The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury
January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
PRAYER OF PREPARATION
Loving God, whose touch can heal the broken places of life, touch us today…
God of peace, whose spirit of peace can quiet our spirits of confusion and despair, reassure us today…
Forgiving God, whose call to repentance promises grace upon grace, place your mercy in our souls today…
You who heal the sick and liberate the imprisoned, who bring justice in the midst of oppression and strength in the midst of weakness, pour out your spirit of power upon us today.
Open our hearts to new faithfulness, redirect our waywardness, and hold us gently in your goodness.
We confess our need to you, and we turn to you with hearts filled with hope, remembering the promises you have made to us.
May your name be glorified in us and through us. We ask it through Christ Jesus, your only begotten son, he who is our Lord and our Savior, our brother and our friend. Amen.
PRELUDE “Chorale” Vierne
CALL TO WORSHIP
Praise the Lord!
Let us give thanks to the Lord with our whole heart, in the company of the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is God’s work, whose righteousness endures forever.
God has gained renown by wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
CALL TO RECONCILIATION
The Spirit of Jesus comes into our midst with authority — with the vision and power to expose the sin in our lives and in our world. The Spirit of Jesus also assures us that forgiveness and restoration to new life is real and present to us. So, let us make our confession before God and one another.
PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS
Merciful God, we confess our complicity in the lies of racism, sexism and classism — whether we have benefited from these lies or been subjected to them. We have been silent when others are disparaged or held in contempt. Forgive us and liberate us from the enslavements of our world. Restore us to a life of mutuality, love and justice for all. Amen.
Silence is observed
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen, amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The grace of God is sure for each and for all. Be restored to right standing with God and with one another. Know that we are set free and empowered by God’s Spirit to create loving and just communities in our world. Thanks be to God.
PASSING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST
Our peace comes from knowing how much God loves us in Jesus Christ. With God’s help, we try to love and forgive one another as Christ loves and forgives us.
“The peace of Christ be with you,”
“And also with you.”
(all children will remain in the sanctuary)
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, so that the Scripture we read will illumine our paths. Amen.
SCRIPTURE Mark 1:21-28
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
SERMON “The Presence of God”
Those of us who grew up in a main-line congregation expect worship services to go a certain way…decent and in-order. The liturgy follows a predictable format and rarely do unusual things happen. I am sure this is the same in other religious traditions like Jewish worshippers…but on a particular sabbath – it was not worship as usual.
Some would say he came unhinged. In the encounter that day in the synagogue at Capernaum with Jesus, yes, you could say he sort of snapped the expected norms and leapt out of his skin. Jesus and the freshly minted disciples had come into town from the lake. Shaking off their fishy smells, they were trying on a new identity—followers on the way, whose call had come from an itinerant rabbi to join up in fishing for people—for their souls, indeed. It was the sabbath. Jesus and his followers came into the temple and, as was the custom, joined the scribes in study and teaching. Jesus’ teaching had a power, a strength, sheer authority as he held forth, that shone the light on him. This contrasted with the scholarly scribes, who were the stuffy doctors of the law, biblical scholars. This nobody Jesus’ brilliance astounds them, with his authority. But that was just the beginning of it. Suddenly the whole scene, not just the man, comes unhinged.
Out of the shadows a man, who is not given a name, not given a diagnosis—like blind or deaf or sick or bleeding, but possessed by an unclean spirit—addresses the astonishing teacher:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Indeed, the interruption, the disruption of a sabbath day, focuses on Jesus, who now is recognized and named by a disturbed personality. Jesus crashes in through the realm of ultimate reality and is named by one who shatters the decorum of the synagogue. And like the tearing open of the heavens at his baptism, Jesus the veil between heaven and earth comes apart, unhinged.
But that is not all that got unhinged that day. Jesus, in responding to the legion demons, does so with absolute resolute engagement. He teaches with power and authority in a way that is so consistent in Mark’s Gospel, continuously bending the arc of the universe toward healing and justice. “Be silent, and come out of him,” Jesus commands, and in that very moment the world changes.
Right smack dab in the midst of the synagogue the power of evil is confronted and defeated. This is no accident. This is the power of God through the beloved Son of God that looks squarely in the eye all that tries to manipulate, maneuver, deflect, or undo the very name of all that is Holy. Jesus teaches with action; this is a confrontation between a man possessed by the Spirit of God and a man possessed by the demonic. And a child of God is delivered from bondage; the convulsing, screaming unclean spirit comes out of him.
So a worship service is disrupted! The Son of God confronts the demonic! But the deeper and persistent question that erupts from this moment is one that we ask in our day as well:
Where do we find the presence of God who seems absent?
Where is the God who seems to have let this absence happen to us?
And the answer is in the chaos –
The stirring, shaking, powerful presence the Christ finds its way into a backwoods synagogue in Capernaum, and I daresay that same Messianic impulse is unhinged today by the power of Jesus at this time in history. But are we seeking The Savior in our time? What voice is emerging today – are we listening for God’s still small voice?
Some historians of culture have said that every 500 years there is a massive shift in the order of civilization. Some call these times “hinge” time; others call it the axial age. Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, calls it a once in every 500 years rummage sale, an upheaval in culture and worldview that reshapes our faith. Not unlike the Great Schism of the eleventh century and the Great Reformation in the sixteenth, the “tsunami of change is well under way, marked by the postmodern and post-Christian sensibilities of the millennial generation” We are living in times when the old order is coming to an end and we stand on a threshold glimpsing what might be coming as the hinges are opening and closing.
