Archive for February, 2009

Mark 1:40 – 45

February 17, 2009

For today’s reading go to

Last Sunday we read how Jesus’ healing ministry began; today continues that story. Last week’s reading startled me; because I had not noticed before how Jesus only cured some of the people. You remember how they had eaten supper at Simon’s house, and word had gotten out to the whole village that Jesus had miraculously cured Simon’s mother-in-law. So by the time supper was over, a crowd filled the house: everyone with a sickness had come to be cured. Jesus did cure many of them, but not all. He either ran out of time or he ran out of strength. The next morning those who had not been cured the night before returned to Simon’s house. But Jesus was not there. He had left well before dawn to go into the hills to spend time alone with God. After sun-up his disciples searched for him; and when they found him they let him know that the people were waiting; but Jesus said no; I have to move on. How could he do that? (more…)


Mark 1:29-39

February 9, 2009

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If we graded sermons on how much practical help they give, this one, I hope, will get an A+.  We need help, these days more than ever, because fear is spreading like an epidemic.  True,  we do not see runny noses and puffy eyes, the way we do with the flu; in fact, we can hide the symptoms of fear, and most of us do.  But if I asked you to raise your hands, those of you who carry fear like an icy embryo, almost every hand in this room would go up.  It goes by different names: gluttonous mortgage payments, evaporating retirement reserves, a strange lump in my breast, frost forming between me and my spouse or partner, even a job that feels as secure as an open canoe in a heavy sea.  Just yesterday we heard that a friend of our family lost his job as a bank executive.  We need to know that we are not alone.  It helps to know, too, that the Gospel offers practical help, even turning fear to good account.

Last week we heard how Jesus freed a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit; and this week, how Jesus freed many of Simon and Andrew’s neighbors from unclean spirits.  What does the Gospel mean by an unclean spirit?  What would translate as an unclean spirit for us?  Let’s look at the example from last week, since this week unclean spirits are mentioned only in passing.  Jesus and his disciples went to the synagogue on the sabbath, where Jesus was asked to give a teaching.  In the midst of his remarks a man in the congregation suddenly interrupted with a shout, “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.”  Jesus saw at once that it was not the man himself speaking; but that an unclean spirit had inhabited him and was using him – using and abusing.  “Be silent!” Jesus snapped, and he commanded the unclean spirit to leave the man.  A clash of wills ensued, that played out in the man’s body as convulsions.  Finally the unclean spirit let go with a cry of defeat and the man was left, weak but at peace.

What was wrong about what the unclean spirit said?  He said the truth: Jesus was the Holy One of God.  Why did Jesus silence him?  Try this thought experiment.  Suppose we have a visitor this morning, man we have seen around town, but do not really know.  Afterward, at the coffee hour, we are standing around talking with him when one of us suddenly says, loud and clear, pointing to our visitor, “I know who you are!  You are the chief revenue agent for the I.R.S.!  You are here to find tax evaders!  You are here to arrest us!”  Now suppose our visitor was the chief revenue agent for the IRS.  But suppose he was here, not to investigate anyone, but to be an example to us of how to live honestly and wholesomely with the tax code.  He wants us to get to know him as a person – a man with ambitions and insecurities just like us.  He is not here in any official capacity, but simply to relate to us, person to person, so we can see how he lives and then, if we like, follow his example.  But now he has been given a label.  A label alienates him; subtly or not so subtly, we exclude him from our circle.  That was why, again and again, Jesus forbid people to make known his identity.  Labels point up what makes us different from each other, rather that what we have in common.  Jesus wanted to meet people on the basis of what they had in common.  As soon as we hear ‘revenue agent’ our preconceptions rise up and keep us from being open to the visitor.  So too with Jesus.  Being identified as the Holy One of God signaled, at least in some minds, judgment and punishment.  Who would draw close to Jesus on that basis?  He wanted people to get to know him from the inside out – his compassionate heart; his open mind; then if they must, they can attach a label.  That unclean spirit in the synagogue, by slapping a label on Jesus, robbed some of those present of the chance for intimacy with Life itself.

What, then, makes an unclean spirit unclean?  Isn’t it that it robs us?  Robs us of our blessings; and tricks us into retreating from Life when we ought to advance into Life?  On that basis, I suggest that what the Gospel calls an unclean spirit, we would call fear.  Doesn’t fear butt in with a loud voice at inappropriate moments, interrupting our train of thought or peace of mind?  Don’t we sense that fear is not a true part of who we are, but an alien presence that has taken up residence in us like an invasive species?  Doesn’t it resist being driven out of us?  Fear has a lot in common with an unclean spirit.

Fear is most like an unclean spirit in the way it applies labels.  So much life experience comes our way only to be held at a distance by labels.  Take a rising mortgage rate, for instance.  Who says it is scary, or bad?  It may be challenging, but who says it is threatening?  Who says it will limit our options or curtail our pleasure in life?  Fear puts those labels on what is nothing more than simple life experience; and that holds true no matter what we face, even death itself.  Life wants us to meet it from the inside out: in the nitty-gritty, moment by moment encounter.  Life wants us to discover personally what each experience means and what blessings lie hidden in it for us.  Any change holds within it seeds of something better; but fear plasters a collage of labels over even a small change, “Warning!” “Danger!” “Stay Back!” and we flee blindly from the gifts it holds.

If we say ‘fear’ where the Gospels say ‘unclean spirit,’ that still leaves the question: what can we do about it?  We know we cannot talk our way out of fear.  Fear wins every argument.  In Gospel times they could go to Jesus and he would command the fear to come out of a person.  It was not the words he said, but the faith behind the words.  Faith and fear cannot occupy the same space.  So that is the secret: let us not waste our time wrestling with fear; let us build faith instead.  Now comes the practical help.

We saw that Jesus wanted the people in the synagogue to get to know him intimately, and not as someone with a title.  Can we do that?  Yes, but we can only meet him in the here and now, not in the past nor in the future.  We can only know him heart-to-heart in the present moment; and when we do, fear is the farthest thing from our minds.  In fact, fear cannot enter the present moment, because that is the sole domain of faith.  But as those of us know who have tried it, the present moment can wriggle away like a slippery fish.  So how can we hold on to the faith that drives out fear?  How can we learn to rest in the present moment?  We have to make fear work for us.  Let fear serve to tap our shoulder when we slide off into it, into the future.  Let it be our reminder to turn back to the present moment.  We have an anchor we can use, as well, a mantra.  As soon as I become aware of my fear, I let it remind me to return to the here and now and grab hold of the anchor.  That anchor is called “Thank you, loving God.”  I simply repeat those words in my heart: “Thank you, loving God.  Thank you for this thing I fear.  Thank you for the fear itself.”  Let it become a background song in all we do.  The greater the fear the greater will be the incentive to turn to Christ in the present moment in a spirit of trust and thanksgiving.  Over time, faith can only grow, fear will diminish, and I will go forward into life, curious and open, and not shrink back with my eyes squeezed shut.  The Gospel promises us Life in all its beauty and goodness; and we have the courage and faith to claim it.

Mark 1:21-28

February 2, 2009

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Mark 1:21-28

From time to time, if you are anything like me, you lose sleep, because a decision faces you that you simply cannot dodge.  If you just knew what to do, you could doze off.  The readings today could help with that, for they focus on authority.  Don’t you find decisions come more easily when you have the solid ground of certainty under your feet?  Today I hope to give us help seeking that solid ground we seek. (more…)