Old Father Jones retires after serving as a parish’s rector for 35 years. Father Smith, a young priest and recent seminary graduate, accepts a call to replace him. Celebrating the Eucharist for the first time in the parish, young Father Smith is surprised when half the congregation stands throughout the entire Eucharistic prayer while the other half kneels. The tension between the two groups is palatable. After the service Father Smith asks the two groups about the parish’s tradition. “We always stand for the prayer,” some say rather forcefully. “No, we always, always kneel,” say others indignantly. A heated argument ensues. Father Smith decides to pay a visit to Father Jones to learn more. He tells Father Jones, “Some contend the parish’s tradition is to stand.” “No,” says Father Jones, “standing is not the tradition.” “So the tradition is to kneel?” “No, this is not the parish’s tradition either.” “Well, I don’t understand,” says a dismayed Father Smith, “all they do is fight about the matter.” “Ah,” says Father Jones, “fighting is the parish’s tradition.”
Last week we learned how Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James, and John – all fishermen – to follow him. The first two walk away from their nets and second two leave their father’s boat and business and all go with Jesus. The group heads straight into town and when the Sabbath arrives goes to the local synagogue to worship.
Now, synagogue worship is not quite like what we do here on Sunday morning. You come here this morning expecting to hear me preach and celebrate. And you expect a certain order and orderliness to our worship. Those who go to synagogue expect a wild and wooly give-and-take as all present engage in open discussion and debate about the meaning of the texts read at the service. It is a kind of free-for-all where multiple people – including visitors – feel free to weigh in. The discussion/debate is an unregulated, participatory event pocked with twists and turns.
Into this arena steps Jesus. The text does not tell us what he says, it reports only he teaches with “authority.” It is not at all clear what it means by this. It does not seem to be a reference to charisma or power. Most likely “authority” is a reference to how Jesus cites himself to validate what he says. Think how Matthew’s gospel uses the formula of Jesus saying, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you...” Jesus validates his teaching by referencing himself. Mark tells us the local scribes do not teach with this kind of authority. It is not that Jesus is an exciting teacher while they are dull and dry. It means the scribes derive their authority by being able to reference the teachings of rabbis from the past whereas Jesus has developed his own thoughts and ideas about things.
The text tells us the people in the synagogue are “astounded” at his teaching. Astounded seems to me to be something of an ambiguous term. It does not mean offended nor does it mean impressed. What Jesus says shocks his listeners. It leaves them flabbergasted and speechless. They recognize there is something about Jesus but they just don’t know what to make of it or what to do with him.
Perhaps the reason Mark does not record what Jesus says is because he wants to focus on what Jesus does. And in this particular situation, actions speak louder than words. A person “with an unclean spirit” bursts out with a piercing cry that reverberates throughout in the synagogue.
I have a vivid memory from when I was young of being in our large, well-to-do church located in an upscale, established neighborhood of the west end of Akron. A rather disheveled street person entered the sanctuary as the service was in progress, walked down the center aisle, and seated himself in the second or third pew. His very presence put people on edge. After sitting quietly for about ten minutes, he stood up, interrupted the service, and announced he had something he wanted to say. A middle-aged man sitting near this fellow grabbed his coat and his wife and together they fled the church in near panic. I can still recall the look of fear on their faces as they made a hasty retreat.
I wonder if this is the initial reaction of the people in the Capernaum synagogue on this day. Does the man crying out catch them completely off guard or have they seen his act before?
A literal translation of what the person/unclean spirit says to Jesus is “what to you and us?” It is a blunt inquiry into to the relationship between them and the consequences of their meeting.
And notice this, the unclean spirit displays an orthodox understanding, “I know who you are. You are the Holy One of God.” It is an affirmation of Jesus’ identity far beyond anything anyone else in the room understands at the time. Because the unclean spirit understands Jesus’ identity, Mark’s storytelling focus falls heavily on “what to you and us?” – what are the implications of Jesus’ identity for the person with the unclean spirit?
In a very real sense this person gets it in a way everyone else in the synagogue does not. They are astonished by Jesus’ sense of authority. This guy, with his troubling spirit, understands how Jesus’ authority stakes a claim on every person and every relationship and every aspect of life. And one thing Jesus claims for all people is health and wellbeing. Whatever tortures or torments an individual will not stand. Jesus will not allow it. The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus will not tolerate its destructive dominance over the person it occupies. And the person, repressed for so long, recognizes liberation is at hand, an understanding which can be both exhilarating and terrifying.
With one simple command Jesus banishes the unclean spirit. I call it the “clergy voice”.
Some of you were volunteering in the Food Pantry when two of our clients, waiting in the Parish Hall, got into a loud, profane, verbal confrontation and in a matter a seconds my “clergy voice” came out: “What is going on here? You. Sit down now! You, come with me right now and get your food then leave. This is not the kind of conduct we tolerate in this place.” I remember walking the one person to the pantry and getting the sense everyone was ASTOUNDED at what they witnessed me do. Clergy voice can be very effective, if used sparingly.
Those in the synagogue move from being astonished to being amazed. What Jesus does makes credible what Jesus says. He doesn’t just talk a big game, he backs it up.
So here we sit in our beautiful church some 2,000 years later listening to this story during what hopefully will be a tranquil and uneventful Sunday morning. The question of the person with the unclean spirit is our question as well: Jesus, what to you and me? As you stand before Jesus what in your life cries out? What troubles you? What torments you? Does something or someone dominate you? Jesus’ deep desire is to set you free. Free to flourish as the gifted human being God has created you to be. Free to love and live in relationship with others. Free to praise God and to pray for yourself and on behalf of others. Free to celebrate all the goodness God has infused in creation.
This weekend your 2018 Vestry and I met in retreat to organize and plan for the coming year. We also spent time in conversation around a series of prayers written by a Ted Loder, a Methodist pastor, and published in a 1984 book titled Guerrillas of Grace. This prayer is called Guide me into an Unclenched Moment. The opposite of unclenched is clenched. Think about this as you listen to the prayer ponder the times and ways you feel clenched in your life:
into an unclenched moment,
a deep breath,
a letting go
of heavy expectations,
of shivering anxieties,
of dead certainties,
that, softened by the silence,
surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable,
entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy
that is you.
I suspect, like me, you do not consider yourself to be the unwilling host of an unclean spirit. But, perhaps like me and like the members of our Vestry, the notion of being clenched resonates with you. Jesus stands before you as One with authority. Jesus, what to you and me? How does your presence create silence? Light? Openness to mystery? How do you uphold me by means I cannot create or fathom? How do you entrance with the simple and fill with joy? How do you guide me into an unclenched moment? Jesus, what to you and me?