01 February 2009

Epiphany 4 - Are you in Control? - Sermon

by Canon Stuart Pike

Mark 1: 21-28

St. Luke’s, Burlington

1 February 2009

I remember one Sunday in my home parish Church when I was studying theology at Huron College in London. Service was just about to start and we had a very good turnout for the time of the year. There weren’t too many obvious places left to sit. Here and there you could find a seat in the middle of the pew. You would have to sidle by the people already sitting there.  Most people were dressed in their Sunday, go-to-meeting finery. Some of the older ladies were wearing their pretty hats. The organist was just finishing up the prelude and about to fire the opening salvo for a great and glorious processional hymn when the stranger showed up.

You could tell even from the gait of his walk that he wasn’t “normal”. He had that lock-step twitchy manner and disheveled look of the newly-released patient from the large Psychiatric hospital which provided St. Thomas’s streets with a collection of interesting characters. They might stay around for a few days or even a few weeks before they moved on to their own hometowns.  The newly-discharged would replace those who left. Many people were afraid of them. Most people ignored them. They would usually get the idea and clear out.

So what was one to do if one of “them” walked into our quintessentially Anglican service on a Sunday morning? With which hat lady would he sit? Would he be able to control himself during the whole of the service? Would he get out of hand?

Perhaps this question was going through the minds of the many people who heard the ruckus and turned to see the brief interchange between the man and the sidesman, who wasn’t taking any chances. He intercepted him from behind as the man reached about the fourth pew from the back. The sidesman (a burly man in a three-piece suit) grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around, escorted him to the back of the Church, said something to him and indicated the exit. Wow! A bouncer sidesman among whose many tasks included protecting our perfect liturgy from dubious worshippers.

The people of Jesus’ time would have understood the importance of this function. There were all kinds of rules about who was included and excluded in Jesus’ time. The temple had sections for different classes of people. Women were allowed so far, men were allowed in the centre of the temple, there was a court for clergy and beyond the curtain, in the holy of holies only the high priest could go in, once per year.

Then there were the ritual purity laws. You had to be sane and whole to be in the temple at all. It was the same for attendance at a synagogue. Illness excluded you from worship and even from contact with society. And so, as you might guess, being demon possessed certainly put you on the exclusion list. One of the most surprising elements of the story is that the man was even there at all. How did the bouncer miss him?

And so, here is Jesus impressing the good folk of Capernaum with his teaching and his amazing wisdom and in the midst of a perfectly good liturgy, this demon-possessed man explodes centre-stage onto the scene. Who was this man and why was he there? He addresses Jesus with a mixture of scorn and fear. Perhaps his first question is simply asking what others in the synagogue would like to know:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Elsewhere in the scriptures Nazareth is spoken of with scorn – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Some of the observers would probably have been questioning how this carpenter from Nazareth could have gotten all this supposéd wisdom. Maybe some were astounded at his teaching, in the wrong way. Who does he think he is? Perhaps this is the good thing about the demon possessed, they dare to ask the questions which the finer people have in their hearts, but are afraid to ask.

Oh, but the embarrassment of it all! There is nothing worse for perfect liturgy than having people who are not in control of themselves! And that is the main issue isn’t it? It’s about control. We want, we need to be in control. If we aren’t in control, then, surely, we’re not free. Imagine not being in control of oneself! The very thought of it brings fear into the heart of most people. And what could possibly be worse than being under the control of a demon! Thank goodness we are not him, the people thought.

But then, we live in such a more knowledgeable age now. Thank goodness we don’t need to be worried about demon possession, right? Medical knowledge has developed so far now. We know about things like epilepsy and schizophrenia and psychosis. We have medications and treatments to help us. The talk of demons and possession are just superstitions, right? We’re just so much more enlightened, now, or at least some of us are.

Fortunately, that stranger in that Church in St. Thomas, having been thwarted by the bouncer sideman, headed toward the exit as indicated and then did a ninety-degree turn up the side aisle and reached our pew where I stuck out my hand and introduced myself and my mother handed him a hymn book opened to the correct hymn.  A few people around noticed and I read a “thank you” in their eyes. Others shifted nervously. He sat there beside us for the entire service. He usually said the right responses. Not always at the right times, though. Sometimes he shook his head and twitched. Sometimes he mumbled something under his breath. He followed us up to the altar rail (though he didn’t walk in a very straight line) and he knelt and took communion and said, “Thank you Jesus” in a voice that was too loud. He returned to the pew with us and then, after the blessing but before the end of the last him, he left without a word. We never saw him again.

            Who was this man and why was he there? Perhaps he came to unsettle our comfortable pew. Maybe he was there to make us think about being in or out of control. Thank goodness we’re not him, we think.

            Aha, but that’s really what it is about, isn’t it? We are him! We are the demon-possessed man! At the deepest level of our being we know the truth that we aren’t in control. We’re controlled by deep desires which we don’t really understand. Not only the demons of psychosis, but also the demons of fear, self doubt, addiction and selfishness and many others are alive and well and living within us. Our own deepest and truest self (the self that is most connected with God) isn’t in control. Probably the greatest demon alive is the demon of materialism. For, this demon makes us think that we own our possessions and need to have even more of them, whereas really, they own and possess us.

            This Gospel story is about us having the courage to come to the holy temple where our demons cringe in fear. Something inside of us might be telling us that we don’t belong, that we’re not good enough, that we are unclean. We fear to be cast away and so we try to control ourselves, to act the part, to standardize our behaviour. And to demand the same of everyone.

            But the truly great news about our Gospel is that Jesus heals.  Jesus welcomes everyone, just as we are, right into the centre of holiness, and then brings us to health. If we will give control of our lives to Jesus, he will heal us of all that possesses us and our truest deepest self will walk free and he will bring us to wholeness of being again. And that is the Gospel truth! Halleluiah! Amen.

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