Mark 1:21-28 | 4 Epiphany B
February 1, 2015
Have you noticed that movies and TV dramas seem to start off faster than they used to? It used to be that opening credits would last for a few minutes, during which audiences had to be content with lots of camera shots panning across nondescript landscapes. In recent years, everything starts with a bang. If you are two minutes into a movie, and there has not been a chase scene, you start to wonder if the whole movie will be slow.
By this measure, the gospel of Mark is an up-to-date dramatic experience. In the space of five verses, Jesus moves from his baptism in the Jordan, to temptation in the wilderness, to preaching in Galilee that the rule of God is at hand. He recruits four followers, and then, it is time for a fight. Jesus kicks things off by kicking an unclean spirit out of someone in the synagogue. We do not know exactly why the fight breaks out. One minute Jesus is teaching, and the next, an unclean spirit is yelling at him.
Clean and unclean are boundary words. They designate groups of people. Jews would move back and forth from one circle to the other depending on their life circumstances. If you buried a loved one, you incurred corpse impurity for a time. If you had a baby, you were also ritually unclean for a time. No one walked around shouting “unclean” or anything, but the designation did put you on the inside or outside of particular circle and made you eligible or ineligible for certain group activities.
So was the “unclean spirit” in the synagogue something what we would have a medical name for today? Maybe so. But whatever was happening within the man who shouts at Jesus, it was mysterious, uncontrollable, frightening and isolating, and when we think of it that way, we can recognize it as not so far from our experience, whether we have a medical names or explanations for the experiences, or not.
We may not call illness the work of unclean spirits, but we do still encounter all sorts of sorts of things as mysterious, uncontrollable, frightening and isolating, diseases especially. We all know, for instance, that you cannot get dementia or cancer or depression or anxiety from someone who has one of them, but almost all of us still back up when we encounter someone suffering from one of these. Or, if we are the ones suffering, we isolate ourselves. We never consciously think, “unclean,” but unless we strive not to, we are likely to accept the boundaries that these and other afflictions would draw around us. The “spirit” of the illness messes with us. Shame, guilt, anger, fear, and judgment wash over us. We might be able to hold it together enough to get to the synagogue and back after a couple of hours, but mostly we keep to ourselves.
Jesus messes with the delicate balance that the unclean spirit and the man have with each other and the rest of their community, and well… a shouting match ensues. Jesus is teaching something, something that frightens the spirit or angers it. Mark’s language is ambiguous about whether it is the unclean spirit or the person who cries out, but in other places in the gospel, it is the demons rather than their hosts who recognize Jesus, so it is likely that the disease itself is talking. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The question is an idiom that means something close to, “Couldn’t you leave well enough alone?”1Thank you to Matt Skinner for his essay on this text, including a discussion of the idiom, at Working Preacher.
The answer is no. Jesus cannot leave well enough alone. The heavens that were torn open at Jesus’ baptism will not be stitched up again. The Holy Spirit, after descending like a dove, will not disappear back up into the clouds. The hands of the clock will not reverse themselves to a time before the Rule of God was at hand.
Jesus disturbs the equilibrium of good and evil because God’s intention for creation is not merely a tense cease-fire, but wholeness. To say that the Rule or Kingdom of God is at hand is to say that healing, wholeness, forgiveness and justice are at hand. Jesus throws himself into announcing the Rule of God. His announcement leads to altercations like the one in the synagogue.
In a little book on dying called, Our Greatest Gift, Henri Nouwen tells the story of making friends with a family of trapeze artists. He traveled with them for a while and watched them practice and perform many times. One day he was talking with one of the flyers about his work, and the man told him that the real work was not done by the one who threw himself into thin air. The man said, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’
“How does it work?” Nouwen asked. He continues the story this way:
“The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catch bar.”
“You do nothing!” I said, surprised. “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. …
“I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
Nouwen ends the story by saying, “When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: ‘Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.’ Dying is trusting in the catcher.”
I think that is true. But for a long time, I have also thought that most of us die the way we live. For most of us, our living—whether joyful, or fearful, or hopeful, or generous—turns out to be a kind of dress rehearsal for our dying. It is not just dying that feels like flinging yourself into thin air in trust that you will be caught. Living is that as well. And living as Christians is always a matter of throwing ourselves out there into the world that God loves and looking foolish, if not foolhardy, to others. A friend of mine tells stories about his little church in a poor neighborhood. “I have no idea how they make it,” he says. And yet they do. Another friend says of the first year after her husband’s death, “No one knows how many times I didn’t think I was going to make it through that year.”
For my own part, during the last two weeks, I have gone back and forth in my own mind about how much I dare to get involved with the Getting Ahead program that the Sharing House is starting. Do I have the time? Will trying to change the landscape of generational poverty in Transylvania County just exhaust those of us who sign on?
Is the trapeze artist greatly courageous, or just in free fall? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Sometimes it is both.
So Jesus in that synagogue makes quick work of the unclean spirit. And then day after day, Jesus engages power after power. He takes on any spirit, person or institution that has a vested interest in a broken world staying broken. He heals diseases, pushes across social boundaries, criticizes Herod when other people are afraid of him, calls out the priests for devouring widow’s houses, and the Pharisees and scribes for reading the law just closely in order to find loopholes that leave their parents uncared for. Jesus rebukes even his own disciples when they start to see where all this throwing oneself headlong into the world is going to end and counsel him to leave well enough alone.
To follow Jesus is to wonder, at regular intervals, why he will not leave well enough alone, and to be grateful even then, that he doesn’t. Whether the context is your own life, or the life of a congregation, or even death itself, to follow Jesus is to feel as if you are flying through the air trusting—and doubting—and trusting that on the other side of the long jump is the one who called you Beloved at your Baptism and whose Holy Spirit is within and around you even when the demons want a piece of you. Risk it. You are always, already, caught and held.
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|1.||↑||Thank you to Matt Skinner for his essay on this text, including a discussion of the idiom, at Working Preacher.|