Where Seldom Is Heard...

Mark 1:21-28
© Stacey Steck

At wedding receptions you may have attended, the best man and the maid or matron of honor may have offered a toast, extolling the virtues of the couple or reminding the guests how they met, maybe sharing some borderline embarrassing memories of the bride or groom’s earlier life. For some, standing up and speaking in public is a form of torture, and they barely make it through their stumbling speech. For others, however, give them a microphone and watch out. You may never get to the cake. In this latter category of speechmakers, the majority are those who either try, and succeed, or try, and miserably fail, to be funny. Either way, they all want to be comedians, whether they have the gift or not. And then you have the inimitable Mary Dolan, the maid of honor at our wedding some nearly twenty-five years ago, who, perhaps encouraged by our own wedding guests, has decided to actually become a standup comedian. A mom with two young children, Mary has quit her job, and begun making the rounds of some of Washington D.C.’s comedy clubs where she is sharpening her act and gaining fans, at least on Facebook. Whether she makes it to the big time or not, at least her experiment gives Flora and I the opportunity to make the legitimate claim that we had a professional comedian perform at our wedding. Not that marriage is a laughing matter mind you, but did you hear the one about the guy whose wife told him to stop impersonating a flamingo? He had to put his foot down after that comment…and now we know why Mary’s the comedian and I’m the pastor.

As she gets her act together, Mary will need to learn the ins and outs of the trade: how to work with club managers, how to use the sound equipment, how to select material appropriate to her audience. All of that stuff is somewhat predictable, but there is one more, very unpredictable, thing she will also have to learn how to handle: the heckler, that annoying member of the audience who will try to disrupt her act, and make her flub a punch line, and get flustered, and want to give up. You’ve seen these people I’m sure. They yell out something rude from the back of the room in a vain attempt to draw attention to themselves. They try to draw the performer into a back and forth verbal tug of war, largely aimed at getting themselves some laughs at the expense of the performer who is getting paid to get the laughs. Hecklers are nothing new, and they are inevitable, and the accomplished performer, of any type, is the one who at once silences the heckler, and also absorbs the disruption into the act in such a way that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the success of the performance.

Maybe you recognized the heckler in this morning’s story. Not that Jesus is your run of the mill comedian, although he is at times very funny, but here is Jesus teaching in the synagogue, performing, if you will, the crowd eating out of his hand, a buzz beginning to rumble through the pews about his teaching, maybe he’s even coming up to the key point he is trying to make about the kingdom of God…and up pops a heckler who tries to do what hecklers through the centuries have always tried to do. “Hey, you! Yeah, wise guy, you, Jesus of Nazareth. What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And of course, all eyes turn from Jesus to this new voice, to see who is doing this heckling, who is offering this challenge from the cheap seats. Now, of course we don’t have a transcript of the occasion, and maybe there was some back and forth for a bit, but it seems that Jesus doesn’t miss a beat, and does what accomplished performers are able to do: to at once silence the heckler, and also absorb the disruption into the act in such a way that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the success of the performance. “ ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. The crowd was amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the hecklers, I mean unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ ” Mission accomplished, Jesus. Excellent work. Would you like to come back for a return engagement at the Apollo? You see, “At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” And all he had to do was call out a heckler and put him in his place.

OK, so maybe it was a little more serious than that, but there are some interesting lessons to be learned from this story of how Jesus deals with the demon-possessed heckler, because this guy was neither the last heckler Jesus encountered, nor the last one to try to disrupt our lives, our performances, if you will. You see, that same voice of challenge, that same voice of doubt and discouragement, of attention-seeking, that voice is never fully and finally silenced, no matter how adept we are. That voice that rings out shrilly in the world, or in our own heads, it won’t go away until that day of the Lord we are all waiting for, when Christ returns and puts an end to heckling once and for all. And so, in the meantime, like our friend Mary Dolan, it is worth our time learning how to prepare for the hecklers we will encounter as try to become the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, as we take to heart these authoritative teachings of Jesus and try to live them out in our homes and workplaces, as we do our best to be faithful disciples, parents, grandparents, friends, spouses, because those hecklers will always be there, in every venue, taking every opportunity to get under our skin, to disrupt our act, and make us flub a punch line, and get flustered, and want to give up. Have you ever felt that way? Like just when you were about get that really big laugh, close that really important deal, teach that crucial lesson, share that Good News of the Gospel, someone stood up and stole your thunder? You see, that’s exactly what the demons wanted to do that day to Jesus, to take his authority right out from under him, on the opening night of his act, in front of his most attentive audience, and to turn all eyes in the room on themselves. And they’ll do it to you too, if you let them.

