January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1: 21-28

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            The easy thing this morning would be to preach on the reading from Deuteronomy, where Moses, near the end of his life, offers what is essentially his farewell address to the people whom he led for many years.  It would probably be a boring, but at least non-controversial sermon. 

            The other easy thing to do would be to preach on the reading from 1 Corinthians – the one where Paul, the author, encourages the community to whom he is writing in the commercial city of Corinth to be humble.  This was a community that had a bit of ego, and they thought of themselves perhaps as better than others because they were well educated.   Probably another boring and non-controversial sermon.

            Instead I choose Mark – with its off-putting story of an insane man in a synagogue purporting to be possessed by a demon.  What a weird story, but I love it.  I love it because it happens so immediately in Mark’s Gospel – this encounter between Jesus and the man possessed by a demon occurs in the very first chapter, beginning at verse 21.  At this point after only twenty verses in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is already born, he’s gone through puberty, he’s been baptized, he’s called his first disciples, and now he’s teaching in the synagogue and confronting evil – all in twenty verses.

            Demons tend not to be the subject matter of many sermons, at least those that I have heard.  Perhaps that is because since we have moved through the age of Enlightenment with its emphasis on science and logic and reason, the idea of a demon, some kind of evil and malevolent force at work in the world that can possess people, while once a very successful scare tactic to bolster the numbers of the church centuries ago, today, the idea of a demon is considered more an embarrassment by the church.

            A moment of personal confession: since 1986, I have been an ardent, and dedicated fan of an art form not known for its cultural sophistication, but by its annoyance to many, including my wife: heavy metal.  I am a heavy metal loving priest.  Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, and so many more bands that most people move on from after high school, I still listen to.  One of the heavy metal bands that I have loved for a long time, is a band called Slayer.  In the 1980s, Slayer, who were notoriously anti-Christian in their message, were a band that parents were instructed to tell their children: don’t listen to this music.”  My mom let me listen to their albums, laughably entitled  “Hell Awaits,” “South of Heaven,” and one album name with a name that I still cannot say without laughing: “God Hates Us All”  I just imagine as a sermon title on the marquee of a church: “Next week’s inspiring message from Pastor Grace: “God Hates Us All!” 

            Today the members of Slayer are older, they have kids, they have grand kids, they shop at Wal Mart.  One of the members is ironically a devout and practicing Roman Catholic.  After an almost forty-year career, Slayer is calling it quits.  They are embarking on one final farewell tour, and when it comes to Houston, Slayer, this once fiery angry and fearsome band, will play the Smart Financial Center in Sugarland, which is basically Sugarland’s version of a civic center.  And yes, I’m going.  And I can’t wait.

For many years, my spirituality, my understanding of God, has been one that has endeavored to reconcile things that appear oppositional in an effort to synthesize them – to bring them together.  That is the meaning of the word religion: it comes from the Latin re-ligare which means to “bind together.” The work of religion is to bind together a person and God, and as a practice of my own faith, I seek to bind together disparate things, while holding onto my identity in the process.  Slayer and Sugarland.  A demon and a synagogue.  Where is God in both?

Another example.  I volunteer on a committee for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that is made up of people who mostly are quite different from me.  I am a liberal priest at an Episcopal church, and the members of the rodeo committee I serve are pretty much the exact opposite of people at St. Andrew’s.  At a recent training event just last year, one of the committee members who knows that I am a priest asked me this question this past October: “You don’t marry people of the same gender, do you?”  To which I responded unapologetically, but also not condescendingly: “I have many times, and I have another this weekend.”  It is at that intersection – where disparate groups and ideas meet – that I seek to find God.  Which is why I find the story of a man showing up in a synagogue supposedly possessed so interesting.

            Critical for our understanding and respect for this story of Jesus in the temple is that he was teaching with authority.  The authority Jesus had then was not something he acquired through years of study or a degree.  Authority is not something a person claims for themselves.  Authority is something that is given to a person by people who respect that person, and who trust that person.  Jesus had authority in the Temple, not because he cited scripture by chapter and verse, not because he read all the commentaries on the Bible.  Jesus had authority in the Temple, because the people gave it to him.  

            The man with the demon challenges this authority.  The man with the demon says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  That is a very important sentence because during the time of Jesus, knowledge of a person’s name or identity was thought to provide power over that person.  Immediately Jesus replies: “Be silent!” And the demon leaves the man.  And others in the synagogue were perplexed at what they saw, saying “what is this? A new teaching – with authority!”

            The point of the story is simple and clear: Jesus has authority over everything, including evil.  Evil exists – of that there is no ambiguity.  Evil is a problem, a problem that cannot be addressed or worked out in one or one thousand sermons.  But we can say today that somehow within the presence of evil, God has authority over it.  God has authority over evil not because God has demanded it.  God has authority over evil not because God is omniscient or omnipresent (which God is).  God has authority over evil, because evil, like those people gathered in the synagogue, willingly gave it to God.  Evil has surrendered its authority, and given to God.  That’s the point of the Gospel this morning.

            And if God has authority over all evil, perhaps that means that God can work evil for good.  The demon can enter the synagogue and be welcomed.  Slayer can come to Sugarland, and everything will be ok.  Because God is in charge.  AMEN.