Sermon–Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Rev. Rebecca Anderson, MCCSJ – Jan 29, 2012

Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded by his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a person with an unclean spirit, who 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 this one, saying, ‘be silent, and come out!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing and crying with a loud voice, came out of that person. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! Jesus commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. At once Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

“Doubt is a Doorway to Truth” in Glimpses of Grace,
by Madeleine L’Engle

The great metaphysical poet, John Donne, writes, “to come to a doubt, and to a debatement of any religious duty, is the voice of God in our conscience: Would you know the truth? Doubt, and then you will inquire.”

If my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear. But if it is not true, if it is man imposing strictures on God (as did the men of the Christian establishment of Galileo’s day) then I want to be open to God, not to what man says about God. I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light.

Revelation. Listening. Humility.

Remember – the root word of humble and human is the same: humus; earth. We are dust. We are created; it is God who made us and not we ourselves. But we were made to be co-creators with our maker.

Rev RebeccaI don’t know who first said it, but I’ve long appreciated the quote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” I was reminded of this recently when I reread the Madeleine L’Engle passage we heard a few moments ago. There is something sacred about holding up one’s doubts and speaking them. There is something real about one’s relationship with another when you are willing to take the risk to say what causes you concern, and what you are having a hard time accepting. Likewise, my late pastor, Jerry DeJong used to say “It’s ok to be mad at God. God can take it!” I’ve probably said that to a few folks too. And the point is, anger and frustration, disappointment and doubt- these are all real, if uncomfortable, ways we can experience others in relationships. When we aren’t willing to honestly speak of these feelings, they divide us further and further from sincere and authentic, trustworthy connections with those we could be close to. This is as true of our connection with God as it is of our connections with family and friends, lovers and companions. It is as true of our relationship with God as it is of our relationship with our deepest and most sincere selves.

Please Pray with me: God of all, we trust that you love us, unconditionally. In this time of change, we ask you to meet us in the words I speak and in the meditations of our hearts, for YOU are our rock and our hope. Amen.

We lose authority- the authority that rests in truth telling and actions reflective of our words – we lose that kind of authority when we avoid the honest confrontations, or uncomfortable conversations that are necessary at times. When we avoid news we’d rather not hear, or deny truths that are plain to us, simply because we wish they weren’t true. “Jesus taught them as one having authority” in the synagogue in Capernaum… and yet “not as one of the scribes.” I wonder… What was the difference for those in the synagogue? What made Jesus’ teachings stand out to the people listening in that familiar setting?

Over the last few days the MCC Bay and Valley Network gathering occurred at Pacific School of Religion. I was only able to participate in a very small amount of the event on Friday, but on that day, along with Marjorie Pearson, Bryce Current and a number of other familiar folks, I participated in one of the workshops led by my favorite PSR professor, Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson. He called the workshop “A Strange Book, Thank God!–Reading the Bible for Theological Insight and Spiritual Liberation”. Jay is an entertaining and insightful presenter and a strong biblical scholar and theologian, so I always enjoy his classes and presentations. This time he shared some helpful comments about Biblical Authority that seem pertinent to today’s text, message and meeting.

Among other things Jay told us how Christian perceptions of the Bible have changed over time, noting that it is a new idea in the history of Christianity to treat the Bible as authoritative scripture – by itself. He described this tendency to give more authority to the texts – as something that came about after the Protestant Reformation, when there were so many different forms of Church that the institutional church itself could no longer be looked to as the source of authority for interpreting God’s message… and this change drove some to see the biblical texts as the only reliable authoritative source. This modern claim of Biblical authority has come with the baggage of expecting the Bible to provide a uniform and clear, single voice answer to the questions of faith, yet Jay sees this as problematic, since the texts of the Bible contain many different perspectives and interpretations of God in relation to humanity – on a wide range of different subjects.

