SCRIPTURE They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. [Mark 1:21-28]
MESSAGE “Time to Clean Up This Mess!” Rev. James Renfrew
We have good friends in North Carolina who are Jewish. They go to their synagogue on Saturday, they raised their children in their faith, and they think deeply about Jewish teaching and traditions in making choices in the modern world. Their religion gives them a strong foundation and daily guidance.
One time I stayed at their home while I was visiting my mother. Our friends weren’t going to be there, but they left a key for me and a set of instructions for cat care. Yes, they had a cat and I was expected to take care of the cat, a small price to pay for their generous hospitality. “No problem”, I said to that; I know a little bit about cat care because I’ve fed cats at our own home, too.
But the instructions were more complicated than I expected. Sure, open the can of cat food and put it in the cat’s dish, but never ever wash the fork you use in the kitchen sink with the other tableware! Wash the fork and the cat dish in the laundry sink that is in another room. Why? Because in a Jewish home, it is important to understand that some things are unclean, like the meat in cat food, and those unclean things and the things that have touched them should never be anywhere close to the clean things in the kitchen. Because unclean things make clean things unclean, too. So I followed the rules in feeding the cat. And I’ve been invited back since, so our friends trusted that I followed the rules of their home, even though I am not Jewish. The cat even liked me!
In Jesus’ time there were also many rules about keeping clean and unclean things apart. These rules were not just mindless rituals, but were based on ancient understandings of health and sanitation, as well as ethical teachings about the treatment of animals and people. To this day, some food items in the grocery store have a small symbol that indicates that a board of rabbis determined that the product was prepared for your use in such a way that rules about clean and unclean were adhered to in producing it.
I am mentioning all of this because the word “unclean” is a key element in today’s gospel story from Mark. But this story isn’t about unclean forks, dishes, sinks, or cat food. It’s about a man with an unclean spirit, a spirit so unclean that when Jesus came to the synagogue the man with the unclean spirit jumped up, screamed, shouted and convulsed in a way that was frightening for people to behold.
What was this unclean spirit? I wish you had been at our Bible Study on Tuesday night because we talked at length about what it meant in the telling of the story, that the man’s spirit was unclean because there was a demon inside of him causing all of that frightening behavior. In our time we might have concluded that the man had epilepsy or some other kind of seizure disorder, but in Jesus’ time most would have concluded that there was a demon rattling around inside of his head! He acted in the way he did, not because of disease or genetics, but because a demon was forcing him to do so.
To our credit, the Bible Study participants didn’t much debate the differences between ancient medicine and modern science. We took the story on its own merits. The people there, including Jesus, saw the man’s behavior, understood that it was an unclean spirit caused by a demonic presence. And Jesus responded accordingly, commanding the demon to leave the poor man. And the demon did, immediately, and people who saw it were deeply impressed. In those days if you had a demon you would always have a demon, but Jesus chased that demon away. You bet that they were impressed! No one else could do what Jesus did! So whether you believe in demons or not, I think that the point of the story is that when Jesus gets involved in our lives we are no longer stuck in one place. Old habits, behaviors, illnesses, social systems and community patterns can give way to something new.
At the Bible Study we did talk about the nature of evil, where it comes from, and its presence in our lives. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but as a Christian I don’t spend time ferreting out individual demons, like Bill Murray in the Ghostbusters movie, sucking demons into safe containment with his proton backpack, but I do take careful note of demonic things in the world around us, like parents chaining their children to beds in a filthy home over several decades in California, or a man shooting into a large Las Vegas crowd with easily obtained guns, or anti-semitism on the rise in Europe again, or a genocidal massacre in Myanmar. I want to understand WHY? How could seemingly normal people do such horrible things? – and I figure that poverty, or anger, or racism, or bad parenting, untreated mental health, or dysfunctional living are surely major factors. I look at these terrible demonic situations and wonder how close any of us are to acting in these ways.
On the bulletin cover, you will see a picture of a room that badly needs cleaning, a table is overturned, there are piles of clothing everywhere, debris all over the floor, the curtains have fallen down, and the ceiling is caving in. I share this because there is another dimension to uncleanliness. In the Bible story it’s one man with an unclean spirit, but I want to share my thinking that we, all of us, live in unclean times, in unclean surroundings, an unclean culture, an unclean system. Whether you or I are the ones at fault, we could debate for the rest of our lives, yet that room is still unclean. It needs attention. I’m sure we could debate at length about what constitutes unclean in our world. You might even consider something I stand for to be unclean, and I could consider the same about you. But it’s time to clean up the mess.
Where did the evil come from? Was it demonic? Was it my poor education? Was it your poor upbringing? Was it just in me, or is it the whole of society?
We are here in this church to clean up the messes, those of our own making and those made by others. The main thing is that in Jesus Christ we are not stuck. Jesus has the ability to say the word and get us unstuck. He says the word to get us moving forward.