March 30, 2014: “Church Disturbed” by Rev Dr Richard Topping

Interruption in Church  by Rev Dr Richard Topping

(For a PDF click March 30, 2014 Rev Dr Richard Topping  for audio click here.

Have you ever noticed that from inside many churches – especially in the sanctuary of the church building – you can’t even see out there – the wider world. Through the beauty of stained glass and clever architecture, sitting in church can cut you off from the world out there.

Many of us come to worship for moments of peace and quiet.  We’re glad that “in here” is protected from “out there.”  The nave of our churches are oases from the chaos and turmoil of the wider world.  We print right in our scripted service bulletins, “Please remain silent during the prelude as a time of prayer and meditation.”  If I can paraphrase – what we mean is “please let us have a break from cacophony and chaos for just an hour please!”

The place where our worship takes place is called sanctuary – a safe place, an ordered place, a place of quiet and reverence and beauty.  The dictionary says, “A sanctuary is a protected area where wildlife is safe from predators.”

Do you ever feel that this space, worship space, does that for you?  Here with cell phone turned off – or at least on vibrate- iPhone and Black Berry temporarily shut down or on vibrate, iPod ear buds pulled out, (on your day off away from the office and the computer), you are safe from predators – who want to eat up your time, your money, your psychic balance and peace of mind.  We’ve got a place of repose in worship, it is sanctuary; it saves us from extinction.

And look at how we do things in worship.  I am a Presbyterian. For us the most important verse in the whole of the bible is: “do all things decently and in order.”  The most ordered, planned and carefully orchestrated event of the week is church.  Everything we do here is designed to induce peace and harmony.  The order of service is printed – predictably and just like last week.  The pews are bolted to the floor.  The furniture is fixed: steadfast and immovable.  Our buildings are sometimes like fortresses.  The pulpit is six feet above contradiction.  These are the bulwarks and bunkers we build against the intrusions of chaos and conflict and turmoil and upset and trouble.

A parishioner once said to me: “I wish I could come here every day.  I need the order and structure that church gives my fragmented life.  It tends to wear off about Wednesday.”

The meeting of the saints is organized, graceful, structured.  It points toward the world as it one day will be, at the end of time when we will all be caught up in the endless worship of God, when heaven and earth are made over again; when tears will be wiped away from every eye; when justice and peace will embrace; when swords will be beat into plough shares, from this time forth and even forevermore.  Amen.

And then, well, and then someone’s cell phone rings in church.  And then, a baby cries out during the sermon.  And then the city workers plough the street beside the church during the service.  Someone’s constructing a building.  And then, someone needs medical attention at worship or somebody walks in off the street and walks unnervingly close to the front, and we are thrown off our measured solemnity.  Into the controlled and rehearsed world of the church, the outside world intrudes.

During a wedding rehearsal, I still recall the Father of the Bride, arm in arm with his daughter coming down the centre aisle of this church, and when his cell phone rang, he stopped made us all wait while he took an important business call.  Wow! (We did speak about this – “I hope this doesn’t happen tomorrow,” I said.  The bride was not so diplomatic with her Father.

Despite the most careful planning of clergy, the most rehearsed preparations of church musicians, things go awry, glitches occur, interruptions take place in, of all places, church.  It seems that chaos and disorder cannot be kept at bay.  Predators seem to hunt in sanctuary.

And if I can just press a little further: chaos comes with us to church.  You see the reason “sanctuary” is hard to come by isn’t just because the outside world intrudes by light and sound and cordless connection into this place.  Let’s face it we all come to church dragging our demons with us.  And peace and quiet give opportunity for our demons to speak up.

Think of night time, when all is silent and serene – and then it all bubbles to the surface, and while it is quiet and dark outside, it is a witches brew – all stirred up- inside.  We’ve often got restlessness that a craftmatic bed isn’t going to solve.  Church, worship, can be like that: the quiet conjures up the demons we’ve brought with us.  In the quiet of worship, we’ve got to face who and what we are.  The stillness of mind and heart, bring us face to face with chaos and trouble in us.

The avoidance we practice by keeping busy gets cracked open when we sit still in the silence of church.  The restlessness we feel about keeping the service moving and tight, filling in all the gaps with musaic, can be our reluctance to face who and what we have become.

Worry and addiction, sadness and indifference, grief and regret and all sorts of other demons can get quite busy in the world inside our heads – right here, in worship.  The ordered world of Church –especially its silence – almost provokes this sort of confrontation with chaos.  Chaos gets to us in church.  Demons have our name.

“And they [Jesus and his disciples] went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.  And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority . . .”

Jesus gives his first sermon in our Gospel lesson from Mark.  He and the disciples go to church, and Jesus gets to offer his comments on the lesson.  Jesus appears in Mark, as a teacher, a Rabbi, doing what Rabbis do.  The world of the synagogue was an ordered world – there was routine expectation, an order to the service of prayer and praise to the God of Israel.  One commentator says, “the synagogue services were not wholly unlike Anglican Morning and Evening prayer: they consisted of various praises, blessings and other prayers, together with readings from the Old Testament which were subsequently expounded by the preacher.” (Mark, Nineham, 77)  This day Jesus is the preacher.

And it goes well.  The crowd is astonished.  And they are astonished not so much at what he taught, but at how he taught.  “He teaches with authority – power.”

Unlike other teachers, including this one, who just used a quotation from another authority, Jesus doesn’t need to footnote.  What he says rests on the fact that he says it.  He speaks and the strength of his words rest solely on the fact that he speaks them.  Jesus’ words do things to the people that hear them.  He says it, and it cuts right through you.  He speaks and his words leave a mark on your life.  His words sear and heal and touch.

It’s like listening to Jesus, we get all permeable.  There’s no defence against his words.  They expose and meet the need they name in all of us.  It’s both frightening and life-giving, listening to this teacher come from God.  His words pack a punch.  It’s like the time he stilled the storm, he just said “Peace, be still.”  And St. Mark records, “then the wind ceased.”  He teaches with authority.  He does what he wishes with words.  And what he wishes is the good of those to whom he speaks.  What a great synagogue service.

And then the cell phone rings, predators come into the sanctuary, a raving man stands up and howls menacing threats at the preacher. I have had this happen – it is unnerving. It seems that he was there in church the whole time.  He came to church demons in tow and Jesus’ astonishing teaching provoked his demons.  Imagine coming to church, looking for some sweet peace and quiet, and getting your demons provoked.  Jesus just won’t leave well-enough alone.

Maybe Jesus speaks peace to storms, but this time the words Jesus spoke stirred a storm up.  I don’t know what Jesus said to set this guy off, but he did set him off.  His powerful words cut to the quick and touched places, maybe he wanted left alone.  Maybe Jesus’ sermon was about money or politics or ethical investment and God.  Maybe Jesus said, “There are no self-made people, you’ve got to repent and come into the kingdom like a child.”  I don’t really know.  But I do know that Jesus is big on getting into the face of the demons that hitchhike into church.  Jesus has a way of getting into everything.

In an adult Bible study I teach, a woman said, “I don’t get the feeling that Jesus was always nice.”

It made me think of the line in C.S. Lewis’, Chronicles of Narnia, when Lucy asks about the Christ figure Aslan, “Is he safe? “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good . . .”

“What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  The sense here is that the power that holds this man’s life in the grip of chaos, says, “Why are you interfering with us?”  What does Jesus of Nazareth have to do with how I spend my time, my money, my life?  Why are you interfering with my personal life, Jesus?  What do you mean to get all up and in the face of greed and lust and consumption that knows no end?  Who do you think you are to drag your personal religions convictions into the common life of our community?”  Do you get the point: Jesus of Nazareth, back off.

That’s why the serenity of church is interrupted, Jesus gets into matters personal and political and economic, and the demons, who are used to having their sway, well they get nervous.  I notice in the broad sweep of the biblical story, demons ramp up their program at the coming of the Son of God.  Jesus is about to crack things wide open.

I just love the lines from the Leonard Cohn piece, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still will ring;

forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything

that’s how the light gets in.

One of the delightful features of our passage is that the demons have Jesus’ name.  In the ancient world, to have someone’s name met to have power over them.  In our story, while the demons have Jesus’ name, they don’t have power over him – he has power over them.  That’s Mark telling us – this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Holy One from God . . . his teaching packs a wallop.  He’s come to set things right in the world.  He’s taking back what belongs to God, even if it kills him.  He does things with words, for he is the Word.

Listen to this passage, and it can make coming to worship to listen to Jesus’ words seem a rather brave thing.  I think it was the writer, Annie Dillard, who recorded: “we hand out bulletins at the door for church, the way I read the Bible, we ought to hand out crash helmets.”

The demons of greed and lust, of self-sufficiency and pride and sloth and envy and hopelessness ask, “Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us?”  And Jesus’ answer, is, “Shut up and come out of him.”

God through Jesus exercises the liberating power of love to lose us from chaotic powers that suck the life from us.  Jesus does things with words, just like the creator God who said, “Let there be light,” and suddenly there was light and the chaos was ordered by God’s Word.  Jesus does this with lives held by chaos. The lights come up, and chaos is beat back, and “convulsing and crying with a loud voice, the unclean spirit came out of him.”

I know we’re all sophisticated people; but we have all arrived here today with our demons in tow.  No one of us is free from the threat of chaos – we’re worried, we’re overwrought, we overwhelmed, we’re grief stricken, we’re sad, greed has its way with us; we’re about to give up and give in, we’re disappointed with how our lives have gone, we’re lonely and afraid, maybe envious and sad.  Chaos has laid its clutches on us.  Sanctuary free from predators is hard to find.

A few month back I was the guest preacher at a United Church in Calgary.  The sermon was a dialogue sermon.  The texts for the day included the story of St. Paul’s conversion. You know the lights and the voice and the conversion.

The minister of that congregation said in front of everyone with just he and I sitting on the platform: ‘hey Richard you’re a theologian what do you make of this conversion stuff.  I mean we’re mainline Christians aren’t we sort of against that.’  Well, I stuttered a bit at this question. Then gave an answer from Bob Dylan – ‘you gotta serve someone.’  It isn’t a matter of whether you converted, it is a matter of whether what your converted to is worth your life.

And then, Robert came to the mike.  Robert wore a t-shirt that was a little too short to cover his stomach; he looked a little unkempt.  He went to the pulpit and started to read dead-pan from a hand-written half sheet of paper.   ‘I used to live on the street, I was violent.  My brother and I used to roll people.  And then I stumbled into a church coffee shop.  The people there we kind to me and my brother.  They helped me kick drugs and alcohol.  It took a while, it wasn’t easy for them or me.  Now I live in a house.  I have a dog.  I’m engaged to be married.  God helped me.  That’s it, that’s what I got to say.”

St. Mark says, “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned themselves, saying, “What is this?  A new teaching!  With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”