Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, B, Feb 1, 2015 on Mark 1:21-28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he 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 him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
On Mondays we have a group that meets together to practice Lectio Divina, or “spiritual reading” of a bible text. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice with four parts: a reading of a text, spontaneous reflections about the text offered by several of the group, a brief time of silent prayer about the text, followed by a 20 minute silent, contemplative meditation.
In that silent time, we use a word or a phrase or an idea that came to mind during the reading or reflection time as our anchor, to keep our minds at rest in the present moment and in the presence of God.
A Sunny Day in Capernaum
So, Monday we read this gospel text about Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in Capernaum. As we read, I was imagining the story – for me, it was a sunny day. Jesus and his new followers went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, probably in the same frame of mind that we had when we showed up here today. They, like we, were expecting to worship, to sing, pray, hear from scripture, and go home, hopefully encouraged and spiritually blessed.
So Jesus went into the synagogue to teach. Normally the teaching was from the Hebrew Bible, perhaps from the prophet Isaiah which was apparently one of Jesus’ favorites.
People were impressed. I imagine some elbow nudges were going on and some glances were being exchanged. He seemed to know what he was talking about in a way that appeared authoritative – like he really “got it” at a deep level. It was literally “remarkable,” and people remarked to each other about it.
Mark does not tell us what Jesus was teaching. Up to this point (we are still in chapter 1) all Jesus has “taught” has been one sentence:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
So far, Jesus has done nothing to antagonize anyone, so I imagine he and everyone there was surprised by the outburst that
followed. A man, who is only identified by the “unclean spirit” he is under the influence of, confronts Jesus with obvious aggression. We are not told anything about him, though I picture someone ugly and misshapen – I know, I’ve seen too many movies.
The voice that comes from the man is hostile. It speaks using first person plurals:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
The demonic voices assume that Jesus is the one being aggressive; they assume that Jesus’ presence and teaching are a threat. I picture the man sneering and maybe even slobbering as he screams is venomous accusations.
Picturing this man and his outburst, by the way, is not good at all for the brain. It is completely negative, maybe it even brings up fears; certainly disgust. Neuroscientists tell us that these kind of thoughts make the brain send stress hormones shooting around our bodies. Well, sorry, but this is how the story goes.
So, this ugly screeching, de-humanized person fires off an odd sentence, strangely reverting to first person singular:
“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Elisha the prophet was called that too, so probably the assumption is that Jesus is a powerful prophet. But why scream it out like that? In those days, the idea was that if you named a spiritual being you had power over it. Probably the demon wanted to overpower Jesus.
But the attempt fails. Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit. It threw him down, but then went out of him, and the newly re-humanized man was left unharmed.
The people, Mark tells us, were amazed. Not only does Jesus teach with the authority of an insider with God, he clearly has authority over the spiritual realm as well. They say,
“What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”
So, I guess the demons were right to think that Jesus was a threat to them. He rebuked them, silenced them, and dispatched them. Bad news for unclean spirits.
But to the person who had been their victim, what Jesus did was good. He released a person who had been in bondage.
Setting the captives free is what he came to do. It is what Moses did, also by the power of God, many years ago. It is what God wants to do for all of us.
As I pictured this in our Lectio Divina group the phrase that came to me was this:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21.
So, for the next 20 minutes in silence, I used that phrase as my anchor.
Meditation has become quite popular now. You see and hear articles about it everywhere. People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for centuries – maybe millennia. Now, neuroscientists report its benefits. It is great for your brain, and from there its benefits affect all your body’s systems. So, it is great, and it works, and I recommend it highly. Most people say it even makes you more compassionate, which is always a good thing.
There are a growing number of people who practice meditation but who are not connected to the church. They feel alienated from institutional religion. They sometimes define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”
I have great sympathy for them. Just like the in the story, in which a man with an unclean spirit was harboring inside the synagogue – as if at home there (no one seemed to be surprised that he was there) so too, the church, through its history, has had some bad people in it, doing bad things. For many, the church has been an unwelcoming place, even a place that practiced open discrimination.
But even though I get the reasons why the “spiritual but not religious” people have rejected the church, nevertheless, for me, it is not enough to be spiritual in some vague, general way. For me, it is important that my spirituality be connected with a set of teachings, specifically the teachings of Jesus.
The Kingdom Confronts Evil
Why? Because, though it is bad for your brain to dwell on it, there really is such a thing as evil. Whether or not you believe in literal demons and demonic possession is completely beside the point. The point is that the one teaching of Jesus we have heard so far in Mark,
“Repent, the Kingdom of God has come near,”
means that we are called to take sides in a cosmic struggle against evil.
This means that simply being personally spiritual, meditating or taking nature walks or other spiritual practices is great, but not enough, if it leaves us un-engaged.
And this is exactly why we turn to the teachings of Jesus and hold them up as our authority. To follow Jesus is to be a person of both deep personal spirituality and of active engagement on the side of good, on the side of setting the captives free.
Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”
An Insider: Me
Reflecting on the story, I thought about how that man with the unclean spirit was found inside the synagogue. He was an insider. This makes me think about insiders like me. The evil in me. My pride. My selfishness. My reluctance to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. My relationship with my money. But especially, my own tendency to demonize others instead of finding ways of overcoming evil with good.
These, for me, are powerful reasons for developing and maintaining spiritual practices, like silent prayerful meditation, the daily examen, and lectio divina. I need them all. They all help, and they also reveal how much room for improvement I have. They both draw me to God and make me more mindfully aware of how I am living. They push open doors to compassion too.
And these practices expose me, on a daily basis, to the teachings of Jesus that were so amazing to the people who heard them for the first time in Capernaum that day. I need to hear them, daily. I need to learn to look at my world with eyes open. To ask myself “What does it mean to live as one aware that the kingdom of God has come near?” What does it mean that the first word in Jesus’ kingdom proclamation is “repent” “change your thinking” “embrace a higher level of consciousness” as we discussed last week.
Seeing the Victims
I believe the teachings of Jesus make me more sensitive to seeing the victims, the people who are being dehumanized by evil. For example, I go down the street and see all these Pay Day Lenders and Title Loan sharks who squeeze the last few dollars off people who are in financial trouble already, and I grieve for the pain they cause. This is one of the reasons we and other churches started the Christian Service Center and work hard to keep its food pantry open.
In fact, Jesus’ teachings open my eyes to see that every victim is my neighbor, because I learn that the question that began as “Who is my neighbor?” quickly became “Who was a neighbor to him?” in the story of the Good Samaritan.
So, Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to all the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge bridge in Selma. Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to the children who the Presbyterian Home for Children ministers to. I am a neighbor to everyone who is being discriminated against, with no exceptions. And I am a neighbor, as St. Francis figured out, to “father sun and sister moon,” to the whole eco-system that supports life for all of my neighbors on this fragile planet. As a neighbor, I am called to be an advocate for all of them.
The Community under Jesus’ Authority
Jesus also teaches us to be a new community, a family, a church, so that we can journey as followers together. We organize so that we can worship together, learn together, and find ways to “overcome evil with good” together. Today we will install a new session of elders to lead us in that quest to be a worshiping community, following the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus teaches us to recognize him, among us, in the breaking of the bread. So today we will celebrate the Lord’s supper, according to his instructions.
We are something like the people in that synagogue in Capernaum: we too are amazed by Jesus’ teaching. And we too take them as our authority. We too, have heard his call to follow, and we have responded.
The only question we have left is how can we live in such a way that we are not overcome by evil, in us and around us, but find effective ways to overcome evil with good. This is the kingdom challenge.