The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 1, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Imagine that you’ve come to church this morning. It’s the middle of worship and the preacher is somewhere in the midst of the sermon. Right in the middle of the main point, a man stands up in the pews and yells out, interrupting the preacher. Not an ‘Amen!’ or a ‘Preach it!’; not an incoherent ramble; but clear, loud words: ‘What have you to do with us? Have you come here to destroy us?? I know who you are!!’ And before you even have a chance to look round, the preacher responds just as loudly, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ and exorcises a demon, right then and there. Would you be a) amazed; b) deeply embarrassed; or c) looking for another church?
This is the year when we read through most of Mark’s gospel in our Sunday lectionary, and Mark’s gospel has a lot of this kind of thing. If you’re more comfortable with Jesus the nice ethical teacher, or Jesus the one who blesses little children, and not so comfortable with Jesus the fiery exorcist and difficult Messiah, this year may be a little challenging for you. Which is to say, for all of us. This is God not made in our own image.
There’s a lot I do want to hold onto in this image of Jesus, however. This is a Jesus of great power, ready to act to save us when we need it. And I often feel like we need it. A story of an exorcism right in the middle of worship is a story that comes out of a different worldview than our own – we don’t recognize spirits so readily now as they did then. But it’s not difficult to understand the mindset of attributing things to spirits – spirits who have more power than human beings do, but less power than God. It’s a way of explaining things that have no other explanation. And in that understanding, there is a real need for exorcists, for someone with power to come and call out the demon that is keeping a person in sickness or distress. So Jesus did just that in the synagogue without a second’s hesitation – he saw a person enslaved and under the control of something opposed to God and life, and he acted immediately to free him from what was enslaving him. I want to believe in that God, absolutely.
I also hear a call for us in this image of Jesus. If he is so ready to free someone from what is enslaving him, then if I am Jesus’ follower, I need to also do the same. Where there are forces at work that keep God’s people from the abundant life God desires for them, we need to work against those forces. It’s there in the examination questions of our baptismal service: do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? God stands against all that corrupts and destroys, and so must we. Where we see injustice and abuse, we are required to act: when we see it on an international scale in the policies and actions of governments or terrorist organizations, we must speak out and do what we can to protest and stand for life. That’s why the social justice discussions we have at church matter. When we see people suffering from poverty or lack of food or loneliness, we must act to feed and care for their bodies and souls. That’s why the Saturday Kitchen and Pilgrim Resource Center, and the work we do at Trinity’s shelter, are so important. When we see children at risk for abuse and hurt, we must act to protect them and help raise them with love. That’s why we talk about having a Safe Church and are careful about who works with children here. All of these are things we do not simply because we’re nice people or because we should do them; we do them because God is doing that work too, and we as Christians want to align ourselves with it. And we know that we can do so much more, to care for children in our neighborhood, to break down race and class barriers that threaten to destroy community, to tend and care for the earth on which all life depends. So many ways that God’s creatures are corrupted and destroyed; so many actions for us to take to renounce that power and stand on the side of love and life.
You’d think we’d have our work cut out for us, our days filled with these efforts. And yet there is so much we don’t do – we intend to but don’t get to it, or we don’t really want to do it, or we turn a blind eye altogether to what we could do. And so here is the harder part of this image of Jesus. None of us is likely today to stand up and interrupt the sermon to try to shout this message away. But inside of each of us there is something like that poor man in the synagogue at Capernaum. Inside of us is a voice, clear and loud, that says, what have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us? Can’t you just leave us to our own devices? We’re experts at not consciously hearing that voice, but we make it manifest for all to see in the way we live. Because although our baptismal promises may say we renounce all that corrupts and destroys, we so often allow it as well. We might not call it demons or spirits, but possess us it does: anger, or fear, what makes us turn away and not want to notice the suffering in our midst. Wealth and riches, or what we might rather think of as financial security. Workaholism and success, and the idea that without our career advancing our lives mean nothing. Addiction and substance abuse, those things that truly do keep our minds and bodies captive. And everything else that keeps us thinking and focusing so much more on ourselves than on any other of God’s beloved creatures.
God stands opposed to all of those forces in us, as well as those in the world. Jesus in his power and authority is ready to say very clearly, come out of them! It’s us who have such a hard time letting them go.
We don’t really want these things dictating our lives and our choices. We don’t want to be slaves to our own brokenness. But sometimes it’s hard even to realize how much we are; how much we might be focusing on the wrongs done halfway round the world while ignoring the pain we inflict in our daily life. How much we might be corrupting and destroying our own families and neighbors with the ways we’re living our lives. Sometimes we don’t realize just how captive to all of that we are. Until we are called up short by what a loved one says; or what a stranger shouts out; or what we suddenly realize ourselves on those dark nights at 3:00 am.
But it’s in those moments of painful truth that God loves us the most. God desires love and life for us. When the man in Capernaum stood up and interrupted the worship, Jesus didn’t send him away. Jesus didn’t say, you’re not worthy to be here – look at you, stuck in your horribleness. Instead, Jesus loved him, freed him from his possession right there in the middle of the people. And Jesus does that for each one of us here today. To all of our brokenness and mess and enslavement and fear, Jesus says, be silent – come out and be gone. To us Jesus says, be free of that – live, and be who God created you to be.
I don’t know what those enslaving powers might be for you today. I know what some of them are for me – the desire to turn away from too-difficult relationship and engagement with others, a quicker temper than I should have when I can’t do what I want to do. There are more, and more that I’m not even aware of yet myself. But that’s why we’re here together. This church, this community, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name, struggling with all the brokenness and evil we know is in and around us. This is where we can act together to bring life to others, and where we can find help in escaping the hold the demons have on us. This is where we can name the powers of darkness, and together name the Name of the One who has power over all of them. Live, Jesus says to us. Be free, and a slave no longer. Amen.