About every nine months, I preach a sermon at Brent House, the Episcopal center of the University of Chicago. The last time I had this privilege was this past Sunday…and here is the text. The Gospel is Mark 1:21-28, the lines from St. Paul are Chapter 8 from the First Letter to the Corinthians.
“What is this?” the crowds in Capernaum cried out. “A new teaching—with authority!”
What sort of person is meant to follow Christ’s path and teach with the authority of God?
Today’s readings are small signposts which shed light on various angles of this question, a question which attracted me because I myself have had reason to deal with it.
As many of you know, I write, and my first book, An Elegy for Amelia Johnson, was published about a year ago. During the multiple drafts and rewrites, I created a character, Rev. Matthew Madden, who is an Episcopal minister. Part of what I wanted to accomplish with this character from the beginning was to portray a teacher with authority.
Now, the most impressive religious figure I’ve ever known, despite my years a devoted Anglican, is a Catholic priest in Youngstown, Father Richard Madden. I’ve been attending his services for all the 27 years of my life, including the Christmas Eve masses which draw close to a thousand people. I’ve always believed that if more priests were like him, both Catholicism and religion would not be brushed off in this country. He lives the New Commandment. Even when I was little, I could tell there was something different about him compared to the people at St. Matthias’s near my grandparents’ house. He smiled, and looking like Max Von Sydow with a twinkle made that smile more attractive. He talked about God in ways which had nothing to do with knowledge of Catholic regulations. And he didn’t have any bad feeling in his heart, not even anger. He didn’t speak of sinners and people who acted in ungodly ways with railing condemnation or illustrative satisfaction of the “we’re not like that” variety. He spoke of them with sadness, with a desire that everyone from babies to the most elderly would be in touch with God’s grace. He didn’t restrict. He invited.
This is who I had in mind when writing the scene in Amelia with Matthew Madden. (The first name came from a dear friend in high school who began studying with the Jesuits immediately after graduation.) Matthew is really in the book for five pages out of one hundred and sixteen, when he has a conversation with one of the main characters, Henry Barrons, about their beloved friend Amelia. Amelia has just died and Henry has an “all-is-lost” moment, and Matthew’s words set the story’s third act into full motion. I wanted to write about a minister with the same generosity of spirit as Father Madden but from a more Anglican perspective. I did not want the character to be an advertisement for religion or overly preachy, but I wanted his faith to cut through every page. I wanted him to be a teacher with authority.
And I believe he is, because he both speaks and listens.
I believe that God speaks to us all, but sometimes in the hustle and everyday activity of life it becomes hard to listen. When I think about the great religious leaders I have known through my life, I think of them as being able to keep one ear on the sounds of the earth and one ear tuned to Heaven. This is not a privilege reserved only for those with the priestly vocation. All of us can do it. We are not all called to the orders and duties of ministry, for God has a unique plan for each of us. Where I separate churchmen and women from laity comes from the recognition that is placed on them as easily as the cloth. They are known to be studying the Bible, praying, receiving the Message from God and Christ, and with this knowledge on our part comes expectancy that they will teach and guide we in the congregations.
This is where it gets tricky. Anyone can and should have hearts and minds open to God. But in this day we see so many people who perform these actions of devotion and arrive at very different conclusions. Our old friends from Westboro are just one example. Not everyone who believes is the “teacher with authority” whom we seek and put human trust in, as we put all-encompassing trust in God.
Because St. Paul was right in his proclamation that knowledge puffs up and does not build up. Knowledge, knowing something for a certain fact, leads us in matters of faith to rigidity of the sort championed by the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests of the Temple. Their religion was a religion of strict observance of the law and a guaranteed certainty that those one side would find salvation, those on the other damnation. Over and over, in Mark’s Gospel and the other Gospels, Jesus reaches the most vehement we ever see Him when He contradicts the Pharisees and scribes and priests, pushes back against their system of domination and oppression in the name of God.
I think of the Pharisees, etc., as people who read the Holy Books and immersed themselves in the language without ever tasting the poetry of the Bible. They were the original strict constructionists, you might say. But the Bible is not a document of man like the Constitution. The Bible is the word of God, the word of the highest and most incomprehensible power. We may interpret it, and indeed there are enough rules and edicts in the Bible to create a rigorous code of law and conduct, but we will never fully understand its glorious mystery.
As such, those who claim to know so precisely the meaning of the Bible should be suspect. It takes the opposite of knowledge to truly read the Bible. It takes an admittance that we do not know, that whatever human wisdom we possess, whatever strategies and devices we bring to the table, all of them are more minuscule than the tiniest atom compared to the wisdom of God. When we drop our wisdom and preconceptions and let God’s words sweep over us and strike the chords within our souls, it is only then we read the true message within the Bible.
