Sermon February 1, 2015
Mark 1:21-28, Psalm 111
In the gospel lesson today, we meet Jesus in his first act of ministry. He is teaching in the synagogue when a heckler yells at him and outs him as the “holy one of God”. Jesus recognizes this interruption as a demon that has possessed a man’s body so he confronts it and calls it out of the man. What a strange start to his ministry. Right off the bat, he is identified as God’s servant and he confronts the one who has disrupted his teaching. While Jesus often confronts people, it isn’t the first thing I think of when I am thinking about him. I am curious that Mark made this story front and center. There are four exorcisms in Mark. In a book with only sixteen chapters, that seems like a lot.
We don’t know what to do with stories like this. It seems like the stuff of horror movies… pure fiction meant to terrify us. For what purpose? In the movie The Green Mile, John Coffey is on death row for the rape and murder of two girls. John is a large African American man who impresses the prison guards with his kind, gentle nature. John is able to see inside people. He heals people in the film by taking their illness into himself. While he is able to heal others, he must carry the weight of their disease himself. The image of this good man came to me as I reflected on Jesus calling the demons out of the man in the story.
I’ll be honest that I don’t know much about demons and would rather skip this topic altogether. I had a friend ask me about demons a few years ago. I am a mainline protestant and I didn’t know what to say except to say I didn’t think much of them – it’s just not a topic that we address much if we can help it. I was glad when the subject changed. It occurred to me later that she was battling with some demons of her own and she was asking for my help. My answer was far from helpful. I am sorry that I didn’t ask her to tell me more about what she was asking. I regret that I didn’t listen to what was beneath the question.
I’ve come to understand that we all battle demons of some sort – some of them have names like alcoholism, domestic violence, depression, gambling – and some of them don’t get an official title. That doesn’t make them any less real. Some of these demons happen in the privacy of our homes and some are manifest in more public ways. I worked with someone who would just begin screaming at anyone in her path. It wasn’t pleasant for any of us, but I realized that it was something in her rather than a reflection on the rest of us.
There is a quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria that says, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” That rings true to me. We are all carrying something and some of us use an immense amount of energy to wrestle with the burden we carry. When someone is rude, or cuts us off, or responds in a way that seems over the top, can we stop and take a breath and think there must be something going on that makes him or her over react? Can we begin with compassion rather than anger?
Maybe the place to begin is with ourselves. Etty Hillesum was a Jew living in Holland during the Nazi Occupation. She kept a journal of her struggles to survive both physically and spiritually that was published under the title An Interrupted Life. In it, she said, “My battles are fought out inside, with my own demons; it is not in my nature to tilt against the savage, cold-blooded fanatics who clamour for our destruction.”
There are times that I find myself reacting strongly to someone and I take that as a reminder to look at myself and pay attention to whatever may be seeking my attention. My reaction may be more about me than the other person. We carry so much emotional baggage and our lives are so cluttered. I have been wondering if part of the message for us today is to pay attention. Is there an invitation here to clean out the stuff that is getting in our way? What is keeping us from being who God called us to be? Can we address the blocks we are facing and allow our real self to emerge?
The gospel doesn’t tell us what happened to the man after Jesus called the demons out of him. I wonder if he became a follower and lived a life of compassion taking care of others who were suffering.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to confront the unhealthy behaviors he witnessed. He called people out when they abused their power and took advantage of others. He publicly noted institutions that were profiting while others suffered. He seemed to understand that we can’t move forward without cleaning house. We need to name toxic behaviors and confront those in power who are profiting at the expense of others. We need to do our own inner work and confront the blocks that get in our way.
The temptation is to ignore the confrontational Jesus and make him into a nice guy who made everyone feel good. As churches decline, they have tried to soften Jesus’ message so that he doesn’t upset anyone. That isn’t what got him killed. He evoked strong reactions in people by telling the truth.
Several years ago, a large department store tried to sell a baby Jesus doll. It was advertised as unbreakable, washable, and cuddly. It was packaged in straw with a satin ribbon and biblical texts were added. It did not sell. The manager of one of the stores in the department chain panicked. He carried out a last-ditch promotion to get rid of those dolls. He brandished a huge sign outside his store that read: “JESUS CHRIST—MARKED DOWN 50%--GET HIM WHILE YOU CAN”. (from Dynamic Preaching, “I Didn’t Expect This in Church!”)
Trying to water down Jesus’ message to make it palatable doesn’t create disciples. If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to take seriously his words and actions. Yesterday, at a Stewardship workshop we heard that Jesus talked about money or money related issues 60% of the time. I have been in churches where I have heard that they don’t talk about money because they don’t want to offend anyone. If we don’t want to be offended, we probably shouldn’t be following Jesus.
Jesus called us to speak the truth to power. In this legislative session and throughout the year, we are invited to be in touch with those who represent us or travel to the roundhouse to talk about rights for immigrants, medicaid, for education that is good for children, low income housing, and funding for SNAP to provide food for 9,000 elderly and people living with disabilities. Jesus took care of the person right in front of him, but he also called the systems to accountability and called synagogue leaders to clean house.
It makes me wonder what we need to do to fully be the church. What kind of house cleaning is required of us? Are there unhealthy habits we carry that we need to address? Can we rid ourselves of some of the clutter that gets in the way? The Psalmist thanks God wholeheartedly, not partial heartedly or a little heartedly but with the whole heart. What would it take for us to give ourselves to God wholeheartedly? What housecleaning would enable a wholehearted response to God? I love the word wholehearted. I chose that as my word for 2014 to name my intent to live fully.
That is in no way a denial of our brokenness or our pain. God sees us as we are. God sees the places that are broken and in need of healing. God continues to call us into deeper relationship. Jesus’ encounter with the man in the story today gives us a glimpse of one who sees the brokenness, names it, and sets him free. He removes the blocks to the man’s wholeness. What is in the way of your wholeness? Know this: God wants to be in relationship with you. God sees you as you are and God walks with you every step of the way. God wants you to be whole. The same is true for this congregation. God walks with us and cares for the broken places. God helps us clean out the blocks to make way for wholehearted living.
Come to the table knowing that you are seen and loved.
Come to the table to feast on God’s goodness.
Come to the table to be fed and leave knowing that God calls you to a wholehearted life.