Category Archives: Gospel of Mark

Herod’s Choice. Mark 6:14-29

“The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

He didn’t want to do it–that much is clear. The Gospel writer is at pains to tell us that he “was deeply grieved” over the prospect of having that good man John executed. Herod’s problem was that he knew full well the difference between good and evil. And when you know what is good you are equipped to make a righteous choice and responsible to do it. But upon one little word–“yet”–this whole lurid story of human weakness and evil hinges.

Herod was saddened, and yet there were other considerations that came into play–political considerations, personal ones too. There was the rash and impetuous oath the king had sworn in front of his guests, a promise to give a spoiled child virtually anything she wanted. And like every petty politician of his sort, Herod felt the need to appear strong. And like every parent, even the worst, he felt the pressure to keep his promises, no matter rash and ill-considered. He had gotten himself into a corner, and now there was the devil to pay. The right response to the girl’s viperous request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter was obvious, as most right responses are. No. But he said yes instead, to his eternal regret.

This story would be just a salacious footnote in Mark’s Gospel story if Herod’s problem were not ours too, beloved. Too often we also let our value as human beings be determined by the worth we have in the eyes of others. It is an immature way of thinking; it is the way teenagers think. In many ways this is as much a story about immaturity as about weakness and evil. Way too often our choices like Herod’s are determined at what others think and not by what we know to be right.

So we have two men contrasted here, the king and the Man of God. One powerful but weak, the other powerless but strong. The king was governed by his fear of consequences. The Man of God who wasn’t afraid of them—when Herod took his brother’s wife, Herodias, John openly said it was adultery according to the Law of Moses. He told the truth regardless of the cost. So St. Mark tells us that “Herod himself sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.” Herod took John’s freedom away, but the king didn’t do anything more because, although his wife, Herodias, had a deadly grudge against the prophet, yet—and there’s that word again—“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

And why was that? Herod was not a righteous or holy man himself—by no means!–but he did recognize the real thing when he saw it. That he protected the Man of God only goes to prove what my father used to say—“There is some good in the devil’s cat.” There was a spark of goodness in King Herod. Every good thing, no matter where we find it, comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit was at work even in Herod, the corrupt, scumbag politician, whose old man of the same name had ordered the massacre of the infant children of Bethlehem, according to St. Matthew’s gospel. King Herod was a man born, raised, and graduated in the school of evil.

Yet—and there is that word again—“when he heard [John the Baptist talk] he was greatly perplexed.” People like Herod don’t understand the language of God, but they are drawn to those who speak it. He was a murderer and a petty tyrant and yet. . . and yet he liked to listen to him. The Holy Spirit is at work in the worst of human beings, just as in the best of human beings the devil is alive and well and doing his worst. It goes on like that—push and pull–but eventually a choice has to be made.

Herod’s choice came on the night of his birthday, appropriately enough. He gave himself a sumptuous birthday party. It was a stag affair. It probably wasn’t an orgy, but at a Roman dinner party there would be a lot of booze. Then at the climax of the evening, there was a special birthday surprise. It wasn’t a birthday cake with Roman candles on it, but it was certainly something hot. The daughter of Queen Herodias, Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, danced for the guests.

Which she must have done well, because when she had finished Herod said to the girl—“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you, even half my kingdom.” The girl ran to her mother to say—“What shall I ask for.” And her mama told her—“Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” And that is what the girl requested—the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things because we don’t know any better. These mistakes are still bad, and occasionally they have disastrous consequences, but the danger to our souls is not great. They are in the end just mistakes.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things by accident, intending to do the right thing. These accidents are still bad, and we suffer the consequences of them, but the danger to our souls is negligible. Things like that happen. We make mistakes as long as we try.

But Herod’s choice was not like that at all. He knew the choice he was making was evil, yet he let other people’s opinions determine his decision. He was not quite a monster, but he did a monstrous thing, for which the Gospel writer does not forgive him. Because when we know right from wrong, when the Holy Spirit tells us clearly the difference, then we are in the greatest danger, beloved. Those are the choices for which we are fully accountable.

We are all faced with choices we know are between right and wrong. We think that some of those choices are personal—no one else’s business. But there is no such thing as a purely personal choice—every choice is made in reference to other people, judging our worth. It is easy enough to make a decision because of the opinion of others, but it takes the courage that comes only from the Holy Spirit to make a decision in spite of their opinion. Yet those are the only decisions that can be called good or right.

Faced with the biggest moral decision of his life, Herod made it not on the basis of right, but out of regard for a vicious teenager and her still more vicious mama and the opinion of a brunch of drunken cronies. Like Pontius Pilate on another occasion, Herod was more concerned about the judgment of insignificant players than on whether he was putting an innocent man to death. Both men had their excuses. Tyrants always make excuses. They never want to take responsibility for anything. But no excuse ever really works. And we need to keep that in mind as we face Herod’s choice, whether to do the right thing and face the consequences–because the right thing always has consequences–or to do the wrong thing for the sake of other people’s opinions.

 

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Laughter in the Wings based on Mark 5:21-43

“When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he entered he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”

People do laugh at the strangest moments, don’t they? There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything funny about the situation in our gospel lesson. The death of a child, twelve years old, at the dawn of life, is nothing less than tragic. So why did they laugh?

They laughed because Jesus said—“The child is not dead but sleeping.” To them it seemed an absurd statement. And when we hear something absurd, even in the most tragic circumstances, we laugh. It is a natural response. Absurdity is our recognition that we are being asked to believe that the impossible can happen. The absurd is a statement or a situation is so contrary to common sense that it cannot be. So the mourners in the story thought Jesus was being silly, and they laughed at him. The tragedy was not theirs, after all. It was someone else’s heartbreak.

They were there simply to make a racket. The etiquette of death in our own time demands silence and hushed voices. But in Bible times it was just the opposite. A well-to-do family like that of the ruler of the synagogue might have hired professional mourners to cause an appropriate commotion. They may have been paid for making a hullabaloo. Or it may be that the people who were there that day were just neighbors there to offer their condolences–and perhaps have a bite to eat. In either case they knew death when they saw it, and the child was dead. Kaput. Children died with much greater frequency in that place and time, but the situation was no less poignant for being relatively common. A life had been cut short. There was nothing more to be expected of the dead. Jesus walked in on a noisy wake and hushed the mourners. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” And they laughed because there was no rational answer to such a ridiculous question.

But what the gospel writer wants us to understand is that the presence of Jesus is able to make what would otherwise be absurd, not only possible but inevitable. Nothing is ever over. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he says. It is worth noticing with what tenderness the miracle is accomplished. Jesus took her by the hand, we are told. And then we are given something very rare and precious—“ipsissima verba dei”—the very voice of the Christ speaking. “Talitha cum,” Jesus says in Aramaic, a phrase which the evangelist Mark helpfully translates for his gentile readers—“Little girl, arise.”

And it says “she arose.” It is the very same word in Greek—“anatasis”—which is used for Christ’s own resurrection. And we are to understand that it is by the same power that Jesus was raised from the dead that the little girl is returned to life. So absurdity is abolished by the presence of the risen Lord. Now nothing is absurd. Anything can happen. That is the essence of the Gospel, and that is the central reality of the Gospel life we are called to live. It demands a changed attitude toward the whole of life.  If Jesus rose from the dead now anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible.

That does not mean that everything that can happen will. What it does call us to do is offer up those impossible situations in our lives to the power that raised Christ from the dead. And all of us have those circumstances we deem hopeless. Consider this, beloved. Are there people from whom you are estranged, with whom you have not spoken for years? Do you have relationships that seem impossible to mend–with relatives, maybe, or with old friends? Are there chronic health conditions to which you have resigned yourself? The gospel demands that that we give up our old ideas of what is possible and open ourselves to any form in which healing and reconciliation may come.

The mourners in the story represent the old way of thinking about things. Their laughter is cynical, hopeless, and without joy. For them the dead are dead. Kaput. So it says that Jesus hushed them up, and “then he put them all outside. . .” He put them outside not only because they provided a noisy distraction to the miracle he was about to perform, but because they could not believe that the absurd can happen. But it can. And it does. The death and resurrection of Jesus provides the paradigm for a new kind of life. If he died an absurd death on the cross and rose again against all expectation, then the world is not the dead end it sometimes seems to be, but a realm from which the impossible has been banished, and a place of genuine laughter and great joy.

 

 

 

 

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Confusing Facts–Mark 4:35-41

The Gospel of Mark tells us that as the storm raged around them, Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and the disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

 

It was a tempest, a real gully-washer, and the disciples were understandably alarmed by it. They thought they were perishing. But the Lord of Life was there with them in the boat. They can be forgiven if they did not enjoy the ride, but they should not have been afraid—nor should we be.

I was told the other day of a certain evangelical pastor who counseled his congregation not to listen to the news any more, that is would just confuse and alarm them. They should give the time they would spend listening to the news and reading the paper to prayer and Bible study. Now there is nothing at all wrong with prayer and Bible study, heaven knows. And that might even be good advice, if ignorance were ever a good thing—which it is not.

We have to be suspicious of anyone who wants us to remain ignorant of the facts, for whatever reason. They pretend it is for our own good, but they always do it for their own reasons. The Apostles of Ignorance don’t want their people to attend to the “liberal media” because they want us to listen to their version of the truth instead. Uniformed people are always more biddable and easy to manage. It is always a mistake to turn your mind over to anyone else, no matter who.

But that pastor, misled in much else, was right about one thing–there is no doubt that listening to the news these days is confusing, aggravating and sometimes downright frightening. We can readily identify ourselves with those disciples, quailing in the boat with the storm howling all around them. We too are struggling against the contrary winds of bias and opinion; we too at times find that our little boat is in danger of being swamped by distressing images and dire warnings.