Although one can always count on Rev. Dr. Jay to include many fascinating and compelling side notes, the bottom line of his talk was to emphasize the importance of the relationship between the texts we call the Bible and the way believers have – since the early days of the faith- made meaning of them in community. He reminded us that the Bible is, and was from the start, intended to serve the Church– to help the communities of faith that gathered, and that this process occurs, (quote) “When people gather together and read and interpret these tests together making meaning, that is what is scripture.”

At one point Rev. Dr. Johnson quoted the great Reformation Theologian Martin Luther as saying “The Bible is not the word of God, but this book can become the word of God if the gospel is preached from it.” The Gospel. The Good News.

In today’s passage from the Book of Mark, we hear about Jesus – who had just gathered his first disciples to make them “fishers of humanity” and has arrived in Capernaum, entering the temple and beginning to teach… and it’s there that he is accosted by the person with an ‘unclean spirit’. Jesus’ teaching is recognized as having authority by those who have been listening to him teach them differently than those they usually listen to. And Jesus’ teachings resonate with a kind of authority that catches the listeners attention.

In that context of speaking and listening, Jesus’ authority is recognized by the listeners… and when he then responds to the one with ‘unclean spirits’- even more people recognize and acknowledge his authority.

What does that mean? That Jesus taught and cured a possessed person- with authority? Something about what he said …and did … caught the attention – and respect – of the people there. Clearly it wasn’t because Jesus had a position of authority. Nope. He was a poor working class wandering healer, teacher, and justice seeker with no formal credentials for teaching in the temple. But something about him allowed him to make meaning from the texts he was raised with – the Hebrew texts… and in doing so, to speak to the hearts and minds of the people who had been seeking more than they’d found in their shared faith tradition.

Jay Johnson asked us to consider what criteria we bring to our own interpretations of the texts from our traditions. He asked “How do we as a faith community discern how we are going to make meaning out of the multiple interpretations of these Biblical texts?” I share those questions with you today, both as we consider the texts of our traditions, and as we consider together what our faith calls us to do. How do we find meaning and guidance? What criteria do we use?

Jay suggests one criterion for determining where faithful communities can find meaning and guidance from God is [1] to look for the results of the interpretation of the given text. Does the interpretation you’re thinking of help life flourish? Does it expand love? Does it lead toward an increase in justice? What fruit does it bear?

Other criteria could include asking if the interpretation fulfills the intention Jesus spoke when he said “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” Does the interpretation of the text lead to a more abundant and life giving understanding of God and of humanity? Jay also brought to our attention to St. Augustine’s thinking about biblical interpretation. Augustine was one of the most influential theologians in Christian history – and he said “You can interpret the Bible anyway you want as long as it promotes love of God and love of neighbor.”

So, Rev. Jay’s point was that working with and making meaning from Biblical Texts involves discernment- a filtering process, if you will. A process that helps us distinguish between what is of God and what is not as we read the words and images of the Bible recorded by people of faith in times and places very different from our own.

So, let’s talk a little about the ‘unclean spirits’ Jesus exorcised from the person in the Book of Mark. What does it mean to have authority over unclean spirits?

What are those ‘unclean spirits’ in today’s text about? How do we understand them?

For me, the story itself hints at what these spirits might be like, for it tells of Jesus in the Synagogue teaching, gaining the respect of his listeners… and then this person with the unclean spirit is present and speaks as though to accuse Jesus of intending harm to them “Have you come to destroy us?” the possessed one asks, while acknowledging Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus’ reply is not to the person possessed by this ‘unclean spirit’ but to the unclean spirit itself, who he addresses as though that spirit was the one accusing Jesus of ill will toward them.

