January 28, 2018

How Can I Keep from Singing, Greg Gilpin, Chancel Choir
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Congregation

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fall out of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.
–Emily Dickinson

Qu’ran 49:12
O mortal flesh,
We created you male and female,
and made you into nations and tribes
that you may come
to know one another.

There Could Be Holy Fallout Hafiz
We are often in battle.
So often defending every side of the fort,
It may seem, all alone.

Sit down, my dear.
Take a few deep breaths,
Think about a loyal friend.
Where is your music,
Your pet, a brush?

Surely one who has lasted as long as you
Knows some avenue or place inside
That can give a sweet respite.

If you cannot slay your panic,
Then say within
As convincingly as you can,
“It is all God’s will!”

Now pick up your life again.
Let whatever is out there
Come charging in,

Laugh and spit into the air,
There could be holy fallout.

Throw those ladders like tiny match sticks
With “just” phantoms upon them
Who might be trying to scale your heart.

Your love has an eloquent tone.
The sky and I want to hear it!

If you still feel helpless
Give our battle cry again,

Has shouted it a myriad times,

“It is all,
It is all the Beloved’s will!”

What is that luminous rain I see
All around you in the future

Sweeping in from the east plain?
It looks like, O it looks like
Holy fallout

Filling your mouth and palms
With Joy!

Mark 1:21-28
Then they come to Capernaum, and right away on the Sabbath he went to the meeting place and started teaching they were astonished at his teaching since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars.

Now right then and there in their meeting place was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted, “Jesus! What do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: God’s holy man!”

But Jesus yelled at it, “Shut up and get out of him!”

Then the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions, and it came out of him with a loud shriek. And they were all so amazed that they asked themselves, “What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority! He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him!”

And right away his reputation spread everywhere throughout the whole area of Galilee.

Prayer in Celebration of the Greatest Invention Ever, the Wicked Hot Shower Brian Doyle
O God help me bless my soul is there any pleasure quite so artless and glorious and simple and unadorned and productive and restorative as a blazing hot shower when you really really want a hot shower?

When you are not yet fully awake, when you are wiped from two hours of serious basketball, when you are weary and speechless after trip or trauma?

Thank You, Inventiveness, for making a universe where there is water, and heat, and nozzles, and towels, and steam, and hairbrushes, and razors for cutting that line that distinguishes your beard from your chest, and toothbrushes.

Thank You most of all, Generosity, for water. Deft invention, water. Who would have ever thought to mix hydrogen and oxygen so profligately? Not us. But it is everything we are. It falls freely from the sky. It carries us and our toys and joys. It is clouds and mist and fog and sleet and breath. There is no sweeter more crucial food.

It ought to remind us of Your generosity every time we sip or swim or shower. It reminded me of You this morning. I bow gently in gratitude.

And now, forgive me, I must be going, as there is a small boy hammering on the door and wailing and gnashing his teeth, and there is a disgruntled line forming behind him. And so: amen.

The gospel lectionary text is a difficult one, I think. It is hard to know what the story is trying to say and it is difficult finding a way to translate it for our time. It isn’t something to pass over or to ignore. It is an important story for Mark. It is Jesus’s first miracle. In John’s gospel, Jesus’s first miracle is turning water to wine at a wedding feast. In Mark’s gospel it is casting out an unclean spirit in the synagogue.

It is an important story for Mark. It is Jesus’s first direct action on behalf of the empire of God. It is his first confrontation. It is his first contest of power at least in the public realm. He did go into the wilderness and face something there by himself after his baptism. But this is his first public confrontation with an opponent.

I don’t this is a story of Jesus curing a person of mental illness. I think we might make a connection with society’s response to mental illness and this unclean spirit, but to call an unclean spirit a pre-modern, pre-scientific, pre-western medicine name for mental illness misses the point of the story. And does a disservice to those of us who experience mental illness. People with mental illness are not unclean nor are we possessed by devils or demons.

Then there is Hollywood. That is the horror genre of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings, and so forth. That is another modern way of coming to terms with pre-modern concepts of evil that I don’t believe do justice to Mark’s story or to the mission of Jesus.

So Jesus goes to Capernaum in Galilee and he enters a synagogue and begins teaching. He is going into a worship setting, the modern equivalent of a church. He teaches on his own authority. In other words, he doesn’t say here is what Moses says about such and such. He says here is what I say. This explicit in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus says in what is called the sermon on the mount: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”

It isn’t explicit in Mark’s gospel, but that is the sense here. Jesus is telling his own truth. We don’t know what he is saying. Mark doesn’t tell us. The only real content from Jesus is what Jesus said earlier: “The empire of God is at hand. Trust the good news.” He doesn’t even say that here. He teaches with authority. People are astonished. What does that mean, curious? Mildly amused? Angry? Right? Who does this guy think he is? Even the scribes, the scholars don’t do that.

Then right there in the worship center, a voice speaks. The voice says this:

“Jesus! What do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: God’s holy man!”

Who is us? Is the “us” a band of demons, like in that Charlie Daniels song, “The Devil went down to Georgia?” Are the “us” a collection of these little devils? A labor union of unclean spirits?

Or maybe we think it is like a person who is walking downtown and yelling at people on the sidewalk, a person suffering from a mental illness?

This unclean spirit, who speaks in a royal we knows who Jesus is. the act of naming shows that this is a contest of power. If you can name your opponent you can get the upper hand. That is why we name people and put them in groups. It is also why name-calling is a popular sport. Name-calling takes the focus away from whatever the issue might be and puts it on the person. “I know who you are!” Jesus doesn’t play that game. He orders the unclean spirit to shut up and get out of him. The unclean spirit throws the man into convulsions and comes out of the man with a loud shriek. That is the part that Hollywood likes.

Then what? The man never speaks in this story. It is only the unclean spirit and the group who Mark calls “they” who speak. Presumably, “they” are the people who attend the synagogue. The first thing “they” say is:

“What is this? A new teaching backed by authority! He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him!”

The first thing they say is “the teaching” the thing they were astonished about earlier. Apparently the teaching is from what we know of Jesus so far in Mark’s gospel, the teaching is this: “The Empire of God is at hand, in other words, right here. Trust the good news!” A new world order, we might say has been announced.

I am going to suggest that the “us” that comes from the lips of the unclean spirit and the “they” that is the people in the worship center are closely linked. It isn’t the individual guy who has the unclean spirit. The unclean spirit is embedded within the community itself.

Later on in Mark’s gospel when Jesus casts a bunch of unclean spirits whose collective name is Legion into a bunch of pigs, the symbolism is clear that the unclean spirits are a representation of the Roman occupation. When we think Legion, think Roman Legion, a collection of soldiers.

This story is about a oontest between a new kind of teaching from authority represented by Jesus and the powers that be that have been running the show that Jesus is out to destroy.

When we go downtown, say on Burnside Street and we happen to see someone who is yelling things that don’t quite make sense to us, we tend to think that person has a mental illness. The solution for that is medication or treatment. We could metaphorically say the person has an unclean spirit who is tormenting her.

But is the unclean spirit really within the individual or is the unclean spirit the “us” who with our various structures of power allow this situation to continue to exist?

I am going to leave that there.

I do want to tell you a personal story. My son suicided when he was 25. He “succeeded” then. He made his first attempt in college at 19. We were on watch with him after that. I sometimes wish I could relive that time and find something to do that would have helped. We didn’t talk about it. Because you don’t talk about it. We wanted him to be well and didn’t want the stigma of that attached to him as he is trying to live his life and come around.

It was something that was alone. And that is a lot of what mental illness is. We have people on our prayer list and we pray for them, a broken hip, or a surgery, but there is no one on there that we are praying for (or ourselves) for depression or anxiety or suicidal tendencies. We don’t say that stuff. Because that is the stigma. It is hard to talk about it. I am not saying we should talk about it, it’s not safe, that is what is. And that’s the pain of what we are experiencing.

Studies are coming out that Americans are some of the most unhappy folks. Why is that? And the medications. I am not saying take them or not take them, it’s just there. And it is something that we are not talking about a lot. It is one’s own individual thing. It ends up being private and one’s own individual thing, focused on an individual with a problem. I wonder if the various illnesses that manifest themselves are part of a larger spiritual illness that affects our communities at the local and at the larger levels. And I am just going to leave that there, too.

I am hoping that just saying it, acknowledges that for those of you in a similar position, I get you. I’m with you.

The unclean spirit may not be best translated as a mental illness, but a societal illness. Perhaps a societal spiritual illness.

And that is why every now and then we need to take a spiritual shower. A hot shower. To recognize that I have a lot on my plate. A spiritual shower, a cleansing whether it is through singing or some other way, or gathering together in community, or finding someone you can trust who will keep what you have to say with them in their heart. It is said that listening is one of the greatest gifts that one individual can give to another. To listen another’s soul Into a state of discovery.

Martin Luther King Jr. talked about that kind of thing when they were out doing demonstrations. He was constantly talking about non-violence and love and you have take your own shower before you go out. You have to not have malice and envy and strife within over against your opponent. It has to come from within. A point of recognizing that the unclean spirit is within all of us. Then we can respond with love and healing.

That is what we will find with the rest of the story as we move through Mark’s gospel that the teaching of authority by Jesus was represented in healing and embracing and listening, really deep listening I think, to others. Listening to them so that they might disclose what is in their hearts and find their healing.