Sermon: “Authoritative Healing” (Mark 1:21-28) 2/1/15

Last week, refreshed from 40 days of battling his demons in the wilderness, Jesus clarifies his mission and decides to get some help fulfilling it.  But without, how was he going to find those helpers? I imagine Jesus walking down the beach pondering the matter when he sees a couple of fishing crews hard at it.  The light dawns. Why not?  It couldn’t hurt.  He takes a deep breath and yells: “Follow me!” Immediately, two men jump out of a boat and swim towards him.  Well, that was easy! If it worked once… “Follow me!” he calls a second time.  Two more men jump in and swim to shore.

Now what?  Five men on shore, four of them dripping water, beaming giddily at Jesus, ignoring the people on the boats yelling at them “to get back and help us!”?  Maybe Jesus broke the ice: “‘Sup?”  And maybe brothers Simon and Andrew, and the other brothers, James and John, gamely kept the conversation going “’Sup?” Then maybe they took a minute to friend each other on Facebook–isn’t that how following someone works? Maybe they Insta-grammed a group selfie.  Maybe Jesus tweeted:  “Four new peeps!  Andy, Jim Bob, John Boy, and the one who talks a lot.”

Or maybe–in the absence of smart phones– they simply stood there awkwardly waiting for someone to get the party started.  “Hey, Jesus!”  This would be Simon.  He always speaks first.  “Hey, Jesus!  So glad to be following you, man.  What’s our first assignment?  Where are we headed?”  Here’s what I imagine happening.  Mark doesn’t tell us–which is an invitation to imagine it, right?  Here’s what I imagine.  Simon says, “Hey, bro!  Where are we headed?” and Jesus shrugs and says, “I don’t know.  I’m new at this Messiah business.  What do you suggest?”

At that point, I imagine Simon and the others puzzling things out…until Simon says (he always speaks first), “I don’t know.  But I’ll tell you what.  If we go to Capernaum, which is just a few miles up the road, we can stay with my mother-in-law.  She makes some falafel to die for!  And she loves to cook for a crowd!”  So…

They head to Capernaum.  When the Sabbath rolls around, they walk the short distance to the synagogue.  Jesus starts teaching–it seems like a Messiah kind of thing to do.  I wish the Gospel writer had included Jesus’ lesson plan…because whatever Jesus did, the people who heard him were impressed.  “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Now that’s an intriguing line….because the scribes were the ones the community HAD authorized to teach.  Yet the people who heard Jesus–a carpenter from Nazareth with no official synagogue authority–said he taught with authority.  I wonder what that meant for them?  If not the religious establishment, then what, in their eyes, gave Jesus’ teaching authority?  Was it the way he talked, the things he talked about, the way he answered every question with another question? Maybe what happens next will give us a clue.

Jesus, his newly-enlisted peeps in tow, is doing his authoritative teaching thing when a man with an “unclean spirit, appears and cries 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.”  

In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first test of Jesus’ public ministry.  It couldn’t be something easy, like lining up a band for a bar mitzvah or teaching the teenagers in Sabbath School.  No, Jesus’ first test involves demon-possession. Interestingly, though—new Messiah or not—Jesus knows just what to do.  He rebukes the unclean spirit, tells it to come out of the man, and it does…which amazes the people. They “kept asking one another, ‘What is this?  A new teaching–with authority!  He commands unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

There’s that word again–authority.  They’d already said Jesus taught with authority, but when he heals the man with the unclean spirit, they underline it in red: AUTHORITY.

So, what is the source of that authority?  What did those synagogue-goers experience that day?  And how did Jesus know what to do when that broken man interrupted his lesson?

Recall where today’s story began. After his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness where he is tested for 40 days.  By whom is he tested?  By the devil, the sneaky one, his personal demons.

So maybe Jesus’ authority in healing this mentally and emotionally wounded man came from his own experience of healing from mental and emotional wounds.  Maybe Jesus knew what to do for a person battling demons because he was fresh from battling his own.

Okay. Time to name the elephant in the room. We scientifically-minded Christians don’t usually talk about demons, do we? And we sure don’t admit to having them. Demon-possession evokes images from movies like the “Exorcist,” not Sunday morning worship.

But remember — these stories we hear in the Gospel were written almost 2,000 years ago. We have so many things at our disposal in the 21st century that were not available in the 1st century. We have two millennia of study of the mind. We know about depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumtic stress disorder. We have doctors and therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists. We have pharmacology. J In the first century, without the benefit of these 20th and 21st century advances, the only language available was the language of demon-possession. Today we call it mental illness.

The second stanza of today’s hymn/anthem (#176) offers helpful language in describing mental illness from a faith perspective. Listen again to the words. “Christ, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind: Tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight, guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.” Any of those phrases resonate with your experience? Or perhaps describe the experiences of someone you love?

We have LOTS of resources today to battle the demons of mental illness. There’s one, though, that we haven’t named: this community.

I ran across an article this week (Okay. My therapist-husband printed off a copy and laid it in the chair in my study.) written by a medical researcher at Duke University. In a talk Dr. Dan Blazer gave last April, he listed 7 things psychiatrists can learn from faith communities about helping people with mental illness, especially those who are depressed. If you want to read the article later, there are copies out in the narthex.

Community support

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

What I want to show you now is the drawing that accompanies the article. I read the article a couple of times before I really saw the drawing. I saw the sad person easily, but not the rest of it…until I looked more closely. Can you figure out what I saw? (Responses) At first, I was annoyed by all those sticks at the bottom of the drawing….until I realized that the sad figure was being supported by the hands of others.

We could read that article together and go through each of the 7 things faith communities can teach psychiatrists. If you have more interest in the topic, I encourage you to do just that. But having served with you for so many years, I suspect that many members of this community would be qualified (that is, have the authority) to write such an article. Like this picture—we all know people in this community who have needed support during times of sadness or emotional difficulty. And those arms…it is telling that the drawing just shows a bunch of arms. You don’t know what the owners of the arms look like. You don’t even know which two arms go together. It’s just the community. Holding up the person who is struggling.

I see you all do that for each other every week, every day. I heard it in nearly every visit I made this week. One person said, “That church! I feel their prayers!” Another talked about being part of the church community as his salvation. I think he meant that literally. Being part of the church community gives him a reason to live. As a community, we’ll hold up the guests of Family Promise this week with our food, our prayers, our kind words.

Life gets hard sometimes. Sometimes, mental illness—or just life in general– robs us of our joy, our hope, our dignity. Sometimes the therapy, the medication, the usual distractions and amusements just don’t work. At those times, isn’t it good to be part of a faith community; isn’t it good to be part of this faith community… this place where people will hug us and pray for us and send cards to us and listen to us?

It is telling, I think, that Jesus’ first act of healing happens in the context of the faith community. Sure, he was the Messiah and all, but that man was going to need a whole lot more than an exorcism. He was going to need help—a lot of help—living into his new reality. Even when the Messiah dramatically sends your demons packing, even then, the healing process has only begun. As we’ll see next week, Jesus quickly heads on to other places. “This is the purpose for which I’ve come,” he says, to go to all those other places.

But that man was going to need support if his healing was going to continue. He needed listening ears and shoulders to cry on and people to get him laughing. He needed to be in a place with lots of children who would remind him of the future, who would give him hope. That newly-healed man needed a community. Jesus might have been a brand new Messiah, but I’m pretty sure he knew what he was doing when he healed that man in the synagogue. He was making sure there was a community to care for that man once Jesus moved on.

In closing, I invite us to sing “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant,” Hymn #539. May it remind us what being part of this community is all about.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road;

We are here to help each other go the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ light for you in the shadow of your fear;

I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.

I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony,

Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

Richard Gillard (Words and Music)

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustain us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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