Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 1, 2015

2015.02.01 “Afflicted Spirits Welcome Here” – Mark 1: 21 – 28

Central United Methodist Church
Afflicted Spirits Welcome Here
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 1: 21 – 28
February 1, 2015

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus 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


After hearing the story of what happened in the synagogue in Capernaum, we may be thankful not much happens in church.

Which is not to say that nothing happens. I’m not saying, as the preacher who was once asked how large his congregation was, said: “Oh, we sleep about 125 every Sunday.” I’m saying, that thankfully – for the most part – nothing dramatic or disruptive happens. Nobody stands up and yells at the preacher, nobody takes their clothes off, nobody falls into the floor in convulsions; and most importantly, nobody shows up with a weapon; all of which have been known to happen from time to time in urban congregations.

On the other hand, there may be those of us who think that should something dramatic happen (weapons of any kind excluded), that might be a good thing. On those days when we wonder if there is a pulse, when we wonder whether we are making any difference at all with what we do here, something like what happened in the synagogue at Capernaum might suggest we are. (But don’t go getting any ideas!)

You have to figure it was a wild ride for Jesus’ disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. We are five Sundays into a new year, but have only made it to verse 21 of chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel. In those 20 verses, Mark has already used the word “immediately” three times. Last week, Jesus called them, and “immediately” they left their boats and nets and followed him.

The text does not say how much time passed from the moment they followed Jesus, until this happened. Were they able to complete their discipleship orientation and certification, or did this happen immediately, on the first Sabbath following their call?

And doesn’t it make us wonder exactly what happened in the synagogue service? Was Jesus the guest reader or preacher, or was he himself disruptive, making points no one had ever heard? Remember, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been kicked out of his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, after which he moved to Capernaum. Did he make a scene here too? When it says people were astounded by his teaching, was that in a bad way (as at Nazareth) or in good way? Was that what caused emotions to escalate, such that the man with the unclean spirit erupted in confrontation?

Which raises the question: what was a man with an unclean spirit doing in synagogue, anyway? Let’s not be distracted by the images of spinning heads and spewing vomit a la The Exorcist; apparently, up to this point the man looked innocuous enough to enter in, like everybody else. Note that he didn’t throw the man out, he cast the unclean spirit out. (It doesn’t say whether he then helped to take up the offering or not.)

Which then raises the even more interesting question, what kind of spirits have we brought with us to church today? Have we come here with afflictions of body or mind or spirit?  Might we find ourselves in church – if not possessed by a demon – possessed instead with anxiety, or anger, or guilt? Or perhaps a damaging addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography? What about us is unclean, such that we are held in its grip, while it hurts us, our relationship with others, even our relationship with God?

Bad news though that might be, the Good News is this: whatever it is we bring with us here to church, it’s OK. It is not only OK, it is appropriate to bring our problems to church. Because our God is a God of the broken, and our church is a fellowship of the needy.

I agree with author Frederick Buechner, who said that before the church got to be a big business, it was something more like Alcoholics Anonymous. Sinners Anonymous, if you will. “I’m David, I am a sinner.” “Hi, David.” It is the forgiveness of sins that is what the church is about.

Of such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous, Frederick Buechner goes on to say:

“I do not believe that such groups as these . . . are perfect any more than anything is perfect, but I believe that the church has an enormous amount to learn from them. I also believe that what goes on in them is far closer to what Christ meant his church to be, and what it  originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know. These groups have no buildings or official leadership or money. They have no rummage sales, no altar guilds, no every-member canvases.       They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no programs. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its buildings burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other.”                                                                (Telling Secrets: A Memoir by Frederick Buechner)

Which is why we bring with us our unclean spirits to church.  Because Jesus is still at work cleansing us from them. Sometimes it is as dramatic as what happened then, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road to healing and recovery takes both time and company. Sometimes it doesn’t occur in a single visit, but through the steady support of a support group, a prayer chain, a parenting group, or anger-management classes.  God is at work in all these ways and many more to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us. (David Lose, “Possessed,” Working Preacher, January 22, 2012)

I invite you to think of those places of brokenness and disappointment or fear in your life, and remind you that God does not flee or stay away from us because of them, but draws near to us exactly at those places of brokenness. And then, I also invite you to look outward at the brokenness we see in someone in our family or among our friends or in the neighborhood, and then ask whether God might be choosing to work through us to help restore that person to new life. God is still casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and sometimes – much to our surprise – God chooses to use us to help do it.

Could this be why Mark – right here at the beginning of his Gospel, is telling us this story? First events give insight into larger themes, and draw distinctions between Jesus’ mission and ministry in each of the Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and new lawgiver like Moses. In Luke, Jesus is the one who releases those held captive, healing the ill and infirm, and proclaiming good news to the poor. In John, Jesus creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance. But in Mark, Jesus picks a fight –in a synagogue at that – in a confrontation of an unclean spirit.

Isn’t this Mark’s signal – not only in word but in deed – that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep God’s children from the abundant life God desires for us? And if that was the case in that synagogue in Capernaum on that day long ago, isn’t it still the case today as well: that God desires the best for all of us, and stands in opposition to anything and everything that robs us of that joy and community and purpose for which God made us, whether those things come from inside of us or outside of us. This is the God I believe in; isn’t this the God you believe in too?

The consequence of the story, reflected in the last line, is this: At once Jesus fame began to spread . . .”

There is a lot of talk these days about the future of American Christianity; to put it mildly, our fame is not spreading. Attendance is down, offerings are down, all across the board, and it becomes harder and harder to maintain the church as most of us have known it. Even worse, we are almost losing the younger generations, including those who grew up in church.

Historically, it seems that every couple of generations the church has to go through this “shedding of our skin,” so that can find the new form of church for a new generation. Always we must pay close attention to the teaching of Jesus – not as others have told us nor as we have imagined it to be – but as it is, inscribed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But I also believe this time it’s going to require a new a new authenticity, a willingness to acknowledge the doubts and struggles and the differences and the unclean spirits within us and among us.

Not many are doing it well, but one who I’m keeping an eye on is Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver.

NadiaBolz-WeberNadia Bolz-Weber is not your traditional Lutheran pastor (ELCA), she looks more like – as Michelle Boorstein described her in an article in the Washington Post – “a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian.”  Her 6 foot 1 inch frame is covered with tattoos and piercings, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting, and her language contains more profanity than most Lutheran ministers.

A quick tour through her 45 years would seem to come out as her being anything but a pastor. It included a teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand up in a Denver comedy club.

Yet through all that, she never stopped believing. It was going through anti-addiction recovery that finally soothed her anger. Her encounter with a tall, cute, Lutheran seminary student named Matthew Weber brought her back to church. They married in 1996 and have two small children, as well as a Great Dane named Zacchaeus.

She heard the call to ministry in 2004 when she ended up leading a friend’s funeral in a smoky downtown comedy club. Surrounded by fellow alcoholics, depressives, and cynics, she realized: These were her people. Maybe she was meant to be their pastor. Four years and a seminary degree later, Bolz-Weber founded what today is casually called House. It’s a start-up of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with an “anti-excellence, pro-participation” policy (meaning the service is led by those who show up). It meets in the parish hall of an Episcopal church. (yes, a shared space arrangement.)

Currently numbering about 180 people, they describe themselves on their website as:

“a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient/future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.” (Whew!)

Author Phyllis Tickle says that “Nadia Bolz-Weber has probably done more than any other pastor in recent times to poke therapeutic fun at the misdemeanors and flaws of overly-churched Christianity and Christians. The passion behind her words, however, is as deeply pastoral as it is God-drenched and liberating …. thus the affection as well as the respect that attend her and her work wherever she goes.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber – as all of us need to be – seems to be at home among afflicted spirits. You can check her out on her website at or at House of Sinners and Saints or follow her on Facebook. Her New York Times best selling theological memoir is called Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (Jericho, 2013).

Meanwhile, I’m off to get a few tattoos, turns out they may be a pastoral expense, and not just to go with my Harley. If that’s what it takes to make afflicted spirits welcome here, I’m willing to do it. How about you?


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