Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
We are still in the season of Epiphany. It is a season that invites us to explore how Christ is revealed in the world. Christ is revealed in the world in a myriad of ways. One of the ways we learn about what it looks like to be Christ in the world is through the life, teachings, and example of Jesus. Jesus is an example of Christ in action. In the lectionary selections we find ourselves at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry as recorded through the lens of the author of Mark.
In last week’s reading, Mark recounted the calling of the disciples. These were fisher people who left their familiar work to follow an unexpected path with Jesus to become fishers of people. In this week’s reading, we find that the group has traveled to Capernaum and, it being the Sabbath, Jesus heads to the synagogue where he begins to teach the people gathered there.
The text says that those gathered at the synagogue were astonished at his teachings. They were astonished because he taught, not like the scribes, who were well versed and steeped in the tradition and knowledge of scripture and understanding and the Jewish community, Jesus taught as one with independent authority. It’s not that Jesus offered new teachings – Jesus too is a teacher steeped and well versed in the traditions, customs and laws of the Jewish tradition. What is different, astonishing, about Jesus’ teaching is that Jesus offered insights into the Scriptures in ways that shed new light on them – his teachings opened up the scriptures to new relevance for the people gathered.
I hope we have all, at some point in our lives, had the experience of speaking with or listening to someone who offers wisdom in a way that we hear it anew. In a way that expands our spirits, astonishes us, filling us with a sense of wonder. The wisdom offered may already be known to us, yet somehow hearing it in the way it is offered, or at the particular moment it is offered, we hear it anew and it opens us up to spacious possibilities.
I know the arts to be one arena in which this kind of astonishing experience happens. I felt it the other week when Amanda Gorman recited her inaugural poem: The Hill We Climb. One of the phrases that still rings in my ears is:
…the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
This is not a new idea to me, to my spirit, to my understanding of the world around me, to my awareness of the injustices entrenched in our society and the paths of injustice educated into me whether knowingly or unknowingly by those who have helped me learn and grow. My spirit is astonished by the simplicity of this turn of phrase – the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always just-ice. That astonishment awakens me and moves me to action – to a questioning of each moment in which I seem to have a notion that something is a norm. Is it a norm – if so, for whom? Is it just what is? Either way – is it justice? My awareness is heightened as these questions help me encounter the world around me in new ways.
Jesus, is offering teaching on familiar, deeply held beliefs of justice and love in action to those gathered at the Synagogue. And he does it in a way that allows them to hear these concepts in new ways. He revisits old texts and breathes new life into them.
And I am grateful for that reminder – because, I have to confess that when I saw the scripture reading in the lectionary for this week and realized it was a text about an exorcism – my first response was to ask Cindy and Jake at a recent staff meeting if I couldn’t just ignore the lectionary this week…and of course, they graciously offered me space to do just that – to bypass the selected scriptures and select scriptures I would prefer to work with instead.
As I sat with that possibility, I also sat with the simple question – why? Why is my instinct to avoid and bypass the scriptures of demonic exorcism? And the answer came to me as clearly as the question – because I have heard and experienced them being used in irresponsible, even harmful, ways in my life. Instead of celebrating liberation they have perpetuated oppression. Holding that kernel of insight I realized I needed to follow Jesus’ example. I no longer wanted to bypass this text because of the ways I have heard it taught in the past, I wanted to sit with it and hear it again, with new ears in a new time to see if it had something fresh and relevant to offer in this moment.
So, here we are…exploring the next part of the story – the part that most of me wants to run away from…and that some of me is super curious about. What is going on here? A man with an unclean spirit appears in the Synagogue. And it doesn’t say he comes into the synagogue – it says – in a few different translations – he comes into their synagogue…it feels almost as if this is an outsider – not a person who is part of this faith community, but one who is entering specifically into this moment, for the sake of this encounter.
The unclean spirit comes specifically to interact with Jesus – crying out:
“What do you want from us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
To which Jesus replies:
“Be quiet! Come out of that person!”
In this interchange there is an interesting power struggle going on. The unclean spirit enters the scene rooted in fear – fear of becoming obsolete – of not having space to thrive and grow for its own purposes and control. We know what this sort of desperation looks like. We have seen it in action in our country recently and we feel it in our own beings whenever we encounter spaces within ourselves that must be unlearned and let go of so that we can release and make space for and support God’s love and justice to grow in new ways in our own lives and in the community around us.
Not ready to relinquish its hold on authority, the unclean spirit asserts its defensive claim to retaining power by naming Jesus and identifying him as the Holy One of God. Jesus responds with a quick and decisive: Be quiet! Jesus knows that naming has power and he doesn’t want this force holding the power of naming who he is. And more than that, he doesn’t want this force to have sway over the person it is manipulating at this time either. Jesus has come to turn people towards God’s love and justice and in that turning all oppression ceases.
“Come out of that person!”
And the unclean spirit does come out – it leaves unwillingly, shrieking and violently convulsing the person it possessed as it departs. We humans are not unaffected by power struggles and changes happening in, through, and around us. We are impacted, body and spirit.
It’s interesting to note that, in this instance, the text doesn’t tell us what happens to the unclean spirit that has been stripped from its host. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary talks about that this way: “When Jesus strips the spirits of the ability to inhabit their human hosts, perhaps the gospels’ authors claim that Jesus denies the unclean spirits’ capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world…This exorcism, then, does not eliminate evil and oppression; it denies those kinds of forces the authority or power to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives…this passage provokes us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.” The reign of God promises more.”
The people witnessing this unfold in the Synagogue are amazed! Here is this new voice of Jesus, not only teaching them in astonishing ways, but also turning that wisdom into action to bring about real, life-giving change.
In his message at the National Prayer Service during inauguration week, Bishop William Barber quoted theologian Jurgen Moltmann, saying:
“Faith, wherever it develops into hope causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. Those who hope in God can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it to contradict it. We don’t have to put up with things as they are.”
In this Epiphany season as we are on the lookout for signs of how Christ is revealed in the world. Let us remember that the mere presence of Christ does not cause suffering and injustice to automatically cease. Awareness, education, and hope turned into action is what brings about change in this world. Change that is tuned into God’s love and justice. Change that contradicts notions of norms and liberates the oppressed at systemic and personal levels. If we find ourselves astonished at what we see happening around us, let it be for us a call to attention a reminder to breathe hope into action through God’s love and justice…and in so doing, may we be amazed.