Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Jan. 31, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Jan 31, 2021 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

January 31, 2021

We are still in the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. Jesus has been foretold, baptized, and tempted. He’s briefly reiterated what John foretold, and as we heard last Sunday he’s called some disciples. In Marks telling of the gospel there’s no action or ministry to others yet — until now. In today’s reading he goes into the synagogue and teaches more publicly, surprising them. This is a significant act. He’s not known as a rabbi or a prophet, nor as one with even the authority of a scribe. And yet they let him come to the central seat that a rabbi teaches from, they listen, and they recognize a new authority in his teaching that even the scribes do not have. Secondly, while he’s there teaching in the synagogue, a man with ‘an unclean spirit’ taunts him, and Jesus berates the unclean spirit and orders it to come out. 

Let’s stop here for a moment and consider this “unclean spirit.” We don’t use that phrase these days, and in general Episcopalians tend not to talk much about specific demons or those considered ‘possessed.’ This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge them, rather we try to see them in our own context. Over centuries biblical demons have been understood as many things; mental illness, epilepsy, or some other disabling condition or bizarre behavior that makes one seem different to the point of being dangerous. Such spirits are mentioned in the other gospels and in Paul’s letters too. Many if not most have ripped someone away from their community and left them isolated. When Jesus heals them, it’s a restoration to (perhaps still wary) society or family. This is one interpretation that has always made good faith-sense to me, yet not the only one. However it is we define the unclean spirit, Jesus casting it out presents us with endlessly new insights on healing. Today’s is different from the other such stories; the man speaking up is inside the synagogue, not set apart. He says something that really sounds more flippant or sarcastic than evil; “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” Keep these words in mind with what we talked about last week, that Mark’s gospel is focused on telling who Jesus is and what it means to be his disciple. Does it seem bizarre or spot-on that the one who recognizes who Jesus is — is the unclean spirit? 

Now that we are a whole month into 2021, (and what a month!) what are the ‘unclean spirits’ we suffered or wrestled, or even succumbed to in 2020? One colleague says, so far — “if 2021 were a product I’d recently purchased, I’d be inclined to send it back after my ‘30-day free trial!’” I don’t need to catalogue all of the unrest, violence, fear, frustration we’ve seen in just the last 30 days let alone the last year. Let’s consider it in light of the first public acts of ministry Jesus does in Mark, and what they say about who Jesus is. He is the one to speak truth to the people with authority, and stand firmly against and rebuke the ‘unclean spirits.’ He calls out that evil, so easily hidden in plain sight, which impairs or destroys the life of God’s children. 

What are the unclean spirits we face or battle? This week I’ve asked some people and looked at news reports for a few answers. They’re not hard to find! One family said they only saw the side of their mother’s face these days as she was always glued to her phone for news of conspiracies. She is turning back to her family now, and it’s tough. More than one child has been glad for online learning because it means no longer facing a bully or tormenting clique each day. A man said getting off certain twitter feeds amazed him at how much brighter things looked. He described the impact on him as a hook he couldn’t ignore, and an addictive evil in his life. Is it an unclean spirit that causes one to push unjustly to the front of the vaccine line? To decide I’m exempt from wearing a mask because I don’t like it? To set aside truth in favor of deceptive accusatory theories, as destructive as they are absurd? Is it an unclean spirit seeking to justify retribution when we don’t get our way? So many people are stressed, anxious, depressed, and fragmented that I’m sure you’ve noticed that self-care articles and tools are a constant presence — and I know these can offer help and hope. Keeping self-care in perspective takes a great awareness for disciples. The problem comes when I think only of how my choices affect my life and my privileges and not the community, country, or planet. Self-care is healthy and important, but constant self-centering is insidiously obstructive, a temptation that can creep up until a person is only a disciple of oneself and no longer living as a disciple of Christ. 

All of these are ‘unclean spirits’ we deal with. Our Lord rebuking and calling it out that day drained its power over them. That Jesus comes to oppose evil is nothing new, nor is it new for us to face it. Thankfully we don’t face it alone. Thankfully there are signs of God’s presence lifting us up as we oppose that which destroys the children of God. Still, more than 2000 years after his teaching and healing, his death, resurrection and ascension, you’d think we would be further along in rejecting unclean spirits and driving out evil. Sometimes these can be hard to discern. We hear it when the Corinthians ask Paul if it’s alright to eat food given for idols and multiple gods. The believers in Corinth knew there was one God, and that God didn’t require such things. They knew it shouldn’t really matter whether they ate it or not, and Paul confirms this—however, it isn’t all about “me” or what each person wants for themselves. Will seeing you do these things cause others to misconstrue your actions, become an obstacle to their own faith? ‘Who else is affected by what you do?’ Paul is asking. How we act reveals what we believe and who God is to us. Though she might have been paraphrasing someone else, Anne Lamott wrote that all prayer comes down to either “Thank you! Thank you!” or “Help me! Help me!” This means people see that we pray when things are tough and when they’re glorious, and in doing so each prayer sings God’s praises because it reveals our faith in doing so. Psalm 111 today reminds us of how God invites our joy in such prayer. We said it today. It began with Hallelujah! and ends with God’s enduring praise. Choose any of the verses we just said and God’s acts of love and mercy are held out to us.

Yes, we’d like to have begun 2021 with sunlight in the Northwest, with global peace, happiness and health, and no one in need or cruel or polluting God’s creation. Well, we can’t do anything about that sunlight, but the rest is up to us to address. Having awaited the return of Christ and realizing it wasn’t there yet, early Christians told his stories and teachings, they shared them, wrote them down, and they became a guide for disciples to come.

Each gospel has its own way of beginning to set it’s focus, and also its own ending to carry with us. The other three came after Mark’s gospel we think, and they conclude with appearances of Jesus to the disciples. In Mark (in the older shorter ending) Jesus does not appear to them in the resurrection, instead they see the empty tomb and are told he has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’s promise that he goes ahead of them, and there “you will see him, just as he told you.” As he told us too. We don’t need to wait for God’s kingdom to come, it began with Jesus! Even now we are given these 2000+ year old tools and wisdom, the hope and heart, to continue living God’s kingdom into being, to stand against evil, to love each other, for we too are his disciples. 

How? Each one of us gets to answer and put our gifts to work on it. What unclean spirit is disturbing enough that you will work to cast out — today even. This month, this year, the lifetime ahead? Homelessness? Racism? Hunger? Cruelty? Isolation? Pollution? —or another? One has only to read the news or  check our social media choices or look out the windows for places to start. 

We start by following him one step at a time, and it may look like nothing much changes this way, but it certainly did for the man tormented by the evil spirit, and finally freed from it.


© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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