Epiphany 4B, January 28, 2018

January 29, 2018

Cleaning the House of The Lord

Mark 1:21-28


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.


A couple of years ago I took some continuing education courses that were taught by a man who was a specialist in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy. That’s a grand portrayal of a relatively simple concept, which is that current problems are generally the result of previous problems. Whether those problems are happening within institutions or in the lives of individuals there’s usually some form of behavior that was tolerated or even encouraged over previous generations that caused the current problematic situation. Now this isn’t a reason to place all the blame on parents for the unfortunate behavior of their children. We all know life is much more complicated than that, but our instructor wanted us to be aware of the ways in which our own upbringing conditioned us to respond to current situations in certain ways, and that the way our own parents raised us was conditioned by the circumstances that shaped their lives. The same can be said for issues that arise within institutions and organizations.


As you might imagine, this looking backward can get pretty convoluted and difficult to interpret, but I think it’s accurate to say that we are all somehow conditioned to respond to the stresses of life in particular ways, and that the way we are conditioned to react isn’t always the best way to react. This course I took was designed for pastors, and the goal of the course was to help us see how we could react to unhealthy situations in healthier ways. It’s a noble goal, and there’s some truth to it.


Our instructor, Rev. Doug Hester, wanted to help us see our own selves more clearly so that we could interpret the dynamics of our churches more clearly and be less reactionary in our work. Like individuals, churches sort of have personalities, and we all know that the way the personality of a pastor reacts to the personality of a church isn’t always pretty. Situations can develop that feel threatening to pastors and churches and neither institutions nor individuals generally react well to threatening situations.


All this comes to mind in light of the interaction between Jesus and this man who is described as having an unclean spirit. We don’t really know how that spirit manifested itself in the life this man, but we would be more likely to define the man as being terribly unhealthy. This man’s life was torn up in a significant and obvious way. From the way he spoke of himself there was something foreign in control of his life, and Jesus was a threat to that unwelcome invader.


We don’t know if this man regularly attended events at the synagogue of if he happened in that day for the first time. Either situation is plausible to me.


It could be that this synagogue had not only learned to adapt to the unfortunate condition of the man with an unclean spirit, but they had made special accommodations for him. It wouldn’t have been an ideal situation, but they may well have felt threatened by his condition and they accommodated him in order to keep him relatively happy. In fact that might well have become their main objective. We don’t know the relationship between this sick man and the synagogue but it may be that this man with an unclean spirit had been comfortable within that synagogue until Jesus showed up to teach, and what Jesus said was very threatening to the sick man’s circumstances.


Religious institutions can be very accommodating to unhealthy agendas. You might say this is one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from the way Jesus interacted with the religious leaders of his day. The very own son of God was rejected by the elders of Israel. And there’s no end to evil that has been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. Religious institutions can go off the rails. In fact the amazing thing is when a religious organization is able to remain on the rails.


That being said, I want to commend this church for the degree of health that you are able to maintain. I’m not saying you’ve got it all figured out and there’s nothing you need to work on. I’m sure there are things I could point out that you would consider to be more along the lines of meddling instead of preaching, but in all honesty, I consider this to be an unusually healthy church. It may just be that my religious blindness matches up well with your particular pathology, but for what it’s worth I will tell anyone that this is the most functional church I’ve ever served. You have caused me less anxiety than any of my previous appointments. I’m still going to retire, but it’s not because of you.


My first appointment wasn’t so fortunate – for them or for me. Had I been well trained in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy I might have reacted differently to some things that occurred and we all might have been better off, but I didn’t and we weren’t. It was a rough two and half years.


After I had been there for about a year, the chair of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee, who now rests from her labors, didn’t really want me to leave, but she wanted me to do things differently, and she conducted a phone survey in order to generate further evidence to support her position. She actually presented me with a typed report of her findings. She labelled it as an unbiased report of the complaints and praises that members of that church had expressed to her, and I think she thought I would be glad to get it. I’m hoping I can find that document as I go through my boxes of papers over the next few months. I’ve misplaced it, but it really is one of the most interesting things that was ever presented to me.


That was not a happy period of time for me, but as we say about those difficult times of our lives that we survive – it was a learning experience. And it did prompt a conversation with a man that I’ll always treasure.


I stopped in one day to visit one of the members of the church, and it turned out that he had been the recipient of one of those phone-survey calls. Hobart Simers was his name. He was an elderly man who had worked as a mechanic for the railroad company. A memorable thing about him was that he never owned an automobile. He was able to walk to work, and when he and his wife wanted to go on a trip they would go by train. He was about the last of the generation that could live like that. I enjoyed visiting with him, and when I went by to see him that day he told me that he had gotten a call from a woman in the church who asked him what he thought of the preacher. He said he told her he thought I was doing ok, but she pressed him. He told me that she said there were some people in the church who didn’t really like what I was doing. And he said he told her that there were some people who didn’t like what Jesus Christ was doing, but that didn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.


That comment didn’t show up on the survey, but him telling me that is one of the great gifts that anyone has ever given to me. It’s right up there with my diploma from the Clark School of Lawnmower Repair.


Churches and/or pastors can go off the rails, but the words of Jesus can bring us to our senses. What Hobart Simers said to me was very healing to me – it brought me to my senses. It calmed me down. He spoke words that reminded me of who Jesus was and maybe even how Jesus was with me. I’m not saying there weren’t things I needed to do differently, but the words that came from Hobart were so much more authoritative than the words that were in that survey.



What we have in this lesson from Mark this morning is a portrayal of the healing power of the words of Jesus. Jesus had a level of authority that the world had never seen, and he used his authority to restore life to those who’s lives were possessed by all kinds of disease.


Those of us who seek to follow Jesus don’t have the same kind of authority that he possessed, but I think a story like this can help us understand the source of true authority and how we are to use the authority and power we do have. Jesus was threatening to the unclean spirit that had invaded the man who stepped in to the synagogue, and I think that’s a worthy goal for us all to embrace. We are to be people who are threatening unclean spirits.


I believe Jesus was able to challenge the unclean thing that was in control of that man’s life because Jesus was so clear about who it was that was in control of his life. The authority that Jesus possessed was rooted in the understanding of where he came from and who he represented. Unlike most of us, who are shaped by a multitude of competing authorities that ruled the lives of those who came before us, Jesus was unconflicted about his roots. Jesus knew where he came from and who he came to reveal. Jesus was the man who perfectly represented God, and Jesus can help us understand our own connection with God.


I believe Jesus can help us all become more clear about who it is that rules our lives and who it is we seek to serve. I’m not an authority on the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy, but I’ve got two continuing education credits in the area, and with that I feel authorized to say that we are well served by the exercise of stepping back and looking at the various authorities that continue to shape our lives. I truly believe there are powerful systems at work in our lives that we don’t fully understand but who cause us to do things and to behave in ways that does not bring glory to God and comfort to our neighbors.


But it helps to look at Jesus, and to seek his healing power. I guess we are all in need of a miracle of some kind to help us get over whatever it is that keeps us from being the loving and trusting child of God that we were created to be. We all have our obstacles to overcome, and I believe God wills for us to be healed and to grow in our relationship with God. I don’t know why it’s all so hard and why people suffer the way they do. For whatever reason, our world is full of powers and systems that cause death and destruction instead of peace and harmony. We are all touched by those death-dealing powers that distract us from the presence of God in this world, but the power and authority of Jesus Christ is with us as well, and it’s a beautiful thing when his words and presence touch us and bring us back to life.


That miracle happens every now and then, and when it does it changes everything. It makes life rich and beautiful. We all have our struggles, but we aren’t alone, and thanks be to God for that.


Thanks be to God that the love and authority of Jesus Christ breaks through the complex systems and the random chaos of this world to touch us and to use us. Healing happens. Life prevails.


Thanks be to God.






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