Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
We’re twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. Neither are from places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? Would Jesus cast out anything from among us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24)
Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us?
This is the part of the sermon modern preachers reach for an exegetical shoehorn to show how it is that this ancient shoe actually fits. The bible is concerned with well-being and communal health, not magic, or sorcery, nor dare I say it, not even the supernatural. Instead, it is focused on the all too natural and worldly problem of evil. But I don’t think we need to do that this year. We don’t need to borrow anything from the supernatural to translate Jesus’ meaning about the imminent and persistent danger of demons–do we?
No. This year we are all witnesses to the captivating demonic power of manipulation, lies, fear mongering, and name-calling to personalize, polarize, enflame, blind and fragment God’s beloved community into warring camps. Our politics, the pandemic, and climate crisis have made plain the deep divisions among us, some of which, we would not have believed nor were we fully aware just a short time ago.
We share the same country, even the same zip codes but not the same reality. There is good health care for some, but not others. The police can be relied upon to serve and protect some while others call upon the police only as a last resort, if at all. We have superlative, top 100 in the nation public schools, but not for everyone. Good food is stacked high and beautifully displayed in our grocery stores, yet 1 in 10 families in our nation are hungry.
Care for Real, our local food pantry, reports a 40% increase in the food distributed, and a 243% increase in new Edgewater households who came to them for food. Immanuel distributed more than $12,000 to neighbors for food, medicine and other necessities through our COVID Assistance fund just since last March. (Thank you for your generosity, by the way.) Yes. We see how income inequality has grown to the extent that just having a job does not ensure you can feed yourself or your family, nor keep the roof over your head.
2020 has been like an epiphany, an awakening, but we can’t claim to be woke while we still point fingers, draw lines, call other side names, or demonize each other. This makes us part of the problem, not the solution. We must cast out the demons that rule our hearts and minds and reveal themselves whenever we see suffering yet do not see the human being that is suffering.
The ministry of Jesus is to free the love God has placed within us, so it once again flows naturally between and among us. It is literally to cast out the demons that divide and separate us from our common humanity.
So again, we ask the same question as the man in the synagogue. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It can certainly feel that way. After all, what exactly will it cost us to set this world on its proper foundation? How may I be called upon to change my habits? What might I be expected to do? Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, but only said to the disciples, “Come and see.”
The people in the synagogue at Capernaum marveled that Jesus spoke as one who had “authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). To be clear, we all need people like the scribes. We need institutions and the people who run them. We need people who are qualified, accredited, skilled, competent and accountable. That’s one kind of authority and it’s essential—nothing works very well without it.
What people saw in Jesus is another kind of authority to which all those placed in authority must be open and appreciative. It’s the authority of someone who knows the truth and tells the truth because they lived it. It’s the authority of someone who knows what to do and gives instructions about how to act based on their own hard-won experience. This is the kind of authority Moses spoke of in our first reading. It is the authority of prophecy that is unafraid to speak truth to power. It is the kind of authority that we grant to those who know us and love us. This kind of authority has power. It has power even to cast out demons.
This kind of authority is our birth rite as children of God. Yet, we can never possess it, nor can we claim it. This power clings to us all when our words or our actions flow purely from the natural simplicity of God’s grace.
I believe we witnessed this kind of authority with the power to cast out demons eleven days ago on the steps of the U.S. capital. While the nation held its breath at another peaceful transition of power, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound, raised by a single mother, a National Youth Poet Laureate, took the stage. The young black woman, Amanda Gorman, showed us again what the authority of a truth-teller and a prophet looks like in verse. She cast out demons.
“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always just-ice,” she said. “We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us…We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all…. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it” (Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate, The Hill We Climb).
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.