Once we let that happen, we recognize the difference between people with wide-open hearts who have read the Bible and try to teach from it, and those with closed, constricting hearts. The true authority, God spoke to Moses, comes from God alone, from people speaking God’s words, unadulterated by human definition.
Because humans…how can I put this without insulting all eight billions of us? We do great things on this planet. We were blessed with so many virtues of physical and mental strength, of perseverance, of creativity, and for the most part we’ve used them to try to make the world a better place. But with this gift of intelligence comes a too-precise cognition, a need to know for sure how everything works, what everything means, a need to compartmentalize and label and separate so we can try to make sense of the universe. And with all this defining and labeling, we cut ourselves off from each other, we define ourselves by our differences and not our similarities. Even when it has the best of intentions, this labeling separates us, and separation makes it harder to see how God loves us all. It too easily leads to discrimination and hatred.
Unfortunately, my early religious education was steeped in the rhetoric of knowledge and separation. Yes, we were taught “Love one another as I have loved you,” but so much emphasis was placed on following the sacraments, of the types of sin, of the definitive knowledge needed to live a fulfilling Catholic life from cradle to grave. Other religions were not discussed. Homosexuality and women’s rights were taboo. This was a God of heterosexual marriage, fidelity, and rules.
This was the God I was taught to believe in. The God I have now come to believe in is the God who sees no differences and welcomes all of us into His embrace, the God who would transform us all into people beyond knowledge if only we would let Him. This is the God I found reading Malcolm X, who my Christian friends in Boardman, Ohio compared to Charles Manson because Malcolm called God “Allah.” This is the God I found while watching a New Year’s Day sunrise over the Grand Canyon and picking up the smell of incense during the Nicene Creed at an Easter service. This is the God I prayed to with the words of Marcus J. Borg and C. S. Lewis in mind while kneeling on a mountaintop in Santa Barbara. God asks and demands nothing except I love my fellow man and to follow in the moments when He calls.
This is the God I wanted to write about.
Matthew meets Amelia in the book after she has traveled around the country, lived to the fullest, loved, lost more than some people realize. Among the things she has lost is touch with her spiritual side. Meeting Matthew sparks her to still use her zestful, carpe diem-dominated presence to live a life which gives to others. Matthew is a figure who neither sermonizes nor downplays God…but he draws people into faith and expressing that faith. In choosing his language and tone, I wrote him as respectful, never pushing, but conveying promise and hope. Like Jesus, he makes it clear that the yoke is easy, the burden light.
I knew this from the moment I first wrote these words. But in meditating on tonight’s texts, I had come closer than I imagined to Paul’s words on teaching with authority.
For faith is not a one-way street. Listening to God, as you recall from my own experiences, does not mean only seeking out higher authorities. Listening to God means being ready to hear His words from so many sources, sources which ring true.
I believe that ministers are as much changed by their congregations as their congregations are changed by them. The smallest difference in perspective opens up so many doors as to how to live in faith. And I showed that by having Amelia affect Matthew as he affects her. Her vivacity and courage make him a deeper, even more considerate, even more loving man.
Loving can be taken literally. The two of them, in her last months on earth, fall in love. And initiate a sexual relationship. By mutual want. Originally this was handled more covertly, until my wise publishers said to just come right out and tell readers this happened.
In his discussion on teaching with authority, Paul puts in that discussion about eating meat in the house of idols, that part with the really confusing syntax. What Paul is saying is that we know the meat has no significance to our faith. But if someone on less firm a foundation than us, someone not so secure in their love of God as we are, sees us doing this seemingly ungodly action, it may have the worst effects on their soul…for until we accept the grace of God, it is easy to look at others and model our actions on theirs. To love others in Christ requires some imitation of Christ. And our church leaders and spokespeople are the ones we most expect to live in this manner.
In our own “Sex and the Altar” discussions, we’ve discussed the sanctity of sex in a loving relationship…and how problematic religious people can still find sex outside marriage.
All of this made Matthew’s scene more powerful in retrospect. He has never told anyone of the full nature of his relationship with Amelia. But that physical union has helped change him, opened his heart more, mad him even more of a listener receptive to others and to God. He listens when Henry speaks…he’s clearly listened to Amelia. And his dialogue more than implies he will carry on her good works.
Matthew’s last words to Henry are of holding on to faith even in the hopeless times, of having courage. It takes courage to be a Christian in any case: humbling yourself is never easy, even before God, and listening to people you might not want to hear is just as hard. But in this gentle submission, we become exalted. We grow with the true wisdom of faith. And we become even if we’re not meant to officially teach with authority.
But in letting the words and sounds touch our spirits, we gain a bit of the authority, our own good authority that we live in God.
An authority which breaks down separations.
An authority which may produce real Matthew Maddens.