Which tells me, that the ‘unclean spirit’ had something to do with the person’s belief that Jesus intended harm. In this first public act of his ministry, Jesus teaching in the temple at Capernaum encounters the demon of distrust and fear… and ultimately silences it, telling it to come out, to free the person it had inhabited. In his first public act of ministry, Jesus teaching in the synagogue is confronted by a very deep fear stirred up in one person who also recognized and named his authority. Something about recognizing Jesus’ authority must have triggered that fear. Something about his ‘new teaching, with authority’ must have raised up the shadow side of that person enough for it to become more evident than the ‘cleaner’ qualities of the person it had overtaken. Have you ever had someone react to something you’ve said so defensively that you could tell your comment had hit a nerve- even though you didn’t mean what they heard? I imagine Jesus’ experience with this person’s ‘unclean spirit’ was something like that. His teachings triggered what wasn’t healthy or whole – rubbed salt in a wound. Brought fear to the fore-front. And Jesus saw that this was not the whole of the person, and acted to bring healing.

Most of us are probably familiar with cultures in which a demon, an unclean spirit, is just that – a ‘spirit’ unlike the one it possesses, and which corrupts the person making them miserable to themselves and/or others.

From a 21st century western North American perspective, I relate to this notion of an ‘unclean spirit’ through my own experiences and those of people I’ve been close to. I remember times when my own fears and self-doubts grew, like an ‘unclean spirit’ within me, overpowering my more usual inclination toward hope and trust. In particular, I remember feelings of jealousy in from a very different time in my life. That Jealousy was at times so powerful that it amplified what I believed to be a painful truth so much that it was unbearable. I would only to realize later how distorted that perception had been, and how that very skewed view of a situation was a greater threat than the thing I feared which kept me stuck.

These many years later I can look back and easily see how those times of being ‘green with jealousy’ felt like being possessed by something outside of myself. Those uncomfortably fearful feelings had gained power every time I ignored them or tried to tell myself they were foolish. They gained power every time I allowed myself to listen to their twisted logic without naming them. They gained power every time I accepted them as true without asking the questions I needed to ask or facing the fears they raised. They gained power every time I tried to bury them, rather than calling them out into the light of day. In the moment, those experiences of such a powerfully negative emotion overshadowed everything else I knew to be true and trustworthy. I hated the feeling, and also could not shake it off, until it passed on its own. Learning to talk about hard things diffused those demons, and took away their power over me. So did learning to trust my inherent value as a person. To know that my worth could not be determined by another human being.

I’ve also known folks to be overtaken by the powerfully ‘unclean’ spirit of cynicism; a spirit that speaks with a very convincing certainty of hopelessness, which destroys the joy- if not the life – of the person so ‘possessed.’ We can probably all name other familiar ‘unclean spirits’ – substance addictions, addictive gambling or shopping or eating, body image distortions that lead to self-destructive behavior, the memories of past injury that can continue to immerse us in feelings of victimization. There are so many examples! Being freed of such ‘unclean spirits’, such ‘demons’ – is an incredible healing. It is no wonder to me that when Jesus healed this possessed person, those around saw in that action evidence of Jesus’ divine authority.

Cleanliness- in a spiritual sense- is about purification. It’s about clearing out what keeps us from being open to God and trusting in the possibilities of being touched by love and hope. Getting there, when we feel overwhelmed by fears and expectations of disappointment or of harm, getting from that place of overwhelming dismay and despair to hope and trust again – it can be like entering a refreshing shower, having a sudden sense of ease and surrender, or waking from a nightmare into a new day.

Madeleine L’Engle writes: “If my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear.” and “I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light. Revelation. Listening. Humility.” And then “…but we are made to be co-creators with our maker.”

I shared these reflections about Biblical Authority and the authority of Jesus’ teachings and healing ministry because they seem to speak to the challenges before us today. We are challenged to be in discernment about what is true for us, individually and in community. We are challenged to distinguish between the fears – and other ‘unclean spirits’ – that might interfere with our ability to trust and know God’s Holy Spirit moving in our midst. We are challenged to remember that we are indeed called to be Co-Creators with God, in making meaning of our faith and of our lives, and in responding when confronted with whatever or whoever is threatened by our truths. Our faith calls us to be open to new ways of interpreting and making meaning from the texts and traditions that have become familiar to us.

May the Holy One always guide us on this journey. Amen.

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