They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They 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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
--Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
When I heard that someone named Amanda Gorman was going to read a poem at the inauguration, I didn’t have any real expectations. I don’t think many of us did—one way or the other. I’d heard briefly on NPR that a 22-year-old named Amanda Gorman was going to be the youngest ever inaugural poet, and that’s all I knew about her. On stage with big names like Biden, Harris, Brooks, Gaga; Gorman faded into the background a bit.
But then the day came, right? And Amanda Gorman (a self-described “skinny black girl, descended from slaves, raised by a single mother”) stepped up to the podium to perform her poem, The Hill We Climb, and she basically stole the show. She stepped up to the mic and claimed her authority with everything she was—with her bright yellow jacket and her bright red hair band, with her voice, with her performance, with her perfectly chosen words which were finely crafted to uplift and to challenge a complicated nation at a troubled time.
When Jesus entered the synagogue, no one had ever heard of him before either. And then he stood up to teach and the people were astounded by his words because he taught like he had authority (and not like one of the scribes). We have a lot of questions about this authority: Where’d it come from? What was it like? What explains it? Maybe the experience of sitting in that synagogue watching Jesus stand up to teach felt something like watching Amanda Gorman become the breakout star of the inauguration. Where did her authority come from?
I watched an interview that Gorman gave to Anderson Cooper after the inauguration. She talked about overcoming a speech impediment as a child. And she told Cooper that to prepare for writing her poem she first read every other inaugural poem, in order to steep herself in the tradition and the power of the words that came before her. And before she stepped up to that mic, she closed her eyes and she said to herself this invocation, “I am the daughter of black writers who are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” Later when Gorman was on The Late Late Show with James Corden and she told him that she felt like the experience of the inauguration was “beyond her” and that her poem was really a moment for everybody.
So, where does Amanda Gorman’s authority come from? It comes from the words of all the inaugural poets who came before her living within her intersecting with the black writers and freedom fighters who gave rise to her still living within her intersecting with her rising to the challenge of adversity and overcoming impediment intersecting with her answering a call to a moment that she recognizes was greater than herself. Her authority comes from the fact that she has integrated these traditions and this history and this spiritual orientation within herself. And we were able to hear with own ears how they fused within her person and came out of her mouth with power.
I think about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose day we celebrated right after the inauguration. Who in all of American history had more authority than King? Who in all of Christian history had more authority than King? Few, if any. King who was discriminated against, threatened, beaten, and jailed countless times. His authority was not handed down to him from the powers that be. According to them he had none. He had to claim his authority from within and from on high. It was an authority of spiritual integration, moral principle, and life-or-death struggle.
Inside the person of Rev. Dr. King, great, old traditions came together: the traditions of the Hebrew prophets who had visions, who dreamed dreams, and who provoked the powers of this world; the tradition of the Black experience in the United States and the traditions of the Black church; the traditions of Thoreau’s civil disobedience and Gandhi’s non-violence resistance; the traditions of freedom and liberty—the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and, most importantly, the promise of the American Dream.
King didn’t teach church history like a historian. He didn’t lecture on the Constitution like a professor in a law school. He didn’t preach about the prophets like someone who believed that God long ago had stopped speaking. Those are more like the traditions of the scribes. And it’s very important to remember that we need the scribes—we need the scribes to keep the great traditions alive. But we don’t need the scribes to try to protect us from the next great tradition that is rising up from them. The next great tradition that will rise up will rise up when someone like King, when someone like Gorman integrates the great traditions and teachings within themself and then goes beyond them all to give the world a new teaching.
Jesus, like King, like Gorman, was not merely an imitator or a preserver of the old ways. He was a devoted student of all the great traditions of his people—the law, the prophets, the culture, the debates, the schools and the schisms, God’s covenant and the people’s great hopes—all those traditions lived within him. He integrated them into himself. They were his strong and honored foundation. And Jesus honored them so much and so passionately that he couldn’t contain them from going where they wanted to go. And he himself couldn’t be contained by them. Instead, he was liberated by them—they were pushing him to go. So, Jesus became an innovator, a catalyst, a preacher of possibility and authority.
