Sunday, February 1, 2015

SERMON: "Casting Out Spirits" (2.1.15)

A Meditation on Mark 1:16-28


"Selma"--Marching on the Courthouse
As you can probably imagine, I’ve been puzzling all week around this whole exorcism thing.  Jesus and his followers.  Their first days together.  And he takes them to a synagogue and exorcises an evil spirit.  I’ve been puzzling around this all week long.  Why an exorcism?  And why is this the very first thing they do together?  “Silence!” Jesus says, speaking harshly to the demon.  “Come out of him!”  All this love in Jesus’ heart.  So many needs to be met.  And a new circle of friends.  And he takes them to a synagogue and exorcises an evil spirit.  Really, Jesus?  An exorcism?

And then last night, I went to see “Selma” with our senior high youth group.  How many of you have seen “Selma” already?  If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to see it soon.  In a theatre, on a big screen.  It’s outstanding.  So I went to see “Selma” with our youth group.  And it’s about the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s about Martin Luther King and his leadership in the 60s.  But it focuses in on Selma, Alabama, and racism there, and the denial of voting rights for blacks in Dallas County.

And early on, there’s a scene in the movie, where Dr. King tells other organizers that the time’s come to take their protest, their demand for voting rights, to the Dallas County Courthouse.  It’s where voters register, Dr. King tells them.  It’s where white officials conspire to keep blacks off the rolls.  And it’s a symbolic center of racist ideology and practice in the South.

So Dr. King and hundreds of others march to the Courthouse and attempt to gain access to the registration office itself.  And of course Sheriff Jim Clark and his staff stand menacingly in their way.  And there’s a stand-off there on the steps of the County Courthouse.  Sheriff Jim Clark tells the black agitators to go round the back if they want to talk some more.  But Dr. King and the others refuse, insisting they will go in the front door to register as is their right.

The black marchers are organized, of course, and disciplined and trained in the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence.  They’ve spent a good bit of the morning in church, praying and singing, and they know who they are and what they’re about.  So they kneel in the street, put their hands behind their heads to indicate their peaceful intentions.  And again, Dr. King demands access to the clerk’s office so the people can register.

But Sheriff Jim Clark and his force react viciously and defiantly, brutally attacking protesters young and old, and arresting Dr. King and a good many others.  It was indeed a key moment in the movement, and it’s a critical scene in the movie, as nonviolent black protesters expose the ugly, malicious bigotry governing white leadership and protecting white power in the South.  The brutality in the streets is hard to watch: an out-of-control sheriff swinging his club at church ladies and college kids; a dozen deputies clearing the streets with their fists and rage.


So I’m watching all this in the sixth or seventh row at the Del Mar.  And I’m struck by the courage it takes to face up to bigotry and to fight back with love.  And I’m moved by the sacrifice of all these folks, by their willingness to suffer for the kingdom of God, for the common good.  And, OK, I’m finishing off a big bag of popcorn too.
Mark 1:21-29
And all the while, I’m still thinking about Jesus and his followers, those early days of their movement, and how they enter the synagogue and encounter a person there, possessed by an evil spirit.  The Selma scene unlocks the Capernaum scene in a new way.  And I’m thinking about the synagogue now, as a symbolic center of scribal authority and religious life.  And I’m thinking that maybe Jesus goes there because he knows he’ll find spirits there, spirits that divide people into blessed ones and cursed ones, spirits that judge people as good people or bad, spirits that use religion to sort people out and keep some people down.  And I’m thinking that maybe Jesus goes to the synagogue to meet these spirits face to face, and confront them with his gospel of love, and demonstrate God’s passion for justice and inclusion and mercy.

So I’m wondering this morning if Jesus and Dr. King were engaged in similar projects, similar ministries, with similar dreams.  And those dreams require action, sometimes even confrontation, and a profound commitment to love and nonviolence and God’s grace.  You see what I mean?  The Selma scene unlocks the Capernaum scene in a new way.

Now before we go any farther, let’s be crystal clear that Jesus is a faithful, prophetic and courageous Jew.  He goes to the synagogue that day not to condemn Judaism at all, but to confront the spirits that twist all kinds of religion into ideologies of control and hatred and divisiveness.  He’s like our beloved Connell O’Donovan and his gay Mormon friends taking their demand for equal rights and blessings to the Temple in Salt Lake City.  He’s like Roman Catholic women going to the Vatican and celebrating communion, a sign that women are called to priesthood in all the same ways men are called to priesthood.  And he’s like Dr. King and Diane Nash and Ralph Abernathy and all the others showing up at the Dallas County Courthouse and exposing racism at the heart of American Christianity and bravely, defiantly, lovingly calling it out.

Jesus wastes no time in showing the disciples what’s a stake.  He wastes no time in taking them to the heart of the matter.  His kingdom is a kin-dom, a beloved community where all God’s children feast in freedom and dance in delight.  Sisters and brothers, all!  So wherever people are divided—whether it’s by religion or economics or cruelty or race—Jesus goes there directly.  Today it’s the synagogue in the small town.  Tomorrow, the marketplace in the big city.  He goes there and confronts the spirit of bigotry, the spirit of pride, the spirit of greed.  And he calls that spirit out.  With love.  With courage.  With hope.  Jesus calls that spirit out.


Again, if you’ve seen “Selma,” you remember that the scene following the courthouse scene takes place in the county jail—where Dr. King and many others are locked up after the action on the courthouse steps.

And in their small cell, Dr. King and his good friend Ralph Abernathy are talking it all over, wondering what it all means.  And Dr. King, in all honesty, is questioning whether it’s even worth it, whether he has the courage and strength to see the journey through.  It might be my favorite scene in the whole movie—because it fairly conveys the doubt and fear we know Dr. King experienced in the Civil Rights Movement.  How he worried about his family.  How he questioned his strength.  How the constant threats, everyday threats, worked their way into his soul from time to time, and made him doubt himself and despair for the future.

And in the jail scene, he’s confessing all this to his good friend, and wondering whether it’s all worth it, whether he can finish the race he’s started.  And it’s dark in the cell, and it’s cold in the cell.  And to be honest, no one really knows what’ll happen next.  No one ever knows.  But Ralph Abernathy listens to every word, honors every word, and makes space for his friend’s deep pain and doubt.  It’s real.  And then Ralph Abernathy speaks words from his own heart.

“Look at the birds of the air,” he says, quoting scripture from memory.  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

And in the movie, when Ralph Abernathy finishes, a smile forms on Dr. King’s lips.  He knows that his friend has spoken in love and in faith.  And that these words truly matter.  And he says, Dr. King says, simply, “Matthew 6.”  He recognizes the words of Jesus.  He feels the words of Jesus.  He hears these words of comfort and encouragement in a profoundly personal way.  “Therefore do not worry, but strive first for the kingdom of God."


You see, when you care about the world, when you commit your life to healing the world, when you follow Jesus into the world, you’re going to face the spirits of despair and division.  And sometimes those spirits are going to get to you.  And sometimes those spirits are going to demoralize you.  And sometimes you’re going to find yourself wondering if it’s even worth it, if you can finish the race you believe in.  That happened to Martin Luther King.  And we know, from scripture, that it happened to Jesus too.  The spirits aren’t only found in the crazed Sheriff Jim Clark or the ambitious governor George Wallace or the miserly scribes or the greedy priests.  Sometimes the spirits get into us.

And that’s why I love this one scene in “Selma” so much.  I love watching these two good friends, trusted allies in the struggle for freedom, nonviolent warriors for justice, pastors in the truest sense; I love watching them ache together and puzzle over the meaning of it all, and search for words and hope and reasons to continue.  And I love watching Dr. King confess his despair, acknowledge his doubt.  And I love, I just love the way Ralph Abernathy calls on Jesus, invites Jesus into the cell, asks Jesus to speak a word of peace, a word of courage, a word of hope.  To his friend.  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  “Matthew 6,” says Dr. King.  With such gratitude.  Matthew 6!

This morning, it seems to me that this is what exorcism is really all about.  It’s about speaking love to fear.  It’s about speaking truth to power.  It’s about calling out despair and inviting courage back in.  And it’s about two friends making commitments: to the kingdom of God, to the kin-dom of God, to the healing of injustice and the dream of peace.  There are, as we know, divisive and destructive spirits in the world.  Sometimes these spirits manifest in the cruelty of ISIS or the madness of Sheriff Jim Clark.  Sometimes they work their way into our own hearts, our own flesh and homes.

But we are called to follow Jesus.  And that means speaking love when the world spasms in fear.  And it means offering encouragement when a friend is tempted to give up forever.  And it means offering the world God’s gospel, God’s peace, when the world seems only to recognize violence and warfare and force.  We do that here.  Or at least we try.  It’s not always easy; in fact it rarely is.  Once in a while, we’ll have to go someplace difficult and silence an evil spirit, call it out, exorcise it in the name of love.
But Jesus’ promise is always with us, always in the air, always in our hearts.  Speaking love to fear, we will never be alone.  Speaking truth to power, we will never be alone.  Calling out bigotry, calling out violence, encouraging compassion and peace: we will never be alone.