This week finds us still in the liturgical season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins the week after Christmas and is traditionally celebrates the visit of the wise ones to the young Jesus in Bethlehem. We, here at Hyattsville, usually only officially celebrate Epiphany for one Sunday and then move on. However, the liturgical season (which is to say – the church calendar) of Epiphany lasts until Lent begins.
It is fitting that these weeks after the celebration of the birth of Jesus are still considered Epiphany. After all, epiphany in its more religiously formal definition is a manifestation of a divine being. It is also revelation. And that is what is happening in the scriptures that we traditionally explore in the weeks between Christmas and Lent: Jesus, who is a manifestation of the Holy in the human, is beginning to be revealed as a manifestation of the Holy and he also begins the work of his ministry which focuses on revealing the Holy that is manifest in all things.
The lectionary scriptures of the past several weeks have explored the stories of Jesus’ baptism and the calling of his first followers. Today’s scripture selection from Mark reveals Jesus as a teacher and healer. And not just another teacher like the scribes the community is used to learning from. Jesus teaches in a way that expands the people’s understanding of the existing scriptures that they are used to hearing. Jesus doesn’t recite the scriptures. He breathes new life into them.
And the people in the synagogue, including his brand new disciples, are spellbound. They are amazed and astounded at his teaching and particularly the authority with which he teaches stretching the boundaries of their understandings. One might even suggest the gathered crowd was having an epiphany – as in a moment of sudden understanding and insight.
Epiphanies abound in this season of Epiphany. There is yet another Epiphany found in the Mark text today: the Epiphany of an unclean spirit which has taken up residence in a host body of a person in the community of Capernaum. You see, while the gathered congregation is sitting in awe of Jesus’ teachings and authority, the text says that: a person with an unclean spirit appeared in their synagogue.
What does that mean? There are lots of ways we can think about and try to wrap our heads around the term ‘unclean spirit’. Many of those paths of thinking might leave us a bit unsettled. In our current culture we don’t like to think about the reality of spiritual beings separate from our own spirituality. We especially don’t like to think about negative spiritual beings – I think a lot of us gathered here might feel a little squeamish to think of demonic possession as a real thing. It is not how our current culture understands the things that go on inside of us, we’d much rather lean on scientific understanding, medicine, and psychology to logically explain stuff and so it is hard to read a text like this and find a way to relate to it.
One of the things we cannot do is impose our understanding of science and psychology on the culture of Jesus’ time and place. They are vastly different realities and the juxtaposition of the two is jarring. And yet, we [those in Jesus’ day and us here now] have this in common: we are all human beings exploring and experiencing life on this planet. And even as much as we might hope that we have a deeper understanding of the ways of the world, particularly science, in our current culture than the community of Jesus’ day did, there are still mysterious aspects present in our own experiences of life.
We each experience things that hold us captive in our own lives. Some of us more literally than others. There are systems of oppression that exist in our culture and create stress on human bodies and spirits. There are also experiences that are more individual and personal which impact our ability to live freely in the world. Each of us have to examine and name those things for ourselves in our lives. Yet one things is certain: we are all bound by some form of burden or burdens – that is part of the human condition.
And so as we dig into this scripture a bit more I want to hold two understandings loosely and yet in tension: let’s realize that the scripture story we are looking at is indeed talking about a spiritual force that is unclean, a thing separate from the human being in which it is residing and, if possible, I hope we can also relate to this story from our own experiences of being bound by things that are part of who we are, that impact who we are and how we interact with the world around us, but are not the totality of who we are.
This is one of the creative ways we have to work with ancient texts: we must listen to and learn what they are recording from their own time and space, while also seeking to find ways to relate to them and interpret them for our own time and place so that they are relevant and life-growing here and now. That’s what Jesus was doing in the synagogue that day – he was expanding the already ancient stories and texts from his tradition and teaching them in new ways so that they could be relevant and life-growing for the community then and there.
And while he is there teaching, in comes a person with an unclean spirit. And the unclean spirit, upon hearing Jesus teaching messages of life and healing, well that spirit can’t sit quiet or still – it shrieks out – or as one biblical blogger I was reading this week likes to translate – the unclean spirit squawks!
It shrieked, “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!”
Have many of you have a chance to play with Google’s Arts & Culture App? There is a feature on it that has been really popular in the past few weeks – at least among Facebook users – where you take a selfie portrait and the app searches through Google’s reserve of images of art from museums all over the world to find paintings that look like you are in them. It scans your facial features and then overlays those measurements on paintings and brings back a selection of options. Sometimes the returned images are uncanny in resemblance. Sometimes you have to squint to see if there is actually a point of overlap between yourself and what is being offered.
I kept thinking about this app as I was thinking about this unclean Spirit recognizing the underlying nature of Jesus. The unclean spirit is the only one in the synagogue to recognize who Jesus is and where his authority comes from. The people gathered around listening to Jesus’ teachings are amazed at what he says, and when he calls the unclean spirit out of the host person the spirit listens and the people are even more shocked about this person’s abilities:
They began to ask one another, “What is this? A new teaching, and with such authority! This person even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey!”
The unclean spirit obeys, because as it encounter Jesus, it immediately runs an equivalent of the Google facial recognition software on him, only theirs is spirit recognition software, and the result they receive is an undeniable epiphany: Jesus is the Holy One of God. In knowing this, the unclean spirit has no room to question Jesus’ authority – it questions Jesus – fearfully asking “what do you want from us? Have you come to destroy us?” but when Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit it convulses the body of the person it is possessing and then leaves with another loud shriek. Jesus’ spirit is plainly visible to the spiritual realm and it is a spirit of holiness and power.
The rest of the folks gathered in the synagogue sense that there is something special about this person standing before them. They are trying to get a sense of who Jesus truly is, but the return of their recognition search is a little less obvious – they are going to have to continue to look and learn more about Jesus as he teaches and heals in their communities and beyond before they are willing to trust that he truly is the Holy One of God. Yet the hint of epiphany that the people in the synagogue receive that day is enough to inspire them to keep looking and learning from this Jesus figure and telling others about him too. The scripture selection today ends with this: Immediately news of Jesus spread through the surrounding region of Galilee.
Between the amazement at Jesus’ teachings and the display of his authority through this encounter with the unclean spirit, the Jesus movement is set loose. It is not contained in the space of the synagogue, news of it spreads throughout the region. This is the power of one voice speaking up, acknowledging oppression where it see it, and taking action to invoke freedom and healing it sets things in motion.
I watched a TED talk [https://www.ted.com/talks/luvvie_ajayi_get_comfortable_with_being_uncomfortable] this week by writer, speaker, and advocate Luvvie Ajayi. And let me first tell you that the reason I was drawn to watch this TED talk was because it was called: Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable and I thought that sounded like something I needed to hear during a week when I am working on a sermon about an exorcism. I also think it is a timely message for us in general – we are living in an uncomfortable time and getting comfortable being uncomfortable is something we should be doing. When we are uncomfortable, it is a time of heightened awareness, a time of realization that something within or around us isn’t quite right.
Now, please understand, I am not saying that those who are suffering and experiencing things that are life-taking, instead of life-giving should work to become comfortable with that discomfort. Kim Schmidt powerfully preached about the problems of asking folks to do that last Sunday. It is more the case that we have been comfortable with the suffering of other for far too long – instead of remembering that, as Luvvie says in her TED talk: “Everyone’s well-being is community business.” And so we need to be people comfortable with being uncomfortable with the discomfort of those [including ourselves] who, for whatever reasons, do not currently have access to wholeness of life. As long as injustice, oppression, and suffering persist we need to be uncomfortable with it. It is discomfort that moves us to action and it is action which brings about the opportunity for change, for love, for justice, for healing, and for the presence of the Holy.
Luvvie proclaims that part of her work to be the person who actually says out loud what everyone else is thinking but is afraid to say. And that when she does that, when anyone does that, when people are willing to stand up and speak out about injustice, inequality, abuse, oppression, whatever it might be that needs to be called out – they are taking a hit like the first domino in a line of dominoes and that as they speak out and fall, the dominoes in line fall in with the momentum and change begins to happen.
She says that often people assume she is fearless because she is willing to step up and speak out, saying what needs to be said. But she says she’s not fearless, instead she puts it this way:
“We’re not unafraid of the consequences or the sacrifices that we have to make by speaking truth to power. What happens is, we feel like we have to, because there are too few people in the world willing to be the domino, too few people willing to take that fall. We’re not doing it without fear.”
Fear is a holy thing. The psalmist affirms this over and over again and we see it in Psalm 111 that was read today:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom –
all those who practice it prove themselves wise.
The unclean spirit in the Mark text was full of fear upon encountering Jesus, and in its fear we also see its wisdom: it is able to see the Holy in Jesus.
And the Holy in Jesus is willing to stand up, speak out, and rend that which binds us so that freedom, healing, and life abound, and wherever that happens, it is a holy sight.