Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Call to Serve: Being First

From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.

They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.” --Mark 9:30-37 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a child, my mother - as most mother’s do, I think - try to convince their children to eat everything that is on their plate.  (You’ll notice that I learned that lesson well!) One of my mom’s stock phrases to encourage us was to remind us that there were starving children in China. (Perhaps you heard this, too?) As my siblings and I got older, we used to mock my mom, asking her how not eating our food would help these starving Chinese children. Was she going to personally pack up our leftovers and ship them overseas? You can only imagine what a hard time we gave her!

Yet, there was truth behind this saying for her. It was about not wasting our food. The ultimate truth behind this statement was for us to learn to not use more than we needed. Notice, I said needed. And not wanted.

This difference between need and want was something I worked hard at with my own son. While I backed off pushing him to clean his plate, I still tried to teach him to make choices that were moderate choices. To only take as much food as he could actually eat. To live simply and frugally. And to remember that he was part of a vast earth filled with billions of people who were all interconnected and loved by God. And, yes, that wasting food was not a good thing, especially when we knew there we so many others out there who didn’t have as much or even anything to eat. 

Tonight, we come together on this first day of Lent. Ash Wednesday. When we will receive the ashes on our foreheads. And remember our eventual return to that from which we were made. Dust. Earth. And the breath of God. 

In Genesis 2, we hear how God created humankind after God had first made the rest of creation. Forming man out of the dust of the ground. Breathing into his nose the breath of life. If one looks closely at this verse in the Hebrew, we recognize that it’s a Hebrew pun. Adam, meaning human. Adamah, meaning dust of the ground. Humanity - we - are literally people of the dirt. 

We don’t like to think of ourselves this way. As “dirt people.” Instead, we like to think of ourselves as good. Often, as really good. Or, even the best. The best at what we do. At who we are. Particularly, at being the people of God. I wonder if it’s more cultural than anything else. After all, in our country, we’re all about being first, aren’t we? Maybe that’s why it’s no real surprise to us in tonight’s reading that the disciples are arguing over this very same question. About which one of them is greatest. Or the best. About which one of them is first. This, when just a few verses earlier, Jesus has been trying to teach them about the betrayal and death he will suffer by human hands. By the very hands of dirt people.

This is Jesus’ second of three teachings in Mark of his own death. Each time, scripture tells us that the disciples were agnoeo in Greek. Meaning, ignorant. Not understanding. One wonders if it was willful. Or perhaps it was just easier to remain ignorant. Because to face the truth of what the future would bring might be too frightening. We, as human beings, do not like to talk about death. Whether it is our own death, or the death of loved ones, or even the death of our eco-systems, we don’t like to talk about it, because to do so is to face the reality that everything and everyone eventually dies.

Maybe this is why we like to pretend that global warming isn’t happening, even though the evidence for it is all around us. Perhaps this is why we continue to engage in practices in our own lives that perpetuate it. Our insistence, for example, on continuing to use single-use plastics, even though we know the damage this has done to our environment. Our willful ignorance of our own carbon imprint and our unwillingness to change practices to mitigate it. Our resistance to electing political leaders who will begin to address the devastation we have brought upon our planet, much less even admit that we are the major cause of this, because admitting it would mean that, for us, just as for the disciples, being first is more important than anything else. Perhaps even more important than Jesus’ own sacrifice and death.

Notice that, in his response, Jesus turns the disciples to focus on the children. Children, who, in Jesus’ day had no status, when infant mortality rates often reached 30%, with another 30% of children dead by the age of six, and another 60% percent gone by the age of sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation. Childhood in Jesus’ day was a time of terror. 

For many children in our world today, it is also a time of terror. Here in Kentucky alone, over 11 million children live in food insecure households. At least 4 million families with children are being exposed to high levels of lead. Fourteen million families are faced with water bills that they can no longer afford for water often contaminated with pollutants from pesticide, fertilizer runoff, or coal ash.  Those who are last in our world - children and other vulnerable populations - are much more likely than any others to experience the greatest negative effects of global warming. 

Do the disciples care about the children? Do we care about the children? And not just our own children and grandchildren. Do we care about the children in China as well as the rest of the world? Leah Schade writes that “How we treat the most vulnerable in human society...reveals our values. It’s also how we treat the most vulnerable in God’s creation. For example, if we look at a beautiful forested mountain and only value it for the coal or gas or oil beneath its surface and are willing to sacrifice [that mountain] for our short-term needs, then we are, in fact, not following God’s will for ourselves or our children. The well-being of children and the well-being of God’s creation are fundamentally linked.” 

This is why Ash Wednesday and Lent is so important for us. Because it is a season of coming in touch with our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, and our own mortality. It’s a time for us to learn - to really learn - what it is to be people of the dirt. To be dust and ashes. To give up being first. To learn moderation, as my mother tried to teach us. To care for all of the children and the vulnerable in our world. And to realign ourselves with the earth from which we came and the breath of God which gives us life, before the "dust returns to the earth as it was before and the life-breath returns to God who gave it.”

Return, people of the dirt filled with God’s breath. It is time to return. Amen.

Preached February 26, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Ash Wednesday
Readings: Mark 9:30-37; Ecclesiastes 12:1-7; Psalm 32:1-5

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Power of the Kingdom: Who Are You?

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to Transfiguration Sunday and to the end of the Epiphany season! 

Several weeks ago, we talked about the meaning of this word, epiphany. Anyone want to venture a definition? An epiphany can be an idea, a new thought, perhaps even a new understanding. The season of Epiphany is quite similar. It’s a season of revelation, of stories that tell us who Jesus is.

If you think all the way back to early January, when we first moved into the gospel of Mark, do you remember how the gospel opened? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Soon after, at Jesus’ baptism, we heard the voice from heaven speaking directly to Jesus - “You are my Son, the Beloved,” confirming that this Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah long promised. We know this, but, so far only the demons have been able to figure it out, too. The disciples just don’t seem to get it.

This is likely why, in the story just before today’s reading, we witness Jesus healing a blind man. Twice. Because the first time, it doesn’t take. At least not fully. Like the blind man, the disciples are beginning to see, but not clearly. At least, not yet.

Then, we come to the first part of today’s lesson. From Mark, chapter 8. 

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” --Mark 8:27-33 (NRSV)

This portion of our reading, often called the “Confession of Peter,” is the literary hinge for the Gospel of Mark. It’s both an ending to the first half of the Gospel and an introduction to the second half.  We are transitioning from Galilee in the north in the first half to Jerusalem in the south in the second. After today’s story, we will begin this journey to the south. To Jerusalem. And to what awaits Jesus there. 

But it has been in Galilee where the main question that Jesus is being asked is “Who are you?” Soon the question will change to “Why are you here?” But, before this happens, Jesus is about to give the disciples a little quiz. To decide how good their sight is. Or isn’t.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks them.  Immediately, Peter jumps in with a response. “You are the Christ,” he says. We might applaud and cheer him for getting it so right. Except he has gotten it so wrong. Because, Peter doesn’t see. He doesn’t understand who this Jesus is. He has in his mind the traditional picture of the Messiah, of the Christ - a political figure who would wield power and authority and who would free the Jewish people from Roman occupation, restoring the line of King David. This is who Peter understands Jesus to be. It is a picture that he and many others have created in their minds as to what this Messiah will be like, adopting their own idea, rather than God’s idea. An image that is perhaps intensified by the fact that they are in Caesarea Philippi, named in honor of Emperor Augustus Caesar, and the seat of power for the Roman government in this region. 

Thus, we can easily understand why Peter, even after all the time spent with Jesus, would still believe that this was who Jesus was. Because it was this Messiah that fit who Peter was and what he really wanted. Peter and so many others.

Don’t we do the same thing? We fashion Jesus out of who we are and what we want in a savior. Maybe it’s a savior to swoop down and save us when we are done something foolish or made a bad choice. A savior of convenience, who we quickly forget then when things are better. 

Or maybe we try to co-opt Jesus for our own political ends. With both the political left and right in our country trying to claim (or reclaim) Jesus as their own. Each creating an image of the Jesus they want and then co-opting him for their own purposes. To defend their actions. To support a position. To  justify a cause.

Who are you? The answer to that question will identify what your Jesus looks like. Because chances are you, as I, have created Jesus in your image, for your own needs, and as you want him to be.
Just as Jesus did with Peter, he does with us. Rebuking us for thinking human thoughts instead of God’s thoughts.

Who is Jesus? What does it take to be his disciple? We, like Peter and the rest of the disciples, soon find this out. 

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” --Mark 8:34-9:1 (NRSV)

Jesus tells us to take up our cross. To take up our instrument of death and follow him. Because, to be Jesus’ disciple means we must lose our lives. Our selves. And, particularly, our image of the Messiah as we want him to be. 

One wonders what Peter was thinking after all this. After his picture of who the Messiah was, of who Jesus was had been blown to smithereens. But, soon after, we find ourselves with him and other disciples in a mountaintop experience. 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. --Mark 9:2-8 (NRSV)

If Peter had been confused before, think of how he felt now. As they watched Jesus transfigured. Saw his face glowing. His clothing turning bright. Witnessing the appearance of Elijah - that great prophet. And Moses - that great law giver. Jesus, surrounded symbolically by the “Law and the Prophets.” And the fulfillment of them. And then that voice from heaven. This time speaking directly to them. This is my Son. Listen to him! It’s no wonder Peter wanted to stay there. To bask in that experience for a little bit. To build a few tents and just camp out there. Because the words Jesus had spoken a few days before, about taking up one’s instrument of death, had stuck with him. Perhaps, terrified him a bit. Here, on the mountain top, he felt safe and secure, basking in the light of Jesus, the very Son of God. 

Sisters and brothers, just as our story today is a literary hinge in the Gospel of Mark, so this Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge between Epiphany and Lent. Between the revelation of who Jesus is and the answer to the question of why he has come. It’s tempting for us to want to stay here, on the mountaintop, where it feels safe and secure. Where we are centered. Where we, like Peter, bask in the glory of God. 

But, this is not who we have been called to be. Instead, we are called down off the mountain, into the messiness and grittiness of our daily lives. Into our communities. Freed as we are to be in service to this place. And, knowing that, as we journey, Jesus accompanies us as he did Peter and the disciples. Teaching us who he is, why he came, and reminding us who we are. Every step of every day for the rest of our lives, into all eternity.

May we bask in the light of our Savior this day. But, may we then gladly go out to be in service to all the world. Amen. 

Preached February 23, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Readings: Mark 8:27-9:8; Malachi 4:4-6; Psalm 27:1-4

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Power of the Kingdom: What Makes Us Unclean

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We’re going to continue our discussion around rules. Sometimes it's easy for us to know the rules. And sometimes, even depending on our context, it can be difficult for us to know the rules. Sometimes we may know the rule, but we may be confused by it. Sometimes, there are unspoken rules - those rules that “everybody knows” and that we assume people will follow. Some of these rules, in particular, are common in church.

So, our story today is about rules. And about what is really important. On the surface, it may seem about keeping rules that were Jewish versus Christian. Yet, we need to remember that Jesus was Jewish, so he would have observed the various Jewish laws. That’s not really what this story is about. Let’s listen to it and see if we can figure out what Jesus is really saying. I invite you to follow along in the pew Bible.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  --Mark 7:1-23 (NRSV)

The story opens with the appearance of the Pharisees and some scribes who have come into the countryside from Jerusalem to see Jesus. We often have a pretty bad attitude towards the Pharisees, don’t we? That their intent is always to trip up Jesus, to challenge him. This is the way they are presented in some of the other gospels. But, here, in Mark, it’s a little different. If you notice the text carefully, there is nothing that is written about their intent. In fact, it would have been customary and usual for them to come and ask questions. Jesus was viewed as a rabbi, a teacher with followers who was responsible for his disciples. So, assuming that Jesus, as a rabbi, was responsible for his disciples, the Pharisees would have come to Jesus to ask him about the behavior of his followers. There is nothing here to show a devious intent on their part.

Note the parenthetical portion in verses 3 and 4. “For the not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders…” This phrase - the “tradition of the elders” - was a reference to all of the interpretations, the rules, and the procedures that had grown up around the written law, or the Torah. The traditions of the elders were oral commentary on this written law, applying it to real life situations. You might say that the traditions of the elders were like the sermons of our day. Verbal commentary on the written law. 

The Pharisees were actually viewed as the “good guys” of Judaism of their day because they wanted to help people live out the written law. We think of them as “bad” because of what seems to be an antagonistic position toward Jesus. Yet, they believed that the Torah was a gift from God (as we do scripture) and that the oral traditions that had been passed down for generations were also gifts from God, but of equal value. Their question to Jesus - "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" - is their attempt to understand if this Rabbi Jesus shares their views...whether or not Jesus is as concerned as they are for ceremonial purity and for the sacredness of their vows, or their commitment, to the oral traditions. The question is pretty straight forward and seemingly with no devious intent.

It’s Jesus’ response that is surprising. Because he immediately goes into an antagonistic mode. “You hypocrites!” he calls them. He then proceeds to quote from Isaiah, essentially "throwing the book" at them and arguing that they confuse the interpretation of the law with the law itself.

Except, there’s a problem. Because laws don’t interpret themselves. It’s why today we have courts in our country. To interpret our laws. It’s why we have hundreds (if not thousands) of commentaries written on Scripture. To better understand or try to understand what the Bible is saying to us.

Take the fourth commandment, for example. “Honor your mother and father.” Now we probably get pretty easily what it means to honor someone. But who is your mother? Is it your biological mother? Or your adoptive mother? Your stepmother? Perhaps an aunt who was like a mother to you? Maybe a grandmother? Who decides the meaning of “mother?” Or, likewise, “father?” 

Can you put yourself into the position of the Pharisees? They’re simply trying to observe the law in the fullest sense. 

Jesus’ response to their question really isn't about the ritual of being clean or unclean. Please note that Jesus isn’t saying that cleanliness or ritual cleanliness isn’t important. Or that spreading germs is a good idea. This is more about how we understand the law. More specifically, it’s about how we obey the law. Whether we follow the spirit of the law or the letter of the law, which is what Jesus condemns here. Such as keeping keeping the Sabbath, but then cheating people in the marketplace day after day. Or offering sacrifices in the temple, then dealing unjustly or mistreating those who are vulnerable: slaves, foreigners, widows, or orphans. 

What defiles us - what makes us unclean - is not the stuff outside of us. What makes us unclean is what comes from our heart. Those thoughts, words, and deeds that create barriers in our relationships--with each other, with God. Those things we struggle with. Sexual sin. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Greed. Evil action. Deceit and lying. Unrestrained immorality. Envy. Insults. Arrogance. Foolishness. There is nothing on this list we can deny. We, who are bearers of God’s image, but who are also ungodly monsters that lurk underneath. Saint and sinner that we are. Wheat and chaff. Sheep and goats. This back and forth of ourselves that we struggle with. “Daily,” as Paul writes. That we ultimately cannot change. At least, not by ourselves.

It’s why we confess our sins regularly in worship.  Why we approach the Lord’s Supper each week. That we might know and receive God’s forgiveness. That, in Christ, our relationship to God might be restored. And that we might continue to be transformed. So that our hearts - the source of evil - might be changed. Luther writes that our new life is alien to us. That it’s outside the old “us.” That it’s not a matter of Jesus coming and cleaning us out to use our old shell. But that Jesus comes to kill the old. To make a new creation. To take us away from finding our identity in the law and instead finding it in Christ. Because that is the only “us” where we find freedom and a future. Where we find hope!  

But, this isn’t the end of it. Because, then, this same Jesus sends us back out. We, who have become freed in Christ, now are servants to all. To the clean and the unclean. To the wheat and the chaff. To the sheep and the goats. Because our cleanliness, once again, doesn’t not come from external things. Our cleanliness comes solely through the transforming grace of God. 

"Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us." May this be our continuous prayer. Amen.

Preached February 16, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 6
Readings: Mark 7:1-23; Isaiah 1:11-17, Psalm 50:7-23

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Power of the Kingdom: Breaking Free

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who here remembers Joan Rivers? For those of you who are too young to have heard of her, Joan Rivers was a ground-breaking female comedian who first appeared in the 1960s and was a legend until she died in 2014.

She had a cutting wit about her. Not afraid to turn it on herself. She was bold and punchy, often graphic and obscene. And she held nothing back. Here are a couple of her cleanest classic one-liners. “I knew I was an unwanted baby, when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.” Or “I’m definitely going to watch the Emmys this year! My makeup team is nominated for ‘Best Special Effects.’” One more. “You know you’ve reached middle age when you’re cautioned to slow down by your doctor, instead of by the police.”

Rivers had a classic catchphrase. When she said it, you knew you were in for a straight-forward, blunt, “no holds back” conversation. “Can we talk?” she would say. And then it would begin.

So, members of Grace & Glory, can we talk?

I want to start by saying that the gospel of Mark is hard. It is just hard. I’ve mentioned before that it was the first gospel written. Perhaps that is why it is so bold and blunt and, like Joan Rivers, so in your face. It opens with a brash claim about good news. That Jesus is the Son of God. It is a fast-paced, ever-moving book. More like a documentary than a film. That just throws stuff in your face, and that opens with John the Baptist shouting, “Repent!” 

The Gospel of Mark is not the reasoned premise of who Jesus is in Matthew, or the lovely narrative of Luke, or the ethereal Jesus of John. Mark is written to intentionally be in our faces. There is no gray area in Mark, no in between. It is black and white. Mark challenges us to pick a side. With Jesus. Or against Jesus. The irony of Mark is that for much of the gospel, it seems as though it is Jesus’ own disciples who seem to always make the wrong choices. And say the wrong things. And it feels as though Jesus is constantly frustrated with them.

Mark is hard. 

Today’s story is particularly difficult and hard. So, we are going to walk through it. Verse by verse. Section by section. I invite you to open up a pew Bible, if you wish. I will also put the verses on the screen.  

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. --Mark 5:1 (NRSV)

Our story begins with this phrase from Mark 5, verse 1, “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.” Last week, we heard the seed parables from Jesus. If you remember, he told them from a boat on the side of the sea, because the crowd on the shore had grown so large it was pushing him into the water. The sea that we’re talking last week and this week is the Sea of Galilee, pictured here. The large body to the left is the Mediterranean. But, the small body, almost large lake in the center of this map, is the Sea of Galilee. To the left is Galilee, which we know today as the present West Bank. This is the heart of Israel, the holy land. It’s here, where Jesus first gets into the boat on the western edge of the sea and teaches the seed parables, which we heard last week.

As today’s story opens, Jesus and the disciples have moved across the sea to the other side. On this map, it’s to the right of the Sea of Galilee. The side on the left is Israel. It’s the promised land, where the people of God live. The other side is the Decapolis, where the majority are Gentiles. Non-Jews. Jesus and his disciples are no longer in Galilee, but have moved across the sea into Gentile country, into the land of the Gerasenes. The first time in Mark that they are outside of the holy land.

And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. --Mark 5:2-5 (NRSV)

As Jesus steps out of the boat, he enters one of the most heartbreaking scenes we could ever imagine. He is immediately approached by a man - a man with an unclean spirit, our text tells us. It may be easy for us to focus on the unclean spirits, but there is a man here who has been possessed by them. Who is harming himself. Who people have tried to chain up. The suffering in this scene is enormous.

It’s important for us to understand spirits in this gospel. In Mark’s framework, the world is under the sway of Satan, of evil spirits. This is contrasted with the world of the Holy Spirit. The presence of an unclean spirit here, meeting Jesus, represents a clash of spiritual realms. The unclean and unholy spirits are the rulers of the age in which Jesus finds himself. Jesus represents that breaking-back-in of the Holy Spirit. 

In the Jewish tradition, to be unclean is not necessarily to be evil, but in a ritual state. There is no negative judgment about being unclean, except that this causes a rift in relationship with the community and results in social isolation. This is what we have here. A man, bound by unclean spirits, who are hurting him as he lives among the tombs, which are themselves unclean because they are places of death. All of this results in his being ostracized from the community. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. --Mark 5:6-10 (NRSV)

It’s hard, isn’t it, when we read these verses to tell the difference between the man and the spirits? It’s hard to separate him from their possession of him. What must it feel like to be a person who is possessed by some kind of external power?

Notice that the spirits recognize Jesus right away. They know who he is, even if no one else does. What’s interesting to also note is that, if we turn back to Mark, chapter 1, Jesus’ first act of ministry in the holy land is to cast out demons. Now that he is in Gentile country, this is also his first act. One wonders if this is Jesus reclaiming not only the holy land, but the entire region as well.

Did you notice the name of the spirit? Legion. This is a Latin word that is related to Roman imperial forces, which were organized into legions. A full legion was some 6,000 soldiers. This is not a small war that Jesus is waging on unclean spirits, first in the holy land and now beyond its borders. This is an expanded theatre of action and conquest by Jesus.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.  --Mark 5:11-13 (NRSV)

Jesus gives the legion of spirits permission to enter into the herd of pigs, which are also, interestingly, unclean. This is not a small herd of pigs. Two thousand, which was a huge herd for the time. There is a real economic aspect here. Someone owned these pigs and they were worth a lot of money. Their herd is now wiped out. Their economic status is decimated. But, does it seem to you that Jesus is concerned about the economic impact of his miracle? 

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. --Mark 5:14-17 (NRSV)

How stunning this experience must have been for the people, who had likely known this man for years! Here he is. Clothed. Sitting politely and drinking tea. How do we make sense of their response? Of their fear? And their desire to send Jesus away? How comfortable they must have become, having this spirit-possessed man on the edge of town! How uncomfortable it was for them when Jesus came and upended the status quo! We, like they, might not like some things about the status quo, but the question is whether we’re really willing to have Jesus turn things upside down.

Not only this, but one wonders whether the townspeople thought his healing was worth the economic toll. What’s the cost of people on the edges being healed? What will it cost us for everyone to have healing and wholeness? Are we willing to pay it? 

As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.  --Mark 5:18-20 (NRSV)

 It’s probably not unexpected that this man, now healed, wants to go with Jesus. Maybe he’s worried about staying in this place. He has no one who seems to be happy he has been healed. No family showing up. He’s been isolated for so long, he probably has no one left. But, Jesus says no. Stay here and tell everyone. Show everyone what has happened. Perhaps this is where the man can give his most powerful witness. In this place, where people know him. Who he was. Who he now is. Because of Jesus.

Folks, Mark is hard. We, like the people in town, are comfortable with the status quo. This Gospel pushes us to make the hard choices. What are the unclean spirits of our time? Where do we see oppression taking control of bodies and people, and causing pain? Are we willing to pay the cost that everyone might be whole? And who are the outcasts today? Who are the suffering and isolated in our world? Who do we push away so that we don’t have to see them?

Friends, until everyone is free, until everyone is whole, until everyone is healed, we cannot be fully free. So, yes, Mark is hard. But it is into the midst of our discomfort and fear that Jesus enters in. To transform us. And to fully break us free.

May you live into your discomfort this week. Amen.

Preached February 2, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Daniel 4:28-37, Psalm 27:1-4, Mark 5:1-20