Monday, February 02, 2009

A Driveway Moment

Deuteronomy 18: 15-22; Mark 1: 21-28
***** **** United Church of Christ
February 1, 2009

Though there had been other economic depressions in the United States before the crash on October 24, 1929, none had been as severe or as long-lived as what would then be called the Great Depression.

Analysts thought it might have been just a correction of the market, at least that it would be no worse than the recession that occurred after World War I.

Of course we know that this did not prove out. The loss in stock market values came to an estimated $30 billion, which would be about $360 billion by today’s standards. By 1933 unemployment had climbed to 15 million. Though the whole world suffered from the depression, only Germany equaled the percent of unemployed workers in the U.S. Suicide rates rose. Despair, shame and anxiety fought with our better nature. The poor endured the worst of it. Farms were lost, homelessness increased, and funding for public education was severely reduced.

Resentment of immigrant workers increased. Mexican Americans were blamed for lack of jobs for ‘real’ Americans. Over 6,000 were deported in February, 1931.

People around the world looked to their leaders to save them from this economic disaster, in some countries setting the stage for fascism and Communism. In 1933 FDR came to the presidency while many watched, waited and hoped that through his policies, the United States could recover.

It all sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? The recession we are now experiencing is having a similar affect on the mindset of every nation, every economic system, every person who’s worried about their job, their home, their health, their future. It’s pervasive, leading us to thoughts of despair, anxiety, worry, fear, and for some of us, shame. Any one of these can be debilitating, crushing our spirits, capturing and holding our attention to the exclusion of all else. As Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff said in a recent interview, people are starved for some kind of perspective.

In this age of information we cannot escape the ‘bad news’, neither here at home nor abroad. Every morning we can turn on the TV, the radio, the computer, or unfold the newspaper and know what is going on across the country and all over the world. We hear of disaster, war, elections, economies faltering, brutality, violence, death, and the small corner reserved for good deeds, cooperation, sacrifice and valor. We may have free speech in this country, but we use it so freely that it whirls willy-nilly around us and into our minds where it reverberates in an endless tumble of anxiety. And we can become bound inside; bound by our fear not so much of what has happened or what will happen but our fear of what could happen. Our spirits become unclean and bound up, from the Greek word “akarthartos”, meaning the opposite of catharsis. To put it bluntly, we can become full of it: we allow ourselves to become overcome by “stinking thinking” as they say in 12-step groups, and our minds need to be healed.

In the gospel of Mark the people in the synagogue hear of a new teaching, some new information, that which can give release to the unclean spirit. Listen to this unclean spirit. It says “Have you come to destroy us?” Though the people of Capernaum do not instantly recognize Jesus as a prophet, the unclean spirit does. Its response to the very real presence of Jesus is one of fear, destruction, and violence. Resistance.

"Miracle 24: Man with Unclean Spirit", Ian Pollock (2000)
We’re all awfully good at giving Jesus resistance. Especially when we are in group form; you know, Church. Take for example annual meetings. Fear usually raises its head at one point or another in an annual meeting. I heard one church had on its agenda a deficit budget. One member exclaimed in so many words, “You mean you expect us to pass this budget on good faith that we will find the money sometime this year?” And another member responded, “Yes. That’s what we’re all about is faith. All we have are pledge cards. We don’t have any money in hand right now. We always pass a budget on faith: faith that people won’t lose their job or get sick or move away. Every year we have to trust that people will keep their promises.”

As a community of faith we also need to trust that God will keep the promises made in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that is, the promises of forgiveness, mercy, healing, rebirth, and love. When we hear news about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, the latest insurgent attack, about Hamas and Israelis resuming their hatred and violence at one another, about people losing their jobs, losing their homes, about the high cost of health care and prescriptions, about the drastic losses in our retirement funds, about anything that can tempt us toward despair, it can be easy for us to have our imaginations swept up by fear and dread. When our church family murmurs to itself and has difficulty imagining its future we can sometimes lose our attention from Jesus and the promises made to us. Our demons begin to hold our attention in such a way as leaves little room for the healing power of Christ.

I am an avid listener of public radio. One of the news programs, “All Things Considered”, has a phenomenon referred to as a “driveway moment”. It’s when a news feature or interview or story captures the listener in such a way that they are compelled to stay in the car in their driveway for just a few extra minutes to catch the end of the story. Jesus is giving the people in the synagogue just such a driveway moment. He is giving them new teaching, new information that is so compelling that his listeners acknowledge the authority with which he gives this new teaching, this new information. We do not hear what Jesus has said to them but we do hear only a few verses before that he proclaimed that the time is fulfilled, that God’s reign of love has come near, that those who listen and hear are to repent, to return to God and believe the good news.

