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Unclean Spirits

Watch the sermon here.

Mark 1:21-28

I don’t usually use long quotes of other people’s writings in my sermons.  I’m pretty picky about my sermons being original.  But this writer tells the story so effectively, with such natural comparisons to our own context, that I want to share it almost in its entirety.  The author begins:

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue.  Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work.  Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese….Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over.  “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.  From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came.  They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so.  For as long as [they] could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning.  It was what was expected of you.  You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal.

It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.  But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there….This Jesus stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day.  Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and once they looked into the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth originally, not a few perhaps groaned inwardly.  But then he started to teach and although he was no John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric . . . there was something striking in the very way this Jesus spoke.  It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed.  There was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter.  Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, . . . listening more closely than they’d care to admit. This man had authority.  He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain.  Somehow they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing.  This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall.  They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.

A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!”  on the bulletin and then showed it to the person next to them.  They were just starting to realize that something extraordinary was happening when suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up.


People’s blood ran cold.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?!  Have you come to wipe us out already!?  I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”

Well, this didn’t happen every week in worship, either! “Be quiet!” Jesus commanded.  And everyone there was glad he said it because it was on the tip of their tongues, too.  You can’t tolerate that kind of thing in church.  The only thing for such an interruption is to tell the person to hush and then hope the ushers get over there fast to bring this sadly crazed person to the narthex. . . .

But then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” And no sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth and the man convulsed!  He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the hapless fellow was better.  The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him.

At that moment, however, he was the only calm-looking one in the whole place!  Everyone else was scraping their jaws off the floor!  This just didn’t happen every week at church!  By that late in the service on a typical Sabbath people’s thoughts usually began to drift to other vital things, like will they get home on-time enough to keep the pot roast from drying out and is little Martin is behaving himself in [children’s church].  But not today!  No one’s mind wandered, no one turned his thoughts to the mundane or the typical.  They had encountered Jesus, and he was all they could talk about for a long time to come.  It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue. . . .

We Christians go to church each week and we do know that the Son of God will be present via the Holy Spirit.  But do we expect that this living presence of Almighty God will shake us up, make us exclaim over the power in our midst?  We shouldn’t need to see the kind of razzle-dazzle the people of Capernaum saw that day to know that we have encountered something wonderful.  Maybe we should even expect it.  Because when you gather for worship and Jesus is truly there, anything can happen but something life-giving will happen.  Every time.  We should expect no less.[1]

When I read through this for the first time, I was captured by it, right up until the end.  Then I got to the part about us expecting amazing things every time we gather for worship,         and my immediate thought was, “Wow, that’s a lot of pressure.”  Not that I have to deliver all that in a sermon, but I am also the one who chooses the hymns and the unison prayer and benediction.  Along with Shirley and the choir, I help to craft the whole “worship experience” to meet a whole variety of needs every week.  But “something life giving?” Every time?  That’s a whole lot of pressure.  But it’s also a whole lot of arrogance.  Because when I am at my best it’s usually when I can feel the spirit working through me.  Then I am less a creator and more a channel.  And that is wondrous, and beautiful, and … not as frequent as I would like.  When I don’t feel it flowing through me, I have to instead rely on my own education and experience and skills, which are, of course, divine gifts themselves, and then trust that God will speak through your hearing,   if not through my writing and speaking.

So whether a particular sermon comes from divine inspiration or human perspiration, either way God can use it.  What I have to guard against is to make sure it does not come from an unclean spirit.  I’m not talking about demons.  “In biblical language, ‘impure’ [or unclean] means, simply, contrary to the sacred.”[2]  In day-to-day life we all have to decide which thoughts, ideas, actions are divinely inspired, which are our own but through our God-given gifts and abilities, and which are unclean, impure, contrary to the divine, and need to be cast out.  It sounds easy.  It sounds simple.  But it’s not.  The man in our story called out the truth—a truth others there couldn’t see—that Jesus was the Holy One of God.  So at least part of this man or this spirit knew the truth—so how is that contrary to the sacred?

Another way of looking at it is to say that unclean spirits (or demons, if you want to use that language,) are that which is diametrically opposed to God’s will.  “Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.”[3]  Now that’s a little easier to identify, isn’t it?  We can look around us and see those who curse rather than bless, those who disparage rather than encourage.  We can see the forces that seek to split us apart.  But still, I wonder . . .

There’s a preaching conference this summer that I really wanted to attend.  It’s a conference designed specifically and only for ministers with children.  The workshops are in the morning, leaving the rest of the day free for family time on a big YMCA camp in Colorado with a swimming pool and mini golf and hiking trails.  Plus, it’s practically free.  The church would be required to pay just $150, and then food and lodging for the week is covered.  And the program would pay for the clergy person to travel.  So my only expense would be three plane tickets, and I’d get a great conference and time with my family.  And one of the leaders is a scholar whose work I frequently read in my sermon prep.  Isn’t that wonderful?  Doesn’t that sound perfect?  My daughter was even willing to skip theatre camp to go!

I’d been looking forward to applying for months, and all that time it didn’t occur to me to ask who was funding the conference because hey, it’s on that website I use all the time.  As I sat down to apply, I suddenly that the organization sponsoring this conference is associated with a seminary and that seminary is associated with a denomination and that denomination does not approve of my kind of family.  I wrote to the conference organizers to check, to ask if I should even bother to apply, and this scholar who I often read is the one who wrote back.  He told me that no, they could not consider me as an applicant  because they would be seen as approving of and supporting gay marriage.

I was disappointed and hurt and sad.  I decided a long time ago that it’s too stressful to go through life waiting for people to express their disapproval of who you are.  So I just assume everybody’s at least tolerant until they prove otherwise.  It’s not a bad approach, but then something like this happens and I am caught off guard, unprepared for that old familiar feeling of exclusion and like I am somehow unclean.

Now I’m faced with the question: How should I respond?  Should I look at this organization and say that they are “diametrically opposed to God’s will” because “rather than build up, they tear down; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart”?  Are they an unclean spirit that needs to be rebuked?   But they’re just being true to what they believe.  Can I fault them for that?  If I went public with their exclusion like some of my colleagues suggested that I do, would I not be splitting us apart even further?  When do you call out something divisive and when does calling it out cause further division and when do you do it anyway because you’re called to speak your truth and being silent in the face of injustice is definitely not what God demands?  And that scholar who I often read—the one leading the conference, the one who told me my family isn’t welcome—can I still use his writing in my sermon preparation?  Is he trustworthy?  Can I consider part of what he says if I don’t agree with all of it?  I hope so because the first part of my sermon—the part that helped us relate to this story so well—he wrote that.

Now please don’t spend the rest of the sermon worrying about me—I’m fine!  And this story is the illustration, not the point.  My point is: How do we find the balance?  How do we know when to say “that’s an unclean spirit” and when to say “I will not throw stones?”  How do we know when to keep the peace and when to risk conflict?  How do we find the balance between the sin of pointing fingers and declaring others unclean, and the sin of remaining silent when something that is opposed to God’s will demands to be confronted?  I wish I had an easy answer for that.  I wish I could say, “oh, you just look for this,” or “you’ll just know in your gut,” which is partly true, but my gut can also be fairly cowardly.  But perhaps we go back to where we started.  “It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.”

It is Sunday and so, naturally, we go to church—not to follow the tradition and not to repeat the same prayers without thought and not to check the box on our to-do list, and not even to be encouraged and to go home feeling like you’ve been at a pep rally.  It is Sunday and so, naturally, we go to church because we have met Jesus here . . .not exclusively here, but frequently enough here, that we know it’s possible it will happen again.  And that encounter will open our eyes so that we can see what is unclean, what is opposed to God’s will—both around us and within us.  It’s not the whole answer, but it’s a start.

Oh, and by the way, regarding that clergy conference, others have suggested the best response I can imagine: I plan and host a similar conference for all the clergy families excluded from that one!  I probably only need about $10,000.  I don’t know how to come up with that money but I already said we’re supposed to expect life-giving things to happen when we show up.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] Ortega, Ofelia. Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, p. 310.

[3] Lose, David. “Possessed.” www.workingpreacher.org.

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