Sunday, January 29, 2012
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Here's my sermon for today, text below, video above (I start at minute 24)
Sermon for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, year B.
This past week, on Wednesday night I told this story of Jesus in the synagogue to the little ones. The story of Jesus walking into the synagogue and teaching; and the people being astounded by his authority. Then the arrival of the man who had an unclean spirit and how Jesus cast out the unclean spirit. It was then that, none other than my own daughter, asked what an unclean spirit was.
How do you teach children about demons, about unclean spirits, about a level of the created order that is misty, dark, and malevolent? It reminds me of when I was a teacher, and we were studying World War II. When we got to the Holocaust, it fell on me to teach what that was. Here I was: having to pass on the story of utter hate and destruction, to a new generation, they were hearing this information for the first time. This passing on of the story must happen of course, as the saying goes, those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it. Though I prefer the updated version of that phrase, those who do not know the past are condemned to live in the present.
So, my darling 7 year old, asks what is an unclean spirit? I immediately get a flash of Dante and Milton, the Exorcist, , Satan, red tail, and cloven feet. My answer was truthful, but guarded: unclean spirits are bad thoughts about God that people sometimes have.
I find it interesting that in all the Old Testament there is not a single mention of demons. We have Satan mentioned a few times, but no demons. Then in the New Testament, seen here in Mark the first written Gospel that we have, demons and unclean spirits seem to be a part of life; and such a part of life that are not altogether unsurprising. In another place in the Gospels the people of a region have chained up a man tormented by demons, they feed him and care for him, albeit poorly, but the truth is, he is tolerated. It would seem that contact with a person possessed of unclean spirits would not make one dirty, ritually, indeed that even being possessed is not a violation of any purity code, because in today’s reading the man is in the synagogue. So whatever happened between the writing of the two testaments, one thing is clear, demons abound, and they are part of life and not altogether surprising.
So our scene is dropped into this context of familiar demons and these homely unclean spirits. The scene takes place on the Sabbath. The setting is a synagogue. Enter Jesus. Jesus takes the stage, the Torah scroll is behind him, he begins to teach. We are not told of the content of his teaching but we are told of the style, Jesus does not teach like the hired pros, no he doesn’t obfuscate, or hem and haw, this Jesus has authority! But then a man with an unclean spirit comes in and challenges Jesus loudly. Jesus hushes him and commands the spirit to come out of him. The spirit obeys and the people are amazed and recap the scene for us, in case we missed it: This Jesus is amazing both for the authority of his teaching and for the fact the demons obey him.
But there is one fine point. Did you miss it? I did, I missed it for years. The heart of this reading is hidden in plain sight.
What does the unclean spirit say? “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.” It’s right there. This demon, or demons since they say, “Have you come to destroy us?” Here we are at the front of the first written gospel, still in the first chapter, and Mark gives away the whole story. These two, Jesus and demon, seem know each other. Well, if they don’t know each other, the demon certainly knows who Jesus is. The demon recognizes who Jesus is, he can (sniff) smell it on him, the demon can smell eternity on Jesus, the demon knows his creator when he sees him. I imagine for Jesus this might have been something like flying half way across the world, going through customs, and at the baggage claim, hearing, from among the clatter of all the foreign languages, someone from his home town calling his name The demon and Jesus come from the same place, and here we get a glimpse of the creation as so much more than meets the eye, and Jesus coolly hushes the demon and casts him out.
This scene is about more than an exorcism: it is a clue. This story is a clue about how to be Christ in the world.
And this is tough news. I hope you all have learned that the Good News is sometimes, if not usually, tough news. It’s hard being a follower of Jesus. You see, this life with Jesus just might sometimes look like this scene of Jesus and the Demon in the Synagogue. Folks need to be able to recognize Jesus in us, on sight. People need to be scandalized by our behavior, by our unrelenting love for others and the reason for that love as Jesus in us.
Folks: Jesus should be as obvious in us as he was to that unclean spirit. Because we all need to get away from that old frozen chosen way of doing church, of being the church. We need to get our hearts and minds and actions around the idea that our faith, our discipleship to Jesus, is personal but it is no longer private. We’ve all done it! Our faith is personal; God has come to each of us and indeed wants to know each of us, individually and collectively, as a body, in the church. But all of us have kept it private for too long. How do your teachers know you are a Christian? How do your employees, or your boss know you are a Christian? How does your neighbor know you are a Christian?
And let’s not get too high on ourselves when we think about the world and us here in the church. There is no special border between the world and the church. The world and the church are not separated by some Divine fiat, God didn’t create two separate communities, and He certainly didn’t create one community to be at war with another. No, as one wag put it: the world is simply that which has taken the liberty to not yet believe. The world is that which has taken the liberty to not yet believe. Your classmates, your coworkers, heck even your boss is not an unclean spirit. They are not unclean spirits, but they need to see Jesus in us.
So go out and be Jesus, use words if you have to, be Jesus in the board room, be Jesus in the chemistry lab, be Jesus in the file room, the court room, the gym, and even in traffic.
If you don’t know how to be Jesus, well that’s on us. That’s on the leaders and teachers of this and every church. If the church through the years has shown you a Jesus that is non-threatening to unclean spirits, if we have sold you a Precious Moments, domesticated Jesus that doesn’t demand your transformation, well then, I apologize for that. I apologize if you have been sold the therapeutic Jesus and not the Transformative Jesus.
Let’s welcome our scandalous Jesus, let’s welcome our obviously present Jesus. Let’s go into the world and let all the spirits: clean, unclean, and indifferent, look at us and our lives and say, “What have you to do with us Jesus?”