Epiphany 4 / February 1, 2015 / Year B
Preached: February 1, 2015, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY
In 2010, when I was 24, I went on a pilgrimage to The Holy Land. At the time, I was working as an executive assistant at a TV network–a very entry level job with long hours and little vacation and low pay. I didn’t really have much money or time to spare, but the church that I grew up going to (St. David’s in Radnor, Pennsylvania) was organizing this trip–a tour of all the big cities and sights in Israel-Palestine–and something tugged at me to figure out how to make it work to go on this trip.
It didn’t really make any sense, to go on a pilgrimage to The Holy Land, at ths point in my life. I had never really wanted to go there before. The place seemed very far away to me, very foreign. It seemed, perhaps, better left unknown. And I didn’t really think of myself as someone who would do this–go on a “pilgrimage.” I knew–still know–that the politics are very complicated in Israel/Palestine, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a tourist there. But after living for 6 years in New York City, as I held the brochure for this pilgrimage in my hands, wondering how my old church had found my new address in lonely Manhattan, I felt compelled to go, like a hand pushing gently at my back. A voice saying, “Go on this trip; go with your people.”
I took the time off work and I went off for 10 days, with what turned out to be a group of mostly retired people in their 70s and 80s. Definitely my people! (I say this with no irony; this is actually very true.) I was about 50 years below the average age, and I totally loved it. As we traveled–rather slowly and carefully, my favorite pace–from North to South, from Nazareth to Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we walked the path of Jesus, we felt the distances and put our feet on the same ground as the places we have all heard so much about in these familiar stories.
In Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, where the Gospel story takes place this morning, our tour guide–a funny little man with a cheeky sense of humor–called the town “Jesus: The College Years.” I had never thought of it this way before! But Capernaum is the place Jesus went to escape Nazareth. We know that joke Nathanael makes in the Gospel of John, “Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus’ first home was a small town, probably claustrophobic, and we don’t know much about Jesus’ life there, but we do know that he escaped to Capernaum, a bigger town, filled with fun young fishermen, and a beach!
I began to think of Capernaum, dusty and small-seeming though it is in the present day, as Jesus’ New York City, the place I came to grow up, to learn, to figure out who I am and what I want to do, to meet new friends who want to do that, too.
And in Capernaum, Jesus–young, just beginning his ministry–Jesus finds his authority.
Mark, in this Gospel story today, tells us that Jesus teaches with authority, and the people are astounded. And then a kind of crazy thing happens in this story–it’s hard to picture exactly what Mark is talking about here–but a man with an “unclean spirit” (perhaps this means he suffers from mental illness, perhaps he is a criminal, perhaps he is merely a heckler), this man challenges Jesus’ teaching. He sees Jesus’ new authority as a threat–the unclean spirit in him would prefer to keep doing things the way they’ve been done. Jesus stops him. Jesus pulls the “unclean spirit” out of the man.
I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t “heal” this man. He doesn’t destroy whatever this “unclean spirit” is. He merely separates the two. He draws the trouble out, addresses it, and silences it.
“What is this?” the people wonder. “A new teaching–with authority!” The people are astounded.
The great, overwhelming truth and mystery about Jesus is, of course, that he is both fully human and fully God. And when we read these stories about his early years, his “college years,” this is still true. God is in this young man, figuring out who he is, slightly cocky, outdoing the scribes in the synagogue, attracting a fair bit of fame for himself, taking on authority for the first time.
Standing in dusty Capernaum, surrounded by the people who loved me when I was a child and who now made this journey with me, I felt like the people in the synagogue that day. Astounded, by Jesus’ humanity. Inspired by his authority.
The challenge to us so many years later is to find our own spirits of authority, to do as Jesus did and separate out the unclean spirits, the spirits who want stasis, who fear change, who are happy with the status quo. This messy story from Mark, kind of hard to picture exactly what this unclean spirit looks like, just makes it more universal for us. These unclean spirits reside in all of us.
It is not hard to see when we consider that, according to Oxfam, the top 1% of the world’s population holds 48% of the world’s wealth. (1) According to the World Food Programme, 1 in 9 people across the world — that’s 805 million people — do not have enough food to live a healthy life. (2) One of my favorite scholars, James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, explains it this way: “We do have enough to sustain the world. What we don’t have? We don’t have enough to sustain the privileges that people want to have.” (3)
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul is also wrestling with this idea of authority–who has it in the earliest Christian communities, now that Jesus is no longer walking around? And the issue at hand is eating leftover meat that has been sacrificed in Pagan temples–is that allowed? His short answer is just a really good quote, and I don’t usually love Paul, but this tickles me: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I like to think of him writing that with a little bit of smug satisfaction. A very good line.
He doesn’t mean this to be anti-intellectual. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know things or try to learn as much as we can. We should do that. Rather, Paul knows the very tricky thing about silencing unclean spirits; it is not knowledge that gives us authority to do so. It is not knowledge that draws people closer to God. Love does that–love for the whole community, love that makes us think of others before we think of maintaining our own privileges. It’s a romantic notion, you might say a youthful notion, but a crucial one.
This morning, you do not need to travel all the way to Capernaum to remember what it’s like to be young and just starting out, to be claiming authority for the first time. You don’t need to walk through the ruins of a synagogue there to feel that youthful spirit, to energize your own call to be an advocate for those who suffer. And you do not need to be young yourself.
This is one of my favorite things about All Saints’ Church, of course. Last year, I preached a sermon after our rector’s installation. I talked about how we all came together, in our great diversity, at the party after that service, and we danced downstairs to the disco song We Are Family. I said we were all together, dancing from age 9 to 90! After the sermon, I had one sharp criticism of my preaching from a parishioner here. Miss Thelma stopped me and said, “You said 90! But I’m 92!” And today, February 1, a very wonderful day, we celebrate a very special birthday; I don’t think I’m giving anything away since it’s in the bulletin, but today Miss Thelma is 93.
We come together every week–all of us from Wesley and Skye who were baptized last month, to Miss Thelma, and everyone in between and beyond–to do what Jesus did in Capernaum. To learn. To make friends on the journey. To love each other. To teach each other. To listen to each other. To silence the unclean spirits who insist that our world cannot change, that there isn’t enough. To listen for the voices that call us to new places, to feel the hands on our backs that push us forward.
We come together at the table and God shows us, every week, every time, that there is enough. May we continue to build each other up, no matter our age or spirit, with this buzzing youthful energy and overflowing love. Amen.