Maybe as I’m speaking, you are remembering when it’s happened to you, or you are hearing those comments, those questions, start to roll around in your head. “You’re not good enough, smart enough, fast enough, beautiful enough.” “You don’t have what it takes, you’ll never succeed.” “Who would want to hear what you have to say?” “How can you betray your family like that?” “What kind of friend are you, anyway?” “Do you have enough money saved for your retirement?” “Is that the biggest diamond you can afford to give her, you loser?” Or the worst: “No one will ever love you.” It would be nice if the comments and criticisms that burrow deep within us, that undermine our ability to speak with authority, it would be nice if they came from as clearly visible a place as a guy acting crazy in church. But usually they come from our most trusted sources, and our innermost places. That is not to say that the people in our lives who may make these contributions are necessarily possessed with unclean spirits, although I have thought that at times about some members of my family. But it is to say that the heckling our family and friends and bosses and media outlets do takes its inspiration from the same demonic source as our story tonight. Jesus received his heckling from someone from his own religious community, or at least someone posing as someone who belonged there. At the very least, someone let him in the door. In other stories in the Gospels, Jesus gets it from the people of his hometown, his family who think he is the nutty one, that great collection of the Chief priests, Scribes and Pharisees, even his own disciples and followers, all of them people more or less close to him. Each of them take their turn offering up words of discouragement that he must turn back to remain faithful to the call God has given him. And so must we.

It is easier said than done, of course, especially when Jesus makes it look so easy, but it is not impossible. And I think we can collect some tips both from Jesus himself, but also from the performers of our own time who are successful at deflecting what would bring them down and using it to raise the spirit of themselves and their audiences. First and foremost among these tips is to cling ever so tightly to the message Jesus was proclaiming in the synagogue in the first place: that God loves you, and that you have value in God’s eyes that no demon can undermine; that God loves the world and wants it to be a habitable and humane place where hecklers have no place, and where words of discouragement fall on deaf ears. As we hear that those in the synagogue that day were astounded at his teaching, I think it was the authenticity of his words, his ability to distill into his own being the very grace of God which is at the center of the whole Biblical story, that people were responding to, and which that man with the unclean spirit wanted to deny. “What have you to do with us?” he asks. “Have you come to destroy us?” he asks, and the plural, the “us” may refer to multiple demons inside him, but maybe it is referring to the “us” of the people gathered for worship, and the unclean spirit is trying to call Jesus into question not only in his own mind, but also in the mind of the crowd that is beginning to warm to that message of divine love that is breaking into their world in a new way. Are you going to ruin it for the rest of us, Jesus? Are you going to bring the wrath of Rome down on our heads? Those are the kinds of comments that make you question yourself. But holding on to God’s grace, remembering why we are up there on stage in the first place – to bring joy into people’s lives – that is the best way to maintain poise when responding to whatever form the hecklers in our lives may take. With the knowledge that God truly loves you, with those words of grace as the soundtrack inside your head, the world’s words of discouragement will find no place to hang their hat.

If you listen to the comedians and magicians and jugglers of the world talk about hecklers, you’ll hear both some interesting insights about the hecklers themselves, and also some tips on how to deal with them. One of their most interesting observations is that generally, the reason they heckle is not because they don’t like or don’t admire the performer, but precisely the opposite, that in fact they are attracted to the performer, and are maybe even envious of their skill or ability to work the crowd. And so their heckling takes the form of a kind of verbal tugging of the performer’s short sleeve, a “pay attention to me” kind of plea designed to draw them closer to the object of their affection. Of course, they are sometimes just nasty drunks, but often the heckler can be turned into an enthusiastic fan by making them a positive, if brief, part of the show rather than simply ignoring them or insulting them in an attempt to get them to shut up.

In a sense, this is what Jesus did with the man with the unclean spirit. Instead of telling him to go away and leave him to teach in peace, or moving to another synagogue, or engaging in a destructive verbal battle, he took advantage of the opportunity to use the man to put an exclamation point on the teaching he was already doing. It is as if he invited the man up on stage, and won over the rest of the audience by doing so. Where the hecklers in our lives are concerned, what this may mean is to resist the urge to fight or run away, and instead find a new way, a good news way, of interacting with the discouraging voices, which probably really only want to be closer to us in the first place. If you play the game the hecklers want you to play, you’ll always lose. But if you invite the heckler to play the game on the Gospel’s terms, an enemy becomes a friend, and the good news is shared more widely.

There is a sense in which the better we are at performing the roles God has given us, the more likely we are to attract hecklers. You see, people are attracted to holiness, whether their behavior suggests it or not. Some people come to the synagogue to listen and learn. Others come to heckle. But all come because there is something there that calls them, tugs them, amazes and astounds them. Not everyone will be able to negotiate that attraction in appropriate ways, but that should not, cannot, keep us from being the best performers we can be with the gifts God has given us. And part of that performance is taking the criticism and doubt that comes our way and transforming it into yet another experience of grace to share with the world. May God help each of us to learn the art of fending off the hecklers of the world that we may speak with the authority and authenticity Jesus showed in the synagogue that day. Amen.

Nothing Can Separate Us

Psalm 23
Isaiah 40:28-31
Romans 8:31-39
John 14:1-6, 25-27
(c) Stacey Steck

Preached on the Occasion of the Memorial Service for Tristen Hobbs

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. Questions are good. We just have to ask the right ones. Our Scripture passages this afternoon contain some good questions. Isaiah asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Thomas asks “Lord, how can we know the way?” Jesus asks, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” The Apostle Paul asks, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” They had questions. We have questions.

There is no point hiding the truth that Tristen Hobbs took his own life. And the natural and inevitable question that forms in our minds upon hearing news like this is “Why?” Our well-intentioned minds seek reasons and information and answers, trying to make sense of the unimaginable, so that our hearts do not overwhelm us with emotion. And yet there are no answers. We don’t know why now and we’ll likely never know why. And at the end of the day, “why” doesn’t really matter. It is the question we must ask now but it cannot be the question we ask forever. No, the questions that matter the most are the one that begin with “who?”:
Who comforts us when we grieve?
Who leads us by the hand when we don’t know which way to go?
Who wipes away our unending tears?
Who will remember Tristen once we leave here today?

In God’s gracious way, in each of our Scripture passages, the questions asked are ultimately “who?” questions, and Thomas’s question in the reading from John’s Gospel, “How can we know the way?” is one we might be asking of ourselves as we think about the future without our son, our brother, our cousin, our friend, our companion in Christ. Our lives are different now, like fabric torn that can never truly be mended. Our routines will change. Our conversations will change. Our relationships will change. Each of us has known Tristen in a certain way, and that way is no longer open to us. We are now being asked to go somewhere we never really considered going, and a place we’ve certainly never been. We feel lost before we even begin the journey. And so we ask, “God, how can we know the way?”

In the story, Thomas thinks Jesus is talking about a location, a place to which he and the other disciples might travel and stay the night, taking shelter from the desert sun in a cool, multi-roomed suite. And so he asks the Lord for directions, that they might not become lost. But Jesus is speaking a different language completely and answers in a manner which must have utterly mystified the disciples. “I am the way,” he says. Jesus responds to Thomas’s geography question with a relational “who” answer, and provides us with a clue that the answer to how we will find our way without Tristen Hobbs is related to his relationship, and to our relationships, with Jesus Christ, for he is the way. We will carry on without him because we trust in the promises that we all have one Father, in whose spiritual house we each have a dwelling place. We will go on knowing that Tristen is in but another room in that mansion, perhaps behind a door now closed, but not very far away, at least not in God’s way of keeping house. And though we might picture it as a house with rooms and doors and maybe even curtained windows, he has gone where we cannot quite imagine, no matter how the painters paint it, or the poets describe it, and which is nowhere we can easily go. But it is the same place that Jesus told his disciples that he was going, and that they too would be going, and that we too one day will go, following the way Jesus has laid before us.

