Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
We like to commemorate firsts. The first man on the moon, the first day of school, the first electric light bulb, and all kinds of things we can celebrate with gold medals and blue ribbons. We savor first dates and stories that start with, “The first time I ever saw you mother.…” The writers of the Gospels know this about us.
That’s why each Gospel writer carefully chooses what to show Jesus doing as his first act in public. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ first public action is turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus preaching the Beatitudes, revealing himself to be a teacher extraordinare. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus interprets a passage from the prophet Isaiah calling people to pay attention to the poor and marginalized in their midst, which almost gets him thrown off a cliff. But this year in the church is the year of Mark, and Mark reveals who he believes Jesus to be with a confrontation between Jesus and an demonic spirit.
What are we to make of Jesus the Exorcist? We could rationalize in our modern post-Enlightenment way that what is going on in this moment is that Jesus is curing someone with a mental illness. We could use our poetic sensibilities to see Jesus reacting to evil personified, but I don’t know how helpful any of that would be. Instead let’s agree that the point of this confrontation—whatever was going on literally—is Mark demonstrating the authority of Jesus.
Since they were just selected last week, Jesus’ newly-minted disciples have no real understanding of who he is yet, or what following him really means. But from the moment he enters the synagogue and begins teaching, it’s clear to others: Jesus teaches like someone who has authority, not like the scribes the people were used to. Imagine how taken aback the scribes must have been, to find their power usurped by this unknown guy from Nazareth, which—as Chaplain Christa Fisher reminded us a few weeks ago—was the 1st-century-Palestinine-equivalent of “the ghetto.”
Imagine how the people in the pews must have responded to hearing new and challenging interpretations of the Scriptures, when they thought they already understood who God was and what God offered them/expected from them! “What is this?” they all wonder. Everyone knew something unexpected and important was going on, but it is an unclean spirit that genuinely recognizes and identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.”
Naming someone or something is important. To be able to name a feeling or an experience helps us understand it better. Once a doctor can name the illness that is bothering a patient, treatment is easier to determine. In calling Jesus by name and identifying him as the holy one of God in today’s story, demonic forces attempt to exert power over him. But Jesus isn’t having it. He commands the unclean spirit to leave, and it does. Naming is powerful.
That’s why it was significant for us as a congregation to take on the designation Reconciling in Christ five years ago, and why we are celebrating that ongoing choice today. There are people who argue that we were already welcoming everyone who came, so why did we need to specifically name the fact that our congregation welcomed the LGTBQ community?
I’ll tell you why. Because all too often churches are not welcoming or safe places, but places of psychological and theological terror for people who are LGTBQ. Because, even when churches announce that all are welcome there, they sometimes mean, “If you conceal who you are or repent for how you love, you are welcome here.” Because the suicide rate among teens in this population—particularly trans kids—is unthinkably high compared to the general population. Because naming is powerful. That’s why.
Many of you know it is my pleasure and privilege to serve as a counselor almost every summer for The Naming Project, a week-long Bible camp for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning teenagers. It’s called the Naming Project is because the three gay men who founded it wanted to ensure that the teens who attended— most of whom have been called horrible names—heard their true name said out loud at least once: Beloved of God.
That is your true name too—Beloved of God—and Jesus the Exorcist is determined to have you hear it. Mark has Jesus demonstrating what the kingdom of God is all about by freeing a person who was possessed, a person who was marginalized and considered unclean. It says something about God’s priorities that Jesus starts there. It says Jesus is a boundary breaker, extravagant in his disregard for all kinds of walls we imagine to be impassable: sex, gender, politics, religion, ability, education, ethnicity, race—all of it! Jesus makes it clear that none of those divisions can hold him in or block him out. Jesus can and will cross every border to be with us.
As Rev. Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary puts it, Jesus “steps into the realm of opposing supremacies, the world of other spirits, the potent power of possession and says, ‘God is here;’ breaking through the barrier that holds at bay the unclean, the evil of the universe, the places and spaces where it seems God could never be, the very presence of the opposite of God.”
That is good news for my campers at The Naming Project; it means Jesus is with them and for them, all evidence to the contrary. And it is Good News for the people of Trinity Lutheran Church, too, because—like every church—this place is entirely made up of people who are wrestling with demons, individually and collectively.
We gather together to face the dark moments of wondering, “Where is God in all that possesses me? Where is God in my depression, my addiction, my disease, my loss, my confusion, my sorrow?” And we get remind one another in word and in deed that Jesus the Exorcist is with us, reconciling us to God and to one another. “God is here. God is here. God is here.” Nothing can separate you from God’s love. You, in all your glorious complexity, are now and ever will be God’s Beloved.
Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider