Ordinary 4 (B)
January 29, 2012
William G. Carter
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Last Sunday morning, I made an unscheduled stop here for worship. It was the end of a study leave week. Even though I had booked a substitute preacher, I wanted to hear my younger daughter sing. After worship, I had to take her older sister back to college. It was good to be here for the 9:00 service, good to dress in my incognito blue jeans, good to sit right back there in the very last pew.
I don’t ever get to do that. After what I saw, I am going to have to do it again. When you sit back there, you notice things that you don’t ever see from up here. Who arrives late? When do they get here? Where do they sit? You see who is paying attention and who is not. I mean, ten minutes into the service, I had already blended in. People forgot I was sitting back there.
Once in a while a note is passed or a word is whispered. I observed that our organist starts a hymn at a sprightly tempo, and the congregation tries to slow her down. That was interesting. Occasionally somebody will say at the door, “Can’t we sing a little faster?” Well, stop trying to slow her down.
I noticed that the leaders up front have a good bit of energy. But the energy dissipates by the time it gets to the last pew. I discovered how ushers are recruited, and how some of you help others find the right hymn or the right hymnal. I learned a lot by sitting in the back pew. Some time I am going to do it again.
As many of you know, my wife plays the organ at a Presbyterian church over the mountain. Most Sundays at lunch, we begin the conversation with the question, “Well, what happened in worship today?” Maybe we will talk about the sermon that she heard, or the sermon I thought I preached. We may remark on the music, or a special prayer, who was there, or the props used in the children’s sermon. Last week, I had a lot to tell her. She assured me that all of it regularly happens in churches like ours. So I should not be surprised.
Well, what do you think they said after the synagogue worship in Capernaum? We heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. A lot of us have heard it before. It was the very first public act in the ministry of Jesus. Right before this, he had taken on some issues in the wilderness, observed only by the angels. Then he snatched a couple of fisherman from their father, and then two more after that.
On the Sabbath night that week, in the very town where the four fishermen resided, Jesus goes into the village synagogue. He steps up to the podium and begins to teach the Torah. And he’s good. Oh, he’s really good. The people are nodding in agreement. They are delighted by his insights. Somebody over here murmurs, “He isn’t reading his sermon to us, like one of those boring temple scribes.” Another says, “He hasn’t downloaded any of it from the internet, either.” (You know, it’s possible to do that. Go to www.desperatepreacher.com. On Saturday night, they get 200,000 clicks.)
In the little town of Capernaum, Jesus didn’t need to download other preachers’ material. He has first-hand wisdom of what God wants to say to those people on that given day. Do you know how rare that is? It’s amazing. He gives them the instruction they need – and they know it.
And that’s not all that happens in worship. There was also that hostile interchange with a man who was out of his mind. Here is how Mark describes him: “he had an unclean spirit.” I’m not really sure what that means. Maybe he had a bad temper. Perhaps he was under some ongoing stress, always about to blow his top in a volcanic rage. Maybe the chemistry in his brain was off. Or he was just given to rants. In the first century, they didn’t have a specific diagnosis for this sort of thing. All they would do is point and say, “Something got into him.”
Can you hear it? “Something got into him.” They didn’t wonder what it was that got into him. They just knew. It was some kind of forcefulness. When whatever it was got into him, it seemed to possess him. And it was holding the rest of them hostage.
Some of the old-timers still talk about the outburst that happened in a small town not far from here. After a string of one young preacher after another, this church I know decided to call a seasoned veteran. Compared to all those recent seminary graduates who never stuck around very long, Rev. Samson was fairly old – 54 or 55, I think. He was set in his ways, with his silver hair slicked back. Nobody pushed him around.
About fifteen minutes after he came to town, he discovered why the young preachers kept leaving early. It was a small church and didn’t pay very well, but that wasn’t the reason. It was a small town and didn’t have a lot of entertainments, but that was not the reason, either. No, it seems they had a number of strong-willed characters in that church who loved to bicker with one another. The loudest bickerer was the local physician, Doc Harley. The others would complain about a hymn, but he would complain about the preacher’s theology.