The shaking, erupting life forces of this world come from the shadows of the church—just as the demon-possessed man tore open a remarkably unremarkable scene in that synagogue—and find their way to this church. As New Testament scholar Brian Blount says, “In such a world you either go with the man (Jesus) and help him create the holy chaos he’s creating or you find a way to do everything you can to stop him so you can get your people back in line”
Krista Tippett, in her book, Becoming Wise, talks about an interview with Nathan Schneider, a journalist, social activist, and millennial public intellectual. He is a category-defying young adult raised by parents who exposed him to every spirituality until he was baptized into the Catholic church. His choice was the radical choice of orthodoxy. As he described his experience of exploration, he realized that the religious traditions engage with the questions that are keenly important to young adults: forging “the way in which [we] express God in and through an account of relationship between people” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 172).
Rediscovering the power of Jesus’ ministry of grace and hospitality, Nathan took his cues from others who, in his words, “reimagined” the church and spiritual life. He learned of a group who founded an intentional community called the Simple Way. This community took its mandate for Christian living from the Book of Acts, where believers shared all things in common. There were no needy people among them; they shared all possessions in common. He realized that they had been railing against the church that had either been too doctrinaire or too loose in its expression. They decided on a radical alternative: to try to become the church that they had dreamed of. They moved to a neighborhood with homeless people, kids who needed help with homework. And they opened their doors to those who needed a gospel-bearing, life-giving hospitality.
Nathan says, “Most people my age that I see . . . really are wanting to know how to create a better world. They say, we need to figure out how to live differently ourselves and to live with some imagination and creativity and give themselves to something bigger than their own little circle of friends.” But Nathan then concludes, “If the Christian church loses this generation, it will not be because we didn’t entertain them, but because we didn’t dare them with the truth of the world. It won’t be because we’d made the gospel too hard, but because we made it too easy” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, p. 178–179).
Jesus’ holy chaos is the promise, and the work of the kingdom is not easy! The work of the community in our time is not easy either! But it is absolutely essential for the life, the very life, of this planet! There are many in our day—not only the famous ones, but the ones who are haunted with beauty, with silence, with raves, and riotous life! They are unhinged from all that masquerades as truth and are speaking, singing, slamming, opening the imagination of our day to the vocation of trust and truth for this world that God loves. This is the world that is shaken up by the power of Jesus, who not only loves the world with a madness that causes the demons to quake but loves you and you and you so much that he calls you this day to be fully alive, ready to claim the authority that is given by God’s Spirit, ready to follow Jesus out into the daylight, out into the dimness, out to claim God’s realm in every corner of this city and this planet.
Commentary provided by Brian Blount, Gary Charles, Lucy Forster-Smith, Beverly Zink-Sawyer, Stephen Hultgren, Matt Skinner, Scott Hoezee, David Lose, Karoline Lewis, and Roger Gench
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
“Christ calls us to be disciples.”
In forming his people and sending them into the world Jesus called individuals to be disciples. They were to share the joy of his companionship, to understand and obey his teachings, and to follow him in life and death. We confess that Christians today are called to discipleship. Life shared with Christ and shaped by Christ is God’s undeserved gift to each of us. It is also God’s demand upon every one of us, never perfectly fulfilled by any of us. Forgiven by God and supported by brothers and sisters, we strive to become more faithful and effective in our daily practice of the Christian life. Amen.
THE PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE AND THE LORD’S PRAYER
God of grace, you come into our midst with power and authority to liberate us from anything that keep us from the fullness of life you desire for all of your children and for the earth itself. Help us to be open to your presence even if it means facing difficult circumstances that bind us and keep us from living fully. Help us to name the oppressive realities of our world that deform and deface human life and the life of our planet. Empower us to be agents of love and justice in our communities and world.
Eternal God, we ask your blessing on our nation during these days of transition into a new administration. Bless our new president and vice president and their administration. Give them courage and keep them safe. Help them to honor you by doing what is right, fair and just for all our citizens and to heal the wounds of a troubled nation. We pray for them, and for us all, that we might serve the common good as engaged and faithful citizens, with ears attuned to those in our midst and around our world who are hurting most. We pray for bipartisanship within Congress and among elected officials throughout our nation as they grapple with the serious challenges that bedevil our common life. And grant your church the grace to bear witness in its life to the reconciling power of the gospel and the justice it demands.
God of compassion, we continue to pray for those whose lives have been most adversely affected by a raging pandemic. We pray for healthcare workers who work on overcrowded COVID-19 units throughout our country. We pray for all who are facilitating vaccinations. And we pray that you would comfort all who are sick or who have lost loved ones. Help us to be agents of your love and comfort for those upon whom pandemic challenges have weighed most heavily. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying, Our Father…
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
OFFERING OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
We celebrate God’s life-giving presence in our church, our community and our world. Let us now bring our gifts in joyful response to the many gifts that we have been given.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise God, all creatures high and low. Alleluia, alleluia! Praise God, in Jesus fully known: Creator, Word, and Spirit one. Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
PRAYER OF DEDICATION
O God, giver of all good gifts, we offer these gifts to you in return, with gratitude for the gifts you have showered upon us, including the gift of our very lives. May they, and we, bear your peace, love and justice into our community and our world.
The Lord God has raised us up to be prophets to our people. So have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; support the weak; help the suffering. And may the Spirit of the living God empower us to work for peace and justice in all that we do. Amen.