Our gospel lesson from Mark this morning contains a story within a story, and, as usual in Mark, things happen in quick succession. En thous! as (our) Mark taught us last week. Immediately! In this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, in a little over 10 verses, Jesus has gone from being baptized to being expelled by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (in 2 verses), back out into Galilee to begin his public ministry, choosing his first 4 disciples who immediately! follow him, and now they are in Capernaum, where Jesus goes into the synagogue to teach.

He is impressing the hometown crowd with his teaching, his confidence, his forthright-ness, his “authority,” as they remark, when suddenly, a man with an unclean spirit bursts in. Not only do the disciples recognize Jesus’ authority “immediately” and follow him, but so does the unclean spirit. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? [the spirit cries out] Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

“Mark’s world is full of shadows and menace,” one commentator explains, “riddled with demons who distort creation and overwhelm hearts and minds. Human beings are cast as porous creatures open to spiritual influences….” [SALT Project, Lectionary Commentary, Epiphany 4] Mark’s gospel has an urgency about it–thus, all the immediately!s–and it may very well have been written down in a time of great danger and threat. At any moment there could be a knock on the door, the gospel might be interrupted at any time.

So, even in the synagogue, even in worship on a Sunday morning, the demons, the forces of destruction and chaos, could break in. This is not just an archaic, primitive story about demons and spirits. We know there are death-dealing forces loose in our world today. At any moment, someone could interrupt our worship and start shooting, like Devin Kelly did in Sutherland Springs, Texas back in November. Or, remember closer to home, the man who came into the Unitarian Church in Brattleboro and started brandishing a knife? What about the demons let loose at the school in Benton, KY this week? The 11th mass shooting in our country already in 2018.

But demons don’t just show up with weapons. Mark Davis translates the description of the man who burst into the synagogue–”a man in an unclean spirit.” Like a man in a cage. We see the man and hear the man through the cage, the unclean spirit–”Have you come to destroy us?”– but there is a man inside, who is more than the cage. As Davis says, to ignore either the cage or the man is to miss the tragedy of the situation and the humanity of the man. [leftbehindandlovingit, 1/21/18]

There are people in cages everywhere. How many are trapped in cages of addiction, to opioids, to alcohol, to tobacco, to heroin? Did you happen to catch the story on VPR’s “Rumblestrip” this week on the plight of people with mental illness in our state, who need hospitalization, but are left for days, weeks, sometimes even months in limbo in emergency rooms because we no longer have a state hospital for the mentally ill? “A cage went in search of a bird,” Franz Kafka wrote in his journal.

We are not simply possessed by drugs or chemical imbalances, though. We are trapped in cages of fear and anxiety–some of us live in fear of abuse at home, many of us worry about becoming disabled, or unable to care for ourselves, or to pay our bills. Many more of us live in fear of what’s happening in the world–to the environment, or in fear of nuclear war, as the Doomsday clock clicked closer to midnight this week, so many live in fear of deportation, in fear of being stopped for a traffic violation and ending up shot or imprisoned. There are cages of racism, sexism, homophobia, anger, envy. “A cage went in search of a bird.”

Jesus’ public ministry is launched with a confrontation with a demon. “Jesus comes into the world [one commentator writes] as a healing liberator in direct, authoritative opposition to the death-dealing forces of evil and ruin in the world.” [SALT Project, op cit.] Mark’s community needs to know of Jesus’ power and authority in the face of danger all around. Who is this Jesus? For Mark especially, he is the one more powerful than the demons, the boundary-breaker, the one who is not afraid of brokenness but who confronts it directly.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the spirit cries out. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Pseudo-Dionysis, the late 5th/early 6th c. theologian, wrote that the demons originally came from the good, but somewhere along the way strayed from their true nature. That could be describing most of us, couldn’t it? The demons don’t want to change or be healed, “but,” as Suzanne Guthrie writes, “by resisting the divine in them, they take others as hostages, denying them their own divinity, like the poor man in the synagogue.” [ontheedgeoftheenclosure.org, Year B, Epiph. 4]

Straying from our true selves, from our Source, can be hazardous not only to us but to others. But to truly know yourself, to know who you are and Whose you are? That has power to heal and liberate. That’s what the crowd recognized in Jesus. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” Authority, authenticity, author, they all have the same root. Who is the author of your life? Is it your true, highest self, which comes from God, or is there a ghost writer penning the pages? “Do you ever find yourself fulfilling someone else’s dreams? Acting as the ‘practice dog’ for someone else’s team?” asks my friend and teacher Maria Sirois.

Maria tells the story from when she was in 8th or 9th grade and being recruited for the girls’ basketball team. “I was terrible at basketball,” she said. “I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t dribble, but I was fast.” The coach was also the coach of her field hockey team, which Maria could play, and she had recruited Maria for the basketball team because she knew she was fast. So, Maria hustled and practiced and did her best on the team, but she knew the coach would never put her in a game. Finally, she went to the coach and said, “Look, I know you’re never going to put me in, and you probably shouldn’t. So why did you recruit me?” “I knew you were fast,” he said, “and I wanted someone to inspire the other girls to hustle.” “So, I’m essentially the practice dog,” Maria said. She decided she had other things to do with her time and energy than to be the practice dog on someone else’s team. She needed to be playing on her own team, where she belonged. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. “Do you ever find yourself acting as the ‘practice dog’ for someone else’s team?”

Courtney Martin, a millenial blogger for the OnBeing website, writes, “It’s an act of rebellion to be a whole person. It is an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, especially (with) the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.” It’s an act of rebellion and it requires courage. As sociologist Brene Brown has discovered in her research, whole-hearted people have the courage to be vulnerable. In fact, it is their vulnerability that makes them strong. “Every difficult, failed, painful moment,” Maria Sirois says, “is the opportunity to choose to live into our best selves….There is no time but now to become the kind of person you always wanted to be loved by.” No time but now. Immediately. This is the moment we’re given.

It was this authority, this sense that he was the author of his teaching and healing and being–or really God was the author, because Jesus was so porous to God– it was this authority that so impressed the crowd in Capernaum–and that threatened them. “He commands the unclean spirits–and they obey him.” That kind of power is scary. “The measure of a man is what he does with power,” Plato said back in the 4th century BCE. We have plenty of evidence of that today. What do we do with our power, as a nation, as a church, as individuals?

But today, more than ever, we need people who know who they are and Whose they are, who have recognized and faced their demons and all the ways they have wandered from their highest and truest selves. We need them–we need you–to bring forward what they were put here to bring forward and to offer it to a world desperately in need of true authenticity. There are demons and powers loose in our world that need to be cast out. Walter Wink, the great 20th c. Biblical scholar and prophet, wrote, “I have a nagging hunch that the gospel’s power in our own time is about to be manifested in a manner as repugnant to the sensibilities of the society at large, and all of us who have accommodated ourselves to it, as the early Christian message was to Roman paganism….Our society is possessed, Christians as much as anyone…[and] we need to recover forms of collective exorcism.” [Engaging the Powers] Can you even begin to imagine what that might look like? South Africa held Truth and Reconciliation Councils to begin their collective exorcism. What will it take for us?

“It’s an act of rebellion to be a whole person.” Jesus was such a rebel. It is an act of courage to be wholehearted. Jesus was wholehearted and courageous. “He speaks with such authority,” they said of Jesus, because he knew who the author of his life was. We need to be reminded of and remind each other who we are and Whose we are. So here’s final blessing for a Whole Heart, by Jan Richardson–

You think

if you could just

imagine it,

that would be a beginning;

that if you could envision

what it would look like,

that would be a step

toward a heart

made whole.

This blessing

is for when

you cannot imagine.

This is for when

it is difficult to dream

of what could lie beyond

the fracture, the rupture,

the cleaving through which

has come a life

you do not recognize

as your own.

When all that inhabits you

feels foreign,

your heart made strange

and beating a broken

and unfamiliar cadence,

let there come

a word of solace,

a voice that speaks

into the shattering,

reminding you

that who you are

is here,

every shard

somehow holding

the whole of you

that you cannot see

but is taking shape

even now,

piece joining to piece

in an ancient,

remembered rhythm

that bears you

not toward restoration,

not toward return—

as if you could somehow

become unchanged—

but steadily deeper

into the heart of the one

who has already dreamed you

complete.

Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook, Yr. B, Epiphany 4

May it be so. Amen, amen. Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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