Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 4, January 29, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 1:21-28

I’m not sure if I’ve ever preached much on one of Jesus’ healing miracle stories that involve unclean spirits or demons or other supernatural elements. And that is, if I’m being honest with myself, one of the reasons is that I find them uncomfortable. They are very different. It’s not that I’m against healing or that I am pro-the-forces-of-evil and don’t want to talk about healing or goodness, but it’s because I’m so modern. So part of the world that we live in that these stories are foreign bodies. They’re different from our experience in our post-Enlightenment age of Reason. The Enlightenment of the 1700s gave us a an awful lot. The whole intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment gave us a lot. Reason over superstition, belief in human ability to solve our problems through our own creativity and power of our minds. It gave us democracy, including the United States! The founding fathers were very much men of the Enlightenment. Freedom from arbitrary authority. It was the Enlightenment that gave us the ability to say “no” to the idea of the divine right of a king, or that rulers should be hereditary. The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method and led us today to have things like iPhones, vacuum cleaners, electric guitars, airplanes, and vaccinations. The Enlightenment has given us an awful lot, but it has also left us in the western world immune to that which is not easily explainable or that which is out of our experience, like demons, unclean spirits, and miraculous healings. We have developed antibodies to such thinking. Perhaps to our detriment, it can be very easy to dismiss stories of miracles and stories of healings as just stories that maybe don’t say anything to us or have any basis in reality. But I think there is something there to be taken. And maybe with the stories of Jesus it’s easier to accept that miracles can happen because we know Jesus it he Son of God, God incarnate, who could do, I would think, anything he wanted. But still...unclean spirits? What are those? Unclean spirits that possess a man and that flee when Jesus rebukes them? That’s can be a tough pill to swallow. I don’t see real demons today, or real spirits or ghosts or poltergeists.

But that is part of the tension of the Gospels, and of the Bible. This tension between that which is believable which we don’t really think much about, we go “Well that could happen, sure, that’s perfectly believable” and the parts of it that are unbelievable that ought to be believed, like the miracle stories, and the other parts of the Bible that we can more safely say, “No, that’s not really for us,” like the prohibitions against eating shrimp or women speaking in church. We’ve certainly said “no” to that. Or taking the books of Job or Jonah literally, or the idea that women are unclean for a time after they give birth, or that others can be unclean because of a sickness that came to them randomly through no fault of their own, or that are unclean because they have touched a dead body or eaten the wrong thing, or any of the hundreds of ways that there are to become unclean and not part of the community. And maybe that’s where we can find a lifeline, to find a place to enter into these miracle stories of miraculous healings with demons and unclean spirits: the idea of uncleanness. The thought that some things can make you spiritually unclean. We’re not talking about being dirty, something that a bath will take care of. But spiritually unclean. Something that makes you not fit to be part of the religious community. Like giving birth, being a leper, eating the wrong foods, or eating in the wrong, or with the wrong people. Or being a prostitute or a tax collector or touching someone who is unclean.

To be unclean was to be separated. Was to be unfit for life in the religious community. And in some ways, even to be denied God’s grace. To be told that you were beyond God’s redemption. One could not be part of the community while in a state of uncleanness, because maybe it’s contagious. Maybe that person’s sin will end up on me. Somehow it will stain me. And then I will be cut off. And so we separate the unclean. Make them hide or live out of town, or at least not interact with the “real” or the “good” people of the community. Jesus’ ministry was very much about tearing down that wall of separation. Jesus’ ministry was very much about tearing down that idea that some people can be outside while others are inside. Jesus came to say that there is no uncleanness. Everyone is part of God’s kingdom. Everyone is included and honored. All foods are clean, all people are clean. There is still sin—still the possibility of sin, and things we ought not to do, and things we ought not avoid doing. The sin is still there, but the sin does not make us unclean or make us some separate from the community or from God. It cannot separate us from God’s endless love and grace that always keeps us inside. Always bringing us back through forgiveness and redemption. that was Jesus’ ministry.

And so we have in the story we read today, this is right after Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John on the shore of the lake, and they head immediately to Capernaum and spend some time there. And on the Sabbath Jesus goes to synagogue with all the faithful Jewish people of the community. It was the gathering place of those people where they would gather on the Sabbath to hear from the scribes. To listen as they teach. And they would sing and in some ways kind of like what our worship is like today. Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, but instead of listening to the scribes, he teaches. He teaches them. And he teaches with authority. An authority that is recognized by the people around him. An authority that is recognized to be unlike that of the scribes. “Authority” here being in the Greek a word that means not expertise or someone who has studied and knows a subject well, but a kind of divine or kingly authority to make decrees. To say what is true and what is right. The power, the authority, to mold reality. To say what is true and what is not true. The authority to mold reality by the power of one’s words. That’s the authority ascribed to Jesus here. The authority to change reality by power of his words. Or at least to change people’s perception of that reality. By the power of words. Words have power right in the beginning of the Bible, the first creation story, the day by day one. God calls the universe into being. God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. And says “Let there be land, and let there be animals, and let there be plants” and there is. It’s all brought into being by the power of God’s words. And at the end of creation, God declares it very good. Then later God sent The Word—capital W Word—Jesus, that we read in the beginning of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus comes who speaks by the power of word and commands the uncleanness out of the man in the synagogue, and gives him back his rightful place in the social order, in the community. By the power of the word, Jesus restores the man’s dignity. Takes away his shame. Takes away his separateness from the community. And that, I think, is a miracle. That’s a miraculous moment. To have reality change in such a way. It’s not even so much the healing itself or the casting out of a spirit, but the miracle that someone who was declared to be on the outside is now declared and recognized by God to be worthy, to be valuable, to have a right to exist, to have a right to be part of the community and religious fellowship. I think that’s a miracle. And it is a miracle that we can do. That we do as the church.

It is a miracle that continues to happen in churches such as ours and others that have spoken the word to make room in our fellowship, to make room in Jesus’ fellowship for those who have been cast out by their churches, their families, their schoolmates, their cities, their religious communities of whatever faith it might be. We who have said there is room in God’s Kingdom for all of God’s people. Including those suffering mental illness—and if there is reality of real demons in our world, mental illness certainly is one of them. It can be an awful thing to deal with. Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters who have been denied entry and access to God’s grace. Or people of different colors and nationalities ... all these ways that we separate people that is caused by the demon of fear, religious purity, bigotry. When someone is brought into fellowship, when someone is brought into community, that’s a miracle. A miracle we can do. And often do. Today is our Annual Meeting. At last year’s, by power of word, we declared ourselves open and affirming, that all God’s children are welcome in this church. We might not use the term “unclean” anymore, but there are still these distinctions made in our world and our culture that some people are considered unclean or on the outside. And by overcoming our worst nature, we create a miracle. To bring healing not just of a body, but of relationship and personhood and dignity and a person’s self-knowledge that they do indeed have a right to exist and have value in the world.

So maybe the miracle stories of Jesus aren’t so foreign or so unbelievable, but are models for us to follow. Models for us to trust that we, too, can touch and teach and heal through the power of our words and action with authority to the amazement of many and the restoration of all.

Let’s pray: Lord, we do believe—we ask that you help us in our disbelief. Though stories of demons and spirits seem foreign to us, or primitive or unbelievable, help us to overcome our need for rational explanation and see that we are still plagued in our time by the very real demons of greed, indifference, instant gratification, prejudice, fear, apathy, and help us to trust in your example that these can be cast out and we, too, can do miracles on behalf of your Kingdom, trusting in your Spirit to give us authority of word and action. Help us teach this to our children, and help us, please, to show it to the world outside these walls in our schoolrooms and offices, our capital buildings and malls, wherever your people suffer to hear the words that they are loved and that they have a place in your world. We pray in the name of the one who cast out demons and restored your people and who calls us to follow. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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