unclean spirit”.

But I’m not so sure the outburst, the crying out, the so-called “unclean spirit” rears its head simply as a matter of bad timing, like the puppy needing to go potty during dinner or the cell phone ruining that seminal moment at the concert. The outburst, you see, isn’t simply a sideshow, an interruption in Jesus’ teaching that would have plagued whoever it was who’d had the misfortune of being on the schedule rotation that weekend.


“Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death,” the German pastor, theologian, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer once famously wrote.[1] Or, as the popularly known translation from the 1950s put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[2] The presence of Christ in our midst calls into question all of the illusions we have about ourselves and our world. It challenges all of the false pretenses we operate with, all of the false facades we put up. Moreover, the call that Jesus begins with, both in the gospel of Mark and in our lives today, is the call to repent. That is, to turn, to die to the old self, to transform, to change.

To change in a way that truly means something, it’s not something we tend to like to do. The physical sciences speak of inertia; the biological sciences talk of homeostasis. We talk of Connecticut being the land of steady habits, and here in the church, we joke that our famous seven last words will be “We’ve never done it that way before!”

Edwin Friedman, the rabbi and family therapist who died in 1996, wrote and thought and spoke extensively on the resistance to meaningful change that can be seen in systems of human relationships, like families, congregations, and even national and international leadership. In his seminal work, Generation to Generation, he focuses on the importance of being well self-differentiated as a leader. Self-differentiation has to do with the capacity to obtain clarity about one’s principles and vision and to be able to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes, while still remaining connected to and present with those one is leading. The well-differentiated leader, Friedman argues,

is not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny… is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence… is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.[3]

In his later work, and especially the book A Failure of Nerve, published after his death, Friedman focused more and more on the issue of sabotage. I suspect most of us have an idea of what sabotage means in some sense, the attempt to damage, destroy or hinder a cause or activity, as the dictionary would tell us. Friedman points out that human systems work just like biological ones, resisting any change that would disrupt the homeostasis. If one element in the system changes, the forces and pressures within the system will insist that change be undone or somehow countered. When you’re talking about leadership, though, that becomes sabotage. The leader works toward change, and the system insists, “change back”. And when the leader doesn’t respond, it becomes “change back… or else!” In fact, this force is so strong that it will become an attack on the leader themselves, if that’s what it will take to get the change force reversed.

“Sabotage . . . comes with the territory of leading…”, Friedman says, and furthermore asserting that “a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.”[4] In fact, sabotage is so much part-and-parcel of any sort of leadership that actually makes a difference that he even claims that “It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.”[5]


So, why am I telling you all this…?

In hearing our story from Mark’s gospel this week, I wonder if the outburst from the so-called “unclean spirit” is simply the sabotage that rises up out of any group when confronted with the sort of true and authoritative teaching that Jesus offers. The unclean spirit asks Jesus if he has come to destroy it, and indeed, Jesus does come with the power to those things that stand in the way of our transformation—even when one of those things is our own resistance inside of us.

The reality that on Jesus’s first go at things in the synagogue in Capernaum, that he had resistance and sabotage rise up from right within the room, it’s important for any of us who seek to follow Jesus to remember. When we seek after that which is true and right and meaningful and infused with God’s authority, we may in fact hear crying out from right within our ranks. The old saying goes that you can’t please all of the people all of the time; I’d hazard to say that if you are pleasing all of the people all of the time, you’re probably not doing anything important.

As any of us face the firing squad of sabotage, though, or as we face it together as a church, as the body of Christ seeking to speak and teach and do and work full of the authority given us by God, we stand together with none other than Jesus. His call may be to die, but that same call is the call to be with him, with Jesus, the one who invites us to stand with him in his death, that we might stand with him in his life.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Kartin Kuske & Ilse Tödt, trans. Barbara Green & Reinhard Krauss, trans. ed. Geffrey B. Kelly & John D. Godsey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 87.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller, rev. Irmgard Booth (New York: Touchstone, 1995; Macmillan, 1959), 89.

[3] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books / Church Publishing Inc., 2007), 14.

[4] Friedman, 11.

[5] Friedman, 247.

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