Lesson: Mark 1:21-28
I went to high school with a kid everybody knew as Ted, but his real name was George. I don’t know why his nickname was Ted, but he hated to be called George. No one ever called him George, except every year on the first day of class, when a teacher who didn’t know him yet called roll. Except for one teacher I’ll never forget. Instead of calling roll from the sheet of paper the office had provided, this teacher went down the rows of desks and asked each of us to say our names. For the first time, Ted was just Ted. The teacher also learned that E-V-A was pronounced “A-va,” and that you don’t pronounce the “g” in Montinguise. It was the first thing he did. It told us a lot about him, right off the bat. He cared enough to ask us what we wanted to be called and how to say our names.
First things matter. In this morning’s passage in Mark’s Gospel, the very first thing Jesus does is pick a fight with an unclean spirit, and it tells us a lot about him, right off the bat. It happens on the Sabbath, the day of worship and rest, in the synagogue. Jesus, a young rabbi, teaches. That’s not so unusual, but the people are unusually interested in what he says. In fact, Mark says, “they were astounded” because he taught “with authority.” What does “with authority” mean? That he was confident, that he was persuasive or charismatic or said what people wanted to hear … or what? We don’t know for sure. But I bet there was something authentic in him that the people could see. I bet they could tell that he honest-to-goodness believed the kingdom of God was at hand. He could feel it, taste it, see it, and he wanted others to, as well.
But no sooner do they get a whiff of this authority, when something really unusual happens. There’s a disturbance, right there in the synagogue. A man is suffering. And not suffering in general, but from possession by an unclean spirit. Let’s spend a minute with “unclean spirit” because we don’t always know exactly how to process it in modern terms. Some people guess the man was mentally ill but we don’t really know and it isn’t fair to assume that’s what it is. It’s probably more fruitful to imagine the impact of whatever this condition is on the life of the man. He’s probably a danger to himself and others. He’s probably ostracized, excluded from social interactions with “normal” people. His family is probably afraid and ashamed.
And the first thing Jesus does is to confront that unclean spirit, freeing this man from its hold and restoring the man to himself, his loved ones, and his community. In Mark, it’s the very first major event in Jesus’ ministry. Mark could have started his story about Jesus differently; Matthew, Luke, and John did, after all. This tells us what Mark thinks is most important, and even offers a pretty strong clue to what he believes is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and mission. Mark starts with a confrontation. Jesus stands up to and opposes this unclean spirit, this whatever-it-is that robs the man, his family, and his community of life. Right there in the synagogue.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man. He doesn’t take him out of the synagogue, wait until Sabbath is over, or tell him to leave. He sees the unclean spirit for what it is – a challenge to God’s promise and intention of health and life for all of God’s children – and he takes it on. Jesus has just been preaching and teaching that the kingdom of God is at hand, and in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is about to show us what that means. First and foremost it means that God in Jesus will oppose anything that stands against God’s desire that all of God’s children enjoy health and life.
God in Jesus will oppose anything that stands against God’s desire that all of God’s children enjoy health and life, joy meaning and purpose. What Jesus calls, “abundant life.”
What does this mean for us? Maybe for starters, it means that our God is a God of the broken, and our church is a fellowship of the needy. David Lose writes that, according to Mark, this is “pretty much all it takes … to be a member of Jesus’ disciples then or now: recognition of our deep need, and trust that Jesus has come to meet it;” to confront it, to take it on and even pick a fight with it.
So maybe one invitation this morning might be to think of those places of brokenness or disappointment or fear in our lives, and to remember that God does not stay away from us because of these challenges but rather draws nearest to us precisely in these moments. But also, we’re invited to look outward at the brokenness we see in someone in our family, or among our friends or at work or in the neighborhood, or in the nation or in culture or in the world, and wonder if God might be choosing to work through us to draw that person, those people, to new life. What are we called to confront? How are we called to confront it? As Lose writes, “God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using us to continue our Lord’s work.”
This, as always, is a question of calling. Each of us has different opportunities, passions, motivations, and gifts for confronting the brokenness we see in us and around us. Some people will march in the Women’s March; others will speak up when they hear a racist stereotype or when they witness sexual harassment; others will run for office; still others will confront a loved one about an addiction.
The fact that this first confrontation took place in the synagogue – in the midst of the worshiping community – is a curious twist in this story. The man suffering from being possessed wasn’t out in the wilderness, or at the edge of town, or hidden in the back bedroom. He’s at the synagogue; for our purposes, let’s just call it church. Let’s call it Sunday. And right there on the day it’s not supposed to happen and in the place it’s not supposed to happen, an unclean spirit possesses a man. I love the Tissot painting on your bulletin covers because it’s so obvious that the episode throws the worshiping community into chaos.
Bad stuff happens at the synagogue. Bad stuff happens in churches, to people who are part of the church and even, sometimes, most sadly, because of the church. We know this is so. Part of our calling is confronting that.
A few years ago, North Carolina pastor John Pavlovitz wrote a blog for the Huffington Post that put him on the map, so to speak, called, “If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises from a Christian Pastor/Parent.” It was picked up by CNN and major newspapers. In a Chicago Tribune interview, Pavlovitz told a reporter that in that one, simple post he’d reached more people than he had in 18 years of ministry, and he could see a lot of healing happening because of it. He described the blog as a “preemptive love letter” to his two young kids in the event that he finds out they are LGBTQ one day. After two decades in ministry to students, seeing firsthand the incredible damage being done to so many young gay people and their families in the name of God, he felt he needed to speak directly to the faith community. His hope was that by framing the conversation around the common and deeply personal experience of love of family, some might approach it from a different heart place than they had before. Here are some excerpts:
“If I have gay children, you’ll all know it. My children won’t be our family’s best-kept secret. … Childhood is difficult enough. … I’m not going to put mine through any more unnecessary discomfort, just to make Thanksgiving dinner a little easier for a third cousin with misplaced anger issues.”
“If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them. I won’t pray for them to be made ‘normal.’ I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I won’t pray that God will heal or change or fix them. I will pray for God to protect them from the ignorance and hatred and violence that the world will throw at them, simply because of who they are.”
“If I have gay children, I’ll love them. I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, openhearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school-cafeteria kind of love.”
“I won’t love them despite their sexuality, and I won’t love them because of it. I will love them simply because they’re sweet and funny and caring and smart and kind and stubborn and flawed and original and beautiful and mine.”
Pavlovitz was inundated with responses. There was vile profanity and utter contempt from people who claimed the name of Jesus. There were affirmations as well, but what moved Pavlovitz most were the responses from “the trenches.” “Sometimes,” he writes, “you read words and they aren’t words; they are more like wounds.” “These weren’t statistics, they weren’t numbers, they weren’t causes, they weren’t culture-war talking points. They were brothers, daughters, uncles, mothers, best friends, bosses, co-workers and next-door neighbors. They were flesh and blood, God-breathed lives riddled with desperate unanswered prayers to be changed; with crippling addictions and self-harm sought as refuge; with fractured, severed relationships with treasured loved ones unable or unwilling to receive them as they are.” 
The experience moved Pavlovitz, in fact it called Pavlovitz to take up a ministry committed to a more healing, more inclusive church. He writes, “You may need to speak first, so that others who may not have the strength or the opportunity to speak can find their voices. You and I have no idea of the goodness out there until we seek and speak our truest truth. Once we do, God let’s you see things you’d never see any other way.” 
Not every individual ends up, as did Pavolovitz, called to a full time ministry of confrontation. Our opportunities, our passions, our nudges from God are all different. But the Church, the Church itself, as the Body of Christ, may need to speak first. We in the church may need to confront the exclusion, the hurt, and the larger Church’s ongoing obsession with what’s “clean” or “unclean,” so that others who may not have the strength or the opportunity to speak can find their voices – even at the risk of creating the scene on your bulletin covers. That is what Jesus did in this morning’s passage. The very first thing. Right there in the synagogue. Right there in church. “You and I have no idea of the goodness out there until we seek and speak our truest truth. Once we do, God let’s you see things you’d never see any other way.” 
May it be so for you, and for me, and for our congregation. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Lose, January 26, 2015, ibid.
 “The Possessed Man in the Synagogue (Le possédé dans la Synagogue),” opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper (1886-1894), by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/13400.
 John Pavlovitz ““If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises from a Christian Pastor/Parent,” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-pavlovitz/if-i-have-gay-children-fo_b_5869298.html.
 Heidi Stevens, “A Pastor’s Promises to His Kids, Gay or Straight,” October 10, 2014, The Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-sun-1012-balancing-act-20141009-column.html.
 Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), 144.
 John Pavlovitz “If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises from a Christian Pastor/Parent,” ibid.
 Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, 145.
 Pavlovitz, ibid.
 Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, 151-152.
 Pavlovitz, ibid.