January 31, 2021
Yesterday, we held our vestry retreat. As with so many things over the past 10 months, we had to adapt our practices the realities of social distancing, so we held it over zoom, and for a much briefer period than we would in normal years. We did the usual beginning of new year things, appointed some officers, discussed the 2021 budget and the like. We also took some time to talk about what we missed about church and to begin thinking about how to prepare ourselves as leaders, and the people of Grace for our common life and worship as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
Almost everyone who spoke about what they missed mentioned something about the beauty of Grace Church, the sacred space into which we enter each week and where we worship. Some of us talked about the opportunities we’ve had over the last 10 months to spend time by ourselves in the nave, being in silence with God, and experiencing the sights, sounds, and sounds of an old church.
One thing no one mentioned was missing the occasional disruption to our worship—the noise on the square, a police officer interrupting worship to warn us that our cars might be towed, or a homeless person sleeping in a back pew whose snores finally became too loud to ignore, or a someone beginning to shout.
Jesus is confronted by such an encounter during his visit to the synagogue in Capernaum as he begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. And given our own memories of those disruptions to our services in the past, we are likely to try to interpret this story in light of our own experiences. We are also very likely to seek explanations from our world and worldviews. So a man with an unclean spirit becomes someone suffering from mental illness or epilepsy, or some other condition with which we are familiar and which our medical and social establishments have named and categorized.
But that’s precisely the wrong interpretive move to make. When we try to reinterpret phenomena like an unclean spirit into terms that are comprehensible to us, we fail to see the power that those phenomena had or still have in traditional societies. In the case of this particular story, to ignore the power of the unclean spirit robs us of the ability to see what’s really at stake here—for while it is a story of Jesus dealing with an unclean spirit, more fundamentally, it is a story about power, or to use the story’s language—authority.
In fact, if you think carefully about it, the one who creates the disturbance in the synagogue is Jesus, not the man with the unclean spirit. For when he confronts Jesus, he asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, he is questioning Jesus’ right to be in the synagogue, and presumably to be teaching there. Jesus has already upset things for his teaching was as “one with authority” not as the scribes. And of course, it was the scribes who had the right to be teaching in the synagogue, and the authority to do so.
Jesus’ authority is further demonstrated when he casts out the unclean spirit and we hear the onlookers’ response: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
One more thing. This is how Mark starts his story of Jesus’ public ministry. Like Luke, who has Jesus begin his public ministry by teaching in a synagogue (in Luke it’s Nazareth, however, and we get a synopsis of Jesus’ sermon), in Mark, we hear nothing of what he has to say, but rather this confrontation with a man with an unclean spirit. It points to one of Mark’s most important themes—that in Jesus we see the coming of God’s reign, but that this coming involves a confrontation with the evil and demonic forces that oppose it.
Here is where we might find a way of bringing the themes of this text into our world and our lives. Without trying to explain away the presence of this unclean spirit confronting Jesus, we can see clearly the evil and demonic forces in our world—racism, sexism, the assault on truth, white supremacy, violence, intolerance, rampant individualism, unfettered capitalism. We are seeing played out in our culture what seems to be a battle between good and evil, a battle that takes place on the streets of our cities, in our state and national capitol, in grocery stores and vaccine lines.
In the midst of our struggles, as we watch these battles playing out, the Gospel of Mark suggests that the first and perhaps most important step is to name the demons in our midst. By naming them, we begin to have power over them. That may be one reason Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent, not to name him. We can see in our daily news the consequences when people are to afraid or unwilling to name evil—it is allowed to grow and become more powerful.
But a second step is prayer. We often think that prayer is a last resort and it has become commonplace to ridicule the call for “thoughts and prayers” after national or local tragedies. But prayer is not always an act of compliance or resignation. It can be an act of resistance and it can or should be an act of faith. When we pray, we are struggling within ourselves against the temptations of despair or unbelief. When we pray that God will bring justice and peace, we are imagining God’s reign coming into being on earth, we are expressing our hope and faith that God is acting in history to liberate God’s people, free prisoners and captives, give sight to the blind, and bind up the broken-hearted.
Mark’s Jesus isn’t comfortable or warm and fuzzy, reassuring us that we’re ok. Mark’s Jesus speaks and acts with authority; he confronts the powers and principalities. Mark’s Jesus challenges our complacence and complicity. It may be that when he comes among us, as he came into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught with authority, that we are the ones who would cry out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
May Jesus’ authority inspire and fill us as we seek to follow him, to speak with authority, to name and cast out demons and unclean spirits. May Mark’s Jesus inspire us to speak boldly about and to the evil we see, and to heal the wounds of the suffering, and bring justice to the oppressed.