The Apostle Paul may have written nothing more amazing than what we heard from his letter to the Romans. With wonderful language and images, he reminds us of the amazing scope of God’s love in Christ and that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from that love. But what is very curious about his list of those things which are powerless to stop God’s love, is that Paul lists “life.” Life is powerless to separate us from God’s love. Death can’t do it; life can’t do it. It’s a strange thing to include but I think by saying such a thing Paul means to tell us that God is concerned with our lives in the here and now as well as with our souls when we die. God knew each of us before we were born and God is with us right now. Friends, death has not separated Tristen from God’s love in Christ Jesus, and neither has life separated us from God’s love in Christ Jesus because we remain behind. We are comforted in the knowledge that Tristen remains loved by God despite death and we are able to go forward because we remain loved despite life which feels so much emptier without him. This is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a nutshell, for in Christ’s rising from the grave, life, just like death, life too is transformed. Abundant life in the here and now for we who remain, and life beyond life for Tristen — these are the wondrous promises made in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. This good news makes it possible for us, even in the midst of our grief, to see hope and to gather in celebration of the love and life God has given us in Christ.

Even with that said, some of you may be wondering about Tristen’s relationship with God in light of his decision, but let me urge you in the strongest possible way to keep your wonder from turning to judgment, because in addition to all the things which Paul cites that are powerless to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, you can add suicide to the list. Tristen was not the first, nor will he be the last, person to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and then make an irrevocable decision. He was not the first Christian, nor will he be the last, to be in a frame of mind we simply cannot understand and that we pray never to experience ourselves. But most importantly, he was neither the first nor will he be the last Christian to take his life and be received by a God so gracious as to never destine to eternal suffering someone who suffered enough in this life to end that life. Yes, we may wonder, but the only one in a position to judge is God, and what did Paul tell us about that except to say that, “indeed Christ intercedes for us,” an assurance immediately followed by Paul’s list of all those things that are powerless to stop God’s love.

For all those reasons and more, God is indeed the “who” in whom we can trust, but the “who” is also you. Because even though God is the answer to the questions worth asking, the ones like:
Who comforts us when we grieve?
Who leads us by the hand when we don’t know which way to go?
Who wipes away our unending tears?
Who will remember Tristen once we leave here today?
each one of us is the answer as well, as we do what we can to be faithful to the call to love one another as God loves us.

Michael, Crystal, Raeyven, and all your extended family, the other “who” besides God is the body of Christ gathered in this room, and all those who wished they could be here but couldn’t be. And these people are here for you, and they will do their best to support you and care for you. And they will leave here today clutching these cards, and vowing to put them in a place they won’t forget them, and to send them to you in the coming days, weeks, and months when you will need a reminder of who is in this with you. You are not in this alone. We will be there when you grieve, when you don’t know which way to go, and when your tears flow.

And we will remember Tristen not because he died or because of the way died, but because he was God’s beloved child, and Michael and Crystal’s beloved son, and Raeyven’s beloved brother, and your beloved friend or classmate or brother in Christ. Remember who he was to his family, and to you, and to God. Remember him for his sweet smile, his great gentleness, his love of God’s creation, and in every other way in which he was God’s gift to you.

Let me close with some words a friend with cancer recently shared with me from an old Bruce Cockburn song about the “who” rather than the “why,” about who awaits us in Heaven. It’s from the song called "Festival of Friends”:

Some of us live and some of us die
Someday God's going to tell us why
Open your heart and grow with what life sends
That’s your ticket to the festival of friends.
Amen.