Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28
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Every now and then, someone will come along and say something like this to me:  “Pastor Cathy, I’m going to be moving to blah, blah (place) on blah, blah (date).  I have been offered my dream job; it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.  I love the church and my only concern about relocating is that I might not find a faith community like the one I have here.”  Or some version of that–but you get the point, don’t you?

It’s always bittersweet.  I hate to say goodbye to people I have grown attached to, but on the other hand, I am happy to encourage people to get on with the good things and the pursuit of their hopes and dreams.

People come and go.  It’s a reality whether we like it or not.  I suspect that many of you have left someplace wonderful in order to come here to New York City to pursue something that you had long been dreaming of; or just to be part of the vibe, wonder and mystery of this city.

Needless, to say, I have made a few such leaps in my own life and career.  I understand that sometimes we stand crossroads.   Most often they are related to job opportunities, but it could also be a crossroad in a relationship or marriage; or whether to have a child, etc.

Opportunities stand at the door and knock.  We can pass them by and life will go on and still be good; good enough.  Or we can open that door – fling it wide and step into a new reality; something totally unanticipated; some “other” that speaks to where we are at the present moment if we are ready; just ready to receive it.  Open enough; broken enough; yearning enough to hear the knock.  To see it for what it is and respond accordingly.

Last week, we witnessed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry according to the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called out to fishermen – Simon and his brother Andrew. And going a little further he saw brothers James and John and called them.  We are told that they dropped their nets and immediately began to follow.

I suspect they had no idea what they were getting themselves into; not really any more than we fully understand what we get ourselves into when we decide to follow Jesus closely.  But the opportunity was there and they chose to accept it.

On the surface, it appears that they were dropping nets made of thread and wire perhaps.  When in reality, they were being challenged to drop all of those nets and trappings that so easily entangle – social and political nets; cultural, even familial.

We ask ourselves, “What was so compelling about the message and the messenger that would cause them to do such a thing?  After all these were responsible people; men who could be trusted.  When they woke up that morning, sat at the breakfast table, and hugged their wives and children goodbye, I’m guessing they had no idea how the day would unfold.

I think there is something very symbolic about the way Mark says they dropped everything – leaving some things behind in order to take on the new opportunity before them.  A new identity from which everything else would flow.  A new way of being and understanding.  It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and they were willing to take it in even if they did not fully understand.

This morning we find him in the synagogue on the Sabbath day.  It is a regular day of worship, much like today.  Jesus begins teaching, and the listeners are astonished at his teachings.   They were mesmerized.

Who is this person?  Perhaps his words were words they had heard before but this time, something was different.  “Was it the message or the messenger?” we ask ourselves.

And right smack in the middle of Jesus’ presentation is this man disturbing things.  You can imagine, can’t you, how appalled we would be?  At least I would be.  Mark describes him as having an “unclean spirit”.

We wonder about him – was he a first time visitor, some stranger that found his way in past the ushers?   Is he a demoniac, deranged; a throwback from The Exorcist – a Linda Blair type with his head twirling and spitting out green pea soup?  Or was he someone inflicted with some kind of illness like epilepsy or blindness; paralysis perhaps – something that causes his motor skills to be at risk, which would have been consistent with the teaching in those days?  I’m guessing the last thing we want to admit is the possibility that this man could have been part of the regular worshipping community, because of course that would mean that he might possible be like one of us; a regular person who at times is possessed by spirits that need to be healed.  It is interesting that the same place where we find the holiness of God is also the same place where there is mention of evil spirits.

“What have you to with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are.  You are the holy one from God.”[1]

We recognize that spirit, don’t we?  Just as we are beginning to feel loved and valued, empowered, determined – that spirit breaks out.  They too yearn to be free; to be seen; recognized.  It is here that Jesus finds us – amid our ramblings and screams; amid our divided self.  Sometimes our screams are loud and audible, shouting with hands raised high.  Sometimes they are silent, internalized, barely a whisper:  “Help me.  See me.  Recognize me as a viable human being with value and worth.”

Just when we think we’re over something, more determined than ever to move on into our own good life, those spirits arise seducing us back into something – fear, loneliness, victimization.  That old wound is touched and it flairs up again; and we realize that we have been holding onto a piece of it all these years later and it still causes fresh pain.  And we know how hard it is to give up that old stuff – once and for all.  To give it up and let it go.  We tend to want to hold onto a piece of it regardless of how bad; because at the very least, it is familiar.  Known.

We need to pay attention to our spirit; those inside of us and around us.  Those spirits that know us all so well; that know who we are; where we live; what our proclivities are.  Those spirits that know how to speak to us; that know our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our wounds.

That spirit.  For I promise you that spirit did not present itself dressed in a red cape with pointed ears, long tail and a pitchfork.  That spirit was clothed in flesh; robed in skin; with eyes and mouth; heart and a mind.  That spirit said to Jesus of Nazareth, “I know who you are.”  My goodness.

And if that spirit knows who Jesus is, he most assuredly knows who we are.  “I know who you are,” he says, “I know all about you; what makes you tick.  The loopholes you refuse to name aloud.  I know who you are.”  That spirit that wants more than anything to destroy you; to destroy us.  To divide us; diminish the will and presence of God in us.

When we want to do good, that spirit is present.  When we want to forgive, to let it go and move on, that spirit reminds us that our wounds are greater than any possible reconciliation.  When we know what is good and right, that spirit says, “No; don’t do it.  Remember what they did; what they said.  Don’t take the risk.  No one will ever love you or help you.  You are not capable.”

Worse yet, that spirit that says, “You are better somehow; smarter, greater; more entitled.”

Jesus said to that old evil spirit:  “Be silent! Come out of my child; let him GO![2] And get this:  The unclean spirit shook and screamed, but came out of the man.

And they were all amazed and kept on asking one another, What is this?  A new teaching – with authority!   And while the others were amazed and perplexed, the man with the unclean spirit is healed.  He is set free.

I think the Holy Spirit within us is constantly speaking to all other spirits: “Come out of my child; let him or her go.”   And this is where the real authority lies – in healing and making things better.  There is often so much abuse of authority by force and might that we forget that real authority sets people free for the common good.

Jesus speaks with authority and he also endows us with that same kind authority over ourselves and the places and space we find ourselves.  It is both amazing and perplexing.

[1] Mark 1:24
[2] Mark 1:25 paraphrase