A couple of years into this, the whole place was boiling. Rev. Samson was starting to feel the stress, but he stood his ground. He led the church the best he knew how. And one Sunday, in the middle of the sermon, Doc Harley got out of his seat, walked down the aisle, stood in front of the pulpit, and interrupted the preacher. He wagged his finger at the preacher and shouted sarcastically at the top of his lungs, “I love you, I love you, I love you!”
After a stunned moment of silence, he wheeled around, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I said it, but it doesn’t do any good.” Then he walked out of the church, never to return. Nobody said another word.
Two weeks later, Rev. Samson had a heart attack. He ended up taking an early retirement and leaving the area. Shortly thereafter he was replaced by a young preacher who didn’t stay very long.
Doc Harley never came back. He kept his medical practice, had a lot of patients who were church members, and never did any of them ask, “Doc, what got into you?” They knew. They knew.
The most curious thing was what the church members said among themselves after he left. “How are we ever going to get along without Doc Harley?” How are we ever going to get along without him?
Did you hear what the man screams in the Capernaum synagogue? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Sometimes evil is so nasty that it not only overcomes a person; it can tangle people together. And everybody gets used to it. It settles in. It’s part of the unspoken atmosphere. Have you ever worked for a company, or belonged to a group, and you sensed that something about it wasn’t right? You can’t figure out what it was . . . but there’s something twisted, something dark, something like the Stepford Wives – it’s just a little too perfect. And if you try to address this, you will be singled out and attacked. Or worse.
Now, here’s the thing about our Gospel story: Mark is not the least bit surprised at this. He knows who Jesus is. He is the Holy One of God. Jesus is the One on whom the Spirit falls, the One who says, “The time has changed, the Kingdom is right here.” And Mark knows that Jesus brings out the worst in us. He is not surprised at this. Jesus brings out the worst in us.
I mean, let this story sink in. Jesus has gone to teach the Bible to an assembly of God’s people. They are meeting in the place where the Bible is always opened to them, week after week. It is the day that God has set aside for the hearing of the Holy Word. Listen to the Word of the Lord: “God loves you, God heals you, God claims you as his own.” That’s what Jesus gives them – and that’s what brings out the worst in Doc Harley, the demoniac in the second pew.
He screams at Jesus, and Jesus screams back. And he screams again, “Have you come to destroy us, you Holy One of God?” And Jesus screams back, “Come out of him! Shut up and come out of him!” And the man shakes - - - and there is a great calm.
And I love what Mark says. The people look at one another and say, “We’ve never heard a sermon like that.”
What happened in worship today? What would you say? I think that Mark would say that, in worship, we hear God speak, through the scriptures, and in the voice of Jesus Christ. When the scriptures are opened, God speaks. Either we push God away and say, “What have you to do with us?” Or we find ourselves strangely realigned through the power of Jesus Christ. Either way, it brings out the worst in us. We can’t stay the way we are.
And the Gospel of Mark is not surprised at this. This is the world that God has made, and this is the world that pushes God away. We are the creatures who are made in God’s image, and we are the creatures who are twisted in upon ourselves. This is how Mark portrays the Gospel: Jesus comes so close that he will change this, that he will make us into new creations. It is the very thing that will heal us and the very thing we resist.
What amazes me is that the Gospel work begins among the religious people, in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath. It begins in holy space, on holy time. After this, Jesus will meet other people in homes, on the street corners, in the market places, even one man is lowered to him through a roof. But he begins in the gathering of God’s own faithful, as the scriptures are opened, as the Word of healing and restoration is proclaimed and taught.
No matter how much we resist it through kicking and screaming, Jesus comes to make us well. He comes to realign us with God’s good purposes for our lives. Our spiritual healing never comes without a struggle. We have to lay down the hurts that all of us have. We have to forgive what we don’t feel like forgiving. We have to decide that the damages of our past are not going to hurt us or anybody else anymore. Like I said, Jesus comes to bring out the worst in us – he calls out the worst and he takes it away.
Do you know why this is? Because he is the Holy One of God. He comes in the power of the kingdom, a power described so well by the Harlem poet Zora Neale Hurston. She said, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
Well, what happened in worship today? What do you want to happen more than anything else?
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved