Epiphany 4b, February 1, 2015

February 2, 2015

Cleaning the House of Worship
Mark 1:21-28

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This morning’s scripture lesson is a textbook case of institutional pathology confronted by an exceptionally self-differentiated leader. I’m able to say this because I’m fresh out of my second continuing education class on the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy. This class falls in to the broad category of leadership development, and our instructor, Rev. Doug Hester, tries to help us understand the ways in which institutions can not only harbor but sometimes encourage unhealthy patterns of behavior for generations, and how we pastors have been trained by our own family systems to deal with problems in relatively automatic ways that aren’t necessarily helpful.

What we family systems theorists would hypothesize is that this synagogue had not only learned to adapt to the unfortunate condition of the man with an unclean spirit, but they had probably made special accommodations for him. I’m guessing everyone knew where this man with issues liked to sit and they made sure his place was available to him. They might even have given him a leadership position of some kind to feed his need to have some official control over that important institution. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but everybody knew his parents and grandparents, and nobody wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings. There were probably some furnishings in the synagogue with this family’s name inscribed upon them.

It wouldn’t have been easy to keep this man happy, but I’m guessing everyone did their best to keep him from having one of his episodes. In fact that might well have become their main objective. I don’t know what was going on in that synagogue, but they seem to have been very accommodating to this man whose life was held captive by an unclean spirit. For whatever reason, that unclean spirit had been comfortable within that synagogue until Jesus showed up to teach, and what he said was very threatening to this man’s circumstances.

I may be all wrong about this. It could be that this demon possessed man had never set foot in that synagogue before. The text doesn’t address where this man came from, but when the man speaks he seems to be speaking for the group. He asks the question, What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? As I say, we don’t know what this man’s role in that religious community was, but I can’t help but think he played a large role. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive to the potential of religious organizations as being particularly sensitive to pathological behavior.

I should tell you that the title of the recent class I attended was “Insensitivity Training: Changing the Focus of Pastoral Care”. And the first question our instructor posed was this: How often do we get tyrannized by the sensibilities of others?

I’m probably operating with an analysis in search of a problem, but I believe there is some truth to what I’m thinking. Religious institutions are notorious for giving safe harbor to bad behavior. And church leaders are well equipped to not deal with bad situations. I think we religious people often confuse compassion for people with enabling people to maintain bad behavior. We exercise empathy when we should expect responsibility, and that kind of behavior extends and compounds problems instead of creating opportunities for healing and resolution. I’m telling you, I took good notes during my class.

Whether the man with an unclean spirit was someone the community overly accommodated or not, this is an issue that can crop up in our lives, and in this situation Jesus does provide a different model of dealing with the issue than we kind-hearted Christians often utilize. He didn’t act as if nothing had happened, he didn’t save his reaction for private conversation when the man wasn’t around, he didn’t back down and apologize to the man for offending his sensibilities – he addressed the actual problem within the man – which resulted in the man being healed and the whole community experiencing a revival of sorts.

Clearly Jesus was an early student of the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy.

I think this is a really helpful story for us to examine. It’s easy for us to get caught up and distracted by the language of being possessed by an unclean spirit or a demon – we modern people don’t normally use that kind of language to describe people who’s lives are all torn up, but I don’t think this man in that synagogue is an unfamiliar character to us.

Thinking back, one of my finest moments of ministry occurred when I was the pastor of the West Helena United Methodist Church. It was a good church, and I enjoyed many good relationships within that church. But there was a man in that church who was not possessed by a demon, that’s far from how I would describe him, but he did have what you might call a difficult personality. He could see the problem with anything you might be trying to undertake and he would let you know about it. You might say that was his gift, and he exercised it freely. He wasn’t necessarily wrong about how he saw things, but he wasn’t very tactful in how he expressed his opinions. He was a good-hearted person, and he worked harder than most people to keep the church going, but as I say, he could be difficult.

I had initiated a Fat Tuesday pancake supper one year, and I had sort of gotten it organized, but we hadn’t sold that many tickets in advance and the weather was threatening, and as we were getting ready Pete was identifying everything that wasn’t quite right and what should have happened and how unlikely it was that anybody was going to show up and the moment arrived when I had heard all that I could stand. I became possessed by some kind of spirit and there in the kitchen in the midst of all the other United Methodist men I said: Pete, I know we’ve got some problems but it’s not helping for you to keep talking about them. If you don’t want to be here you can leave, but this supper is going to happen, and if you are going to stay I need for you to stop complaining.

It got real quiet for a moment, and then he responded by saying, OK, and he proceeded to keep working and to stop complaining.

You would think I would have learned something from that moment about the importance of direct communication, and maybe it helped me a little bit, but it’s not easy for us good southern Christian people to be that direct. I can get there, but that’s not how I was trained to behave in my family of origin.

In all honesty, this is an unusual church in regard to the lack of petty controversy. I’m not sorry about that, and I think it does speak to an aspect of this church that’s unusually healthy.

I was talking to a man one day from my hometown who is a very faithful member of 1st United Methodist Church in Wynne. He was telling me one day that his daughter lives in Little Rock, and that her apartment isn’t far from our church. He expressed some distress at the fact that she wasn’t going to church anywhere. At one point he told me that she just doesn’t like to go to church. And I responded by saying that she should come to QQUMC because there are a lot of people who come to this church because they don’t like to go to church.

He said he really didn’t know what to make of that. I wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by that either, but I think I was trying to speak to the fact that many of you have come from churches that were too caught up in the wrong things.

And I think that has made for a healthier and more harmonious community. In spite of the age of our facility, as most of you know, this is a relatively young church. The first church that occupied this sanctuary had a significant internal struggle in the late 1980’s which resulted in the relocation of that church, and that conflict is what opened the door for this church to get started. It’s an interesting study in organizational dynamics. It is a sad story in a number of ways, but one unintended consequence of that unfortunate battle is that something new and different was able to take hold here, and that wouldn’t have happened if that conflict hadn’t occurred.

That struggle gave birth to a new church, and our newness is an asset in many ways, but the downside of being a relatively young church is that people aren’t so deeply invested here. Consequently, people are more likely to leave if something doesn’t feel quite right than they are to engage in advocacy for change.

We have a good amount of harmony here, and that is great, but we shouldn’t be afraid to engage in a little conflict every now and then. I can’t really believe I’m hearing myself say that, and I’m really not inviting you to open that proverbial can of conflict on me, but this is a valuable organization, and it will always need honest and direct input.

We don’t just need to get along – we need for this to be a place where truth of Jesus Christ prevails and healing happens. This is a uniquely good church. I think yesterday’s memorial service for Randy was a great testimony to the goodness of this church. That service highlighted how right it is for the church to be truly open to people of all ages, nations, races, and sexual orientations. I was so proud yesterday to be the Sr. Pastor of the church that Randy Jones chose to attend.

This is such a good church. And we need you all to continue making it a better church. If there’s something that doesn’t suit you don’t quit coming – say something. Don’t be mean, and don’t expect everybody to do what you say, but stay engaged. Dig in, pray to God for guidance, love your fellow parishioners and your pastors, and work to build the kind of church where all people are welcome and demons are threatened!

Thanks be to God.


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