Sermon–January 28, 2018


4 Epiphany—B

January 28, 2018

William Bradbury

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

The teaching method of rabbis, at the time of Jesus and now is a beautiful thing: a rabbi will talk about scripture by using the teaching of other rabbis who have had different things to say about a passage in the Bible. One rabbi helps the congregation enter a great conversation in which the whole people of God wrestle with the Word of God—after all the name Israel means one who struggles with God. It why the saying is true: wherever there are two rabbis there will be at least three opinions. Our culture today could profit by this form of conversation, as a substitute for just yelling at the idiots on the other side.

The rabbinic teaching tradition is a good one. Yet, when Jesus starts to teach, the people notice a difference: he teaches as one with authority. He’s not asking the people to think about five different views of some Bible story, rather he is announcing that the God the Bible talks about is showing up in the world.

In most translations Jesus says the Kingdom of God is at hand, or near. And if you’re like me you then think of God as the King of the kingdom. But Jesus never addresses God as King. Rather, Jesus calls his God Abba, which is Aramaic for father or even daddy or papa. There is a profound warmth and love in this child-like way of viewing God. So some scholars suggest that the Greek word for Kingdom, basileia, is better translated Commonwealth.

So on his first visit to a synagogue in Mark’s gospel we aren’t told what he is teaching but I assume he is simply unpacking what it means to say the Commonwealth of his Abba has drawn near. You could even say everything Jesus says and does is a way of unpacking the fact that he believed his Abba is creating on earth as it is in heaven, the divine commonwealth. There is a profound intimacy here that invites us into a new relationship, not only with God but with each other.

Yet, his teaching disturbs the congregation because Jesus is speaking not about the opinions of others but about his own personal experience of God as Abba. The authority of Jesus’ personal experience is disturbing—because it hits people in the depth of who they are.

They remember Ezekiel saying 400 years before Jesus that there would come a time God says, “when I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” From a distance this sounds simple and easy, but up close and personal it can be glorious and frightening. Where in the world did we get the idea that this spiritual surgery of the heart would be an easy or pain free? Why do we think the ego is going to give up its possession of the stone heart?

So there are whispers in the congregation—who is this guy, where does his intimate experience come from, he’s unlike any rabbi we’ve ever known. But it is polite whispering because they can keep their party manners going until the service is over and they can say what they really feel in the parking lot.

But there is one who is too unstable to keep quiet: Mark says this man has an unclean spirit, which means his psyche has been so damaged by some trauma in his life that something destructive has arisen. We would say his PTSD has cracked his psyche apart.   And this unclean spirit has moved in and causes the man to cry out: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

This is a logical question because if you view God as angry and vengeful then the announcement that this God is showing up would not be good news. Like naughty kids who are told, “you just wait till your FATHER gets home, he’ll teach you to behave!”

Has Jesus come to tell them that God is coming but he’s not happy?

It’s sad that some Christians have this view that when God shows up at the end of time there’s going to be death and destruction for most, as if God were just like Caesar, only bigger and bad-er, who enjoys destroying the cities of his enemies.

So the man cries out again: I know who you are! You’re the Holy One of God.” I can imagine in the synagogue in Capernaum there were some ushers who were in the process of grabbing this guy and throwing him out.

After all, the easiest way to have a wholesome, loving, peaceful church is to throw out all those who are different and welcome only those who are like us. This is the default instinct of every tribe: we only want people in our tribe who are like us. It’s why many churches of my childhood in the south, didn’t want people of color or of different ethnicity or different gender experience in their worship. The most some churches could tolerate is the very occasional whimper of a child.

This is how natural communities operate. You remember that scene from the movie “Animal House” when the fraternity is holding rush and all the cool boys are invited into the living room while the blind, the lame, and the different are ushered into a small side room by themselves.

But Jesus’s vision of the Commonwealth of his Abba has no such restrictions, so Jesus seeks to create community a different way: instead of kicking out this distressed man, he makes it his mission to heal him. Not make him look and act like everyone else, but heal them so he can become the person God created him to be and take us his place in the Divine Commonwealth.  

Jesus not only says the Commonwealth is here, he embodies it—in his table practice, in healings and teachings. Jesus says his Abba, has sent him not just to the well—the well-off, the well-fed, the well-dressed, the well-educated, and the well-behaved, but also to those who do not match the one paint chip that is us.

So Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him” and for the first time in many years the man is at peace.

I was talking to a woman the other day who grew up in a Pentecostal Church in Puerto Rico. She said that when she was 16, a drunk old woman came into a church service and started yelling and screaming, and then fell down and started sliding around and bouncing on the floor, as the pastor and people were saying in Spanish, “in the name of Jesus Christ come out of her.” Until finally she grew quiet, stood up, and looking peaceful and well.

What’s the first thing you notice about a person? Their age, gender, their intelligence, their friendliness? Maybe the first thing we notice is how they are different from us. When I see someone I don’t already know in a wheelchair I have to work hard to see anything beyond the chair. It’s why young kids pick on their classmates who wear glasses. It makes the ego feel safer to be able to point out the differences of others.

The first thing Jesus sees is someone who is loved unconditionally by his Abba. The second thing he notices is their suffering.

Remember the famous quote: Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

Jesus knows this and comes to join the battle on our side, even dying to show us the love of his Abba..

Jesus is still teaching to us today. He teaches with authority because it is his own profound experience and it is his deepest desire to heal our distressed spirits, so we too can experience for ourselves and participate in the Commonwealth of his Abba.