A few weeks ago, I was invited to prepare a sermon to preach during worship. I said "Yes", and then immediately got cold feet when I read the texts for the day. However, I soon realized that not only did I have a story from my recent experience in Southern Africa that I wanted to share, I felt that the texts set the stage for a much larger discussion about evil, fear, and of course, love. This is what I said from the pulpit on Sunday:
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at this teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28
I was working in the garden. September 17, 2011; 10 days after I arrived in Carolina, South Africa. My host dad, a Lutheran pastor, was out attending a meeting, and I was peacefully watering small, fragile cabbage seedlings with my host mom in our extensive garden behind the house. Suddenly a woman came bursting through the front gate and paused, chest heaving, out of breath, hands on her knees in front of Ma. She was clearly agitated and I knew, even without understanding a single word that was being exchanged, that something bad was amiss. I was not surprised, therefore, when my host mom suddenly dropped the hose and gestured for me to turn off the water at the tap. We rushed to follow the woman back out the gate, not even taking time to wash our hands or rinse our muddy feet. I had no idea what was going on or where we were headed, and my two companions were giving no clues or hints about our destination or our purpose.
However, we didn’t have to go very far; just a house about a half a block away. We opened the front door and right there in the sitting room I saw a young girl, maybe 15 years old, laid out on the cool tile floor, a woman cradling her head and others gathered closely around her sides. Her eyes were closed, her limbs were still, and she did not appear to be breathing. I thought she was dead, and I know my eyes widened with fear. I began to complete a mental inventory of my very limited emergency response skills. “Did anyone check her pulse? Is she breathing? Have we called an ambulance? Is an ambulance even available?” I realized after completing this mental checklist that my quickly mounting sense of panic was not shared by the other women in the room. Instead, they appeared to be completely focused on the girl, speaking to her in rapid isiZulu and touching her either with gentle caresses or violent slaps. I realized that they were praying, alternating between eery calmness and shocking, ear-piercing cries. This realization did not ease my discomfort, or my sense of inadequacy and helplessness in the face of a situation that I did not understand or even fully comprehend. However, I joined them in prayer, using my own language and my own words, holding hands with these women as we together called upon the Lord to provide healing from whatever this girl was suffering from.
It was not until we left the home many hours later that I was told what I had witnessed. The girl had been supposedly possessed by an evil spirit. Demons, is what they call them there, or an unclean spirit, according to our Gospel today. I had never encountered evil in such a way before, and I did not know how to react… but I knew that my initial reaction was fear.
Unfortunately, evil can take many shapes and forms, and has many names. There is much about the world’s evil ways that confuse and frighten me, and I often feel paralyzed and helpless about what to do about it. Global warming. The unstable economic situation. Human trafficking. Hunger and poverty levels, at an all-time high in the United States. The ongoing decimation of populations around the world due to HIV, AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis. It is, frankly, enough evil to make a person depressed.
It is into this gloomy scenario that Jesus appears with his disciples in the synagogue at Capernaum. They are teaching there when suddenly this man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus, who quickly tosses out a rebuke. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? But in those crucial moments between this unclean spirit’s appearance and Jesus’ response, I’m sure he had his own “mental checklist” to get through, his own sense of fear and uncertainty that he had to overcome, before he was able to address and resolve the situation with calm authority.
Blatantly ignoring a problem, fervently wishing it would go away, and distracting oneself with other activities are not ways to approach evil. Evil must be met with confidence, assurance. And, in those adrenaline-fueled moments, it doesn’t even need to be yours, as I discovered kneeling on the cool tile floor in my neighbor’s home. It can be from Jesus, who is sending words to your lips and embraces to your arms that you didn’t even know that you had. Because in a world that is so full of evil things, Jesus is our best resource, our greatest ally, our dearest friend in need, the right authority. All we have to do is trust.
That alone, is a difficult task, especially in light of so many negative issues we are bombarded with on a daily basis. One can watch the news day after day and still ask, “Where is the good news? It seems that things are spiraling out of control. What do I know about anything?”
Paul reminds the early church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) that “all of us possess knowledge”. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. In other words, love wins. Love wins over the right answer, the by-the-book procedure that by all logical understanding should do the trick. Love. In which there is no textbook, no handy bullet-point reference list, no exam, unless you consider the practical exam which we begin each and every day when we open our eyes.
It’s nice to think that we are pure, selfless, loving human beings all the time. But in fact, as Lutherans, we recognize that we are in fact just the opposite the majority of the time; habitual sinners. We have plenty of unclean things coming out of our bodies too, people; greed, envy, laziness, a lack of self-control, whatever… fill in the blank.
But that is just the point that Paul is trying to make. We all have the capacity to harbor unclean spirits, to do bad things and encourage our friends and companions, just by our example, to do the same. In our second lesson, he talks specifically about eating food sacrificed to idols, which is difficult to translate into our culture today. But it does translate in terms of actions. It’s the classic peer pressure line of “but everybody’s doing it”. Or, you can flip it around to what I’ve heard called the seven most popular words in church: “we’ve never done it that way before.” Either through pressured action or pressured inaction, each of those statements has the potential to be damaging and dangerous, to create unclean spirits or attitudes between us because we need, rely on, and take our cues from those around us.
We are not solitary beings. We are made for community, family, togetherness. That’s what the church is; a community. Not a building, not a place, but a living breathing thing that is us. And each week, we gather together, around this altar, to commune together with our Savior and Lord. We need each other to confront the unknowns and the perplexities of this world in which we live. It is much easier to face an unpleasant situation when you are not alone; that’s why my host mom and I were rushed to join in the prayer for our neighbor. I’d like to think that even Jesus, confronted so abruptly in the synagogue, maybe flashed a glance over to his disciples to say, “Are you guys watching this; are you ready to help?”
This is why we worship together, pray together, sing together, commune together. To remind us that we need each other, and that all of us need Christ. We are weak, ineffectual, trudging through the mud weary without the love and teachings of Jesus in our lives. Gathering together each week is one way we show that love to one another, and renew our spirits for the crushing dose of reality outside these doors. Because literally, there are issues that confuse, astound, hurt, perplex us right outside these doors. How much longer can we look away?
A commercial frequently shown on South African television a few months ago says this (or watch it below):
“We’ve all done it. We decide we want something to happen and then… we wait. We wait for a sign, or for someone to tell us to “Go ahead and do it!” That we have permission. Or we hope that by sheer chance that very thing we want will create itself. That it’ll tap dance in to our lives and say “Surprise!” Then, nothing happens. So we watch TV and make fancy plans, waiting ’til we have the money or enough time before that elusive ‘lucky break’. Or sometimes we’re waiting to feel a little braver. For our fears and doubts to disappear. But there’ll always be something else to wait for; until we face the simple truth. That thing we want is on hold, because it’s up to us. We’re waiting for ourselves. Things don’t just happen on their own.”
No, things don’t just happen on their own. Do we have evil out there? Yes. Demons, unclean spirits? Apparently. Bad news? You bet. But is the situation hopeless? No! Lots of the issues we face today are complicated, ranging from the complex global issues of health, justice, and equality to encountering people with unclean spirits- even ourselves. But with Jesus in our hearts, and the support of friends and community by our side we can step confidently and boldly into the world that desperately needs our help. Because the greatest evil we can have is within ourselves: an attitude of inaction rooted in fear. And fear, next to love, doesn’t stand a chance. We are beloved children of God, and don’t need to know much more than that. Beloved. Be Loved. Let yourself Be Loved, and to love others, amid the stress and craziness and apparent disorder and evil that we humans have created in this world.
Brothers and sisters, we are not alone. We are brothers and sisters, united through the Body of Christ to people all over the world, who may speak other languages and suffer from their own kind of demons, just as we do. But Jesus gives each of us the courage we need to face evil with his love, following his confident, perfect example. Things don’t just happen on their own.