Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Rev. Laura Merrill | January 31, 2021

It’s always an interesting experience for modern readers to encounter tales of evil or unclean spirits in the Bible. Exorcisms and demons and evil spirits were not uncommon in stories from Jesus’ time, but they’re more foreign to us, except perhaps in the movies. We have more room to wonder what an evil spirit might look or act like, more room to assign our own assumptions or preconceptions.

In reading today’s passage, if we put ourselves in the place of the people sitting on the floor of the synagogue at Capernaum, learning from Jesus, what does this exorcism event mean? What question or bias or information might we bring to that moment? We hear the voice of this spirit reacting, bold and defensive, maybe striking fear into us; certainly it feels foreign. For me, it’s simple or even natural to assign that frightening voice to something in my life or something in the world that I don’t like, that I’m afraid of. It could be something in my family or my own heart. But I’m also going to venture the possibility that many of us would readily name as an unclean spirit something out there, something outside of us, or somebody out there. We might think in general terms perhaps of war or poverty as evil spirits, racism or cruelty, hunger or selfishness. These do need casting out. I sure wish Jesus would show up and do that work.

But most of us, I think, would put a finer point on it than that. Most of us would be able to rattle off fairly readily the names of actual people, organizations, causes, that we are sure the world would be so much better off without. And this political moment in the life of the United States—Lord have mercy, there are hardly words for this moment. You, you, you—out! Quick, we could do it, we could take care of it. And the people on my list are the opposite of who’s on the list of my brother-in-law or my neighbor down the street. Whether it’s QAnon or antifa, Second Amendment or children in cages, we are on each other’s lists. You are the problem for me, and I am the problem for you. Jesus! You’ll be glad to know, we’ve identified the evil spirits for you. Now if you’ll just come and cast them out, we’ll be good.                         

If only it worked that way. I’ve been reading the Ron Chernow biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and before that I read his book on Hamilton, in addition to others; Ibram Kendi, other historical writers—all counter-narratives or corrections to what many of us learned in U.S. History class. What’s clear from these recent books is that we the people have been fighting with each other since the beginning. It was staggering, really, to have this dawn on me. While the nation was still being formed, political rivals would sometimes meet in the street and beat each other with fists and canes. Sound familiar? Slavery was our curse and our sin from the beginning, among other reasons for fighting in the streets. And then when that street-fighting went big in the Civil War, and when we read about the end of that Civil War, it’s clear that that bloody conflict did not solve the division in our nation and in our hearts. It did not fix our differences. It changed the Constitution to abolish slavery per se, in writing, but the hatred, brutality, and exploitation of Black people by white people never stopped; it just morphed over time, it became a system bigger than any one of us in addition to our individual participation in it. It’s a sobering thing to learn about our nation, about our communities, especially for white people who have long lived oblivious to this reality known so well by people of color. Worst of all, our long, painful history of fighting makes it hard to see how finally one side might finally win or win over the other. How might we be reconciled?

I feel this thread of despair today, a fear that we won’t be able to set ourselves right, that we won’t be able to set this nation right, because of our DNA so far in the past, especially knowing that what I think is right is apparently not what half the country thinks is right. Yet in the face of that fear, there is a path to consider choosing, as we seek to be faithful to our Christ, this one who has taught us with authority.

Our division is clear. But when you think about who God is, and you think about things Jesus has taught us—Ms. Laura said it, with the children, we’ve received teaching that tells us that that division and fighting cannot be the only thing true about us. And thank God, there are voices in this moment encouraging us to take a different path, to find a different way forward, a different story to tell and live into. One writer, a leadership consultant named Margaret Wheatley, has written a book called Who Do We Choose to Be? In that book, she describes in vivid detail the moment we’re living, when our society’s ability to hold complexity, complex truths is breaking down, and things are dissolving into black and white armed camps. She notes that fear and even violence are the logical result of this moment. And in that context, Wheatley says that the task of the leader—and little side note here, anyone can be a leader in this organization—the task of the leader is to create “islands of sanity,” safe places where people can remember and remind one another that at heart we are created to be kind, generous, and creative ourselves.                        

Can you imagine? We do try to teach our children these things, and maybe we try to remember them for ourselves in our morning devotions perhaps. But can you imagine a place where whole groups and communities actually seek to live into that identity? Kind, generous, and creative? Can you imagine such a place, or such a leader? I can—maybe this is that place. Maybe your online Sunday School class is that place. Maybe your family’s dinner table or your neighborhood play group is that place. And we have to know—we have to remember that Christ is that leader, as well as the leaders he has given and inspired among us. Christ is the one who offers us that alternative way. He is the one who calls us out of the fighting and self-righteous contempt that we love to indulge in ourselves. He calls us out of the wall-building and dehumanization. Kind, generous, and creative. Can you imagine?

It’s a little funny, perhaps, to draw to mind this warm and fuzzy image, this Sunday School flannel board image, when the scripture passage is about Jesus rebuking and casting out an evil spirit. But when you look at this very early section of Mark—we’re only in the 21st verse of the first chapter—what’s happening in these verses is the establishment of Jesus’ power and authority for good. In this first chapter, Mark sets up the picture, so we know who we’re dealing with as we go and remember, the reader always knows more in Mark than anybody in the story. So we’re supposed to take the signs as he gives them to us. John the Baptist is first, pointing the way to the one who is greater than he. Then Jesus comes and he is baptized, as the Beloved Son; then he’s tempted in the wilderness—Mark gives two whole verses to that section—then Jesus calls his first four disciples from the lakeside, and that leads us here to the synagogue in Capernaum.

There in the synagogue, Jesus is teaching, and it’s in that context, as a part of that teaching, that he performs this exorcism. This is who Jesus is; this is what he is about. This is the thing for which he’s come. And the demon knows what nobody else knows yet in this gospel, the demon sees it right away: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Evil names Jesus first. “Have you come to destroy us?” This unclean spirit represents the universal host of evil and knows immediately what’s going down. This is the One, Jesus, sent by God to restore the order of goodness and righteousness to the whole creation.

So it’s true. Christ has surely come to rebuke the ugliness we have allowed in this world, the power of death and sin that runs so rampant and leads us to despair. Yet, as a part of that grand plan, that grand job description, I cannot help but think he brings a more specific word for each of us, too. Because we can all get on Facebook and point fingers at the evil spirits. We can listen to the news and crank up our oppositional arguments. But in my life, Jesus never lets me start with other people, as badly as they may need it. No, he starts with me, he starts with us, sitting on the floor at his feet, and that’s where the reach of his authority begins. That’s where his teaching begins to take root. That’s what this story is for; not just a proud show of victory—Jesus: 1; evil spirit: 0. I think it’s a story of Jesus putting a stake in the ground to be sure and claiming that territory, in part for the sake of teaching us, people of his family, to teach us about goodness, wisdom, and life.

So a question for us today is, what’s the spirit in us that rears up its ugly head in the face of  Christ in your life? What’s the spirit in you? What’s the spirit in me? What’s the spirit in our church, whose time has come to be rebuked and expelled by Jesus himself, by the Holy One of God? And how can we help each other figure that out? How can we come to name these things before our Lord and ask for His mercy? We really are in a time of needing to learn what we don’t know we don’t know. Maybe it happens in an antiracism course or book group; maybe it’s by reading a whole new set of books. Maybe it’s engaging in conversation with people we’d really rather avoid, or praying for the wellbeing and blessing of someone we hate, frankly. What spirit keeps us from being kind, generous, and creative? And where do we resist and get defensive when Jesus tries to call us on it? Or when our brothers and sisters in the faith do so?

I believe working on those questions helps us then turn to face the world, to the unclean things that do need to be rebuked there. Because once we’ve looked inside, we know that the point is not to be on the winning team. The point is to act as if we know we belong to him, is to act like somebody might recognize him when they look at us, as flawed as we are. The point is to act in compassion for suffering people. Sin is not just a bunch of hashmarks in a divine spreadsheet keeping count. It has consequences, often consequences that play worst the lives of people who were not the ones doing the sinning. Sin literally leads to death—it leads to the death of love and peace, kindness, and all those things. But it also leads to the literal death of vulnerable, persecuted people. And that kind of sin and death is what seems to have moved Jesus the most. And we can learn from that example.

He has claimed his ground. We are sitting on that ground, and he invites us to be claimed by him, too, and then he invites us to live as if we know that’s who we are, invites us to live in the real world as disciples. As pernicious and sick as the evil of the world continues to be, head-on collisions are not generally of good means of reconciliation  for us. Jesus is the only one who can win that kind of fight. And even he taught us to do it another way.                  

We heard it on Inauguration Day and in the days since, in the work of the young, Black, inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman. She put words to the challenge and the hope, in the face of the cruelest shadow of the human spirit and society. So in closing, just a few excerpts:                                                

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We’ve braved the belly of the beast

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree And no one shall make them afraid

If we’re to live up to our own time

Then victory won’t lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we’ve made

That is the promise to glade

The hill we climb

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy

and change our children’s birthright                                     

Beloved in Christ, this is no time to despair. This is a time to let Christ claim us and the ground on which we stand, and then it is a time for us to turn and claim in the world his kind, generous, creative purpose that his will might be done. In his name we pray, Amen.