February 4, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
When I was in fourth grade we lived on a cul-de-sac. Often idealized as a picture of American domestic tranquility. Cul-de-sacs are safe. Cul-de-sacs are neighborly. Nothing dangerous ever happens on cul-de-sacs. Well, our particular street was built into a hill so the house across from us was significantly higher up the hill and the slop ran down through our front yard. It was a Friday night. In fact, it was the day that my brother and I got our Super Nintendo. After having pizza we settled into to our first experience playing Mario Cart, when all of the sudden we heard a load crash from the other room and my mother shriek out in fear. It sounded like a bomb had gone off. Well it wasn’t a bomb, it was a brand new BMW. Our neighbor across the street had just gotten the car that day and apparently had not yet mastered the intricacies of its parking break. So the car rolled backwards down his driveway, across the tranquil, safe, nothing-dangerous-ever-happens cul-de-sac, through our front yard, and into our living room. My brother and I ran and hid, and my mother called 911. Thankfully, no one was hurt (except for the fish in our aquarium). We all were safe, but we had a large vehicle-sized hole in the front of our house. So that night we packed up our things and went to stay at my great aunt’s house. Aunt Betty welcomed us with open arms, and rearranged her life for about a week so that we could live with her until our house was safe to return to. The moral of the story is, when a car crashes into your place, you go stay with family. That’s what you do.
Last Friday night, a car crashed into the side of McKemie Place, the primary women’s shelter for Mobile, Baldwin, and Washington counties. Thanks be to God no one was hurt, but their home isn’t safe to live in until the repairs are made. Remember: when a car crashes into your place, you go stay with family. This Friday night we welcomed these sisters in Christ, aunts and great-aunts in our family of faith into our home at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church. Some of them are with us this morning in worship. All of them are safe and secure in the Bullard Building for a few days while the McKemie Place building is repaired. As I said in the letter that was emailed to the congregation this week, “I am so proud of the leadership of our church for faithfully making this decision to ‘do something’ and to show real, tangible, Christian hospitality.”
In our scripture lesson today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes crashing into the darkness of our broken world to heal, to transform, to teach and set free. What an odd story. What a strange encounter. In seems to come from some sort of science fiction movie. It would fit right in to an episode of Stranger Things, with this violent clash between unseen forces. An evil disembodied spirit afflicting a person, shouting words that no one else understands. This story is full of power, and it is all about Jesus’ identity and authority.
Notice where it begins. In the synagogue on the sabbath day. It begins at the place and time of worship for the people of God. We may think that getting up and going to church on a Sunday is a pretty ordinary, tame experience. But if we’re really open to what is happening and what can happen, we might just be surprised by how wild and strange it is to gather in the name of the Living God and pour out our whole body, minds, and souls fully into the act of praise and devotion.
The author Annie Dillard wonders about the wildness of worship when she asks, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful tourists on a packaged tour of the [Holy]? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or…does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT [on] a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[i]
It certainly was a wild worship service that sabbath day. It started with Jesus’ teaching. Do you hear the reaction of the congregation? The crowd was astonished! Astounded! Because he taught “as one having authority.” The kind of authority that only the Word of God incarnate could claim.
It’s funny that the narrator of the story makes sure that we know how the audience reacted, but doesn’t tell us anything that Jesus said. His teaching was so powerful, but we don’t get to hear a word of it. Instead, we see that the same authority on display as Jesus commands the unseen forces of good and evil. Casting this demon out of the man who is suffering is show of force, a shot fired across the bow announcing to the powers that seem to control the world that a new kingdom is at hand, a new ruler with authority has arrived, the old ways are being transgressed and transformed by his words and his deeds.
Of all the stories of Jesus healing, this one is peculiar because of the conversation between Jesus and the unclean spirit. The demon speaks words that are both true and false at the same time. He calls Jesus “the Holy One of God,” which is really who Jesus is. The messiah, the anointed one. But the demon does not welcome Jesus in that role. No, he tries to send Jesus away. “What do you have do with us?” You don’t belong here, Jesus. Your light has no room in this time of darkness. Your peace has no place in this world or war. You truth has no value in this kingdom of lies. He knows who Jesus really is, but he acts as if that has no bearing whatsoever on our lives.
