Twenty years ago I traveled to Albuquerque to attend a Richard Rohr conference. A highly educated, incredibly articulate Franciscan priest, Fr. Richard is the founder and leader of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.
Back then Fr. Richard was not well known beyond Roman Catholic circles. Of the 150 folks who gathered that year, I was just one of three Protestants and the only ordained woman, something that delighted my cradle Catholic seat mates to no end.
Already quite familiar with Fr. Richard’s work, I was eager to hear what he had come to share. I expected a book table, maybe even a time for book signings, but what took me by complete surprise were the many recordings of talks and classes Fr. Richard had given over the years. When I mentioned to my seat mates that UCCers like me weren’t used to recordings at events like this, they were genuinely surprised.
“Why, I listen to one of Fr. Richard’s talks every morning when I walk my dog,” one of them said.
“Yes, I like listening when I’m getting dinner ready,” another offered.
The dog walker piped up excitedly. “I have listened Fr. Richard’s lectures so many times I almost have them memorized.” The others’ heads bobbed in happy agreement.
Fr. Richard knows very well the impact his teachings have on people hungry for the good news framed in fresh ways. He knows people commit his lectures and homilies to memory, that they wear out copies of his books with their underlining and note scribbling, and that when they gather to hear him they hang on his every word.
Knowing all this, Fr. Richard does something to balance out the power people give him. Fr. Richard ends every talk, every conference with words to this effect: “Do not take what I am saying to heart simply because I’m saying it. Listen instead to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is this very moment dwelling in the depths of your being; this Spirit is your authority. Not me. Take everything I’ve said, everything I’ve taught, and then ask the Holy Spirit to point you away from falsehood and toward the truth.”
It takes a big person to climb down from people’s well-constructed pedestals. It takes a big person to set aside hard-earned credentials and church-conferred authority and instead lift up the inward authority of every listener and learner. It takes a big person to choose to be humble.
This morning Mark describes Jesus’ opening act of public ministry. Baptized at the Jordan, tested for 40 days in the wilderness, flanked now by newly-recruited disciples, Jesus is teaching for the first time in a synagogue in Capernaum. People are enthralled, Mark says, turning to each other saying “He teaches with authority, not as the scribes.”
Even though we weren’t there, we all know that moment of welcome surprise. A new boss arrives on the scene and her enthusiasm and vision sends people’s hearts soaring after far too long. A guest lecturer comes to class with a gift that enlivens even the dullest of students. A 22-year-old poet steps to the podium at a Presidential inauguration in her bright yellow winter coat, opens her mouth, and leaves many in her hurting, confused nation feeling strangely healed and hopeful again.
New to public ministry, Jesus brings a living word to what had too long felt like a desert. We miss the nuance in English but in Mark’s Greek what he suggests when he says Jesus taught with authority is this: that the power and truth in what Jesus was saying came not from pithy quotes or fancy citations, not from something someone else told him which he is now repeating. No. What Jesus said and how he said it arose from his depths, his very essence. An essence we know was affirmed by God when Jesus first came up out of the Jordan River.
“Jesus taught as one having authority, not as the scribes.” This is not to say that the scribes never had this kind of authority, only that it had been missing and probably for some time.
I met one of those scribes years ago when I was volunteering at a church where she was serving on an interim basis. I am positive that when this woman was younger she was on fire with God’s truth, that she was illumined from within by the light of God’s love just as Jesus was.
But something happened along the way, a series of somethings maybe, that caused her light to dim and the fire in her belly to be reduced to faint embers.
I count as one of the saddest days of my life the Sunday I found her just-preached sermon sitting in the pulpit after worship. In the upper left corner of her manuscript was a paper clip-shaped rust mark that in a glance explained everything about her messages and her ministry. She was just going through the motions.
Jesus had no worldly qualifications the day he went into the synagogue to teach. He had no hard-earned diploma, no reference letter from a well-regarded mentor in Jerusalem. He had no recently-completed internship to point to, no endorsement from a Temple priest.
