Epiphany 4, Year B: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 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, throwing him into convulsions 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. (Mark 1:21-28)
I have a magnet that’s about the size of a large notecard on my fridge at home (because that’s where you put these kinds of things, right?) This magnet says, “Sometimes I wrestle with my demons. Sometimes we just snuggle.” And I’ve seen that phrase around other places too. A quick google search this week revealed to me that you can find that phrase on t-shirts, bumper stickers, cute fridge magnets, and tote bags. Which means that this little phrase speaks some sort of truth to a lot of people.
And so it makes me wonder just what does this gospel story have to say to us? It’s not a particular “go to” passage for Episcopalians, given the demon language in particular. We’re a little more scientific, or more “respectful” than that. Demon language is so very harsh, sort of edgy, and well, not very sophisticated. Not to mention that this is a right-out-there-in-front-of- everyone-public-healing-moment with a demon, and we tend to be a private people when it comes to such experiences.
This is, however, a very Marcan style passage and this liturgical year, year B in the lectionary cycle the gospel of Mark is the one speaking good news to us, and so we’ve been invited to adjust our hears to hear him. In all likelihood, Mark has something to teach us.
Now this is a very Marcan because we are only 21 verses in and Jesus has already been baptized, spent 40 days in the wilderness, called his disciples, hit the road for Capernaum, and begun a series of dramatic and very public healings. To put this in context of the other gospels, twenty-one verses in in Luke, the angel Gabriel is still making his way to a not-quite-but-soon-to-be-pregnant, Mary; and in Matthew, Joseph is being convinced in a dream that even given Mary’s state, it’s OK to take her as his wife; and in the gospel of John this many verses in, while the author has brought thus far quite poetically, he’s only now introducing John the Baptist. Mark’s Jesus, however, is already on the move, the Messianic move. He’s proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God. He’s teaching. He’s healing. He’s forgiving. He’s exposing demons. And he’s setting people free. Marks’ Jesus is taking no prisoners, as they say. Literally.
And so while we smile at the fridge magnet summary of life with demons, the language and pace of Mark’s gospel is a challenge to we who tend to resonate with those who ponder, those who dream, those who make time in the wilderness for holy kinds of thing. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that –but Mark’s focus is a different holy kind of good.
So what if as our first step this season, we got our Mark on a little more than we tend to do? This being Annual Meeting Sunday, a day on which we do some reflecting on our life as Grace, a day on which we look back and we look forward too… what if we, remaining centered in that which is truly and easily Grace, leaned a little Marcan for awhile? It’s not like we’ll over do it for heaven’s sakes! We are a rational, thoughtful, and prayerful people. And so maybe it’s good to let Mark stretch us a bit. Proclaim the Kingdom of God, people of Grace! Teach! Heal! Forgive! Expose demons! (Mark seems to speak in exclamation points.) Set people free.
There is no time in Mark for snuggling with that which is harmful or distressful to human beings, which is what demons are. Demons I think (not being an expert mind you – my demon conversation has thus far been limited to fridge magnets). Demons are a little different than other kinds of illness, which one could define in similar terms of harm and distress; but demons have a sort of life to them. Jesus will heal lepers in this gospel and others who suffer from purely physical illness and he too will work to clarify the difference between setting people free from sin, setting people free from demons, and healing people of illness all of which we know to have overlaps and grey areas and mystery. And we know more about those interactions and distinctions today than they did 2000 years ago. But all of that would take more than one sermon to unpack, and so I just want to flag it and not leave it unacknowledged today.
What we hear this morning is that this ministry we do has an urgency to it, an edge, and that the public nature of the ministry matters too. Mark tells us that as Body of Christ, we have the power to heal. And I think it’s important that we don’t shy away from that. We need to own it in the best sense of what it means to “own,” which maybe is more like a process of claiming.
Healing is a grace given the Body of Christ, and it’s a responsibility given the Body of Christ. Authority in this passage means power, a force that can be used for good, holy and meaningful good. And don’t worry, Episcopalians, it doesn’t always look like it did in today’s story, but the good news is that sometimes it does.
This story tells us that demons are rebuke-able; they are releasable, which is good news especially if you are the person, or the group, or the community, or the institution, that has been occupied, preoccupied or even controlled by them.
And Lord knows (again literally,) that there is that in our world which inhibits the wholeness, the healing of humanity. There is that which causes harm and distress and we see it every day. Call it ‘evil.’ Call it ‘demonic.’ Call it ‘that which inhibits the wholeness of humanity.’ I’m not sure that what we call it matters all that much, so don’t get stuck there. What matters is that we make it our work to lovingly confront those things in ourselves, in one another, and in this world. And that is hard, but Mark tells us that is also holy work.
I do think it’s interesting and important that in Mark the healings are public, because there is something about the Body gathered that collectively has power. And there is something about demons that allows them to thrive in dark places. In the gospel of Mark, healings happen in synagogues, in full houses, in crowds and so the public surfacing of “the problems” (nice word for demons) is part of the healing too. While Jesus didn’t necessarily need others present to work these miracles, people were always there. It was witness. It was light. It was hope. For many, not just a few. The public nature of the healings meant that others could begin to believe that healing is possible. And that is certainly a message our world needs to hear.
It’s also true that the healing in today’s gospel passage and the ones that are soon to follow (we’ll hear more next week,) these healings happen on the Sabbath and that’s significant. This means that Jesus’ work of healing was not only a “making better” of the individual, it was also a powerful and risky public reclaiming of what it meant and means to honor God. Jesus in these actions was very intentionally and visibly placing forgiveness, love, and wholeness as absolute priorities of his ministry. And so it’s the urgency, the raw honesty, and the re-prioritizing in Mark that are the biggest challenges of all.
Which leads to a quick heads up; I’m definitely encouraging jumping on the Marcan wagon, but I also want our rational selves to be fair-warned here. Know that Jesus got in big trouble for this. “This” being the healing of all kinds, “this” being healing on the Sabbath, “this” being eating with sinners and outcasts and reprioritizing what it meant to live holy lives.
And this getting in trouble happened quickly before the end of chapter two in this gospel, because Mark is like that, but also because the world is often like that too. Along this entire whole journey, we will be given reasons why “snuggling with demons” is such an attractive option; battling with them is not what one would call fun. But the message is clear, this world and each of us is crying out. And we as Body of Christ have something to offer in the midst of the struggles and the pains that demons cause.
And so, Grace Church, I say that moving forward, we let a little Mark seep in. Each of us wrestles with something and in this story there is hope. Hope for us all and for this world too. And we should embrace that with every ounce of our individual and collective being and we should let it seep through our pores more than we do. The work won’t be easy, but according to Mark, we have been given everything we need to make this journey our own, to claim it as ours, to be claimed by it as God’s.
The Kingdom of God is at hand, people of Grace! May we teach, heal, forgive, expose a demon or two, and in all things, seek to set one another and the people of this world, free. Now.