Like he will do many other times in his ministry, Jesus casts this unclean spirit out, healing the man who is suffering. But Jesus also does something else, just as powerful. He silences the demon. He says, “Be silent.” Shut your mouth. Mute your lies and trickery. Muffle your deceit and deception. The demon said that Jesus was the Holy One of God, the Lord and Messiah, but that he did not matter, that he had nothing to do with us, nothing to do with the suffering of the real world. And in a show of divine power, Jesus silences the demon.
Now, lets be clear, there is a huge gap in worldview between the ancient world and our modern world when it comes to understanding physical and mental health. Much of what the ancients thought of as unclean spirits we know to be diseases, viruses, disorders, and conditions. We treat our illnesses with medications, surgeries, appropriate therapies. So, it may be tempting to toss aside all this outdated antiquated language about evil spirits and demons. Much harm has certainly been done by zealots overly spiritualizing diseases and demonizing those who suffer as somehow curses or possessed. But, even with all these issues and concerns, we can’t ignore or throw away these important stories of unclean spirits because they remind us of something we dare not forget, that there are forces that we cannot see which take hold and wreak havoc in our world still.
Today’s demons have other names like greed and materialism. Fear and terror. Warmongering and political tribalism. Intolerance and bigotry. Ignorance of the past and anxiety for the future. Today’s demons show up in racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and ageism. Today’s demons still speak their half-truths, their self-serving lies. They say things like, “My safety is more important than theirs.” “So long as the bottom line doesn’t suffer, anything goes.” Profit margin is more important than ethics.” “Winning the vote matters more than truth.” Today’s demons still bend our ear to look out for ourselves at the expense of others, to define our neighbors as only those who are just like us, to see difference and diversity as threat or opponents to be overcome. If it feels good it must be ok. So long as you don’t get caught you aren’t doing anything wrong. Might makes right. But remember, the Holy One of God silences demons!
Today’s demons call us into downward spirals. They say things like, “You aren’t good enough, you aren’t pretty enough, you aren’t smart enough, you aren’t strong enough.” They say, “Remember all those mistakes you’ve made, remember the worst thing you’ve ever done, you’ll never be more than that.” They say “Look at those folks, they have it all. They are what you could never be. You’ll never measure up to them.” But remember, the Holy One of God silences demons.
Today’s demons still whisper, “Be careful. Play it safe. Don’t risk to much. Don’t show your true colors. Don’t you dare upset the apple cart. Just keep your head down and ignore the pain and suffering around you. Let someone else handle it. What difference could you make. One person, one family, one church. You can’t change the world, so why even bother.” But remember, the Holy One of God silences demons.
Today’s demons hiss “You can’t help. You can’t open your doors. Just say you’re sorry, tell them you’ll pray for them and then go on about your day. You can’t possibly welcome dozens of women into your church. Do you know how hard it will be to move all those programs to another building? Think of all the logistics. What if something unexpected were to happen? What will the neighbors think? You really shouldn’t. You can’t. You won’t. This isn’t your problem, let someone else solve it. Sure Jesus says those things about welcoming others, but does any of that actually matter? What does Jesus have to do with us?” Those demons today prey on our fears and bend our ears seeking to keep us in our place. But friends, I have seen it with my own eyes this very week…the Holy One of God silences demons.
The Holy One of God, the King we serve, the Suffering Servant, the Head of Church, the Pioneer and Perfector of our Faith, Jesus Christ crashes into this world and silences our demons. He casts them out and shuts their mouths. He hushes their lies and half-truths. He quiets their fearmongering and fabrications. He muzzles their greedy self-interest and grandiose self-importance. He silences the demons that keep us up at night and that haunt our thoughts by day. He speaks his truth of grace and peace, of love and sacrifice, of home and hospitality. His death and resurrection defeated the power of sin and evil once and for all, for all of us. And by his authority he empowers us still to resist the demons of our world today, to see one another as sisters and brothers, members of his own family where all are welcomed and all are made one. Where there is always a place to stay in his grace and a place to rest in his truth.
To the Holy one of God be all honor and glory, now and forever.
[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 1982, pp. 40-41.