Deuteronomy 18:1520; psalm 111; Mark 1:2128
I’d like to tell you about Jim Nagle and Sister Julia Suba. It’s been many years since I’ve seen either of them. In fact I’m not sure what has happened to Jim Nagle and I heard a couple of years ago that Julia had died. They were both teachers at Archbishop Alter High School in Dayton, Ohio in the late 1960s. And they liberated my life. Sister Julia was herself a rather liberated nun, and she took an interest in me. She let me know with all the support and love that only a teacher has the influence to give a teenager, that who I was coming to realize myself to be as a person was OK. And that even though this identity didn’t quite fit what the world and the church expected me to be, I was deeply and unconditionally loved by God. She even went so far as to say that my “difference” was a gift from God that would allow for a unique perspective on the world. Sister Julia freed me from becoming overcome by prejudice or shackled by self-hatred. And that was huge for a struggling gay seventeen year-old in 1969.
And then there was Jim Nagle. He and Julia were close colleagues on the faculty. And he recognized my creative side. He raised up projects like the yearbook, of which I was the editor, and gave them recognition. Loved by all the students, he had the authority to create a high school world where all sorts of gifts, talents, and personalities were celebrated as gifts of God. Whenever there is a news report of some outbreak of high school violence caused by someone feeling marginalized, I can’t help but think a few more teachers like Jim Nagle and Julia Suba might have helped. To this day, I cringe when people start telling Catholic School nun stories. I’m suspicious that the horrors recounted are greatly exaggerated, but mostly because my Catholic School nun story is a story of liberation.
Those days seem so long ago and yet my outlook on life continues to be influenced by the gifts of those teachers. Right now you might be thinking back to some teacher who had a profound influence on your life, someone for whom it’s not too much to say, “They made all the difference.” Teachers have the power to liberate, to open new worlds, to enlighten, to instill values, to literally help us find our way in this often confusing world. And sadly, some people never get over the damage done to them by some uncaring or cruel teacher. Teachers have the power to change lives.
In the passage just read from Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. Last Sunday, we were with him when he called his first disciples and today he’s teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Mark tells us that those who heard him “were astounded” and that “he taught them as one having authority.” And then, all of a sudden, a man yells out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be silent.” And indeed the man was freed from the unclean spirit that had infected his heart, mind and soul. Teachers have the power to change lives. No wonder the people were amazed and kept asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority.” The answer, of course, to the people’s question is a resounding “Yes.”
Yes this is a new teaching that has the power to liberate our lives from enslavement to the gods of greed and power, from the limitations of our prejudices, from the walls we erect out of our fears and mistrust, and from the inhumanity that blinds us from embracing the image of God in our neighbor and all of creation. It’s a new teaching that confronts head on the false promises of the world’s powers and principalities. Yes, Jesus Christ comes to free us from the demons that enslave us from growing into the full life God intends for us.
Now, most of us don’t really think of ourselves as being possessed by anything that resembles the unclean spirit in today’s Gospel. And yet even in these uncertain economic times, when we still live in a time and place of material abundance and comfort, unhappiness, restlessness, desperation, loneliness, and spiritual hunger seem too often to define our personal and collective situation. Theologian Ann Hock asks, “How can you know and watch the community around you on any single day and not recognize the evidence that there is still at work in this world a sinister force that opposes God’s will and purpose for our lives?” Yesterday, at Diocesan Convention, keynote speaker Brian McLaren talked about the power of the gospel to show those who are chasing after money and prestige alone that in Jesus they will find something much more valuable than that; and for those who, despite all the creature comforts in the world, know their lives to be flat, that in Jesus there is a depth and meaning that simply cannot be known otherwise.
While we hear that Jesus’ fame as a teacher spread throughout the surrounding region, the Gospel writer Mark doesn’t actually get into what Jesus was teaching; that comes later in the story. His point here is simply to be clear that if we will follow Jesus and open ourselves to his teaching our lives will be transformed. But if we jump for a minute to Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus’ words at the start of his public ministry, we hear just what kind of liberation this new teaching promises. Here, Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath day. He stands up and unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, if we will allow Jesus to be our teacher, then our lives and our world will be set free to engage in the kind of love of God and neighbor we were created for.
Writing about the Church, the late Verna Dozier wrote, “In Jesus, God came into history to create a people who would change the world, who would make the world a place where every person knew that she or he was loved, was valued, had a contribution to make, and had just as much right to the riches of the world as every other person. That is what the Church is all about, to bring into that vision, that ideal community of love in which we all are equally valuable and in which we equally share. Every structure of life comes under the judgment of that vision: our politics, our economics, our education, our social structures. Even the Church! Nothing is exempt from that challenge. And every member of the Church who lives and works in any of those structures is called to carry the message that this structure will be redeemed to the glory of God.” That’s huge, that’s transformative, and that’s the kind of personal and collective liberation—from all the powers that keep us from living lives that are focused on anything less—that is possible when we allow Jesus to be our teacher. We will be set free to participate in God’s creative work in the world.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Surely we can identify with the possessed man in the synagogue. We, too, come to church; we’re here! But if we’re honest we also know all about the pain in our lives, the guilt and shame that some live with, the dehumanizing competition that defines for so many the purpose of each day, the despair of a senseless death, the fear of a terminal illness, the betrayal of a spouse, the unrelenting battle of the addict. Jesus comes right into our midst and wants to drive away anything that binds and possesses us. Jesus liberates us to love God and one another richly, abundantly. William Sloane Coffin said, “Love measures our stature: the more we love, the bigger we are. There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a man all wrapped up in himself.”
Life is confusing. Doesn’t the Washington Post or your local paper confirm every day that the demon’s voice that cried out in the synagogue in Capernaum is still screaming right here, right now. We need a teacher with authority. We need a teacher with the power to liberate our lives from the confusing muddle we find ourselves in. We’re searching for meaning and the answers to life’s fundamental questions. And Jesus comes into the synagogue, into our church, and our lives, to silence the raging demons.
A bishop friend of mine complains that too many priests make the therapist their model for ministry rather than Jesus the rabbi, the teacher. While most of us need a caring pastor, we also need a transforming teacher because we’re looking for the truth about life, a truth that will set us free from the demons that keep us shackled. Jesus is just that teacher. He comes teaching with authority. Come be taught by him, be healed by him, and be set free by him.