By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
February 1, 2008
Read: Mark 1: 21-28
I’m not sure where to begin with today’s gospel reading. Jesus is in a holy place, a synagogue, where the people were astounded because he teaches as one with authority. And then a man with an unclean spirit, in the synagogue, recognizes Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. And Jesus commands that spirit to be silent, and come out of the man. Again, the people recognize Jesus as one who has authority; while saying “what is this?”
So, this story of Mark’s has something to do with authority and where true authority comes from. And it certainly has something to do with good and evil – unclean spirits.
What is unclean? Unclean can mean dirty, soiled. For example, a dirty cup needs to be washed before it can be used again…or a second definition: lacking moral, spiritual or physical cleanliness. And Mark’s unclean spirit was in a man who was in church – he was in a holy place, a synagogue. What does a man with an unclean spirit look like today?
With the arsons here in Coatesville, we can clearly see that person or persons as having an unclean spirit. The actions are clearly evil. But it is often much more subtle and pervasive than our arsonist, or arsonists are currently showing us.
I think the man with an unclean spirit can look like any of us, quite frankly. Perhaps the better question to ask here is, “what, living in us, would cause us to convulse if Jesus told it to be silent?”
Keith Miller wrote “Habitation of Dragons”; it’s a book of Lenten meditations about naming the “dragons” within. He said that to name them was to exert control over them. And in these very personal and transparent vignettes, Keith Miller reveals the struggles and subtle temptations that beset him, a “successful” Christian author and lecturer. His honest appraisal of his own failings prompts a more thorough soul-searching of our own “dragons”. Frequently, while describing his own struggles with insecurities, anxiety, escapism, pride, self-doubt and ordinary family challenges, we can recognize the similarities in our own lives.
There is a native American story that I’ve shared before, but is well worth repeating:
A grandfather and grandson were out hunting one early morning, and they came upon a ridge on the mountain…. over the ridge was a large clearing below, where at a distance, they could see two wolves fighting furiously.
They watched as the wolves attacked each other in battle. The grandfather narrowed his eyes, and said slowly, “Ah, yes…. this is the way with all of us Human Beings, within our hearts, each and every day.”
The grandson asked, “What do you mean, grandfather?”, to which the old one replied; “Always in our hearts, every day, is a struggling battle, like those two wolves down there…. one is the wolf in us who wishes to do bad things, and the other is the wolf who wishes to do good and honorable things.”
The grandson listened more intently now, with a look of slight recognition, and deep concern. The grandfather continued….”Sometimes, the bad one seems to win…. and other times, the good one seems to take a stronger lead. When we see honorable people who do great deeds, and make great sacrifices for the good of others, we know that the good wolf’s spirit is strong within his heart, and is the winning spirit in that Human Being. Each good and honorable deed he does gives this spirit more power within him. This in turn, empowers the Human Being to be more honorable.”
The boy smiled, as the grandfather continued to speak….”But when we see those people who turn to badness, and hatred, doing terrible and dishonorable things, we can know that the bad wolf within him is strong – and each bad and wrongful deed he does, gives the bad wolf more power over him, until it has won, and has utterly consumed him.”
The young one’s face fell with a look of slight, shuddering inner fear.
So the boy thought long and hard on these things, as he continued to watch the wolves battling below. They both battled fiercely, giving no quarter – neither one backing down. Seeing this, he looked within himself, and saw the truth of his wise grandfather’s words, and it made him very concerned for himself with a great, deep fear.
“But grandfather,” said the boy, “How will I know which wolf will win within me??”
The grandfather smiled, looked at him with an understanding eye, and after a moment, told him, ” ….the one that you FEED.”
Dr. Erich Fromm, also addresses this tendency for the good to get better and the bad to get worse. He says:
Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decision, the more our heart softens—or better perhaps, comes alive.
A wandering preacher in a non-descript fishing village in the middle of an economic melt-down picks up a bit of scripture and teaches from a point of radical love. Having authority through the extreme love that seems to always be connected to the margins, always struggling for justice, always looking to make a way out of no way for those nobodies who often seem in the way.
Not much different from a young preacher who writes from a Birmingham jail in the columns of a discarded newspaper, reminding the scribes of his day that “love of God” can never be “love of God” if it remains disconnected from “love of neighbor.” Not much different than a Hispanic pastor pointing breathlessly at his brothers and sisters and demanding that they be known not as “illegals” but as “human.”
And then I read a story about Maya Angelou, who went to a conference in Texas. The theme was “Facing Evil.” A man stood up and said:
I really have seen evil.
I have felt its force.
I went to Germany
and I went into the concentration camps.
To which Maya Angelou responded (with an indignant tone):
Do you mean to tell me
that we’ve come from all over the world
and we’re going to talk nonsense?
You had to go to Germany,
you here in Texas who refused Mexican-Americans a chance to vote,
you who don’t want them to even live next to you,
you have your own history of slavery —
you had to go to Germany?
I don’t wanna hear it!”
Maya Angelou was right. We don’t have to look very far to find evil.
Some years ago, Max Lerner made this statement. He said:
Our demonic civilization
is like a painted face on a balloon.
As the balloon swells,
the face becomes more and more monstrous.
If we take it at face value
we will be terrified….
But actually it is hollow within.
One pinprick will destroy it.
That pinprick comes from radical love. Healing is the result of love. It is a function of love. Where there is love there is healing.
Jesus teaches us how to love; how to live in community with each other. Remember the first and greatest commandment: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and the second is like unto it. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus spoke as one having authority. “Authority,” in the best sense of the word, is persuasive, it doesn’t need nor does it depend on threats of force. People gravitate toward genuine authority because it is persuasive, because it speaks to the heart, because genuine authority is recognized as being different, it’s recognized as having come from above.
So, Jesus is different from the scribes, because Jesus is said to teach with “authority.” Jesus’ authority comes from above. He is rightly identified by the demon as, “the Holy One of God.” Jesus’ authority is a derived authority, it comes directly from God.
The food available to feed the good wolf within each of us comes from above, it is the food of hope and grace whose singular nutritional authority comes from God. We do not have the power to overcome evil on our own. In fact, left to our own devices we would probably choose evil more often than good.
Far from being the self-righteous hypocrites the world paints Christians out to be, we know all too well our own capacity for evil and our own need for forgiveness. It’s when we meet Jesus that we are perpetually astounded by the food of hope and grace.
It is the “Holy One of God” who has the authority to call evil out of us, to forgive us, and to transform us.
And it’s as we leave this place and follow the light out into the world that we are given the authority to speak, and live, and heal in ways that feed a hungry world.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me; fall fresh on us; feed Your spirit within us. Amen.
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