4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28;
Deut 18; 1 Cor 8
A MASTERPIECE OF UNDERSTATEMENT: ‘A NEW TEACHING!’
Did you notice the understatement in today’s gospel? The people who were there in the synagogue at Capernaum the day Jesus was the preacher — they make what surely must be one of the great understatements of all time. Jesus has just preached an unusually powerful sermon. Mark tells us that the congregation is “astonished,” but that’s not the understatement. It is the congregation who makes the understatement, and it comes in response to what happens next.
Right at the end of Jesus’ sermon, just as people are leaning over to whisper to each other that, ‘It sure would be nice to have preaching like that every week,’ the spell is broken by the appearance of a demon-possessed man squarely in the middle of the congregation. Where he came from, God only knows. Mark doesn’t say. Mark just uses one of his favorite words: immediately. “Immediately there was in their synagogue,” he says, “a man with an unclean spirit.”
So the people couldn’t waste too much time thinking about that good sermon, because they have an “immediately” on their hands, and, in this particular case, the “immediately” is a raving man in the middle of church shouting vague threats at the young preacher who has just done such a fine job with the sermon.
“I kno-o-o-w who you are,” howls something deep within the man. “You’re the H-o-o-o-l-y One of God.”
“Shut up,” says Jesus. “Come out of him!” Things are getting curiouser and curiouser this Sabbath day in Capernaum. The man falls to the synagogue floor, his arms beating wildly at the air, his legs thrashing out so that people move back to give him a wide circle, froths of foam and strange cries coming out of his mouth. Then, the man becomes strangely calm and lays very still. Slowly he picks himself up off the floor, his face now tranquil, his eyes clear, his voice measured and composed.
Now comes the understatement. The people in the congregation, having witnessed a scene to rival anything in The Exorcist, look around at each other and say, “What is this? … A new teaching!”
A new teaching? If this had happened in any congregation I know, they may have sat for hours in stupefied silence, they may have rushed to the altar in sudden repentance, or they may have jumped out of the church windows in terror, but the last thing they would have done was to comment on how this casting out of a demon constituted an innovation in Christian education. A new teaching? Indeed.
To call such an extraordinary event of the casting out of a demon a new teaching, well, I think that constitutes understatement for most of us because our ordinary experiences of teaching are so dull. So much of our teaching and learning involves stuff that is on the periphery of our lives. We may need to know it, but it doesn’t exactly hit the core of us, the things which most centrally define us as persons. It doesn’t move us, change us, make us new persons.
But somehow Jesus’ words that day in the synagogue captured the folks there as so powerful that they connected to what happened afterwards. His words of rebuke to the unclean demon that cast it out of that tormented man were seen to somehow flow out of what he had said to them that day. ‘Wow! A new teaching!’ they said. ‘It really grabs us where we’re at! Has the power and authority to change us, heal us, drive away evil spirits!’ Yes, that’s a new teaching, indeed!
I’m about to embark on a new career this week — part-time, anyway — of teaching religion to college students. Most of what I’ll be doing will no doubt be that old kind of teaching and learning about things on the periphery. Oh, the main topic is about religion, something that’s supposed to be about their core as human beings, but so much of it will be factual stuff about all the different world religions of different places and times, a lot that won’t seem to connect to their lives.
But I am also called to be a preacher and teacher of the Gospel, and one of my goals in this class will be to try to offer them ‘A new teaching!’. A teaching that can grab them, perhaps at least plant the seeds of changing them, even healing them. And, for me, as I tried to explain last week again, the thing that really helps the Gospel of Jesus’ day fresh for us modern people is the work of René Girard. It helps us to see how the topic that is so central to the Bible, the theme of sacrifice, how that applies to us. It’s a different kind of knowledge. It’s one that can grab you personally and change who you are, because it’s essentially a cross-centered teach about who we are as human beings.
St. Paul is trying to cope with that even in his day in that second lesson which seems almost incomprehensible to us. Basically, this lesson is about ritual sacrifice, a reality that seems light-years away from us, though it was central to the people of Jesus’ day. It was clear that Gospel ended people’s relationship to ritual sacrifice. It changed sacrifice forever and so it changed the core of who they were. St. Paul is trying to help them understand.
I’m going to need to try to help my college students understand how such religious realities apply to them. I’ll try to hep them see, first of all, that the sacrifice Jesus came to alter forever is different from what we mean by sacrifice — precisely because Jesus changed it. Sacrifice used to mean spilling someone else’s blood, leaving someone else out, so that the core of the in-group could remain intact. Jesus began to transform that into self-sacrifice, by submitting to their sacrifice on the cross.
Well, we don’t do ritual sacrifice, anymore. How does any of this apply to us today? What Girard helps us to understand is that the old sacrifice, spilling someone else’s blood, leaving someone else out of the in-group, is still alive and well in the structure of how we do things as human beings.
For my college class I plan to use an example from their lives as Generation Xers, as young people who grew up as latch-key kids. I think it’s an example I’ve shared with you before. It’s a story from William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He and his wife were responsible for leading an intergenerational event at the church they were members at, a moderately affluent, white, suburban church there in Durham, NC. Working last minute, he grabbed a video from the Duke Divinity School Media Center, the dramatization of the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. His wife had some misgivings about showing such a story to young children, but it was too late to change, and, as it turned out, it was a powerful choice.
The group watched silently as the story unfolded. Abraham was played superbly by the Israeli actor, Topol (who starred in the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof”).What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, raw, dusty mountain, Moriah, knife under his coat, with his son trudging silently behind him. Finally the bronze blade is raised, the boy’s black eyes flash with horror, then the voice, the knife is stayed, the ram cries from the thicket, and it’s over. Willimon stopped the projector, divided the group in half by age, and the learning began — especially for Pastor Willimon and his wife.
“Boys and girls, who knows what the word sacrifice means?” asked his wife Patsy, who was leading the children. A few hands went up, a definition was attempted here and there.”But what does sacrifice mean to you?” she continued. That’s when the trouble started.
“My Daddy and Mommie are doctors at Duke,” said one third-grader. “And they help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.”
“And how is that a sacrifice?” Patsy asked. The little girl wasn’t finished.
“And I go to the Day Care Center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommie and Daddy want to take me home but they are busy helping sick people so lots of times I stay at the Center. Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, we have pancakes, though.”
And everyone, from six to eleven, everyone nodded in agreement. They knew. They knew what sacrifice means. They felt sacrificed to their parents schedules.
Do you think those college students of Gen Xers will be able to relate to this form of sacrifice? How about our children this morning in the children’s time, when I spoke to them about another form of sacrifice, when we slaughter each other with put downs?
Let me close by briefly returning to today’s Gospel. The demon speaks for itself by saying “us.” How is it an “us”? The most general structure of sacrifice is an “us” against “them.” But sacrifice hopes to be economical. It hopes to shed the least amount of blood, so it tries to focus the “us” ultimately on a him or her.
Is that what Jesus was teaching about that day? And then, suddenly, out pops one of those sacrificial victims, one of those “mentally ill” people who tend to bear other people’s garbage. The voices they come to hear are an “us”, and Jesus, understanding the logic of sacrifice is able to confront it and drive it out. A new teaching, indeed.
Ultimately, of course, that new teaching would take the form of the cross. Our Lord would actually chose to live our world of sacrifice to become victim to it. But the new teaching is that he didn’t just become victim to it. He exposed it! God raised him from the dead and said, “See, this really doesn’t have the same power anymore. I’ve sent my son to change it forever, to it into something else, to turn it into self-sacrifice, into lives of serving one another.”
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 29-30, 2000