The news is not an invention of sinister forces, liberal or conservative. Just like in the Bible story, the storm around us is real, not imaginary. That it is confusing is not an excuse to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t raging. We could try to hide from it, closing our eyes tight and huddling in the bottom of the boat. But ignoring the storm that is raging around us does not deepen our Christian faith. It only serves to make it naïve and shallow and all those other things that unbelievers say that it is. No, if Christians should be anything, it is more concerned and interested in what is going on in the world, because we believe in a God who speaks through history, not just ancient history but our own. His prophets and seers have always seen his hand at work in it. And God is still speaking to us through the chaotic events of our moment in time, even when we do not always understand what he is saying and hear only the roaring of the storm.

What was always been true remains the case, beloved–to be a Christian is to be confused. To be a Christian in this world is always to be waiting for further clarification. As St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:8-9)—“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We are confused and perplexed by the news, by the wars and rumors of wars that Jesus said must come before the end, by the monstrous lies we hear shouted from on high, by the vulgar materialism of our society, by the staggering callousness of our government, by the decision of a large part of popular Christianity to regard the political fabrications as truth, and by religious leaders waging war on the facts in the name of Christ.

It is easy to become obsessed by it all and start yelling at the television screen. It is easy to misunderstand and overdramatize our position, like those disciples in the Bible story. They thought Jesus was indifferent because he was sunk in exhausted asleep. They thought they were in mortal danger of drowning, when in fact that his presence with them in the boat ensured their safety.

The storm is real enough, but God is with us–that is the good news we need to hear right now. So when Jesus speaks to the wind and the sea—Peace! Be still!—his Holy Spirit is speaking to us as well. The facts are facts—that they confusing is no reason to ignore them. But the presence of Christ in the boat is the Fact that governs all other facts. The news is the news. What is important for us is to remain calm and still in the midst of the storm. Not to spend our little all to buy into any one point of view. The truth is that the truth is endlessly complicated and complex. But God is at work to simplify and distill it into a single limpid word—Jesus.

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Sticks and Stones…Mark 3:20-35

In our gospel lesson from Mark it says that when Jesus’ family heard what he was up to, “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’”

Who knows, it could have been some sort of bad Pharisaical joke—in the worst possible taste under the circumstances.  At this distance in time it is impossible to say what the scribes meant exactly when they said Jesus had Beelzebul. It seemed clear to everyone that he had some sort of spirit, but from whence did it come?  His family had already become convinced that he was “beside himself”—possessed perhaps by a demon. So they came to collect him. Big disgrace!

But taking it one step further, those scribes alleged Jesus didn’t have just any old demon, but the prince of demons himself. (In the demonology of the time “Beelzebul” is a term of derision for the idol of the god “Baal” meaning “lord of the flies”—see 2 Kings 1:2ff. The gospel writers use the name interchangeably for Satan.) This accounted for his power to expel demons. He was their ruler. But did they really believe that Jesus was possessed by the prince of demons or was it just something to say to malign him in the eyes of that eager crowd who mobbed him and his disciples “so that they could not even eat?”  Was it a joke at Jesus’ expense? If it was a joke it was in unforgivably bad taste. Not only did the scribes fail to recognize the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power, but they went so far as to call the Holy Spirit Beelzebul. It was over the line, because, as Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” For those scribes, spiritually speaking, it was a career ender.

And speaking of career enders, his week saw a racist tweet by the show’s star get ABC’s highest-rated show “Roseanne” canceled. Roseanne Barr has long been infamous for her outrageous smears and wackadoodle conspiracy theories. But this time she went over the line, tweeting of Valerie Jarrett, an Iranian-born African-American who served as Barack Obama’s senior adviser, that if the “muslim brotherhood & the planet of the apes had a baby = VJ.” Was it just a “bad joke,” as she claimed? Maybe. But not just that. The network called the outburst “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values” and almost immediately canceled its biggest hit comedy amid a firestorm of condemnation.

Roseanne tried to apologize, saying that “it was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting”—but the makers of Ambien would have none of it. Their CEO said in a statement—“Racism is not a known side effect.” (That was a joke. You can tell because it’s funny.) In this world anything can happen, of course, but the outburst was probably a career-ender for Barr, who is 65. What is certain it that she accidently turned a deadly weapon upon herself with terrible effect and learned with sorrow and regret what we should all know—the truth that is enshrined in a little children’s song—Be careful little lips what you say. . . . .

There is a certain kind of language that it designed to kill, beloved. And whether it tries to disguise itself as humor hardly matters. The intent is there. In the present partisan environment such homicidal language has flowered poisonously. It has become a sort of call and response thing, so that a wacko voice from the right is answered by an equally loud equally wacko voice from the left. So the same week that saw Barr’s downfall, comedienne Samantha Bee, openly called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—t,” using a vulgar word for the female anatomy. Many rushed to her defense. It was a matter of free speech they said.

But the truth is, there is no defense for that kind of language. It isn’t funny. It’s deadly. Deadly to the souls of those who use it, who tweet it, who retweet it, who laugh at it, who excuse it, who do nothing and overlook it. Jesus did not overlook the “Beelzebul business”; he recognized it for what it was, an attempt upon his life and he defended himself accordingly. The scribes who came down from Jerusalem had already conspired against Jesus, “how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6), and now they set about trying to do it with the first weapon that comes to our hand, words. There is a great deal of discussion, much of it hot—and long overdue–about gun control, but there is less said about word control—that is, until something happens that pushes matters over the line. Then lives are destroyed and reputations are tarnished forever, and we all suffer from the decay of manners.

What kind of spirit is within us? In America today it is as if we are at war with ourselves, beloved, and words are the weapons. It is a war in which everyone with a computer can take part. There is no barrier on account of mental illness and moral indigence. It is war of manners, and the winner has the worst. And those who become combatants in this struggle are indeed possessed by the prince of demons.

But you and I cannot be among them, beloved. We cannot be the ones who tolerate and excuse such poisonous language. A portion of the American public has gotten so hardened that it can overlook anything in those with whom it agrees politically, but you and I cannot be part of that portion. The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1796—“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend.” Laws we encounter rarely and in extreme circumstances, Manners are what make up the fabric of our daily lives and bulk of discourse with one another. If they are corrupted, society is corrupted. And a corrupted society is a society not of laws but of violence. That is the danger of this moment, that the bad taste of a few is pushing us all over the line.

So is it worse to think it or to say it? Good manners answers unambiguously–it is worse to say it. It gives other people with the same nasty thoughts the permission to express them openly. But you and I need to learn discretion and demand discretion in those we who govern us and try to entertain us. There is a difference between obscene language, which is protected by the law, and homicidal language, which represents the end of manners and the beginning of criminality, and all of us can—or should be able to–tell the difference. One is in bad taste, the other tastes bad, like poison to the tongue. Our business is to recognize the difference, avoid the first and condemn the second. Or to put it more positively, to do as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10). Whether or not we do that reveals what kind of spirit is within us.

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Darn Pharisees–Mark 2:23-3:6

In the Gospel lesson for this week it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Are you angry, beloved? Angry enough to admit you are? I am. Angry enough for two of us. Not all the time and with everyone, of course. I wouldn’t say that I’m an angry person, but sometimes with some people my anger breaks through the skin and at times I feel that there is more than enough reason for it. Reading the newspaper and watching television makes it worse, but I can’t stop that either. We live in angry times. But our Gospel lesson, which speaks to us directly about the anger of Jesus, gives you and me some guidance as to how our anger can be controlled and directed by the love of God.

It is a vivid scene that Mark sets for us. Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath day–maybe it’s hot, maybe it’s crowded–and a search light is on him. The Pharisees are watching, because there is a man there with a withered hand and they waiting to see if they can catch Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing him. They want to use his compassion as a hook and the crippled man as bait. So there is an atmosphere of tension in the synagogue that day, and Jesus, always sensitive to an atmosphere, feels it. He hears the question buzzing around his head–“Will he do it?” Like a persistent fly. “Will he do it?”

So when he looked around him in the synagogue on that Sabbath day what did Jesus see? He saw the man with a withered hand, whose life was wasted by his physical deformity, and the sight of human suffering always ticked Jesus off. He felt the futility of it. The isolation of being different. The tragedy of wasted existence. But what stirred his ire particularly were the Pharisees, watchful as spiders, whose bodies were whole and strong enough, but whose souls were shrunken and distorted by their cold indifference and their immovable prejudices.

Jesus had much in common with those Pharisees on purely religious grounds. He also was an observant Jew. He taught many of the things they believed—the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and evil spirits, the judgment of souls, heaven and hell.  But he was not one of them. Our Lord was a carpenter, yes, but not a joiner. Nothing in the gospels indicates that he identified himself with any particular sect or group. He stood apart from the religious set-up of his time. He was critical of all its parties. But in particular he did not get along with the Pharisees.

And why? Although they were scrupulous in keeping the Law of Moses to the letter, they were terribly careless about the suffering of others. They were rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. But what made Jesus particularly angry that morning in the synagogue was their silence. When he asked them–“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It says that “they were silent.” And that is what made Jesus angry enough to heal the crippled man on the Sabbath just to spite them. He was angry because although they were the most religious of God’s chosen people, and the most rigorous followers of his Law, they would not commit themselves to life.

And what Jesus saw when he looked around at the synagogue that Sabbath day is what the Lord sees when he looks at the Church today. Many of the most religious, the most scrupulous, who wear the name of Jesus in the boldest characters, are the most indifferent to ordinary human needs. They too, like the ancient Pharisees, are rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. When Jesus looks around at the Church he beholds a place where principles, laws, and political agendas too often trump compassion, and no doubt the Lord is angry.

