A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on January 29, 2012
Christ Church Andover
January 29, 2012
Epiphany IV, Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and redeemer. AMEN.
It seems rather fitting to have our gospel reading on the day of our Annual Meeting be about a demon-infused man shouting out in the midst of the congregation. I toyed with the idea of recreating this scenario for you all today by planting a yeller in the congregation during the sermon, but backed away from it. It seemed a little too much for this morning.
But imagine the scene in the synagogue for a moment from this morning’s gospel from Mark. Mark pares down his stories to the bones much of the time. He isn’t wordy and tends to get right to the point, so much so that it takes a bit of imagination to really engage in what is going on. Jesus has just called his first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, who left their nets and followed him, and this is their first time seeing Jesus preach and teach in the synagogue. It turns out to be a memorable experience. Not only does Jesus immediately seem to exercise his authority publically for the first time, but he seems to do so in an unexpected way. A man, seized by an unclean spirit, shouts at Jesus while he is teaching, and Jesus speaks directly to those spirits in response. A healing, an exorcism of sorts, seems to take place.
The fruit for thought in today’s gospel isn’t just about what Jesus does to the man or the spirits in this story. There are other curious things going on, seemingly in the background, but for us tell more than at first glance. The shouting man should never have been in the synagogue in the first place—persons with unclean spirits were considered less than human, and were never allowed knowingly to be among others who were considered ritually clean. Jesus could have, and probably should have, as a teacher in the synagogue, had the man thrown out. No one would have thought it wrong at the time. But instead of throwing him out, he decided to engage the man—to listen to his demons, and then—in a wholly radical move, make him whole. Jesus healed him by acknowledging the demons which possessed the man, and by healing him—which not only restored him to sanity, but restored him to the community as well. Those who were sick or ill or mentally unstable were cast aside, socially and religiously. They were not allowed in communal gatherings, nor at the Temple or in the synagogues, the places of worship. Jesus’ authority, understood and seen and acknowledged by the congregation, did not come just from his abundant scriptural knowledge (although that was part of it and cited as one of the reasons that the congregation was in awe of him)— it came from his healing; his ability to reconcile one person with another; to reconcile one person with a community; indeed, as it would have been seen in the time of Mark, to reconcile this person with God.
Reconciliation was not by denunciations. It was not in eliciting anger or pity for the man. It was in recognizing who the man could truly be when not plagued by demons. The man was obviously broken, for whatever reasons we give for the designation ‘plagued by an unclean spirit’. This first miracle, Jesus’ first healing in the Gospel of Mark, was one which would define his ministry. It was a healing which not only seemed to confront the very evil that can lurk in us and about us. The unclean spirits, the demons, the demoniacs—however we want to refer to them—are real manifestations of evil. In a postmodern world we might think about them as an emotional combustion or mental illness now, but we can also envision what someone bound up in an unclean spirit might say about the real relationship between good and evil—that it can be a borderline relationship, one bound up in intention. We tend to ignore mentions of demons in the scriptures because they don’t really gybe with our modern mentality of illness. In some ways, we look to tame the idea of unclean spirits because they seem too primal for us. They are too dangerous, too close to the characters of our imaginations and fantasies. Demons in scripture, however, seem to simply be the concrete manifestations of our broken relationship with God. They represent the good that we wish to do willingly circumvented and reordered to satisfy our own needs. It is the good in the world which is used for its own means, and not offered back to God, not offered in a spirit of relationship. It is the manifestation of fear and scarcity and I bet we all have our own personal demons to haunt us, to keep us at bay from our true, God-given selves. They are those things which keep us up at night. The things which we don’t want to tell others that we do, or say, or think. They are the thoughts and actions which we keep secret from God, which we defend or make excuses for. Our own demons at their core are destructive rather than creative.
The full irony is that while the members of the synagogue were in awe at this strange rabbi’s teaching, the demons, those unclean spirits, knew exactly who Jesus was. “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." Our worst fears, our haunting regrets—the places where we know we have been party to things which destroy rather than things which create—they feel most vulnerable when confronted with abundant love. The unclean spirits recognized the source of their being—the visceral reminder of God’s abundance, the reality of all that is true standing before them. Jesus was (and is) the antithesis of all that was fearful; all that was greedy; all that manipulated or threatened.
Jesus is often the catalyst for the realization that we have strayed from our source, our foundation in God. Jesus, his gospel, his words, his actions, his story repeated and re-interpreted from age to age—stands before us reminding ourselves of our place in God’s creation, as stewards, and as God’s children. I know that that was why I started going to church in the first place when I was a teenager. I knew just how far I could stray from who I truly was. I knew that what I saw around me couldn’t possibly be the only ending to the story—a world convinced of the need to satiate every want and whim for itself. I knew that my demons recognized truth when confronted with it, bound up in love, every Sunday morning.
And that seems to be a common story. It’s why we take such care and thought into bringing our children and youth into this story, this community, to begin to teach them about love and reconciliation. It’s why we get up on overcrowded, overscheduled weekends to sit in this place, to listen to Word and song and most of all to the truth which we are desperate to hear, to stand in awe not of the preacher, but of the Word—the teachings which constantly surprise us. We are a church because we too are the man shouting in the synagogue, plagued by unclean spirits, but at our core recognizing Jesus because of our very brokenness. We wish our children to know themselves, to love how God has created them, and to begin to understand their role in this story which is not just about the good and the lovely, but so very much about a bunch of broken and demon-plagued people who need to hear Jesus say to them, “Be still. Be healed.” Just as Jesus knew that that man was a child of God in need of healing, and not simply a demoniac breaking the rules, we too are welcomed in by God for that same healing.
In some ways, this is the perfect story for a community looking back at the past year so that we can look and move forward with grace and with courage and vision into the midst of a broken and demon infested world. Our work here as a community every Sunday, indeed every day, is the work of reconciliation, of restoring and renewing relationships, with each other and with God. The shouting man needed Jesus to heal him. Even more, Jesus needed that man because he was one of God’s own. Today’s gospel is one which invites us to think of how our own authority in Christ is manifested—how are we bringing both ourselves, our community and our world into a renewed relationship with God? What can our community do and be when we are not plagued by fear? What amazing things can we do when we can faithfully rely on the love of Jesus Christ to make us whole and to remind us, gently, lovingly every time we are bound up in our own demons, to be still; be healed.
I pray this in the name of the God who creates everything, the Son who redeems everything, and the Holy Spirit who reminds us daily that we too are inheritors of that blessed creation and redemption. AMEN.