Let us pause for a moment to acknowledge God’s presence and give thanks for God’s guidance as we journey together as people of faith:
accompany us on our journey
as we strive to be a community
where all are welcomed and no one is excluded,
all are valued and no one is made to feel inadequate,
all are forgiven and no one is ashamed to belong,
all are encouraged and no one is too hurt to come among us.
Move us on our journey from where we are
to where you want us to go,
guided and inspired by your love made known to the world
in the life and ministry of the one we call Christ,
in whose name we gather in worship and in service.
(Eggs and Ashes, Wild Goose Publications, 2004, Ruth Harvey, pg. 109, adapted)
Have any of you ever woken up in the morning, remembering some issue or challenge you were going to have to face that day, and had the urge to pull the covers over your head in hopes that it would all go away and you wouldn’t have to deal with any of it? I haven’t often felt that way but I have to admit that I felt a little bit like that when I read the gospel reading for this week. I know for sure I’m not the only minister in a liberal denomination who has ever felt this way because I read one comment this week that said, “Tell me the truth: don’t you just dread exorcism stories? I mean, if there’s one kind of biblical story we have a hard time relating to, it’s got to be this one.” (David Lose, Dear Working Preacher website)
This week, as I was thinking about today’s story from the Gospel of Mark, I kept thinking about an experience I had many years ago. One of our daughters was seven years old when she suddenly began to have severe epileptic seizures. It took a full year properly control the seizures. That was a stressful year for our family, not because we could not adapt and provide the support that she needed but because of the fear of others.
This was nearly thirty years ago and there was still a significant stigma attached to being different in any significant way. Many other parents were afraid to have our daughter at their house without me being there. The school situation was also somewhat problematic as Lisa’s teacher was inexperienced and very anxious about having her in the class. Church was one place that was always welcoming and was a place where our daughter was accepted and experienced loving community. During that time, I didn’t realize that anyone would see her ailment as having anything other than a physiological cause until I had a conversation with a woman I’ll call, Mary.
Mary had left our church to attend another denomination that had a literalist interpretation of the Bible. One day, shortly after our daughter’s seizures began, I noticed Mary in the grocery store. When she saw me she rushed over to me and told me she’d heard about our daughter’s seizures. There was a small group in her church, she said, that would be willing to gather around our daughter and perform and exorcism to rid her of the demon that was causing her seizures. I was horrified. I could not believe that anyone would think that our beloved daughter was possessed by a demon and that an exorcism would cure her. Thankfully, I could also see, in Mary’s offer, a sincere desire to help even though I believed she was misguided. As graciously as I could I declined her offer with sincere gratitude for her concern.
With respect to today’s story in Mark’s Gospel, we don’t know exactly what was going on with the man that Jesus healed but I have come to believe that if we focus only on that part of the story we miss the larger context, meaning, and importance of the whole story. So, this week, when I was researching this passage I had to set aside my hang-ups and look at what might be a broader reason for Mark’s telling of this story.
One of the commentaries that I read this week observed that:
“…the detail to notice here is simply that Mark begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a confrontation. First events give insight into the larger themes and, particularly, a distinct understanding of Jesus’ mission and character in each of the Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and (new) lawgiver like Moses. In John, he creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In Luke, he is the one who releases those held captive, heals the ill and infirm, and proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favour to all. And, in Mark…he picks a fight with an unclean spirit. Mark’s Gospel, that is, starts with a confrontation. …Keeping in mind the importance of first events, we can read this scene as Mark’s signal that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us.” http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/epiphany-4-b/)
With today’s story from Mark’s Gospel, it is easy to miss the significance of the fact that Jesus has entered the synagogue on the sabbath and is teaching with authority. There is no indication that he was not welcomed by others in attendance. This is the place where devout Jewish people gathered to pray together, give recognition and praise to God, and listen to sacred scripture and reflect on the meaning of the stories of their faith tradition. This is similar to what we do when we gather to worship. One difference is that in that time and place they had very distinct and clearly defined rules about what was holy and what was not, who was allowed entrance and who was forbidden, and what was clean and acceptable and what was unclean and therefore unacceptable. These rules were contained within the confines of the “holiness code” which was enforced by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus often disagreed with religious authorities and did not pay heed at all to the holiness code. Jesus shared meals with anyone who would eat with him. He offered everyone the same measure of respect regardless of their social, religious, or economic status.
We don’t know the exact reason the man in Mark’s story was deemed unclean but it could have been for a wide variety of reasons. The key to this story, I believe, is not what was wrong with the man but rather what was right with God. Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue were “astounded” with Jesus’ teaching and that he presented a “new teaching”. Mark reveals this new teaching, not with the words that Jesus said but in his actions. Jesus consistently showed that no one was beyond God’s love, no one was unclean, no one was unworthy of respect and dignity, love and honour. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God was for everyone and not reserved for a select few. The power of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s spirit imbues all of life with a sacred quality. God is in all life and therefore all life is holy. Being in right relationship with God therefore means being in right relationship with one another.
The question posed to Jesus in the synagogue on that sabbath day, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves. What claim does Jesus have on our lives? What authority does his teaching, and the example he set by his actions, have for us in a 21st century context?
When considering this I thought about Christians, in recent history, who confronted injustice and who followed Jesus’ example of non-violent activism. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Romero and Desmond Tutu, came quickly to mind. Like Jesus, these are prophets who faced injustice boldly rooted firmly in God’s love and committed to following the Way of Jesus.
Following Jesus’ way is not always an easy path to take. As theologian and author, G. K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity was not tried and found wanting. It was tried and found difficult.”
Keeping this in mind we pray:
Holy and blessed God,
as we journey together as people of faith,
give us courage to be a voice for the voiceless,
inspire hope and love in our actions,
and keep our eyes focussed on Jesus.
We give thanks for the way he teaches us about your commonwealth
and in the way he creates loving and inclusive communities.
May this be our hope and our prayer,
this day and always.