There is something special and memorable about “your first time.” I’m talking, of course, about your first time at a new church, although you may now be thinking about other “first times.” Go ahead–I’ll leave you to your memories and fantasies. Catch up with us whenever you can.
My “first time” here at this church was my candidating sermon back on Memorial Day weekend of 1995. I barely remember the sermon, of course, but what I do remember is 2 little girls who made me feel extraordinarily welcome–one was Lauren Beckerman, who, at the age of 10 back then, came up to me and gave me one of her sweet, loving hugs. The other little girl, whose family has long since moved away, came up to me after the service and after the vote, took my hand and pulled me toward Webster Hall. “Come, on. You’d better get in there before all the cookies are gone,” she told me. Ah, how right she was!
So we should pay attention to how the four gospel writers describe Jesus’ “first time,” how we see him as he begins his ministry. In Matthew, Jesus climbs up a mountain and begins to teach–Jesus is teacher and new law-giver. In Luke, he goes to his home synagogue, reads from the scroll of Isaiah about God’s spirit being upon him to preach good news to the poor and oppressed–and Luke’s Jesus continues to lift up the poor, has women in his ministry circles. Jesus’ first public appearance in John’s Gospel has him changing lots of water into wine at a wedding feast. He brings abundance. He is the gateway to God.
And here in Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry with confrontation. He is a boundary breaker, as one commentator writes [Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, 1/25/15] The heavens are torn apart at his baptism, breaking through the boundary of heaven and earth; he breaks the boundaries between clean and unclean as he exorcises the demon from the man who appears in the synagogue; he will even break the boundary of death, going to all those places where God is not expected to be.
So, here in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, and the people remark about the “authority” with which he preaches, not like the scribes. The scribes had “authority” of their own, by means of their position, their credentials; but the authority of this “newbie” rabbi was different. An unjust judge or public official can have authority, by means of their office. A police officer has a certain authority, with the expectation that his or her orders will be obeyed. But there is another kind of “authority” that anyone can have. It has to do with the root of that word–”author.” “The simplest, poorest person in the world,” writes one woman, “can speak with a different kind of authority if they embody wisdom and integrity that others find compelling.” (Kate Huey, sermonseeds, 2/1/15) Who is the “author” of your words or actions? Is it from your truest self, or are you trying to borrow someone else’s “authority”? It’s the same root as the word “authentic.”
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority; and not as the scribes.”
“Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” In this place that’s supposed to be so “holy,” so “clean,” there (already) was a man with an unclean spirit. People sometimes say, “Oh, I’m afraid the walls would cave in if I entered the church,” as though only “the perfect” go to church. Dare I point out that you and I are here within these walls, and other than that explosion back in the ‘60’s, the walls haven’t caved in. People sometimes accuse us churchgoers for being hypocritical because we don’t always do what we say we believe. That may be true, but that is precisely why we need to gather with other folks struggling to line up their actions with their beliefs. “Just then in the synagogue, in the church, there was a man, there was a woman–or two or three or a hundred–with an unclean spirit.”
So Jesus is confronted, first thing, with a man with–or “in”–an unclean spirit. I give thanks that it was a couple of little girls and not a demon who confronted me when I first came to this church! Nonetheless, as Bruce Epperly points out, this “unclean spirit” is more perceptive than the synagogue crowd in recognizing who Jesus is. [processandfaith.org. 2/1/15] “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.”
John Pilch says that our ancestors in faith believed spirits were more powerful than humans but not as powerful as God. [Cultural World of Jesus, Year B] This story, then, shows that Jesus has more power than ordinary human beings. We have more control over our lives and more power to effect change in them than did our ancestors, and so we are likely to dismiss stories of demons and spirits as irrelevant to our modern lives, a primitive way of explaining mental illness or epilepsy. But is that really true? We may not speak of them as “demons,” but are there not forces that too often we seem to be at the mercy of ? The first of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” Demon Rum is what the prohibitionists used to call it. We are the most in debt, obese, addicted , and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history, sociologist Brene Brown reports.(TEDx Talk, Houston) Dianne Bergant talks about “demons of dysfunction and sin, …of mistaken expectations that we find ourselves caught up in before we know it.” (Cited by Huey, op cit.) In his book Engaging the Powers, the late Walter Wink wrote of ours as a society that is possessed by violence, by sex, by money, by drugs. You might want to test that out as you watch the Super Bowl this evening.
“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.” Mark Davis translates this passage, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man in an unclean spirit, and it squawked out…” [Left Behind and Loving It, 1/26/15) He refers to a recent NY Times article by Johann Kari entitled, “The Likely Cause of Addiction…and It’s Not What We Thought.” The “likely cause,” the article claims, appears not to be simply chemical dependency, but rather the need for connection. It’s a fascinating article worth reading, but one of the things it does is separate persons with addictions from their addictions. “It’s not you,” the author says. “It’s your cage.”
So this man is in the cage of unclean spirit which squawked at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? …I know who you are.” This mix of us and I, plural and singular, gives a sense of the complexity of mental illness and addiction. Was the spirit afraid of being destroyed or hopeful of being healed? Neither mental illness nor addiction are outside God’s loving touch and healing.
Pseudo-Dionysius, writing in the late 5th to early 6th centuries, said that the demons come from their source as Good. However, he wrote, “They are evil insofar as they have fallen away from the virtues proper to them. They have changed in the domain of what was permanent in them. A weakness has appeared in the angelic perfection suitable to them.” “He could be writing about me,” Episcopal priest and author Suzanne Guthrie wrote last week. He could be writing about any of us.
I know that some of you find our prayers of confession to be needlessly remorseful and oftentimes not true to your reality. Amen. AND (not “but,” AND) it is important that we check in every now and then to see if we, like those 6th c. demons, have “fallen away from the virtues” that were given to us, have distorted what is inherently good in us, have wandered off the path toward our true selves that was set before us. How else will we be authentic?
Thomas Merton wrote about the early Desert Fathers and Mothers in the 4th and 5th centuries–
What the Fathers [and Mothers]sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in ‘the world’….The simple men [and women] who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves….We cannot do exactly as they did, but we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the dominion of alien compulsions, and to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.” [The Wisdom of the Desert]
Jesus has been in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, being tested, honing who he really is–where his true authority lies and who his authentic self really is. He begins his public ministry here in Mark with a confrontation, which he can only survive if he stays grounded in the truth of who he is, and which will set the tone for the whole rest of his ministry. He “comes to oppose all those forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all us, David Lose points out (inthemeantime, 2/1/15).
What forces keep you from the abundant life God desires for you? What is keeping you from being authentic, with your own authority? What are the demons that possess you, or at least flit around in your head suggesting any number of distortedly truthful things? Anger? Fear? Workaholism? Substance abuse? Peer pressure? Affluenza, thinking that having all sorts of material things will bring you happiness? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us…or to heal us?” Is the demon searching for the Author of his life?
The image of Jesus as exorcist [writes Rita Nakashima Brock] is someone who has experienced his own demons…The temptation stories point to the image of a wounded healer, to an image of one who by his own experience understands vulnerability and internalized oppression. In having recovered their own hearts, healers have some understanding of the suffering of others.
Naming the demons means knowing the demons….The Gospels imply that anyone who exorcizes cannot be a stranger to demons…To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt and never to forget the power to heal that lies in touching brokenheartedness…. Jesus hears, below the demon noises, an anguished cry for deliverance. Through…mutual touching, community is co-created as a continuing, liberating, redemptive reality.” [in Imaging the Word, Vol. 3, p. 130]
“Our God is a God of the needy,” someone else has said, “and our church is a fellowship of the needy…What it takes is for you to recognize your deep need and trust that God [in Jesus] is able to meet it.” That was where the power of Jesus resided–in his own deep need and trust in God, the Author of his–and our– life. If we are to follow him, that’s not a bad place to start.
So come, as if it were the first time, come to the table. In bread broken and shared, in the cup poured out and emptied, we are made whole and given new life. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark