Repossessed

(sermon 1/28/18)

baptismal font-resized

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, convulsing him 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.  – Mark 1:21-28

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It happened more than ten years ago. I had just started pastoring this little country church about an hour south of Columbus, a brand-new Commissioned Lay Pastor, on the job for about a month, maybe two, ready to set the world on fire and do the very best I could for this wonderful little congregation. On this particular Sunday morning, I’d just taught an Adult Sunday School class, part of a series, about how the Bible came to be, and what the best available scholarship could tell us about who may have written various parts, and when, and why. When the class was over, as we moved into the sanctuary just before the service began, we noticed that we had visitors. They weren’t hard to notice, sitting in the sanctuary that held maybe forty or forty-five people on a normal Sunday. Four visitors, actually – a husband and wife, and a son, maybe 13, and a daughter, maybe 12. In other words, the supposed demographic gold mine for churches looking for visitors and potentially new members, especially for a congregation that hadn’t likely seen a new member in a number of years, and we were all pleased and excited to see them. They sat there in a nice row, each of them with their very own personal copy of the King James Version of the Bible with matching brown leatherette zip-up covers. The preaching text that morning was from the Second Letter to Timothy – and wanting to make some connection between the sermon and the Sunday School class, I’d wanted to say that even though the text of the letter says it was written by Paul, most scholars today agree that it wasn’t actually written by Paul, but rather, it was likely written by one of Paul’s followers, but ultimately that wasn’t important; what mattered was the content, the point that the words were making.

That was what I’d intended to say, anyway, but I never quite got all that out. As soon as I said that Paul likely hadn’t written the letter, the husband in this family jumped up out of his seat – it was so fast, so instantaneous, that you’d have thought the pew was spring-loaded and he’d just been ejected into the air. And within a split second, the three others sprung up, too. And the man started pushing his family out into the aisle while waving his finger at me and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Shame on you! Shame! Blasphemy! This is the Word of God! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t! Shame on you! Shame! You’re a blasphemer!!!!” And he kept right on yelling as he marched his family up the aisle, and out the door, and SLAM! They were gone.

Well, my CLP training had prepared me for a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. I vaguely remember standing there in the pulpit looking as shocked and surprised as everyone else, but then, after a moment of fumbling around both verbally and physically, I regained my stride and we went on with the service.

Well, the following Sunday, the loud, spring-loaded visitors were still on everyone’s mind. Now in this church, there was a sturdy old oak office chair that sat along the back wall of the sanctuary, just inside the main entry vestibule. And every Sunday, a man named Joe, who was sort of the unofficial head usher, sat in that chair. So this Sunday, with people wondering what I might say about the events of the week before, I stepped into the pulpit, cleared my throat, and I looked to the back of the sanctuary and said, “Um, Joe, would you lock the door?” And we all laughed, and life went on.

In today’s gospel text, we heard about a similar kind of unexpected disruption and challenge to Jesus as he was teaching in a synagogue very early in his ministry. Of course, he handled his situation more decisively and with more authority than I handled mine, but, you know, that makes sense because he’s Jesus and I’m not. But just picture that scene. There’s Jesus, preaching and teaching and the people are amazed at what they were hearing, until Jesus is interrupted by this man that Mark tells us was possessed by an “unclean spirit.”

If you’re like me, you get a little uncomfortable with scriptural stories of spirit-possessed people. I mean, we’re living in an age of advanced knowledge of all sorts, and we also know that any number of perfectly understandable, non-supernatural mental illnesses were described in the pre-scientific culture of Jesus’ time as having been possessed by an unclean spirit. On the other hand, we know that we are beings of both body and spirit,  inherently, as part of our being human. We know that there is certainly a spiritual realm to the universe. So what was really going on with this disturbed man in this story?

I guess to me, the question of whether the man was possessed or suffering a mental or emotional illness is as unimportant as whether Paul wrote Second Timothy or not. The important point, to me, is the agony, the despair, that the man was feeling – and that he was apparently feeling it because of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s love for all people. He was proclaiming the arrival of God’s good news for the poor, the sick, the lame, the hungry, the widow and the orphan and all those who have been pushed aside in this world.

And somehow, this was apparently bad news for the man. Clearly, whatever the details of his condition, he was miserable, but at least there was familiarity and comfort in his misery. He knew what he could count on, and what he couldn’t. But now, this new message from God, delivered with power and authority, meant that all that the man had come to depend on was being tossed out. Now there would be new rules, and undoubtedly change, and uncertainty; and for him, that wasn’t seen as gospel, good news, at all, but rather, it was very bad news, even with the love that the message came embedded in.

In response, Jesus speaks powerfully to the man; harshly, even. This actually becomes a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel, Jesus from time to time speaking with real harshness,  even anger, and virtually every time it happens, it’s a case like this – where Jesus is essentially rebuking someone or something in this world that was working to keep people from experiencing the full, abundant, loving, and yes, risk-taking, life that God intends for all of us. In this story, whether the man is literally possessed or not, Jesus is essentially “repossessing” him, whether he likes it or not; reclaiming him from being a child of misery and hopelessness, and reclaiming him as a child of God, belonging to God and God alone, and deserving of so much more than the limited, and limiting, way of living that the man had become accustomed to.

In just a little while, we’ll be baptizing Matilda. In a way, baptism is a sign of this kind of repossession that’s occurring in this story – this idea of God clearly, decisively, and with power and authority claiming a person as belonging to God, and being a part of God’s covenant, and deserving of that same full, abundant life that Jesus wanted for the man in this story.

On this day, when we celebrate this new baptism, let’s think about our own baptism, and what it means to us – both the grace, the love, the acceptance; as well as the challenge and the responsibility, because in the realm of God we never get one without the other.

As far as yelling and shouting, if there’s to be any yelling today, let it be shouts of  joy and gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives, and that God promises to do in Matilda’s life. If there’s to be any jumping out of seats today, let it be to jump up and give Matilda a standing ovation as a sign of God’s love, and of ours.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Silence! (sermon 2/1/15)

capernaum synagogue

The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, on a much sunnier day than when I visited it. This synagogue dates to the 4th century CE, after Jesus’ time, but is built on the foundations of the earlier synagogue, where Jesus would presumably have done what we read about in this gospel text.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] 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, convulsing him 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. – Mark 1:21-28

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When I was in seminary, I had a class where I had to translate a fairly lengthy portion of an Old Testament passage – a pronouncement from one of the prophets; I don’t remember which one – where, at one point in the translation in which God calls out “Silence!” And as I translated that, I couldn’t help but laugh because it made me think of something else. A lot of you are probably familiar with the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, and his one character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. If you are, you know that this particular ventriloquist dummy, this character, is just a comical-looking skeleton with wild eyes, a turban, and a beard. Achmed was supposedly a suicide bomber who ended up dying in an accident as he was building his bomb, and part of the routine is Achmed telling a number of pretty off-the-wall, politically incorrect jokes – and his one recurring, trademark bits is getting angry at the audience and yelling in his put-on accent, “Silence!…… I keel you!”

And try as I might, I just couldn’t get that stupid line out of my head as I translated this passage from the Old Testament. When I did the translation work for the professor, I had even written that line into the translation as a joke, and it was only at the last moment that I deleted it, worried that the professor wouldn’t have as much of a sense of humor as I did, and realizing that things that seemed like a good idea at two in the morning don’t always look so good in the light of day.

I couldn’t help but remember that incident, and laugh all over again, when I read today’s gospel passage. I pictured Jesus, teaching there in the synagogue in Capernaum, and him calling out to the possessed man, “Silence!”…. and some smart alek calls out from a back pew in the synagogue, “… I keel you!” Well, not likely, I suppose. I need to say that I think it’s okay to allow ourselves to laugh about things like this; I believe that Jesus has a pretty well-developed sense of humor and I don’t think we’re going to be banished to hell for something in the Bible making us laugh, as long as we get through that layer and consider what’s really important, what’s really going on in this story and is there some significance for us in it?

This is the first story, the kickoff, of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel, and that makes it an important signal of where the gospel is going to go; what it’s primary point or message about Jesus is going to go. The people who wrote the gospels were telling a story and trying to convey a particular overarching message. Just like when I sit down to write a sermon, the first thing I determine is the one, single point that I want to make, and then I’ll try to shape everything I do in the sermon to illustrate that point, shaping the content and tone and the rhythm of the sermon all to best convey that message. I might weave around the point a bit to get there, but the idea is to never stray too far from that overarching point. The writers of the gospels worked in much the same way. They were all starting from the facts of Jesus’ life, but each one of the writers shaped the story in a particular way, to emphasize a particular point. They chose how to arrange the story, how to sequence it, how to pace it, what words to use or what stories to include or not include, or how to enhance or shorten the stories, all to help them in their goal. They were storytellers, in the best sense of that term, rather than historians or news anchors, each trying to convey a slightly different overarching point about Jesus and the importance of his life and teaching. That’s why we end up with places where the gospels disagree with one another, and sometimes in ways that can’t just be easily explained. When the early church fathers decided to include the four gospels we have as part of our scriptures, they weren’t idiots. They recognized the inconsistencies in the stories; but the point was that perfect historical accuracy wasn’t the important point – the point being emphasized in the particular gospel, about Jesus and his message and his significance was the important point.

So in that light, we can look at the first thing that each gospel writer focuses on at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and find a signal of where that writer is going to go with Jesus’ story; what their emphasis is going to be. In Matthew, the first major event is the Sermon on the Mount. In this gospel, Jesus is going to be portrayed as the Great Teacher. In Luke, the story of Jesus’ ministry starts with him preaching in his hometown synagogue, talking about how God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor and outcast. In John, the story starts with Jesus miraculously turning water into wine, and a lot of it, as a sign that Jesus is the eternal God in the flesh. In each of these cases, that becomes the main theme of the gospel, the main point the author is driving at. Teacher, Friend of the Outcast, Cosmic God as Attested to by Miraculous Signs. And here, in Mark, Jesus’ first act is one that showcases his authority and power – power that changes in the entire world, power that shows God is a boundary-breaking God. Time and time again in this gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the incarnate God who breaks through every barrier set up for him, barriers that to Mark’s readers would seem to be impenetrable. The preacher Karoline Lewis has pointed out that through Jesus, God breaks through political, social, religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, and as we can see in this exorcism, even the cosmic forces of good and evil. A key message of Mark is that God is present in and beyond all of those barriers. That’s Mark’s way of understanding what the good news, the gospel, that Christ brings into the world is all about. Jesus is the barrier-breaker, showing people that God is present, God is here, even in all those places behind those supposed barriers, the places supposedly beyond God’s help and power, those places supposedly controlled by powers other than God. Through the authority and power that he shows over and over again in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is God’s “No!”, God’s “Silence!”, to those other powers.

The good news for us is that God is still yelling this “Silence!” to all the powers that would control our lives, too. Those things that we could say “possess” us, and prevent us from living that fullness, that contentedness and “at-peacedness” of life that our Jewish brothers and sisters simply call shalom. Powers like loss. Grief. Depression. Anxiety. Addiction. Illness. Disease. Mark’s message to us is that God is still here, with us, in the midst of all of those powers and more. God has not left us or forsaken us, and while sometimes it doesn’t seem true, we still can be reassured by Mark’s message that God is Here. God is Here. Walking with us, holding us up, and embracing us, through it all. And that God does have the power that some day, some way, all the pain and suffering that we all endure in our own ways will be wiped away, banished, exorcised by God. That was the hopeful way of explaining the gospel in this first gospel written, and it resonates to us even all these years later.

Thanks be to God.