Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
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, throwing him into convulsions 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.

If we were going to talk about the boiler at Central United Church, I might say there is a ‘sweet spot.’

Actually, I might say there is the opposite of a sweet spot, whatever that is. In an all-off or all-on kind of place, it’s the day between minus five and plus five that leads to the subtle feeling that you’re a rotisserie chicken at the Swiss Chalet.

But it could be worse. You laugh, but on my settlement charge, way back in time, it was worse. At the littlest church, six members, the congregation huddled around the wood stove in the centre of the church while the pulpit resembled a giant Popsicle. At the next biggest church, seven members, the same story, with the added bonus of being on a windy hilltop.

Finally, at the big church, twenty-five members, they opted for the kind of thermal heaters you find at a hockey rink. Now, you’re thinking, hockey rink, aren’t the ceilings usually a little higher? Yup. The church was like a giant tanning salon from the waist up, while legs and feet remained frozen.

I mention my settlement charge, Althorpe, Bolingbroke and Calvin United Churches, not simply to illustrate that it could worse, but to point to a phenomenon related to the lesson of the day. You see, back in my day (meaning before last year), ministers were sent out to very forgiving churches in the hinterland to make numerous mistakes, learn from said mistakes, then return to larger places ready to appear largely competent.

Ask any minister ordained or commissioned prior to the end of the settlement requirement and they will regale you will stories of Newfoundland or Saskatchewan or that empty space on the map near Sharbot Lake and all the crazy mistakes they made. And in doing so, they will be living examples of something Malcolm Gladwell described in his book The Outliers, “The 10,000 Hour Rule.”

The 10,000 hour rule actually belongs to a Swedish psychologist named Anders Ericsson, and simply suggests that to become an expert at anything, you need to practice it for 10,000 hours. Gladwell cites a few examples, the Beatles in Hamburg, playing all day, every day in clubs for four years before achieving stardom. He points to a couple of entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who came of age at the same time as a build-it-yourself computer came on the market, spending their 10,000 hours tinkering and programming before doing what they did.

So if you are busy doing the mental math, let me help. At forty hours a week, it will take you five years to become an expert in your field. Back to settlement, expected length of three years, means you are still getting people in a process of becoming experts, still a little wet behind the ears. But this is a practical problem, generally met with a little patience, and not a theological problem, as found in Mark 1.

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.

Remember this is Mark 1. Jesus may be the Galilean number one with a bullet, but he is still new. So he’s begun this seemingly new ministry of teaching and casting out demons, demonstrates authority that astounds the local population and even the demons themselves, but has no where near his 10,000 hours. So you invoke the Son of God rule.

But now, you see, there is a problem. To simply say “yes, but he is the Son of God” and assume that it explains everything is getting pretty close to the heresy I mentioned at the beginning of the month, Docetism. Recall, there were some that believed that Jesus was ‘just visiting,’ a God in human form, and not really human at all. The 10,000 hour rule goes out the window, assuming it only applies to humans, and not God.

But since we are not Docetists, and there is not a heretic among us (at least I don’t think there is), we have to imagine that the very human Jesus spent those early years that go undescribed practicing his craft. 10,000 hours in practice teaching. 10,000 hours--in various ways--confronting demons. 10,000 hours healing the sick. And 10,000 hours crafting a Gospel message that would someday become our own.

I’m not sure if the idea of the practicing Jesus is comforting or oddly disconcerting. Early failures, mistakes made in theology and practice might undermine our confidence rather than build it. Instead we have a single story, the twelve year-old Jesus in the Temple, separated from his parents and then discovered in deep discussion with the elders, clearly wise beyond his years. It seems he was already busy working on his 10,000 hours, impressing people at twelve and ready to spend those next anonymous years becoming the Jesus we meet again by the seaside in Mark 1.

Now, maybe you are still stuck back at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and thinking about your RIM stock. How does that fit with the 10,000 hour rule? What if you are the tech darlings that everyone points to as a model of success then something else begins to happen? Maybe 10,000 hours is not enough to guarantee success. More than one commentator this week pointed to the lean years at Apple when the end seemed near and suggested the same thing may happen in Waterloo.

And this is where you can finally point to the Son of God argument. As Son of God, Jesus is in the process of becoming, but only in one direction. There is a growing sense of his divinity, a growing sense that he is completely filled with God, enough that we can eventually say that Jesus is God too. By the time we pick up the story in Capernaum Jesus is fully human and fully divine, having overcome that final encounter with the adversary in the desert and now ready to embark of a journey of new life for each of us.

And this is where you can point to the other side of the Son of God argument. Jesus’ primary role, the role that he honed over 10,000 hours, the role that truly speaks to his authority, is forgiveness. The people are amazed, the demons obey him, but mostly he meets us where we are, far short of our 10,000 hours, and forgives. Call this the RIM amendment, where our lives are filled with successes and setbacks, the accumulation of hours followed by a string of failures, and yet we are forgiven.

Expert in human terms means better and better at everything we try, punctuated by the limitations built into the very fabric of being human. Expert in Jesus’ terms means godlier and godlier until being God, ready to enjoy our successes, forgive our failures, and hold us each day. Amen.


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