But what Jesus did have was clear to the Capernaum congregation. What he did have was the Holy Spirit lighting up his eyes, gifting him with speech, empowering him to be the perfect embodiment of God’s love, justice, and truth.
Jesus did not have a resume but what he did Jesus had was a direct and profound connection to the Spirit within. A connection he nurtured and drew upon at every turn. How else could he have done what he did and said what he said? How else could he have stayed so true to his calling, his mission of love?
Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit, it’s fair to say. Everyone that day in Capernaum could see and feel its gentle, unwavering authority as Jesus engaged them.
What blessed and enlivened those who were there, what had the synagogue astounded and impressed also proved threatening. Not to the people in attendance but to an unholy spirit that had somehow found a home in one of the synagogue goers.
That shadowy presence shouted its resistance even as it acknowledged who Jesus was. But it was no match for the truth and love present in Jesus. Jesus simply, clearly, authoritatively sent the spirit away. Not with force or fury but with a word. “Be silent and come out of him.” And the unholy spirit obeyed.
It was in this moment that the synagogue crowd saw Jesus’ authority for what it was—unlike anything they had ever witnessed before. “What is this?” they asked each other. “A new teaching—with authority!”
What is this new teaching? I’ll leave it to you to arrive at your own conclusions—but for me what Jesus is teaching is that nothing but love gets the last word. That Jesus will never fail to utter that word and will never step away from being that word. Even in the face of unholy spirits, earthly empires, human brokenness and sin, Jesus’ word and witness can’t not prevail.
Even so let’s not do to Jesus what some are tempted to do with Fr. Richard. Let’s not allow our awe and admiration to trick us into neglecting our God-given capacities or forfeiting the authority bestowed upon us by the indwelling Spirit.
Throughout his ministry and in each of the gospels, we see Jesus encouraging us to participate with him in the works of grace and goodness, of love and justice that are his unwavering priorities. We see Jesus inviting us, as Fr. Richard does, to discover for ourselves the Spirit’s presence within and to embrace the authority it alone provides.
Jesus was not looking to give out autographs; he had no need for fanboys and fangirls. What Jesus did need, what he did want, was to find people willing to join him in doing what he was doing—loosing the bonds of death so that love, justice, and wholeness might prevail here on earth. So that God’s dream for creation might be realized at last.
As the American church has moved from the 20th century into the 21st, one of the shifts I see and have felt is a movement away from grounding faith in beliefs to cultivating a faith that is anchored in relationship with the Spirit of God. This church is a part of that movement.
Beliefs are important and for a variety of reasons. Yet when we are in touch with the indwelling Spirit, when we feel ourselves supported by the Spirit, we are blessed with a quiet power, a gentle authority that steadies us and serves the world, steadies and serves even when the going gets difficult.
We see how this works by looking at Jesus. Think about all the times those who were threatened by him circled around with their testy questions and their disdain.
Religious leaders regularly sought Jesus out and would lob questions about the law in hopes of entrapping and discrediting him. But they never got the last word, did they? It wasn’t that Jesus was the intellectual superior and so had the upper hand, although I have no doubts about his smarts.
What kept Jesus balanced and grounded in those moments wasn’t what he knew about the law or even about people. What kept him balanced and grounded in those moments was his intimate connection with the Spirit within.
We are alive at a most challenging time. We deal daily with friends, families, and neighbors, with fellow countrymen who believe very differently than we do and about a variety of things.
We may wish we could be so masterful as to convince someone of something. We may fantasize about using our tongues like swords, cutting away fake news and faulty assumptions. We may even envy Jesus for calling out an unholy spirit and sending it away.
And yet what would better serve us, what would better serve the world around us is to find and keep company with our center, the Spirit within, the inward source of our authority. What would better serve us is seeking the companionship and authority of the Spirit first for the peace this gives and then for the help that then comes.
We are not Jesus, nor are we Richard Rohr. But we bear within us the same Spirit that formed and informed them. We bear within us the same capacity to listen and be led. We bear within us the same calling—that is to be about the work of love and justice, hope and healing.
Let us pray:
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Melt us, mold us, heal us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.