His anger is a comfort to those of us who share that anger. It says to us that Jesus feels our frustration and our exclusion. His anger is a comfort, but not an excuse. Anger secreted inside withers the soul. Jesus’ anger did not lie smoldering in his heart. It moved him to concrete action on behalf of those in need. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man in our story; and “he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” By way of comparison, what did the anger of the Pharisees do? It says they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Our anger is more often than not a result of hurt feelings. We feel it when we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are being attacked. (“Progressive?” Franklin Graham recently told a group of conservative pastors and evangelists in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. “That’s just another word for godless.”) But the answer is not to add our anger to the already poisonous atmosphere that surrounds us. The answer is to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to life. We need to vote, to give, to work, and to speak the truth in the Spirit of Jesus.

It is pretty hard for any of us, whatever our persuasions, not to get angry these days. There is anger all around us, on the right and on the left, above and below—it is an atmosphere that is always threatening to choke out our better feelings. It is reassuring that Jesus too could be angry like we are, but he could not be indifferent as we can so easily become. Even in the most hostile of circumstances he was always able to take a stand for life. In the synagogue one morning we are told he saw a man with a withered hand. He might have inquired regarding his religious preferences, his immigration status, his sexual orientation or his political party, but all Jesus said was—“Stretch out your hand.” He was obedient because he knew he needed healing. And so we should stretch out our lives to Jesus, beloved, and the Lord will restore our withered hearts to be like his.

 

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Confronting the Demons Mark 1:21-28

The evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the 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.’”

It came right out of the blue, of course–in the Gospel of Mark everything important happens fast. Sometimes things happen so suddenly that we miss their deeper meaning entirely, and we don’t really begin to realize what is going on until it is all over and Jesus has moved on. The Lord is always ahead of us in Mark’s gospel. And we are always trailing along behind, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on–just like his first followers.

In this case the action takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. After he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, Capernaum, the home of the disciple Peter, became his base of operations. If you take one of those Bible tours of Israel, you will be shown the ruins of a synagogue just a few steps from the traditional site of Peter’s house. This may be the very place where Jesus worshipped—or not. In any case Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on a bread and butter Sabbath and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was nothing so extraordinary about that day—apart from the presence of Jesus there, teaching originally and brilliantly–“as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” as the evangelist puts it. (What would I give to have been there to hear him, however? How about you? What a wonderful convergence of holy circumstances, to be in that holy place on that holy day in the presence of the Lord.)

Then all at once the face of evil appeared. “There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark tells us. And we are amazed, because that is the most surprising part of the whole story. But should we be?  Really? Because where else would an unclean spirit be more likely to show up on a bright and sunny Sabbath morning than at church?

I can’t claim to have had the widest possible experience of evil—in any case nothing to what some people have had. I have never experienced a Nazi death camp or encountered the agents of ISIS, who behead journalists, butcher their prisoners and burn people alive to make a rhetorical point. I haven’t seem more than newspaper reports of the horrific mischief that Boko Haram is up to in North Nigeria. There are some real experts on the demonic out there, people with first-hand experience of evil in its direst forms, people who have suffered its ruthless effects, and I cannot claim to be one of them. My experience of the demonic is limited. But I wasn’t born yesterday either. In my long life I have occasionally encountered genuinely evil people, and it has always been in the church that I have met them. They often appear to be quite respectable and “nice.” They look as if they belong there. They often make quite a show of their piety. Like the Pharisee in the temple they love to kneel and make a spectacle of praying. And then suddenly the mask comes off and the face of the demon leers out at you. Yeow! It is a shock that goes far beyond mere surprise.

And I know for a certainty that some of you are suffering from the trauma of encountering evil in a holy place. I know how profoundly shaken you are, and in part I am writing this for your comfort. But I am also writing for my own comfort, because I am also trying to recover from that same experience. And it is taking me a lifetime to get over being astonished, stunned, and utterly gobsmacked, (as the British put it when they are being lower class,) by meeting up with demons in church. The memories of those close encounters with the noonday devil still occasionally upset my sleep.

I suppose that only goes to show how really simple and naïve I was—and probably still am. We should know better, beloved. Having read the gospels, particularly Mark’s, you and I should be better prepared. Demons in the church? Why of course there will be demons in the church! Where else would demons be?

Mark’s gospel is like the exterior of a Gothic cathedral–there are gargoyles and devils crawling all over it. Jesus encounters demons everywhere—sometimes singly and sometimes in legions (see Mark 5:1-13). Reading Mark you might well get the impression that the rural Palestine of the first century was the very portal of hell. But in fact evil was no more present then than it is now. It was no more present there than it is in our own nation and our community and, I daresay, in our own church. It was the presence of Jesus that drew it out of the darkness where it hides. Holiness draws evil to itself. And the presence is not a necessarily sign of nastiness and moral decay—in fact, the holier place the more likely evil will be to crop up there. And quite suddenly.

In all probability those decent, observant Jewish people of Capernaum were also shocked by the sudden manifestation of evil in their synagogue that Sabbath morning. Utterly gobsmacked. And they would have shivered—literally. (Evil is frequently accompanied by intense cold. I have experienced that supernatural chill myself. It is like a window being opened into a dark, frigid universe of despair, which is what hell is.)  And they would also have felt utterly helpless against it. That’s the worst part of an encounter with true evil, that sense of helplessness and isolation. That is the source of its power, the ability to create that feeling of defenselessness in decent, ordinary folks.

When they encounter the demonic in the church or anywhere ordinary people do the ordinary thing—they hide from it. Confronted by hell they get the hell out. They recoil because evil is ugly and vulgar and repulsive. It is the ultimate bully, and although in reality it is weak, it looks and acts horribly strong. Its entire strength resides in its fearsome appearance. So they step back, they flee, they seek a safe hiding place—they scatter in the face of evil like Jesus’ disciples did when he was arrested.

But step back from evil is exactly what Jesus did not do. That is the whole message of the Gospel of Mark—Jesus confronted evil and overcame it decisively and forever. He did that for us, so that we would no longer be helpless in the face of the demonic where ever we encounter it—in the church, in our families, in the life of our nation.  “Have you come to destroy us?” the demon in our story asks. And Jesus’ unspoken answer is—yes, of course. That is exactly why I am here.

And the demons know that. They recognize The Holy One of God when no one else does. They fear him and at the same time they are drawn to him, like iron to a magnet. In Mark’s gospel only the demons know who Jesus really is. His true identity remains a secret from the disciples, from the crowds, from his own family. But the demons recognize him. That’s why “he would not permit the demons to speak,” we are told, “because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). The powers of evil know him as the instrument of their ultimate destruction.

And on the Cross Jesus stood alone against them and broke their dominion definitively and forever. But battle is not over. By no means. The face of evil still leers  out at us from the morning paper. We meet up with it in the most unexpected places. Evil has no strength of its own, only the appearance of strength, but for us appearances are still very powerful. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by them, shocked, baffled–gobsmacked.

We no longer need to fear evil, but when we meet it, especially in holy places, it still fills us with fear and disgust. The risen Lord gives to us, his followers, the same authority to cast out demons that he had (Mark 3:15). The problem is that confronted by evil we are afraid to use the power we have in us. Instead we recoil. We leave the flock and try to hide. We are scattered by it, like Jesus’ first disciples were. Scattered like frightened sheep. Evil always seeks, first and foremost, to isolate us from one another and attack us alone. And we have all experienced that one time or another, haven’t we?

Now I realize that this has been a rather depressing read up until now—all this somber talk about evil and demons. So by way of making a point and lightening things up a little let me tell you a pretty good Uncle Ole story:

My Uncle Ole and his pal Arne went hunting deer in the badlands of North Dakota with a bunch of the boys from the Sons of Norway Lodge. They camped out there by the Little Missouri River and drank a lot of Miller High Life and whooped it up a little, and then the next morning they split up in pairs and went out to hunt. Ole and Arne were together, as usual. The day passed. Then just before sundown Arne came back to camp, puffing and panting, and dragging behind him an eight point buck. It was a magnificent deer!

“Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway, “that’s sure a real nice deer you got there.” And they all had a Miller to celebrate Arne’s triumph and whooped it up a little. It wasn’t until the deer was skinned and field dressed that they noticed that someone was missing. “What happened to Ole?” the Sons wanted to know.

“Well, that there’s a long story,” said Arne, looking more than usually sheepish. “What happened was this. I shot this here nice buck, and we was dragging it back together when Ole started to feel light-headed. ‘I’m feeling kinda sick, Arne,’ he said, and then he sorta passed out on me.”

“But Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway. “You mean you just left Ole lying there all by himself and brought back the deer instead.”

“Yah,” said Arne, looking even more like a sheep than before, if that were possible. “I gotta admit it wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but I figured no one was likely to come along and steal Ole.”

Arne wasn’t really a bad person, just human, and being human he did a bad, bad thing. He got possessed by evil–anyone can be. Cases of possession are hardly less common in the world than the flu—and certainly no less contagious. Evil can infect decent people and make them very sick indeed. It can twist sisters and brothers into the most awful shapes. It can sweep through churches and denominations and religions like brush fire. Even whole nations and political parties can become possessed. That’s what happened to Germany in the 1930’s.  That is what is happening in parts of the Islamic world even as we speak.

Speaking theologically, evil is not really “real,” since it was not created by God and everything God creates is good. But even in its unreality it is still dangerous because it separates us from each other. Evil confronts us all together as a church and a nation. It is never our sole problem. But we treat it that way. We may know in our minds that it is bad to leave our friends behind. But when we meet evil where we least expect it, we allow our feelings to master us and we run off and hide. We leave each other to face the music alone.

