Welcoming the Unclean

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Mark 1:21-28

There is evil in this world. There is no doubt about that. If you have not encountered some form of it in your lives personally, you will at some point. It comes in many forms and the unclean spirits we hear of this morning are just one example.

As I studied this text and read many commentaries, I came across this story that Ismael Ruiz-Millan shared:

“In Tijuana, Mexico, at El Parque del Mapa (the Park of the Map), I approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal. I introduced myself as pastor. ‘I killed several people just for fun,’ he screamed at me, ‘and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!’

As I think back to this encounter, I feel the shivers in my body again. After what felt like a long pause, I responded like this: ‘I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.’

This made him more upset. He started screaming in despair, ‘No! No, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me!’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘God loves you, and I love you.’ Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically. He held my arms and then started to cry.” (Christian Century, Reflections on the Lectionary, January 3, 2018)

While I have not experienced anything as stunning, I recall my first visit to Chicago for a band festival while in junior high. A couple of friends and I, as well as a chaperone, were walking down Michigan Avenue when a man started to follow us and was offering to give us money with no-strings attached. He was quite offended when we kept walking.

Mark’s gospel, while being the shortest of the four, moves at a rapid pace. Even the wording he chooses to share the story of Jesus reflects an urgency. Following last weeks calling of the first disciples, they find themselves in the synagogue as Jesus begins teaching. It is in the synagogue that Jesus’ first public act of ministry takes place. Jesus begins teaching so that all will listen. Confronted by a man with an unclean spirit does not faze Jesus in any manner whatsoever. While we know that this is the first of many stories of Jesus’ healing, the congregation gathered in the temple at that time were astounded.

The unclean spirit that the man is controlled by, is keeping him from living an abundant life. An abundant life that allows him to be in relationship with others. The authority that Jesus spoke with, was one that amazed and shocked those in the temple. They had never heard teaching like this before.  The authority that Jesus exudes is not like the authority that we are accustomed. It is not a visible power that he has over others. His authority that he relates to others is an authority that has everything to do with seeing justice served. This sets the tone for Jesus’ ministry and will lead to the cross.

If Jesus were to walk in here this morning, we too would be astounded and amazed by his words and the care that he showed for others. His teaching to this day still would speak counter to many of our priorities as a society.

We are still surrounded by unclean spirits and evils that rule our lives. These are those things that lead us away from living out an abundant life with the gifts that are given to us by a generous God. We witness evil pop up throughout our community and beyond. We witness evil in the visual reminder of violence that is on our nightly news. This past week there was another school shooting in Kentucky, the eleventh in the country this year. Are we becoming immune to it? Living in Michigan, it was impossible to not hear of the Larry Nassar case and the lives of over 150 women and girls that he forever altered through evil acts. There was a bombing yesterday in Afghanistan that has taken at least 60 lives. We witness evil in the rise of the opioid epidemic running rampant throughout our country. We are not immune to it in the Richmond area as our local police and ems have been using record amounts of Narcan, the drug that reverses an overdose.

The evil that confronts us is overwhelming at times. We wonder if there will be a positive outcome.

“What is this?” asks those who witness Jesus teaching and instructing the unclean spirit to come out of the man that confronts him. They had to be aware of the evil or unclean spirit that was in their midst well before Jesus came to teach. Perhaps it was something the community had been struggling with for some time and not knowing how to help. In walks Jesus, and his care for the outcast and the least of society. His authority brings justice to the oppressed and hope for a future that is en-robed in the love of God.

Jesus is not stunned by anything that he has seen in the synagogue. Instead he embraces every little part of it and makes himself present in the moment to speak words of compassion and love. In these first public actions of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, we witness a Jesus that is willing to break down all barriers that have been constructed by man. Barriers that had led to the separation of families and loved ones. He has come to bridge the gap. He is willing to walk with the unclean and let them know that they are loved.

Jesus does not work in just one place and time. The love and compassion that he opens up his public ministry with continues to this day. To this day, Jesus shows an authority over the destructive forces that attempt to prohibit us from living an abundant life in God.

God is with us to break the chains of those unclean spirits that are holding us back. Holding us back from being the true selves that we are called to be as children of God. The forces that hold us down are no match for a God that loves and cares for all of creation. We are reminded in our baptisms that we are marked with the sign of the cross forever. This is a reminder that we are God’s. We are loved and loved more than we could ever know.

When we begin to embrace this love is when we are able to fully live into lives that God has envisioned for us. Lives that reflect the love and compassion that Jesus shows for everyone. Jesus loves each and everyone of you. In this love, God shows us that God stands against all the forces of evil and that we too will be resurrected into an abundant life, just as Christ.

Let us pray, Loving God, your son, Jesus was born into our world to show us your love and compassion. May we continue to strive to live out the same calling in our lives today. Amen.

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