Homily: The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant In the Room

                 Deuteronomy 18: 15-20         1 Corinthians 8: 1-13            Mark 1: 21-28

We’re just a week away from Super Bowl 46. We’re certainly disappointed that our Steelers will not be participating this year. But I think that we will all still enjoy the fascinating commercials that have become an integral part of the Super Bowl experience.

Computer technology has worked to make many of those ads fascinating with its ability to create  remarkable special effects, We may go along with the fun when we watch the medicine make the elephant sitting on the man’s chest disappear. But when we read a story like today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus expelling an unclean spirit, we’re not sure what to think. We’re uncomfortable with this brief but powerful story.

Jesus, going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, starts off by teaching those gathered in a way that was so impressive that it conveyed authority. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said. He seems to care more about telling us just how powerfully he taught. He shows us the power Jesus has at his fingertips, and how it changes things for good. It shows how He acted with authority.

The word “authority,” of course, has more than one meaning. There are really two kinds of authority, titular authority that comes from having a title. Even a corrupt judge or police officer has ‘authority’, and then there’s ‘real’ authority. The simplest, poorest person in the world can speak with a different kind of authority if they embody a wisdom and integrity that others find compelling. Each of us holds a different kind of power, one from the outside, and one from within.

The scribes sounded authoritative because they could cite chapter and verse of the scriptures; but that, after all, was their job. When Jesus, this carpenter from Nazareth, walked into the synagogue and spoke in a way that “astounded” the people, more than one person must have sensed trouble brewing. Who is this man, where did he go to school, and who gave him the right to speak this way?  And ‘just then’, things got even more extraordinary, when Jesus’ teaching in words became teaching in action.

A man tortured by and in bondage to an ‘unclean spirit emerged in the crowd, in the midst of the commotion over Jesus’ power-filled teaching. While others were full of questions about Jesus, this evil spirit was the only one who recognized who he actually was: “the Holy One of God.” Jesus commanded the spirit to be quiet and then expelled it from the man, freeing him from a terrible bondag

We don’t hear any more about this man, but the whole region soon heard all about what happened to him. Jesus had backed up his words, and his powerful preaching, with an action that showed what he was about.

Today, we try to find scientific explanations for what happened. We’re tempted to dismiss it because, well, who really believes in possession by spirits anymore? Perhaps, way down deep, we do believe in, and fear, “evil spirits” a little bit, or Hollywood wouldn’t employ those technical advances we admire so much to make so many movies and TV shows about the power and danger of evil spirits.

We modern Westerners have much more power over their lives and circumstances than the ancients believed they had. I suppose that’s part of the reason we tend to rationalize about the power of evil spirits in the world. We also know far less than we think we do, and understand even less than that.

We live in the midst of the battle between good and evil, the struggle of human limitation and failure. We may begin with good intentions, but we are so often sidetracked or derailed along the way. Life plunges us into the throes of human suffering and pain, and there seems to be no escape from it. The demonic seduces us in more ways than we can count, and we are often caught in its web before we recognize what has happened.

The world, including the church-going, faithfully believing world, stands in need of Jesus’ liberating touch, and longs for what can really satisfy the desires of the human heart, And Jesus conveys that power, that authority. We’re probably no more able to recognize that gift when we encounter it than the people in the synagogue were all those years ago. Our failure to comprehend Jesus’ true identity probably stems from mistaken expectations. We may be able to admit that we want and need a savior, but we may not always grasp what we need saved from, and the implications of what it means to really be saved.

The scribes explained what God’s word was saying. Jesus allows God’s power to burst onto the scene.. Jesus blazes, explodes, and erupts. We are called to watch and participate in the experience as Jesus reveals, once again, even today, the opposition of evil to the goodness of God creation and what it looks like for real. Like our ancestors in faith, we find ourselves asking who this Jesus is, who calls us to healing and to better things, better ways of living, and what that means in our lives: and, are we truly willing to accept this Way of Jesus and truly live it?

In Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by going into the synagogue and reading about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free. In Mark’s Gospel, we don’t hear such beautiful words. But we see actions, powerful, dramatic ones that proclaim just as surely that the promises of God are true, the promises of old that are new in the person of Jesus today. Jesus cares for the poor in spirit and consoles those who mourn.

The authority here in Mark’s gospel is not power. It’s a willingness simply to see justice served, to see our world and our lives through His eyes. This is what Jesus’ ministry is about.

Just as an example: we are in the midst of very serious economic crisis. And we may be deceived into believing that, if our present economy gets more active, if we only sell more cars, we’ll solve our problem. But, it fact, the problem is rooted in an economic system that manufactures things only to replace what we already have, or to destroy as do the military weapons and ordnance that we produce and use so prolificly. But until we are willing to replace our present thinking about what makes things thrive economically and begin to manufacture on a large scale those things that meet real human needs and to stop creating a demand for all that junk that comes from China, and begin to respect the planet God created for us, we will continually confront the demons of recession and waste.

Yes, there was conflict when Jesus spoke and acted, and Jesus challenged even the religious authorities on many occasions as he challenges us today.

We are asked to reveal what opposition to the goodness of creation, what demons, look like, but to do so, so we can take the next step. That second step is as important as the first: opening ourselves and our communities to being transformed, shaped, by God’s hand at work in the world. Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”

Words can easily stay just words. Words, however, spoken in the name of God, have power. They can, like the words of Jesus, cause things to happen. The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. ‘

That’s why preaching is so important in the life of the church. All good preachers, want the same thing, come Sunday. We don’t desire simply to provide more information about this text. We don’t desire to add to all the other words ever uttered from pulpits, just because that’s what preachers do on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. No, we hope that our words, infused with the power of the One who speaks through us and on whose behalf we speak, will cause something to happen — in our parish, in the whole church in the nation and in the world — healing, peace, liberation.

Then we will all be amazed, not just by illusions, by what we think we see, but by the reality we encounter. The elephants in the room will disappear, and God’s love will be made known, and evil will begin to be expelled, right before our eyes.

                           Weekly Seeds       Kate Huey    United Church of Christ


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