Epiphany 4 B – Against the Robbers

Mark 1:21-28

Dear Partner in Preaching,

How long has it been since you’ve told your folks that God stands steadfastly against all those forces that are keeping them down? That God is opposed to anything and everything that robs them of abundant life? That God is prepared to do battle with those who seek to rob them of lives of joy, meaning, and purpose?

I ask this question because I think that’s the promise latent in this week’s reading. Notice that the very first thing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel is cast out an unclean spirit. We don’t always know exactly how to process “unclean spirit” in modern terms (and certainly want to avoid the way it has been conflated with mental illness over the centuries!), but from other passages in Mark we can easily imagine its impact and effects on the life of the man this spirit holds captive. He has likely become a danger to himself and others. If he hasn’t already, he will likely soon be socially ostracized. And we can imagine the distress of those who love him. Anguish over his plight, fear about his future.

And the first thing Jesus does is free this man from the hold of his unclean spirit and restore him to himself, his loved ones, and his community. The very first thing.

First things matter. I mean, Mark could have told his story about Jesus differently and began by reporting some other action of Jesus. (After all, Matthew, Luke, and John all did!) And so the first thing Mark reports gives us a sense as to what the Evangelist thinks is most important, even offers a pretty strong clue to what he believes is the heart of Jesus’ ministry and mission. Which is why it’s important to note that the first thing Jesus does is free a man from an unclean spirit that robs him, his family, and his community of life.

This, in turn, is why I think it would be powerful for us to remind our people that God, indeed, stands steadfastly against all those forces that are keeping them down. That God is opposed to anything and everything that robs them of abundant life. And that God is prepared to do battle with those who seek to rob them of lives of joy, meaning, and purpose.

But then, please, tell them one more thing: That God is willing, eager, and committed to doing all of this for them…and for all of God’s children.

I add that because it’s so very easy to transform the “direct address” element of the Gospel – what the Reformers described as the pro nos “for us” or pro me “for me” – from an obviously personal message into a private one. That is, “for us” can devolve into “only for us,” or at least “for us and those who think or act or look like us.”

The temptation this week will be to define just who and what function as an “unclean spirit” or, as I described it above, “the forces that seek to rob us of abundant life.” And more often than not, that gets reduced to those for whom you didn’t vote. Against President Trump? Then he’s the embodiment of the forces that rob us of abundant life. For the President? Then it’s his opponents. What’s problematic of this approach is simply that, unless you preach to a very homogenous congregation, you will, whether unintentionally or intentionally, place those who think or feel differently from you in the camp of the unclean spirits.

Look, I know this isn’t easy, and perhaps to some will seem like ducking the issue or refusing to be prophetic. (And, truthfully, I struggle with that question myself.) Perhaps you feel very certain about who is to blame or most at fault for some of the problems that beleaguer us. I know I often do. But I also know that I love and respect some people who feel very differently than I do. In my family. In my community. And in my congregation. And so I come back to the unsavory possibility that my certainty may lead me to label those who differ from me as “unclean” and make it all the more difficult for them to hear and be transformed by God’s love.

Which is why I think it’s both wise and faithful to shift from trying to identify a one-to-one translation of the identity of the “unclean spirit” to persons or groups today to focusing on its visible effects. What are those things that rob our people of abundant life? Addiction? Loss of gainful employment? Belligerent or unsafe working conditions? Situations where power is abused or harassment and discrimination tolerated? Lack of access to housing, education, or medical treatment? Conditions devoid of the hope of a better future? God is not simply against these things theoretically, but calls on the Body of Christ to address them directly and with courage.

Will we all agree on the best means to face these challenges so that more of God’s children experience abundant life? Perhaps not. But let’s have that discussion openly and without (literally) demonizing those who differ from us. Which is why it’s important not simply to promise our folks that God is against those things that rob us of abundant life, but also to remind them (and all of us!) that God is against those forces that rob any of God’s children of the life God comes to make manifest and offer in Jesus.

So how can we get about the business together of diminishing the things that rob us, our neighbors, and communities of life? And how can we be truly counter-cultural and not let all decision-making processes and discussions get reduced to political conversations held on the binary (us vs. them) terms of a culture that feeds on the outrageous and where ideological purity (to the left or right) and gaining airtime via social media or the press is more important that actually making a concrete difference?

These are questions I’d love to have a congregation wrestle with, both knowing that God is unequivocally for them in love and that God also loves passionately and deeply people who look and act and believe very differently from them. Because Jesus still comes to free us – all of us – from the unclean spirits and robbers that seek to diminish the abundant life God has promised all. And we have a role to play in that continuing struggle.

Not easy stuff, Dear Preacher, and I respect that you may come to a different homiletical strategy or conclusion than I have. Know that whatever you may preach this week, you have my gratitude. For I believe that God has entrusted you with sufficient insight, courage, and fidelity to preach with authority what your people need to hear, and I am confident God will bless your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,