Epiphany 5B Sermon (2003)

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:29-39;
Isa. 40:21-31; 1 Cor. 9:16-23


Last week, we began by remembering Dr. Laurel Clark and the Columbia space shuttle crew. They gave their lives trying to help the human family. We also began our month-long theme on healing by lifting up the first step to being a healer: like Laurel Clark, you take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.

You and I are not going to be medical doctors like Laurel, but we are disciples of Jesus who calls us to spread the Good News of healing as he did. In that sense, we are called to be healers, to bring healing. And the first step for Jesus, too, seemed to be a Hippocratic oath of sorts. In his first act of ministry in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is faced with a man with an “unclean spirit,” a demon. This week we again see Jesus casting out many demons around Galilee. The first challenge for Jesus as a healer was to cast out these demons without doing harm to the person.

One thing we didn’t highlight from last week’s story is that sick people were not really allowed in a place of worship. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, their place of worship, when he was confronted by the man with the unclean spirit. How did he get in there? We don’t know. But the first reaction by the usual rabbis or teachers of Israel would generally have been to throw this man out. The synagogue was a holy place, and this man was unholy. He had an unclean spirit. So you throw him out!

Now, notice again what Jesus did. Instead of throwing out the man, he cast out the demon. Instead of further alienating this man who needed help, instead of driving him further away from the help he needed, Jesus drove out the demon which possessed him. Instead of further harming the man, he heals him, frees him.

How about us? What would you or I do if a man with an unclean spirit wandered in here? Let’s say a man plagued by mental illness comes in and sits down near the front. In the middle of my sermon, in the middle of my ‘authoritative teaching,’ he stands up and begins yelling nonsense at me. How would we react? I have to admit that my first reaction might be to motion the ushers to come forward and to kindly escort him out. Perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I could make a more compassionate response to this man with an unclean spirit. Perhaps I could compassionately try to calm him down and chase away that demon for the moment. I don’t know.

The point is that our first reaction is so often to still make it hard for those possessed by unclean spirits to come into this “holy” place. Think, for example, about how we’ve treated people possessed by substance abuse. Men and women who are addicted to alcohol — has the church made them feel welcome? Or have we historically been so judgmental with them that they needed to establish their own holy places of healing called Alcoholics Anonymous? What about people going through the demons of divorce? Have they felt welcomed here to a place of healing and support? Not always, right? Or people in wheel chairs? On my internship in 1982, the congregation was entertaining for the first time putting in an elevator, and someone actually stood up to say that we don’t need one because no one ever comes to our church in a wheel chair. Yeh, duh! They can’t get in, that’s why!

In my years at Emmaus with the R.E.S.T. site for the homeless, we sometimes had to discuss what “those people” did to our building. Things like:

Did you ever experience what it smells like when they leave? Did you see the bathrooms? How much heat do we have to use heating the place all through a Friday night? You say that you want to install a shower for them? What about security? How do we keep them contained?

We can get pretty protective of our holy places. In the end, we did put in a shower, and Emmaus has even volunteered to be the overflow sight during this winter of record homeless guests. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Let me try one more category of our modern demons: the demons of racism. It’s been almost a hundred and fifty years since slavery was abolished. It’s been forty years since the Civil Rights movement knocked down the laws of segregation. Why on Sunday morning are we still so separated? And here at Our Savior’s we are feeling the trend of white people increasingly moving to the outlying white churches in the suburban areas while we struggle to welcome in the people of color of our own neighborhood. Racism is not something intentional on our part. We have to realize that the demons of racism have come to possess much more than individuals. They invade our institutions and are not even cast out by new laws. The separatism of slavery days, and of the Jim-Crow-law days, were woven into the fabric of our institutions themselves for centuries before the laws changed. They are demons which are not as easily cast out.

Perhaps we are getting better, getting more welcoming to those with unclean spirits, those in need of healing, those in need of freedom from that which possesses them. Many of the modern demons we named, we are getting better at exorcizing. We do make our building more accessible to those in wheel chairs, and to those who are divorced. We sponsor A.A. groups in our churches. But what still needs healing in our lives? What demons continue to plague us as a church? I suggest that the demons of racism are still strong — again, not necessarily as much in the sense of personal prejudice, as in the sense that they remain woven into the fabric of our institutions so that we remain separate.

We need to get to step two in being healers as disciples of Jesus. Step one is an oath to do no harm. We do not throw out people when we seek to cast out demons. And step two is to realize that the most persistent unclean spirits that tend to possess us are the spirits that we have been talking about this morning: the spirits that cause us to try keep out unclean spirits from our “holy” places. They are spirits that work their way into our institutions. These are the toughest spirits of all to cast out. Even Jesus couldn’t do it effectively without harming persons, without trying to violently trying to overthrow peoples like their Roman overlords. Jesus’ people dreamed of a Messiah who would lead a victory over their oppressors. But that would violate the first step in his healing program: do no harm to persons. Wanting to violently overthrow the Romans was itself a form of casting out demons that destroyed persons, too. Jesus would let himself be destroyed before he would destroy another, even a Roman oppressor.

So Jesus came to show us that the problem is deeper than just casting out personal demons. It is a problem, too, of demons possessing all of our institutions — in fact, our religious institutions tend to be the worst. There is a reason, I think, for why Mark shows us Jesus’ first act of ministry — where? In a synagogue. And today’s reading continues the theme of Jesus casting out demons all over Galilee — again, where? “And Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

At the heart of our human institutions are our religions based on false gods who tell us to who the bad people are who must be cast out or kept out. These demons show themselves in the kinds of boundaries for holy places that our religious institutions set up to keep the unclean people out — not just the unclean spirits, but also the people possessed by these spirits. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus came to challenge the very structure of the way we normally do things. That’s why the leaders were so immediately against him. He came to challenge those boundaries of holiness set up by our institutions that keep people separated from each other. At the heart of it tends to be religion. But over the millennia, these boundaries have multiplied into myriad forms: classes, economic status, races, nations. In the end, these were the demons which killed Jesus, which sought to exorcize him by executing him on the cross. It is the same kind of demons that have plagued religious people and their institutions throughout the ages, Christians included. Jesus himself challenged these boundaries of holiness, and so they had no choice, as keepers of the institutions, but to declare Jesus himself as unholy. In order to cleanse themselves from Jesus’ uncleanness they were convinced they needed to kill him.

This is the sickness that required Jesus dying on the cross to expose. It is a sickness of sin that runs so deep that it runs into the very fibre of our institutions, leading us to set up all kinds of boundaries that keep God’s children separated from one another. Like racism today, we don’t even have to intend that separateness; we can even seek its opposite. But the demons possess our institutions in ways that are much more difficult to cast out. They’ve been there for centuries, and they don’t go away overnight. Even Jesus couldn’t drive them out as easily as he drove out unclean spirits from individuals.

But his resurrection begins a power of forgiveness that runs deeper than our institutions. It comes with a grace and love so unconditional that not even our boundaries can keep them out forever. How? Because in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God instituted a holy presence in this world which will never go away — as long as there are simple things such as bread and wine and a few folks to remember the Words of Institution. It is the institution of something totally different than our human institutions. At the heart of our life together, no matter how screwed up our human institutions remain, is this institution of our Lord’s Supper, a meal of wide-open, unconditional grace, which comes again this morning to knock on the doors of our boundaries of holiness and to gently but persistently offer us healing. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 9, 2003

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

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