Epiphany 4B Sermon (2003)

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28;
1 Cor 8:1-13; Deut 18:15-20


It is difficult to put into the words the kind of tragic accident we began to grieve yesterday — especially when it comes close to home in the person of Columbia crew member Dr. Laurel Salton Clark, who grew up right here in Racine, graduating from Horlick High School. Yesterday, I saw an interview with her brother on the local news — thankfully, it was a tape from a month ago, as he and his family were preparing for his sister’s most special trip. He talked about how when they were kids they would play Laurel’s favorite TV show — which quickly pulled me in with memories of playing, too, because it was also my favorite show — Star Trek. Her brother said that Laurel always played Bones McCoy, the ship’s doctor. And here she was only weeks away from realizing those childhood dreams: to be a doctor on a space mission. There’s at least some measure of thanks that the sixteen days prior to yesterday she did realize that dream. But your heart goes out to her family, and to all seven families, at their terrible loss.

We can be at a loss for words with tragedies such as this. President Bush did pretty well yesterday, quoting from the prophet Isaiah about the God who made the heavens and the earth who can surely see to it that, even though they might not have made it back to earth, our prayers are that they nevertheless made it home.

I was also struck by the words of a young Florida girl whose family lived nearby and had gone to see the landing at Kennedy Space Center. Instead, they found themselves with others gathering around the monument there to all the astronauts who had lost their lives — seventeen names thus far, and soon to be twenty-four. This girl of twelve summed it up well, I think, when she said, “This is so sad because they died trying to help humankind.” Her father, dressed in a ball cap, jeans, and a West Virginia sweatshirt, said, “I wish we could get an Iraqi citizen to fly a space shuttle mission to see if it could help world peace.”

Wow! That’s what these space missions can be about, isn’t it? Which adds, as the young girl said, to the sadness of this tragedy. They died trying to help humankind. Her father’s comment refers to the fact that one of the seven crew members was an Israeli citizen. And his presence on that mission was made even more poignant by the picture he took with him on this flight. It was a picture that had been drawn in a Nazi concentration camp by a fourteen year-old Jewish boy. It was a picture of what he imagined the earth to look like from outer space — no lines drawn dividing nations and peoples — just one home for all the world’s people, one home for all of God’s children.

Our space exploration has truly become an international effort. There was the Israeli astronaut. The other physician on the crew, Dr. Chawla, was an immigrant from Calcutta, India. And our principal partners in the venture of the space station are the Russians, who only a dozen years ago were still our mortal enemies. They’ve gone from being the “evil empire,” as Reagan called them, to being our allies in scientific exploration. It makes one wonder what could happen with what President Bush is calling the “axis of evil.” Could we be allies a dozen years from now? Perhaps that man’s hope for an Iraqi astronaut is not so far off base.

I get very uneasy when we use terms such as “evil empire” and “axis of evil” — especially when we are preparing for war, as we are now. It means people will soon be destroyed. And, increasingly in modern warfare, that means lots of innocent citizens will be killed — women, children, and elderly — not just soldiers. The problem with pinning those kinds of labels on a group of people, a nation, is that it usually gives us a justification for destroying them. We’ve got to get rid of the evil, even if there’s people in the way.

In our Gospel Lesson this morning, Jesus is confronted by a man possessed with “unclean spirits.” And these spirits within the man want to know point blank, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The pressing question is, Can Jesus rid the man of this evil without destroying him? And he can, for he is the holy one of God. He can cast out those unclean spirits, for he has been baptized with the holy spirit and comes baptizing others with that same holy spirit, chasing away the unclean spirits.

The question for us this morning is, What makes Jesus’ spirit holy? What sets his spirit apart from all the other unclean spirits of this world that can possess us? I want to suggest that it is precisely the issue posed by those spirits themselves: will you destroy us? And Jesus, who teaches with an authority not like our conventional human leaders, answers with his very life and ministry. In this Galilean synagogue as his ministry begins, he is able to chase away the demons without destroying the man. For the usual human authorities, a hunt to root out the evil goes on even if people get in the way and are destroyed, too.

This is the crucial difference to see in Jesus because, even for him, there will be demons that he is unable to chase away without destroying others. What demons? you ask. Why those demons that operate to destroy him on the cross. In Jesus’ first full week of ministry, from a sabbath to a sabbath, we go from unclean spirits wondering if Jesus will destroy them, to the Pharisees and Herodians already beginning to plot to “destroy” Jesus (Mark 3:6). Mark uses the same word just a few verses apart: destroy. Will you destroy, Jesus of Nazareth? And the answer by the end of the Gospel will be a decisive, “No!” Not if it means destroying persons. Jesus’ ministry begins by Jesus cleansing the unclean spirits from a man in the synagogue. And his ministry comes to a climax in Jerusalem when he cleanses the demons of unjust commerce from the temple, which should be a house of prayer. When Jesus turns over the money tables in the temple and chases out the vendors of animals for the sacrifice, we immediately read once again, “And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to destroy Jesus” (Mark 11:18). Jesus will let himself be destroyed before he ever will destroy another person, even if it means ridding the world of evil.

As disciples of Jesus, do you and I follow Jesus’ crucial decision? Even when we are confronted with an “evil empire” or an “axis of evil”? Once again, I refer to the person whom I think was truly a disciple of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, even though he called himself Hindu, because he took Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount more seriously than most Christians I know, including myself. In the movie about his life, Gandhi is helping the people of color stand up against the injustices of South Africa. They are planning to resist unjust laws of apartheid, such as mandatory fingerprinting, and that police may enter their dwellings without permission. A fellow Indian in the crowd stands up and vows to kill the first police officer who violates his home in that way, even though they will kill him. He ends by saying, “For that cause I would be willing to die!”

Gandhi responds: “I praise such courage. I need such courage, because in this cause I, too, am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one. But we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us.” A cause for which he was willing to die, but never a cause for which he was willing to kill.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I truly believe that this is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ from God, whom Mark is showing us. From the very beginning of his ministry which we see this morning, Mark shows us Jesus’ resoluteness in standing up to the many demons and unholy spirits that possess us. And the story of Jesus that Mark shows us helps us to understand that the demons which possess are much more than mental illness — which is what we moderns usually assume was wrong with this man. The overall picture which Mark presents is a Jesus who battles sickness and death and poverty; he stands against the unjust ways in which commerce and the sacrificial institutions keep people in their place, not allowing them true freedom. Any way in which human beings are not fully free, then those are the demons that possess us.

Today, those demons might include alcohol and drugs, an out-of-control consumerism and debt; we might be possessed, held back from true freedom, by the rampant violence and sex all around us in our culture. We are still possessed, as a society, by the demon of poverty. Jesus continued the line of the great Hebrew prophets in proclaiming that, as long as even one person lives in poverty, as long as the least of one of brothers or sisters is held by the chains of hunger or homelessness, we cannot be fully free as a people of God. Jesus was there to stand against such demons. It was a cause for which he was willing to die. But, my friends, there was not a single cause for which he was willing to kill and destroy.

On this weekend that we mourn the passing of seven people who gave their lives trying to help their fellow human beings, on this weekend we mourn the passing of one of our own Racine sisters, who gave her life fighting the demons of cancer and disease, we begin a several week journey of talking about healing. Jesus, who taught with such authority, manifested that power and authority by healing people, by chasing away the unclean spirits that possess them with his holy spirit of freedom from God. We will develop this theme of healing for several weeks, climaxing in a service of laying on hands and anointing for healing in two weeks.

This morning we have begun with a Hippocratic oath of sorts. Laurel Clark, as a physician, swore an oath never to do harm. Even as a person in the military, she was sworn never to do anything to take life. She was in the business of healing, the business of restoring life. This, I believe, is the first step in being a disciple of Jesus, too. We are called to be healers, to stand against all the demons that possess us and keep us from freedom. And the first step to being a healer involves the same issue that confronted Jesus on the first day of his ministry: to bring freedom and healing to others from the unholy spirits, but never at the cost of destroying other persons. In being a disciple of Jesus, I believe that we take a firm oath never to harm, never to kill. Destroying people, even in the process of trying to eradicate evil, is the way of this world that will never ultimately bring peace. In Mark’s Gospel, we will see that destroying others in the name of fighting evil is the most Satanic of all spirits (cf., Mark 3:22-27; see Proper 5B), the one that Jesus’ death on the cross exposes for all time. Jesus refused to destroy others even in fighting this Satanic game. But his resurrection and his forgiveness wins the victory, because it shows us that Satan can’t win. Christ is alive! He is at home with his heavenly father, even as Laurel and her fellow crew mates are at home. So Jesus’ victory on Easter gives us the courage and the freedom to choose the other way, the way of Christ that refuses to kill.

Let us come to his victory table and celebrate. Let us partake in the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood, that we will ministers of healing in this world, standing in Jesus’ name against the demons that would possess us, but swearing an oath never to do harm. Let us follow in the New Covenant of the one who let himself be destroyed, who gave up his body and shed his blood, before he would ever destroy the body or shed the blood of another. Satan is exposed. This is the feast of victory of our Lord, the Lamb who was slain. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 2, 2003

1. This sermon is the first in a four sermon series on healing. Link to Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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