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“‘The Incomparable Milk of Wonder’”

January 30, 2012

“‘The Incomparable Milk of Wonder’” Mark 1:21-28 Ordinary 4B © 1/29/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of the hardest things for me over my years of ministry, among many difficulties, has been coming to terms with my authority. I’m called a “teaching elder” in the current parlance, and I wear this black robe with stripes and an academic hood. My title implies that I have life experience, and I do have some, but enough and of the right sort to be called an “elder?” I wonder. And “teaching?” I often still need to be taught. The gown might be just the right length and size and the doctoral hood the proper school and degree colors, but sometimes they seem ill-fitting. Some days I ask myself: who is that guy in the mirror daring to wear such exalted clothing?

Maybe that’s why the longer I studied the morning’s gospel, the more it fascinated me, the more I warmed to it, and the more it took over my thoughts and even my emotions. It’s about leadership and authority, power and position. So it couldn’t be more relevant for today’s church and world. So many in all walks of life crave influence, titles, recognition, fame, and approval of their message. Yet few truly master how to be a leader or do anything that is fresh and innovative, the sort of actions and/or ideas that make us sit up and take notice, that astonish us, which is to say, bewilder and delight at the same time.

In this story, Jesus teaches us what leadership and authority look like. There are at least four qualities he demonstrates that apply in any organization or institution.

First, leaders exercise authority within a particular context. That’s a pretty obvious statement. Someone is CEO of a certain company, an elder in a particular church, an officer on the board of a specific not-for-profit, the president of the United States. The scope of your authority may be wide or narrow, your actions impact a small circle or the whole world, but still, your authority is limited by rules and standards like constitutions and laws and by the acceptance of your constituency of your actions and words. And the kinds of needs and concerns you address arise from your community. For his part, Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath in a particular city, Capernaum. Mark doesn’t say this, but Matthew tells us Jesus made his home in Capernaum. So these were his neighbors and friends, people he had done business with, talked with over tea, cried and rejoiced with. His teaching grew out of not only the text he read, but the lives of the people in the room.

Our Book of Order adopts this principle for us in a couple of ways. For one, no one can be placed in an ordered ministry, like a minister or a ruling elder, in the Presbyterian Church without election by the people. That is one of our classic and cardinal rules. We’re also told that the election of someone to the exercise of authority “in any particular society is in that society.” More clearly perhaps, the new standards tell us that “The basic form of ministry is the ministry of the whole people of God, from whose midst some are called to ordered ministries, to fulfill particular functions” (G-2.0101) (emphasis mine).

So no one has authority or is a leader in a vacuum. There are always a community of some sort, a set of standards, a means of accountability, a constituency to work with and care for. Leadership arises from situations, out of a people, granted by those same people. But second, the exercise of authority is different than having a position of power. Someone elected or placed in a position may be invested with formal power, but lack authority, whether through regulation and hamstringing by higher-ups or lack of respect by those he or she is supposed to lead. And isn’t it often the case that those with the least authority try to gain or maintain it by power, which is to say, force, intimidation, and arbitrary rules? Ironically, such tactics only lessen the little authority they had.

By contrast, those without power can be and are respected for their authority. People listen to them, defer to them, honor them. The recovering addict or alcoholic may have few resources or many, be readily recognized or always under the radar. But because of hard life experience, he or she can advise those struggling with the same problems with more credibility than the scholar with his or her books and degrees. The grandparent with only a high school education deserves the respect and the ear of the Ph.D. grandchild because of what the older person has learned from sacrifice and observation in the Real World. The fresh-faced lieutenant outranks the sergeant, but he or she needs to depend on the non-commissioned officers in his or her unit to help decide what needs to be done in a real situation of danger.

The synagogue crowd recognized such true authority in Jesus, even though he was simply one of their neighbors. “He taught as one having authority and not as the scribes.” That meant a couple of things. For one, the scribes, the experts in the Jewish religious law, taught by quoting others and toeing the party line. If their lessons had been written, they would have been mostly footnotes citing this rabbi or that writing. Original thinking and creativity were discouraged; you were supposed to stick to the tried-and-true interpretations. No one was willing to get in trouble for expressing something a different way or for a new situation, that made you go “Hmm. I never saw it like that.” If their teaching had been chicken, it would have been prepared one way, every time you had it.

The tradition was stifling, but Jesus brought a breath of fresh air. We don’t know what Jesus was teaching specifically. Mark gives no content. All he reports is that the people were astounded. It was like nothing they had heard. Which was odd, because Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God, according to the writer in last week’s text. And that had long been the subject of the preaching of Hebrew prophets.

So there had to be something more going on here than content. I think we can sum it up in one word: authenticity. That’s where authority comes from. He spoke out of the depths of his inner life with God. Only Jesus is the truly authentic one, the only one who speaks as the Source of all. There was something in his very person that communicated authority. A bearing. A look. A confidence that radiated from him.

Leaders have to have necessary skills and knowledge. They also must be able to communicate their ideas, and indeed, their words may be powerful. But the authority a person possesses comes not so much from books and skill sets as from the inner assurance that they have. There is simply something about them that draws others to them. Leaders have learned to tap into the wellspring of authority that is the flowing stream of their life experience. They know that whatever has happened to them has made them who they are, and they gain insight and confidence from their pain and conflict and failure as well as their joy and success. As someone has said, “God comes to you disguised as your life” (Paula D’Arcy, quoted by Richard Rohr in Falling Upward). Or as Frederick Buechner famously put it: “Theology is mostly autobiography.” We don’t need to fear trusting our instincts, our experience, our intuition as sources for discerning the way and will of God. Jesus gained his strength and confidence from that deep place inside him, that connection with the Creator, that we also have.

But if leaders exercise true authority, so also are they people who provide a non-anxious presence. Such a quality is often stated as “keeping your head when everyone else is losing theirs.” It’s being the eye of the hurricane, the calm in the midst of swirling chaos. A non-anxious leader is not reactive; he or she is instead proactive, staying on mission, not letting circumstances, interruptions, and disruptions shake his or her resolve or the commitment to the goal.

Some interruptions are necessary and productive. Even providential. There’s an old saying in ministry: “I used to resent the interruptions in my work during the day. But then I realized that the interruptions were my work.” Others are welcome gifts that invite us to take a break, to be refreshed in the midst of some mind-numbing task. Still other interruptions are surprises that we would not wish on our worst enemy, when tragedy strikes suddenly or the phone rings, and it’s bad news. And then there are the disruptions, rushing on us like a sudden torrent of terror. Sometimes they are a memory that comes flooding back that indicts us, refusing to allow us to deceive ourselves anymore, reminding us of who we are. Other times, the disruptions lay bare our assumptions about how the world works and shows them to be faulty; there really is no neat order to things. On still other occasions, the disruptions come disguised as the gentle, honest voice of innocence, which is not used to pretense, the child who won’t let us off the hook with an equivocating answer, that isn’t satisfied to be put off to another day. They ask pointedly: “Who are you, anyway?”

Or like the man with an evil spirit in the Jewish gathering place, the disruptive voices tell the world loudly what we don’t want revealed. They misrepresent our intentions. Jesus dealt with the disruption as someone whose confidence could not be shaken and as someone who cared deeply about people. He dispatched the evil spirit and went back to teaching. Everybody around was probably freaking out at the shouting, the convulsions, the gruff voice and its frightened announcement about and questions for Jesus. But our Lord would not let the unclean entity set the agenda or make him lose his focus on the day’s work. Jesus wants to tell who he is on his own terms and at his own time. The evil spirit wants to rush things. Jesus’ authority is shown in his taking charge of his own mission. People will know who he is, but not from the witness of someone suspect.

How many of us can stay calm when all around us is giving way? That’s certainly not a gift of mine. Back in the day, I was part of a study group made up of ministers from a number of denominations. The camaraderie was great, and we loved to rag each other about our failings. You can’t study the Bible very well without massive intake of caffeine, apparently, so plenty of coffee was a regular part of our meetings. One day, we decided that we would select mugs for each other that expressed the essence of our personalities as judged by the rest of the group. The one I got, and still have, had a picture of a chicken with its head cut off, holding a bunch of papers as it ran around aimlessly. Feathers and other papers were flying everywhere. The caption on the mug is “The important thing is not to panic.”

Jesus didn’t panic. He displayed his authority by confronting evil, dealing with it, and not allowing disruptive events to sidetrack him. In so doing, he linked word and action, and that’s what finally amazed and astounded the crowd. His new teaching was action that could deal even with powers that were determined to deform and destroy human life.

Finally, not only do leaders keep their heads and stay focused on their mission, they inspire the imaginations of those around. They invite people to ask why not and who says and encourage them to reach beyond their grasp for something different and fresh. The worshippers were astounded and amazed. Jesus’ fame began to spread. Today, the video of the event would go viral. People would post about it on Facebook and tweet from their pews. We would say our Lord generated “buzz on the street.”

What does it take to amaze us these days, to get that kind of excitement going? We live in such a cynical age, and there’s new technology all the time, which we rather expect. Can anything truly astound us? Maybe some great play in a game that seems superhuman. Or the skill of an accomplished pianist or guitarist. Maybe we’re amazed at the arrogance and foolishness of some folks. Or perhaps we thrill to the accomplishments of those who are extraordinarily brave. As the Vice-President said of the team that rescued hostages in Somalia last week: “Those guys are amazing.”

It takes something really incredible to make us sit up and take notice. Advertisers know this. For example, there’s a commercial for a car dealer in Louisville. To me the whole thing feels forced. The man and woman on the ad are annoying, with their fake enthusiasm, their shouting effort to excite. We are supposed to be impressed by their record-breaking sales and their outstanding service. “We strive to amaze you,” they say.

If you have to try to amaze, you’re not really so amazing, are you? True wonder comes from the sense that we are in the presence of greatness, something mysterious, even holy. Something, someone, who can evoke both our deepest joy and touch our most profound fears, who can reach inside us and grab our heart of hearts, who seems to intuit our dreams and set us on the road to fulfilling them. Cars can’t do that. No one but Jesus can. Only he can nourish and nurture us by his Spirit on the “incomparable milk of wonder,” to use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase. Real amazement bubbles up like a life-giving spring from our deepest hopes. It’s the sense that the world really is shot through with wonder, the project of a gracious Creator.

Jesus was the vessel of such wonder, even as he was and is its source. We as his body today can live with such imagination, confidence, and hope that our neighbors will know the amazing experience of God’s care in Christ and be nourished as we are on the spiritual milk of wonder. Then all can say with the hymnwriter: “God, creator of the cosmos, spinning worlds beyond our sight, each day brings us new surprises, sparkling with divine delight. Far-flung galaxies astound us; quantum forces leave us dazed. With fresh eyes we look and marvel at the wonder of your ways” (“God, Creator of the Cosmos,” © 2009, Barbara Hamm; used by permission).

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