Weekly Preaching: January 28, 2018

January 23rd, 2018

Our blog for this week will focus on the Gospel. Mind you, Deuteronomy 18:15-20 expresses a promise of a great prophet to come — not a prediction of Jesus, but most certainly a promise Jesus lives into thoroughly. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 may work well as an illustration of the kind of evil spirit Jesus silences in Mark 1 (we’ll get back to this idea later).

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So, Mark 1:21-18. I like to paint a picture for people of what ancient Capernaum was like.
Artists have depicted scholarly visions of the place, including one spectacular discovery in 1968. Archaeologists dug up a neighborhood of connecting homes from the time of Jesus in Capernaum. One particular house was like any other in most ways: stone walls, pottery and fish hooks lying around on the floor. But just a couple of decades after the death of Jesus, somebody put half a dozen layers of plaster on the stones. As time passed, religious graffiti were scrawled on the walls: the names Jesus and Peter, and phrases like Kyrie eleison and Amen. Was this the actual house where Jesus stayed and healed? Surely someone would have remembered the right house, and Christians would have set it aside for worship. In the fourth and fifth centuries, using this same house as its foundation, an octagonal church was constructed.

The image is riveting: a church built on the foundation of a home. Church ought to be like a home, in the best sense of the word: a place of comfort, a zone of acceptance, an atmosphere of unconditional love, a sense of belonging. Robert Frost called home “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” We feel in our hearts some nagging homesickness, a longing for home, a yearning finally answered only by God, but for now hinted at most profoundly in the life of God’s people.
Mark tells us that “immediately” (so frequent in Mark!) Jesus entered the synagogue. Mark has his theological urgency in mind, but in the ancient town, it would have been literally immediately as Peter’s house is about twenty-five steps from the synagogue! Pilgrims take photos of the white limestone synagogue which was built in the 4thcentury. But just under northwest corner, we can see clearly a gray basalt foundation which would have been the stone floor of the synagogue where Jesus taught and healed! Helping people see the reality of Bible places helps them anchor the story in their minds and feel its tangibility.
Jesus walks in, and is immediately confronted by a demon. I love Joel Marcus’s wry comment: “It would probably have been smarter for the demon to keep a low profile… but Markan demons seem to experience a fatal attraction to Jesus.” At least they recognize Jesus and his fullness more than the people who know him best! I love that the demon speaks in first-person plural — reminding me of the silly scene in Ghostbusters when Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is seduced by Dana (possessed by Zuul, played by Sigourney Weaver), and he says “Sounds like there are at least two people in you already.” In Mark 5, the possessors are “legion.” The loss of singular identity, the confusion of voices are at the heart of what goes awry in people.
So, the plural question: “What have we to do with you?” The Greek is literally “What is there to us and to you?” which connotes both “What cause of enmity is there between us?” and also “What do we have in common?” Marcus refers to Ernst Lohmeyer who notices the demon’s use of biblical language, which “may be an attempt to employ holy words and thus control Jesus — as if to exorcise him!”
Jesus doesn’t strike or pulverize or electrocute the demon(s). Instead he simply says, “Be silent.” That’s way too polite a translation…  phimotheti verges on slang, and would have struck listeners as rude. To the demon Jesus says “Shut up!” “Muzzle it!” “Hush!”
It's fascinating that healing involves the silencing of voices. This is how it goes in the head of the one battling mental illness, or anxiety, or all sorts of maladies. Even in sleeplessness, dark thoughts pop up; you try to squash each one, but it’s like playing whack-a-mole. Get one down, others pop up. Jesus brings not loud religious chatter, but silence, the welcome calm of stillness. 
Much sensitivity is required to speak of the healing of the demon-possessed. How do we address the reality of inward torment without implying demonic possession in its more freakish impressions?
Kathryn Greene-McCreight addresses this well (and from the viewpoint of someone who’s experienced it) in her thoughtful Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. My church is currently engaged in a series on mental illness/mental health, addictions, etc. — it is so crucial to end the shame and stigma, so challenging to the Body to embrace people and not expect sunny, simple fixes.
To the whole business of Jesus’ healings in general: how do we speak of his healings when we don’t see them so often — or ever? When Jesus healed, was it so the person could get better or to make some larger point? Who wasn’t healed back then? I’d commend to you this brief video I did as one way to process the healing stories.
Jesus’ teaching astonished everyone. Why? “He taught as one who had authority.” I can’t preach on this without observing how, in postmodern culture, authority isn’t permitted to anybody unless we listen to the loudest, most shrill, most ideologically extreme voices. How do we preach with authority? Or better, how do we lift up the authority of the Scriptural story? My best guess is this thought, via an early sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring an illustration from mythology, which I related in my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word):

The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck. Two, though, managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and King contrasted their techniques. Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship, and by dint of will managed to steer clear of the shoals. But Orpheus, as his ship drew near, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them. Every preacher knows how to declare resolutely that the Bible is inspired, that truth is revealed only in Scripture, and so we strap ourselves to that mast, and try to cram that Word into their ears. But think about Orpheus. Calmly, deploying some simple artistry, Orpheus trusts the beauty of the song, and he plays. Frankly, if the preacher wants to be “effective,” we have to reckon with the harrowing truth that most Church people nowadays won’t let you stuff anything in their ears. They could care less if you are tied to the mast of all those slogans we fall back on, like “The Bible is the Word of God,” or “The Church is of God,” or whatever we say Baptism or Scriptural Christianity requires. If we are to persuade, if we are to give voice to the mysteries of God, then we must take quite seriously the task of picking up the lyre and playing the song in ways that are lovely, although perhaps in the way a young semi-talented guitar player might woo his lover, the sincerity and courage of the attempt compensating for lack of talent. St. Augustine urged preachers to marshal their rhetoric, “to teach, to delight, and to persuade… When he does this properly he can justly be called eloquent, even though he fails to win the assent of his audience,” although Augustine clearly believed all preachers could teach, delight and persuade.

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We may ask, What demons need silencing today? Beyond what we assess as mental health/addiction issues, that is. What about political ideology, which possesses any and everybody, eviscerating the soul and crippling holiness and generosity? A disordered ego? This Sunday’s epistle, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, might help. Paul, while admitting knowledge is good (Faber College from Animal House, anyone?), pinpoints the peril: the knowledge “puffs up.” Clergy, along with the abundantly over-learned laity who make their lives miserable, both risk this ungodly possibility of knowledge that is overweight and thus unhealthy.
St. Francis of Assisi fretted over the dangers of books and learning; how ironic is it that within a generation, Franciscans occupied prestigious chairs in theology at leading universities!
Anthony of Padua, one of his most zealous followers, lived a spartan life but gained renown as a scholar and teacher. Francis wrote him a letter, reluctantly granting Anthony’s wish to write and teach, but only “on the condition that you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion.” To this day, Catholics sponsor collections of food for the poor, called “St. Anthony’s Bread.” How lovely: the most brilliant scholar of his day, one of the official “doctors of the Church,” remembered not for his theological acumen so much as for being one who fed the poor.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. James Howell's latest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now features a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups.

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