This would have been quite a gripping driveway moment for the listeners of Mark. Mark is often referred to as a “wartime gospel” in that it was written during the war of revolt between Israel and the Roman occupation when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, around the year 70 CE. Jews who followed the Way of Jesus still thought of themselves at this time as Jews and would have seen the destruction of the temple as a sign of the end of the world.

Having witnessed yet another temple destroyed would call to mind the times of exile in their past and might have led them to despair. The gospel writer of Mark, through the teaching of Jesus, is giving his listeners a message more convincing, more persuasive than that of the Roman lord Caesar’s edict of utter destruction and death: the new authority of Jesus over that of the Roman Empire, the power of God over the power of evil. That authority, that power being love, is the gospel, the truth that can heal our minds, release our unclean spirits, and center our attention on Christ. When our attention is centered on Christ, we are able to accomplish far more than we can possibly imagine.

We may have convinced ourselves that it is our weakness, our powerlessness, our darkness that makes us fearful to be the Church in the world. Marianne Williamson, in her book A Return to Love, writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

In these uncertain times (but really when are they ever certain), when we aren’t thinking clearly, we do not always recognize God’s message of glory within and often it is when we look back on our lives that we then realize when God was speaking to us. As in the reading from Deuteronomy we must trust and commit to heart the words of the prophet that God has promised to us, the teaching of Jesus, that clears our minds, unbinds our spirits and sends our demons packing. We can then tap into that power that God has placed within us that the glory of God can be made manifest, be made visible, in our lives, in the Church and in the world.

Worship is our “driveway moment”. It is our time to be in community and to remember that we are a community, not a crowd. It is a time to confess our lack of attention on Christ and our need to be healed of our fearful thinking. Jesus comes to us as a people; his very real presence commands our attention and says to us: “Be not afraid. I am Lord.” The way of domination, of empire, war, death—these are not lord. The way of injustice, exclusion, strife, shame—these are not lord. The way of scarcity, poverty, slavery, disease—these are not lord. The way of fear is not lord. Jesus is Lord; his Way is love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, justice, and resurrection.

So, ***** **** UCC, in what ways do you need to be healed of fearful thinking? What are your demons of resistance? What are you full of that you need to be emptied of? How do you see yourselves as church? Where do you witness the power of God in your life together? What aspect of the good news of Jesus Christ captures your imagination and moves you to action? How can this faith community be a source of Christ’s authority of love and justice in a frightened world?

Worship is our catharsis, our creative moment to be out of time, to heal us of our “akathartos”, our unclean mind, to let go of all that binds us and to refocus our attention on Christ. So we surround ourselves with music and prayer, gather ourselves about the table, proclaiming the good news and giving praise to God, that we would remember again and again the simplest of confessions, that Jesus is Lord, not only of our lives but of our life together as a people of faith. We have been set free: to serve, to love, to be the very real presence of Christ in a fearful world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Andy said...

Obviously there is a huge difference between a community and a crowd and you express it well.

My question is, do you ever see any fruit grow from your liturgical labors?

Cynthia said...

Only that I get invited back, which is a good thing. I wish I could see more but that would entail a full-time relationship with a congregation, rather these "dates" we have now.

Do you see any fruits in yourself from my liturgical labors?

Thanks for reading, Andy.

Will Duchon said...

"Worship is our “driveway moment”.

Don't you think that the most powerful draw "the church" maintains is community?
I've come to feel that "worship" is not an appropriate or necessary component to spirituality. I think "worship" (in its truest sense and most literal sense) is a emnant of a time when people feared God or gods, and the concept of "worship" is foreign to "God".
A deep subject, but your article brought this to mind.

Andy said...

I do, actually. If I may be so bold, your words are my only weekly dose of spirituality. Most times you cause me to pause and evaluate what you have said and how it relates to me.

I do believe that, in your own way, you positively affect those who hear your words, just by causing people to stop and consider what they just heard.

Like Will (above) said, this was a deep subject, but your article brought this to the forefront of his mind.

Cynthia said...

Thanks for reading, Will.

I don't think of worship as something God needs (hardly!) but as something we need to take the focus off ourselves, especially off of our tendency toward despair, self-absorption, and fear. And yes, for me, it is being together in community that does that, as well as prayer and being still in solitude. I need both.

Thanks, Andy, for your boldness. I am humbled and proud to be part of your pause to consider. As for doses of spirituality, get yourself a copy of "If Grace Is True"--a great little book that has had a profound effect on my life.