Ultimate Authority

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
01 February 2015
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector


Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

His name was Atticus Finch and he is one of the main characters in Harper Lee’s classic story, To Kill a Mockingbird.  He and Sheriff Tate were the two people who seemed to have the most authority in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s.  So, when a rabid dog was spotted making his way down the Main Street of that small town, the scared townspeople immediately called the sheriff, who in turn, called Atticus.  They both knew that the rabid dog needed to be shot and killed.  So, to put the dog out of its misery and the townspeople out of their fear, they used their authority to do just that.

Harper Lee used this vignette as a prelude to the central storyline of what happens when a town’s misplaced fear gets in the way of justice being served.  That fear was directed at a black man named Tom Robinson who was unfairly accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus was called to defend Tom Robinson in a court of law, but he failed to convince a jury of Tom’s innocence.  In the minds of some of the townspeople, being black was as much a source of their fear as any rabid dog was; and for that reason, Tom Robinson needed to be put away.

He was actually shot and killed by guards as Tom tried to escape from the county jail.  Those prison guards may have had temporary authority over his life, but they didn’t have ultimate authority over his innocence, his healing or his spirit.  (Adapted from Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XX, Number 2 p. 6).

Ten years ago in Los Angeles, a reporter named Steve Lopez wrote a story about a man named Nathaniel Ayers, who was a brilliant violinist.  The first time Lopez heard Nathaniel play was not in any grand concert hall, but on a street corner in a seedy part of L.A., not far from the glitzy streets of Hollywood.  He was playing sections of symphonies by the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky; and he was playing them on a violin that had only two strings.

Nathaniel had once been a student at the prestigious Juilliard School, but when he began to suffer from schizophrenia, there was no one, even among his own family, who knew what to do to help him. That’s how he ended up on the streets of Los Angeles where Lopez discovered him.

The newspaper article that Lopez wrote about Nathaniel touched the hearts of enough people, especially in Hollywood, that they sent gifts of money and musical instruments and offers of permanent housing to Nathaniel.  His life even became the subject of a major motion picture called “The Soloist.”

Nathaniel was able to leave behind his life on the street, but only for a little while before his erratic behavior returned and caused the very people who tried to help him the most, to abandon him.  Nathaniel found himself homeless once again and subject to the authority of the street police.  But that authority was only temporary.  No person had ultimate authority over his musical brilliance, his healing or his spirit.  (Adapted from Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XX, Number 2 p. 8).

Just a few years ago, in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, a woman walked into a church.  She sat quietly in the back until the minister started praying.  During the pauses in the minister’s prayers, the woman began to shout out questions such as: “What does prayer mean?  Who believes in it, anyway?”   The people in the congregation began to clutch their purses and pull their children close beside them while the minister ignored the questions and continued to pray

Then there was a commotion in the back of the church as the ushers, who wanted to quiet the fears of the people in the congregation, escorted the frenzied woman out of the church.

The ushers may have had temporary authority when it came to her presence in their church, but they didn’t have ultimate authority over her questioning, her healing or her spirit.  (Adapted from Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XX, Number 2 p. 7).

The newly called disciples were tired when they arrived in Capernaum.  They nonetheless followed Jesus into the synagogue where he began to teach.  They were fascinated by what they heard but they also noticed how uncomfortable Jesus’ teachings were making the scribes.  Then they heard a commotion behind them.  A man had walked in off the street and was acting bizarre.  Apparently he was known around town as someone with an “unclean spirit” and because of that, had been completely marginalized.

The possessed man began yelling at Jesus as if he were some kind of threat.  It was as if two very strong powers were squaring off, raising the stakes of authority.  The disciples felt powerless to do anything about it and the scribes, the ones with religious authority, were frozen by the way the man was referring to Jesus as the “holy One of God”.  All were waiting in fear for the voices to accelerate in anger, when Jesus spoke from a place of calm and commanded: “Be silent!”  And as we heard from Mark’s gospel, the man convulsed and an unclean spirit came out of him.  Everyone watching was amazed and immediately began to question the source of authority that Jesus had over that man’s healing and spirit.

All four of the stories that you just heard have similar themes.  Did you hear what they were?  Fear was a big part of them.  There was fear of the rabid dog and of the black man accused of rape; fear of the mental illness of the street violinist; fear of the homeless woman who dared walk into the back of a church; fear of the man with the unclean spirit who faced off with Jesus in the synagogue.

And what about the theme of authority?  How well did the judge and jury use their authority in the case of Tom Robinson?  How well did the community of Los Angeles help rehabilitate Nathaniel Ayers?  How effective was the authority of the ushers in that Fort Worth church in answering a woman’s questions about prayer?  How well did the scribes use their religious authority to help heal the man with the unclean spirit?

And that leads to the theme of healing.  The deeply prejudiced residents in the southern town of Maycomb, Alabama were in need of healing.  So was Nathaniel Ayers, the violinist, as was the woman in Fort Worth who challenged a congregation’s comfortable fellowship and worship.  And so was the man who wandered into the synagogue when Jesus was teaching.  The healing that was needed in all of the stories was not the temporary kind that a band-aid might fix.  The wounds were too deep and gaping for that.  It was spiritual healing that was needed – the healing that we can only begin to provide to one another; because the ultimate healing, as revealed by Jesus, can only come from God’s command and love.

As of yesterday, 40 homeless men in the CARITAS program arrived to be sheltered for a week here at St. Mary’s.  We prepare so well for their stay and literally pour ourselves out into providing them warmth and food and hospitality.  If these men are similar to the men who have come here in previous years, not all of them are well.  Some may act and look for all the world as if they have unclean spirits – and that can be scary.  Is it even possible, then, to connect with them on a level that is somehow healing to them especially when so much of our time and energy is spent in meeting their critical needs of food and shelter??

I think it’s so interesting how our St. Mary’s children and youth already know how to do that.  Jesus knew that about children and asked many times that we become as children if we want to see the Kingdom of God for what it really is.  We have a chance to do that this week and I think the best preparation for that is through prayer.

My prayer, then, is that each of us may tap into our hearts to hear the voice of God’s love and ultimate authority that will help us overcome our fears of the unknown, the misunderstood and the unclean, and allow us to connect with these 40 men in ways that are spiritually healing not only to them, but to us, as well.  Amen.