Amanda Gorman says she believes in the power of words so it seems like we should take a closer look at the word “authority.” It’s a fine translation from the Greek, but it’s interesting to look at the etymology of the Greek word—how it would have sounded to the Greek listener. This word “authority” came from another Greek word we often translate as “lawful.” “Is it lawful to do this? Is it lawful to do that?” is usually how it’s used. The problem is that the word we translate as “lawful” has no connection to the Greek word for “law.” Instead, “lawful” comes from an even more basic Greek word meaning just “to be.” So, another more literal way to translate the word we translate as “lawful” would be to say, “Are we able to do this? Is it possible to do that?” And then that means another way to translate “authority” would be to say, “For he taught them as one having potency, as one having possibleness, as one unconstrained.
And then we realize, that’s what this authority of Jesus that Mark is talking about really is. It’s the authority to get unstuck. It’s the authority to exorcise the demons—to chase the old specters out of the room, and stir up a fresh spirit. The authority to teach something truly new.
It’s funny that Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus was teaching. We’ll get to some of Jesus’ core teachings later in Mark’s Gospel. But for right now, all Mark wants us to see is that Jesus is an innovator and not an imitator, a leader and not a follower. One way to say it is that Jesus has authority. Another way to say it is that Jesus is challenging authority. And we see that truth with King and also with Gorman as well. Jesus will challenge the authority of the synagogue and religious institutions, he will challenge the assumptions of the people, and he will even challenge the power of the spirits and the demons. And in his willingness to challenge the authorities and the complacencies of the world, Jesus claims his own authority and offers us the truest and greatest comfort of all—the possibility of new way.
What we’re talking about here—what Jesus is modeling for us—and that’s so important, I think, that we don’t think of Jesus’ authority being like the authority of a superbeing or a God-man and totally unattainable to us. Jesus is showing us the way here. What he’s showing us, and what we also see in people like King and Gorman is simply spiritual growth. Or what Carl Jung (the great psychologist and psychoanalyst) called “individuation”: the process of coming to understand, of giving voice to, and integrating or harmonizing the various components that make us up so that we can become our true self. Beloved, what greater authority is there than that—to be your true self?
We’re going to be talking a lot about “growth” together as a church over the course of 2021. And I think it’s important to take some of these lessons forward with us into those conversations. First, a strict imitator cannot grow. Because true growth must be oriented to the realization of your true self. And you cannot imitate your way into your true self.
Now, I’m not knocking imitation or preservation or tradition. Imitation can build us a strong foundation. But if we get stuck on strict imitation, we can get ourselves stuck to a relatively small piece of ground while the greatness of all the sky is calling us to grow up. The process of spiritual growth is a process of getting unstuck—not totally dislodged, not falling off the wagon—but growing into the liberty of possibility. This authority of Jesus is just what happens when you grow from a strong foundation toward the unique purpose that God created you for.
Second, growth is not a numbers game, right? When we talk about growing as a church, we’re not talking about butts in pews, views on videos, or dollars in the offering plate. Do we want our fame to spread throughout the surrounding region like Jesus’ did? Sure, we do! But growth is not a numbers game, it’s a spiritual orientation. If we want our fame to spread throughout all the region, we need to discover within our congregation how to put all the layers of our identity and tradition and history together in a way that is true to us and which will draw other people to us through the revitalization of our authority.
And third, growth cannot happen without facing adversity and conflict. It might not be as imposing as racism to a black leader, or a speech impediment to a spoken-word poet, or a demon in the synagogue, but adversity and conflict are a part of every life, and in every church, and within every person or community that is trying to grow and define themselves.
If we don’t face the adversity or the challenge, that means that right then, right there, we’re stuck. We’re no longer moving. We’re no longer growing. And our authority dissolves into avoidance, our voice retreats into silence.
What sometimes happens in churches undertaking a process of spiritual growth and rediscovery of authority is that some people are made a bit uncomfortable. And we’re understandably afraid of the possible conflict. We’re afraid of hurting feelings, of causing someone to feel unwelcome, of causing someone else to lose their temper, of losing members, of pledges going unpaid. And these are things to be concerned about, right? We don’t want to be mean or reckless. But working through this kind of conflict is the price we must pay to be ourselves! To have a voice! To be a community that has a point of view and values we’re willing to stand up for! To discover our authority—and to grow.
Beloved, I know that we have a voice. I know that we are relevant to our community and our neighbors. I know we’re not afraid of adversity and that we don’t get paralyzed by conflict. I know that we have a faith, and traditions, and art and music, and a welcome that provide us with a strong foundation. And I know that we are ready to grow.
As Amanda Gorman says in The Hill We Climb:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations