Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Church Interrupted (Reflections on Epiphany 4, Year B)


“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’” (Mark 1:23-24) 

Don’t you just hate it when this kind of thing happens? 

You go to your house of worship for a nice Sabbath observance, you’re listening to the rabbi give a really unique and interesting talk, and then the whole thing gets disrupted by some guy with an unclean spirit. Man! That sucks. Why can’t people with unclean spirits just stay home?

 But sometime disruptions might not be such bad things, as in our Gospel lesson for Epiphany 4, Year B (Mark 1:21-28). Liturgical junkie that I am, I really love it when a mass is ritually perfect, when no one drops an offering plate or a hymnal or has a sneezing fit in the middle of my homily. I like to get through worship without anything catching on fire or any other unwelcome interruption. All the same, sometimes the interruptions are as important—or more important—than the ritual itself.

 In our Gospel lesson Jesus is wowing the crowds by his own authoritative interpretation of scripture, something this congregation wasn’t all used to hearing. Then this guy with the unclean spirit starts yelling at him. My natural wonky curiosity made me look up this passage in my Greek Bible to see what exactly was meant by “Unclean.” It turns out that the word used is akatharto (akaqartw for you Greek folks!) which comes from a root which actually means “dirty.” In fact, it can mean “filthy,” (like covered in poop) “rotten,” “impure,” or “defiling.” Any way you look at it, this spirit has nothing to do with God or holiness. It’s just plain icky.

 So here’s a guy in a house of worship who has a spirit that has crawled out of a toilet. What does Jesus do? He tells the spirit to shut the freak up and he orders it to come out of the man. Three things stand out here. 

First, the slimy spirit knows who Jesus is. At some level, sin always knows it’s sin and always fears the judgment of Christ’s righteousness. Folks say to me, “Pastor, I know I shouldn’t say this but...” and then they go on to say something rather uncharitable. I want to tell them, “If you know you shouldn’t say it, don’t say it!” At some level, I think we always recognize our dirty spirits and we always try to justify them. We don’t really want Jesus to destroy them because we’ve gotten so comfortable with our resentments or prejudices, or some other selfish desire.

 Second, Jesus orders the spirit to be silent. Some may consider this rather rude on the Savior’s part, but, in light of recent events, I’m not sure every point of view has a right to be expressed. Our news media bends over backwards to convince us that it’s fair and unbiased. The result is, it gives coverage to individuals whose speech may actually be defiling. You don’t have to listen to someone’s racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-immigrant bias, or religious intolerance. When we hear defiling speech we have a right and a duty to rebuke the speaker. If we actually know the facts, we should silence the gossip, the innuendo, and the suppositions.

 Third, Jesus rebukes and silences the spirit, but not the man. Our battle is with falsehood and hatred, but we won’t win it with hatred of those with whom we disagree. Jesus rebukes with love and healing. The disruption doesn’t have to mean the end of community. It should lead to a strengthening of relationships.

 There’s another examples of disruption in the Epistle lesson for Epiphany 4 (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). The Corinthian church is the Bible’s most dysfunctional family since the patriarchs of Genesis. These guys are always bickering with each other, and they always want St. Paul to settle things. In the case of 1 Corinthians 8, it’s the question of whether or not you can eat food sacrificed to an idol. Some Corinthian Christians thought, “What the heck? This is a false god, but a good steak. I’d hate to see it go to waste.” Others were afraid that by eating such food they were participating in idolatrous ritual and they’d go to Hell for it. Paul gives a wise, but not a straight, answer.

 He’s not going to end this disruption by an up or down vote on eating idol food. He basically agrees with the folks who don’t see the harm to their souls in eating this stuff, but he also recognizes that some other Christians are really upset by this. He advises that the church err on the side of protecting the weak in faith. That is, don’t serve that rack of lamb sacrificed to Dionysius to a new Christian who feels it’s sinful. Ruin your own lungs if you want to, but don’t blow smoke in your neighbor’s face. Suck down that Pabst Blue Ribbon, but not in front of the guy who just started going to AA meetings. Wear your face covering and don’t hold indoor worship during a pandemic. The only rule is that we love and look out for each other, even if it means we have to give something up ourselves.

 Yes, we’re experiencing disruption, but let’s learn from it and keep looking out for each other, okay?

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