Now Jesus could confront evil alone and he did. But without putting too fine a point on it, you and I aren’t Jesus. We need his presence with us. In the twisted face of evil our best defense is always each other, since in communion with one another is where we experience the presence of Jesus most powerfully. So when we are startled by the face of evil, where ever it may appear, we need to quiet ourselves, rise above our emotions, and seek out our brothers and sisters. Remember, beloved–against the frigid wind that blows through the universe, our best defense is to huddle together.

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THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TEAM MARK 1:1-14

According to the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [he] said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Everything really important happens fast.

This is certainly true in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the gospels–only sixteen chapters long and cut off abruptly at the end. It has been suggested insects may have eaten the end of the ancient scroll, and if that could be proved it would certainly be a jolt to our fundamentalist friends. Imagine! The inerrant Word of God eaten by beetles! But setting that disturbing thought aside, we are left with a muscular, energetic little book, The Gospel in a Big Rush.  In it everything important does indeed happen fast.

In spite of its brevity, Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is endowed with a special authority because it is the earliest we have.  It is a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and because it is located so comparatively early in the developing Jesus tradition, the Lord of Mark’s gospel in many respects more closely resembles the historical Jesus than later versions. Jesus’ words in Mark are as close as we will get to the “ipsissima verba Dei,” the very words of the God made man. And in Mark the Lord is always in great hurry, which the historical Jesus probably was, squeezing his whole earthy ministry into three short years. He rushes from one incident to the next as if he has a cosmic train to catch–which in the profoundest sense he does. In Mark Jesus lives on the razor edge of eternity, constantly aware of his own impending death and impelled onward by the Spirit toward his ultimate destiny. His heartbeats are numbered and he knows it. So it is only right that in Mark’s Gospel his first public utterance is about the shortness of the present moment–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There are no hours left to waste on trivialities.

Everything important happens fast. So in his little book everything is immediately this and immediately that–Mark uses that word “immediately” 39 times, more all the other gospel writers combined. So it is that when the Lord calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew, the evangelist tells us that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t dilly-dally around. That is crucial to the meaning of the story–they responded to the emergent situation without delay. But you and I can take a moment to consider this–What if they hadn’t? Would Jesus have cooled his heels while Peter and Andrew tried to decide whether they really wanted to be fishers of people rather than fishers of fish? (In the Sea of Galilee those would have been a variety of tilapia—locally known as “St. Peter’s fish.”) Would he have hung around while they went home for lunch and talked the whole thing over with the missus?

We rather doubt it. In Mark the call to discipleship precedes and supersedes every other consideration, and it must be made quickly. Those who follow Jesus are intended to be his Immediate Response Team. And his call to “follow me” is never issued twice—certainly not in the same way. So when the Spirit of Jesus offers us an opportunity to follow him, beloved, we have to get busy and do it immediately. The biggest temptation we face is our tendency to dither, to revisit, to tweak, to endlessly reexamine, decide and then make revisions to our previous decisions. The things we consider longest and most deeply in the end we do not do. Everything really important has to be done fast.

Of course, we are all perfectly aware that rash decisions can be disastrous. I remember once a young couple came to me in distress. They had been living together for some time—“trying each other out” in the modern way—but they were planning to get married in the fall. I was to do the deal.  Now, however, all that was in jeopardy. They both said they still loved each other, but there had been a big fight, no prisoners taken. At the end of it she had told him she couldn’t trust him anymore and had given back his ring and gone home to her parents. He was genuinely perplexed by the heat of her anger. (I’m afraid this young fellow didn’t have what they call “an important mind.”)

So this is what happened. They had been saving up to buy a house together. Then one evening as he was driving home from work in his old clunker of a pickup, and he suddenly decided to stop at a dealer’s lot and look at the latest models. No harm in that. Right? (I bet you can already guess what had happened.) But he fell into the clutches of a salesman with a ready grin and a firm handshake who showed him a shiny new red pick-up truck and let him take a test drive. Before he left he had signed all the necessary papers. “It called out to me,” he said. Those were his very words—“ipsissima verba.” And he was naively amazed when his fiancé burst into tears when she saw his new sweetheart. “It was my money,” he said defensively. “I worked real hard for that money. And it called out to me.”

Now I could tell you those two patched it up and lived happily ever after, but I’m not going to do that. Partly because they don’t really exist, never really did–except as a negative example of what can happen if you respond immediately to the wrong sort of call. Act now! We have all heard those voices calling us to an immediate response. Don’t delay! The world is full of subtle and insistent salesmen with firm handshakes and ready grins, and they exactly know how to tap into our deepest fears and wishes. I know how to make you happy. I know exactly what it will take to fill your emptiness and mend your broken life. Try my product! Act now!

This was one of father’s favorite Uncle Ole stories. Uncle Ole was driving down a country road one summer’s day, when all of sudden oily black smoke commenced pouring out of his engine and his truck started to make a loud clunk, clunk, clunking noise. So he climbed out, raised the hood, and fanned away the smoke, but after he had poked around inside there for a while, he felt someone watching him. So he looked up and, lo and behold, a cow was looking over his shoulder.

“You’ve got a bad alternator,” said the cow, as plain as day.

Well North Dakota is a wonderful place, that’s for sure, but even there cows don’t ordinarily talk. Uncle Ole was so surprised that he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the nearby farmhouse. Frantically he knocked on the door, and when the farmer answered, Ole gasped breathlessly, “A cow, a cow just told me what was wrong with my truck.”

The farmer only shook his head. “Was she a black cow with white spots?”

Ole nodded his head. “Yah.”

“Did she have one brown eye and one blue eye?”

“Yah,” said Ole, “that’s the same cow all right.”

“Oh her!” said the farmer. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know anything about cars.”

The world is full of experts who claim to know everything about everything and unafraid to tell you so. There is even a lovely, long word for such a person—ultracrepidarian.  It means one who criticizes, judges, or gives advice without knowing what he or she is talking about. And yes, I have fallen for the glib line of patter such people give us and you may have too. (Some of you may even have been married to one.) All of us have played the fool at one time or another. It hardly matters. Let’s just not let it happen again. What’s the point of getting older unless we learn something in the process? The truth is that no salesperson who promises us happiness or peace of mind can deliver on that promise. The only spring from which those things flow is a ready obedience to answer the call of Jesus Christ when and where ever that we hear it.

And what that call means varies for each of us and changes as our lives go along. It was different for each of those fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the gospel of Mark. It was different for Mary the Mother of our Lord and for Mary and Martha of Bethany and for that woman of mystery Mary Magdalene and for that other woman with no name and a checkered past whom Jesus met at the well of Samaria. They each had a call, but each call was as different as each she could be—individual unto herself. The only thing that every call of Jesus has in common is its urgency, its immediacy, its grave demand—Come and follow me. And Jesus is always impatient with our dithering. As he says to Judas in  quite another context—“What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

So how do we know what Jesus is calling us to do? How do we discern the voice of Jesus calling us from among the babel of other voices we hear?  Well, if I tried to answer that one, beloved, I would be no better than that black and white cow who wanted to tell Uncle Ole what was wrong with his engine. I’d be just another ultracrepidarian—Heaven help me! But there is a guide to follow in the examples of those people in the Bible like Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many others Jesus called along the Way. They were never called to do anything easy or to anything that someone else could do just as well. In baptism each of us was given a summons to obey and a task to do, and in our obedience to that calling lies our peace,—and nowhere else. But obedience to the call of Jesus never serves to un-complicate our lives, beloved. Those first followers of Jesus probably never agreed on much, but they all would surely would have concurred on that. The call of Jesus messes up all our human plans. It turns our lives up-side-down. It is never, ever a summons to do what you would have done in any case if left to your own devices. And the call of Jesus is always time sensitive.

The time is grown short. So, as St. Paul writes early Christians in Corinth, from now on let those who have family responsibilities act as if they were free, and let those who weep forget their misery, and let those who are happy forget why they are happy, and let those who buy act as if they were penniless, and let those who are attached to the things of this world let go of them. Why? “Because the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

I was checking out at the Walgreens Drug Store here in Tarpon Springs the other day. Things were particularly weird and wild—you know how things can get. An old man was wandering around, talking to himself, obviously drunk.  A woman was cursing her little boy and slapping him around. Everyone was being more mean and boorish than usual, and the nice Greek woman at the counter was standing there, surrounded by those tabloids with their lurid headlines, taking all this in. When my turn came I remarked, “Things are pretty rough in here.”

“They often are,” she said. “You know, I think the End of the World is at hand. There are signs of it everywhere. Look how people act. Everything is falling apart.” It seemed like a rather strange thing for someone ringing up your aspirin and dental floss to say, but this is a strange world. And in truth is, I have frequently had that very same thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “it does seem that way. But when the power of love takes over from the self-serving politicians who govern us, then we’ll know for sure that the End is near.”

Whether the end of the world is at hand is beyond the knowledge of us human beings. Now you have a handy name for those who think they know for sure—ultracrepidarians.  But this much is certain, beloved, each of our individual worlds is coming to an end. Our end is always impending. We all live our lives on the brink of eternity. Our response to that rather scary truth, however, should not be fear or denial, but obedience. God has given each of us exactly enough time to accomplish the task we have been given. Our heartbeats, beloved, are numbered. We each have exactly enough—which is not an excuse to waste our time dithering and worrying about things that won’t happen anyway. Quite the opposite. It is the best possible reason to get busy and do what needs to be done.

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