Jan 31st | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 1:21-28
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Growing up in a staid, sedate, unadventurous, dull Presbyterian experience, Sunday mornings were more than a bit of a challenge. Back in the dinosaur days of my childhood, the entire excruciating experience began by getting “dressed for church.” Children were to look like miniature adults, which meant that girls wore dresses, and hats, and sometimes even gloves, while boys wore suits, white shirts and ties, and dress shoes. When we went to church, we looked like our parents, only washed in hot water and tumbled dry on high heat.
There was nothing to involve us as children in worship. We were not permitted to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper until we had been confirmed. There was no children’s sermon. There were no worship worksheets. There was no worship education. We sat, we sang, and – if it were within our capabilities – we read.
And we were quiet. Quiet was amazingly important. Wiggling could get you in serious trouble. Falling asleep was not an option. Occasionally, the preacher would crack a joke that bordered on being funny, but we weren’t really sure if we should laugh out loud.
I remember looking around – not turning my head – and these people who had been in Sunday School and then at coffee and donut time – who had been laughing and happy people – changed upon entering the sanctuary. When they got inside the walls of the sanctuary, the joy ran out of them like a mighty flowing stream down a drain pipe. What was going on?
I don’t know what worship was like in the Capernaum synagogue of Jesus’ day. Perhaps, like the Presbyterians of the 1960s and 70s, they had fallen into a rut of routine that numbed them to any real possibilities of experiencing the presence of God. Obligation, rather than opportunity, might have been in play.
What Mark tells us is that Jesus went to the synagogue. He taught and his teaching was so fresh, so honest, that the people were amazed. Then, quite unexpectedly, a man with an unclean spirit cries out at Jesus. Jesus rebukes the spirit and order the spirit out of the man. The unclean spirit cries out and leaves the man. The people are further amazed at Jesus’ authority. And Jesus leaves the synagogue.
It is beautifully written, with the exorcism at the center of the story and three movements preceding the casting out and three movements following the casting out. The center of the story is the exorcism, which can make us feel a bit uncomfortable. We’re not sure about exorcisms. We try to use our scientific minds to interpret pre-scientific understandings and, wrongly, accuse the man of having a psychological issue, thus dismissing evil and making psychological issues even more suspect.
But, in Jesus’ day, evil was accepted and had come into the place of worship. Wickedness had come into the place of goodness. Corruption had entered a place of righteousness. Falsehood had arrived on the doorstep of truthfulness.
One who was possessed by evil came to confront one who, in his baptism, had been possessed by holiness. This was the reason Jesus came into the world. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ mission is nothing less. He tells us:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Holiness and wickedness were in conflict. The battle between righteousness and sinfulness was joined. God’s conquest of the world was underway.
In this first public event of his ministry, Jesus teaches with a newfound authority and engages personified evil and wins. “At once (or should we say, “immediately”) his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Suddenly, unexpectedly, out of the blue – God’s presence and power were being experienced in new and startling ways.
For over a year, we have been confronting a pandemic of evil. Not only has the pandemic taken nearly 450,000 of our family members, neighbors, and friends, it has produced a tsunami of unanticipated consequences. The invisible virus has made undenyably visible the vast difference between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
We were told to “work from home,” but that assumed you have a job that can be accomplished from home. Unemployment and underemployment rose, with certain economic sectors being unequally affected by closings and quarantine. Food insecurity became visible, though it has been with us for some time, as we watch long lines of vehicles in a procession to receive food assistance. Suicide rates during the second wave of the pandemic are rising, with the largest increases being seen in women and children. African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans are contracting the virus at far higher rates than European-Americans. (By the way, the virus doesn’t know what color our skin is. The disparity is the result of the evils of racism, classism, and bigotry.)
This pandemic of evil is confronting every nation and people on earth. The inequalities in the world’s societies are being put on full display. The gaps in our nations are expanding and becoming clearly visible. The injustices with which far too many live are observable and easily seen.
And this evil spirit is crying out to the church, taunting us, mocking us, jeering at us. “Have you come to destroy us?” the evil spirit cries out to the church. “Do you think you can come against us? We have been around since the earth was formed. What are you going to do with us?”
The evil spirits of denial, insecurity, injustice, bias, fear, intimidation, and want are deriding us, church. The evil spirits are goading us, teasing us, ridiculing us. They are counting on our fear, our sense of disempowerment, our complacency.
The question is: are we possessed of the Spirit of God? Have we been taken over by what God calls all of God’s people to do: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to remember and visit the imprisoned? Are we possessed of the Spirit of God to seek justice, practice mercy, and walk humbly with our God?
Are we authentic disciples of Jesus Christ?
Or are we just faulty imitations?
Is the same power which fueled Jesus’ life and ministry
fueling our lives and ministries?
Are we caring for our neighbors,
or are we watching out for ourselves?
Are we sharing what we have with those who are
struggling and in need?
Are we real disciples of Jesus Christ?
Or do we just pay “lip service?”
Back in those dinosaur days I was talking about at the beginning of this sermon, there were famous impersonators – really good impersonators, who could make their voices sound like other famous people. Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Fred Travalena, all made their careers by imitating other people. Gorshin could sing with the voice of Sinatra, Little could make you think you were listening to a thousand other people, Travalena did a Jack Nicholson that was spot on.
Still, they weren’t those people. It was never perfect. It was never authentic. They just acted the part – really well, mind you – but they simply acted the part. As good as it was, it was hollow, empty, and lacking.
Reframe the question. Are we authentic disciples of Jesus Christ? Or are we just faulty imitations? Are we living out the calling of Jesus Christ in our lives, in our words, in our thoughts, and in our actions? Or are we doing just enough to convince ourselves and others that we are faithful disciples of our faithful Lord? Wrestle with that, won’t you?
If the scriptures are to be believed – and I think they are – if we confront and cast out the evils that surround us – the world might just be amazed, and moved to say, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority? They command and even the evils around us obey them!”
“What is this? A new reality? A church that actually does what Jesus did?”
“What is this? A compassionate congregation that practices empathy and understanding?”
“What is this? The real thing?”
Oh, how great it would be to be able to answer that question with “YES!”
Yes, may we be of that and more.
For now and evermore. Amen.