Last week, I broached from the pulpit the topic of the congregational conversation that we are having around the issues of gay marriage, and there was a collective gasp. In each service, it was like I snapped a twig in the woods and all the deer froze at once. And I bring it up today, not because it is going to be a weekly thing. I actually don’t plan to talk much about it from the pulpit; that is why we have a team that is going to plan out a process for the conversation, and I don’t want to shortcut their work as John Pauls begins to pull them together and begin their work.
But I do want to talk today in more general terms about what it looks like to be a congregation willing to have hard conversations. I stated last week, and believe today, that God is bigger than any one single issue, and that for 161 years our church has withstood countless controversies, from slavery to war to economic depression to civil rights.
And then I met with the team that has graciously agreed to give me regular feedback on my sermons, as a part of my DMin coursework. Following last week’s sermon, they met with me to offer feedback, and not surprisingly, it was incredibly insightful. They offered a hearty, “Amen, pastor…but.” They agreed that God and the worship and ministry of God’s call was more important than any current controversy. Then came the “but.”
But…over those 161 years, controversies have hurt the church.
But…over those 161 years, our church has not always been unified.
But…over those 161 years, people have left.
And they were right. They spoke from a place of wisdom, and perhaps a place of pain. As much as we can acknowledge that God is bigger than any one single issue, we must also acknowledge that there are issues that have caused brokenness: to our unity, to our relationships, to our hearts and souls and minds and bodies. We cannot oversimplify our reality to suggest that all we need to do is talk about things and we will work it all out.
Sometimes, we don’t.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together states, “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try and realize it. But…God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.”
So it is for every church that believes that life will be rosy and easy all the time. And so it was for the first Christian community of Jesus and his disciples. Last week, we read of the calling of the disciples and their immense and amazing trust of Jesus. But Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus calls Andrew and Peter and James and John, that dream world disappears.
Jesus walks into the synagogue where there is a man possessed by a demon. There are plenty of examples of demons and demon possession in the Bible which are terrifying and tragic. Young boys being thrown into fires by demons. Men being chained in graveyards to tear at their own flesh. In this story, however, the worst that this demon-possessed man does is talk too loud in church!
And forgive it if it sounds like I am downplaying the seriousness of the passage, but Mark did it first. Biblical scholar Gary W. Charles rightly points out that the hardest things to translate from a 2,000 year old language and dialect are irony and humor. He and other scholars reading in the original Greek point out that this passage really is a humorous telling of Jesus’ encounter with this demon.
And as soon as Jesus walks into the synagogue, this man starts yelling at the top of his lungs. And what happens next is pure comedy. Jesus tells the man to stop talking. Literally, it is an active verb, so closer to what he says is something like, “why don’t you put a muzzle on it!” Now, resist the temptation to use this line when someone in the pew behind you is whispering too loud in church. Just because Jesus said it doesn’t mean you can.
Jesus tells the man to “put a muzzle on it,” because of course he was actually talking to the demon who possessed this man. Then, we find that this demon is in fact speaking for more than one demon, perhaps all demons, when he asks, “are you going to destroy us? For we know that you are the Holy One of God!”
Again, there are plenty of stories of demon possession in the Bible that are about terrible and tragic situations, but in Mark’s story, there is none of this. This demon is a cartoon character, a powerless, toothless creature. Neither the possessed man nor the demon are the focus point of the story.
The point of the story is Jesus.
The point of all of these early stories in Mark…is Jesus. Every single one of these seemingly disconnected stories in the first chapter points back to this important common theme: the ultimate authority of Jesus to heal and restore.
Now, in our world, authority comes from a lot of different places. A badge on our chest. Power conferred by a government. Initials after our name representing a degree earned. But the Biblical connotation of this authority is more about the right than the power or knowledge. The Greek word is exousia, and it means, first and foremost, a person’s freedom or ability to perform an action without hindrance or block. It is not about external power that has been assigned by someone else. There is another Greek word for that. But exousia is about internal power – a sense of self and purpose and clarity of one’s ability. That is why the people in the story are amazed by Jesus’ ability to tell this demon to shut up. His power is not conferred by position or title or education, like the scribes were, but instead by the internal validity of knowing his role to heal and bring wholeness. Thirteen of 18 miracle stories in Mark are examples of healing. This is who Jesus came to be. And he didn’t need a church structure or opinion poll or outside power to name that for him. And when the people witnessed that authority, they were amazed.
And the demon in this story – who really represents all of the demons – is amazed. In fact, it is terrified that Jesus shows up because they know that his internal authority comes from the fact that he is the “Holy One of God.” And so, this conversation with the demon, who is summarily tossed out of the man and out of the synagogue, is meant to be a humorous moment. This is not a scary scene out of Rosemary’s Baby or Emily Rose or The Exorcist. Jesus has the authority as healer to release this man from his possession, and thus give notice that the ways of evil and death and destruction are on their way out. They are overmatched and out of time. Imagine the story like it were an old Western, where Jesus saunters through the saloon doors and pushes up his white ten gallon and says, “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Jesus is telling this demon and every demon that his own power and authority will not be blocked. There is a new King in town.
And so, like every other story in this first chapter of Mark, the real focus is Jesus and Jesus’ authority as a healer and restorer. The symbols of death and conflict and destruction are not the focus because Jesus overwhelms every last one of them. Jesus is the center of attention!
And if the good news in Mark is that Jesus the authoritative healer is in town to defeat brokenness in all its forms, then that good news stretches into our world and our lives, as well.
And so, prepare for me to snap another twig. Because there are times when we must talk about controversial issues in our church, whatever they are: race, violence, abortion, gay marriage, whether or not an NFL player stands for the national anthem. Doesn’t matter what it is this week. Unless we stick our heads in the sand, these topics will keep coming up.
But lest I leave anyone with the false impression that all we need to do in order to get through this or any controversy is for us to sit down and hash it out, let Mark clarify for us. In the brokenness and conflict that exists – in our country, in our congregation, and in our hearts – there is only One who heals.
I am excited about the crucial work of the Process Planning Team that will put together congregational conversations and studies, but they are not the ones who will bring healing during this time.
I am proud of the Spiritual Leadership Team and their choice to take a courageous and prayer-filled step and engage on this issue, but they are not the ones who will bring healing during this time.
I am thankful for John Pauls and his leadership as the moderator of the church during this conversation, but he is not the one who will bring healing during this time.
No one in this room will.
If there is to be healing for the divisions in our church, our country, or our world, it won’t come from our own efforts. Like Bonheoffer wrote, it is like living in a dream world to say that we can heal ourselves.
But there is One who heals, and it is the One who steps into the lives of the hurting and the wounded and speaks a word of healing and wholeness, just like he stepped into the life of the man in the synagogue.
There is One who heals, and it is the one who doesn’t back down from the demonic possession of pride and hatred, just like he would not back down in the face of the evil of his day.
There is One who heals, and it is the One who has the true authority to look the powers and principalities in the eye and tell them that there is a new King in town, that there is a new Kingdom coming, and that there is a new life for every participant in that Kingdom.
A new life that is not governed by pain. Not governed by trauma. Not governed by conflict. But is governed by love.
Bonheoffer also says “the person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
In Christ’s kingdom of love, each one is loved by God.
And in the new Kingdom that Christ initiated, that is what makes them worthy.
That is what brings them toward healing and wholeness.
And that is how we as participants in that Kingdom continue to love and care for one another.
All we can do is give our attention and our worship and our allegiance to that King. We can and must talk together, though talking will not solve everything. But we can and we must put our lives and our church in the hands of the Ultimate healer. And that will make all the difference.