Sermon 28 January 2018 B – Epiphany 4

Todays readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton. 

I don’t know how many of you are involved with social media? This group isn’t completely representative of the population but if you are not your children, grandchildren, carers and nurses, taxi drivers, shop keepers and fellow dog walkers, often are. The number of different social media platforms has proliferated. Facebook started it, then Twitter and Instagram followed, and of course the ubiquitous Youtube and now we have dozens more. I have to confess that I mostly use Facebook, which as a young person said to me, is for grannies (well, I am a granny after all). One of the ways that social media has educated me is to expose me to a level of hostility and downright hatred that exists in our society. I suppose I have always moved in the rarefied atmosphere of the church, where the hatred and hostility is expressed in less open terms.

The latest furore is the conversation around ‘Australia Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’ if you prefer. Now those of you who are my friends on Facebbook will know that I am a supporter of changing the day. I have been aware of the tension ever since the Bicentennial when we went with hundreds of thousands, accompanied by our small children, to Sydney Cove to celebrate. I was not very politically aware, even though I had over the years a number of indigenous friends. I spoke to my sister, who lived in Newtown, close into the city and was a bit shocked when she said she would be marching with the Aboriginal contingent from Redfern. She had already been and welcomed the bus that had driven all that long way, with complexity and tragedy on the journey (that’s another story). I was confronted and afraid as I stood at Lady Macquarie’s Chair. Confronted by the reality that for some there was no rejoicing. And afraid that I might be drawn into the fray.

My sister, twelve years my senior and unburdened by the trammels of conventional family life had been aware of the struggles of our indigenous brothers and sisters for a long time. I had never thought of what the impact on the first peoples had been. Yes, I knew that they were shot, yes, I knew that there were massacres, but it was all a long time ago, wasn’t it? And now we all lived together happily, didn’t we? And then I remembered indigenous Sharon Smith, in my class, whose germs were so contagious that we all wrote “100% SS germ proof” on our hands, and shunned her in the playground. All this is a long prelude to my point about social media, and fear and exclusion.

When you look at the debate on social media, on this topic and many others, the rhetoric is vile. It is violent, often sexually violent even though the issue has no relation to sexuality. It is debased and debasing, and full of hatred.

Any idea of inclusion, whether it pertains to indigenous affairs, to refugee matters, to the recognition of sexual abuse victims, to closing the gender gap, or to welfare recipients, is greeted by an avalanche of hostility. The mainstream media straddles the fence with token gestures towards trying to support the oppressed while at the same time reporting the reactionary speech and actions of the detractors. And our politicians, both in government and in opposition play on our fears in order to win votes.

We are a society afraid of ‘the other’, and that fear results in violent opposition both verbal and sometimes physical. When I read it I feel unclean, I feel tainted by the vitriol of others even when I don’t espouse it.

And that, it seems to me, is the fear that we face when confronted by the other. We are frightened of being tainted, and then we are frightened of losing what we have. We feel confronted by the refugee, we don’t want to imagine ourselves in his or her shoes, so we hate instead. We feel confronted by the indigenous person and we react by diminishing their humanity and failing to recognise our own complicity while comfortably living on their land, and none of us want to talk about land rights. We feel confronted by the abused women and we don’t want to admit the possibility of our own abusive nature, though the “me too” campaign reveals that many women are now prepared to admit their own abuse. We feel confronted by the homeless person, begging on the streets, or the mentally ill audibly raving, because ‘there but for the grace of God go we’. All these people either inhabit the margins of our society, or conversely, are invisible even when right in the centre.

Jesus, on his first excursion after confronting his own complexity in the baptism, and confronting his humanity in the wilderness, moves into the centre. He goes to the synagogue in order to stretch his prophetic wings and teach. It is an epiphanic moment for the people around him. Jesus is revealed as one who is different because of his authority. The gathered men, and the word synagogue means gathered together, have come, ritually clean and ready to be spoken to by their leaders. Instead, a young prophet speaks to them, from Isaiah Luke tells us, with such authority that it terrifies them. They are confronted by the revelation of his words, though Mark doesn’t tell us what he said.

And then it gets worse,

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man in an unclean spirit, and it squawked out. Saying, “What to us and to you, Jesus Nazarean?  Have you come to destroy us?   I have seen who you are, the holy of the God.’[1]

 

This really is confrontational, both for Jesus and for the men assembled. It would be confrontational if it happened in the middle of our service, wouldn’t it?

It also raises a lot of questions: was the man there already and suddenly the spirit that enslaved him popped out into everyone’s view? Did the man rush in from outside? Was he there but on the margins? He was possessed, enslaved, as Mark Davis puts it, in the cage of his illness. This too is revelation. The evil, whatever form it took, was revealed and in that revelation the authority of Jesus was also exposed. Jesus is named as ‘the Holy, of the God’, or as the NRSV tidies it up, ‘the Holy One of God’. This is the important revelation, the epiphany for us today. Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of God. Just incidentally for those who are interested, this pericope, or chunk of text is chiastic in structure, and the verse that it turns on is this one- this is what we are supposed to notice, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of God. That is the revelation.

And Jesus’ response?

‘And Jesus censured it saying, “Be silent and come out, out of him.” 

And having convulsed him and having cried out a great cry the unclean spirit went out of him. 

The first thing I want you to notice is the separation of the man from the spirit that cages him. Jesus sees the Evil Spirit as separate to the man. And this, I think, is the first step towards confronting our fear of the other. If we see the thing that entraps a person, their poverty, their mental illness, the addiction, as a cage that the person lives in we can react without fear. Being addicted, for example, is not contagious, and neither is poverty. I remember the day that my friend Denise, who is a psychologist picked me up. I said that so and so is schizophrenic, and she interrupted, and said, ‘she has schizophrenia.’ It is a small distinction, however it is important. We human beings, made in the image of God, are sometimes burdened by something but it doesn’t define who we are.

But what of those for whom the thing that separates them is intrinsic, they are indigenous, homosexual or even just female? This is fear of difference, fear of the other and it comes out of a notion of scarcity, I think. As a woman who has been both feared by men, and vilified because of it, I know it is real. All I can say is that God made us, and God loves us, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. And another thing to add to that is that God is a God of generosity, of abundance and there is room in the Kingdom of God for all- we don’t have to fear that some other, who is different will take our place.

The second thing revealed in the text is that Jesus’ power and authority is exercised to bring healing and wholeness. This is inclusion. This reveals God’s generosity. Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God, which is a good place for everyone. Jesus works the margins of his society and brings people into the centre, not the centre of their own community, but the centre of God’s Kingdom, which is to say into the centre of love.

The crowd in the synagogue react by asking one another, who this is. That’s interesting isn’t it? The Evil Spirit has named him as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy one of God,’ but they have a long way to go before they are convinced. And his fame spreads throughout the region, which leads to certain consequences, both good and bad, as we will explore over the course of the year. Jesus has been revealed, so what holds them back from following him? The crowds flock to him and many are healed but the men of the synagogue (and I keep saying ‘men’ advisedly) are held back and I would postulate that it is fear that does that.

And what of our society? The fear of difference that is expressed in the anger and scorn of people on social media, or the fear of difference that is expressed much more quietly in our churches, is real. We are all afraid at some level.

But Jesus’ answer is, ‘Do not be afraid, I come to bring you the Good News of the Kingdom of God’. Jesus has come to bring healing and wholeness. Jesus speaks to us about love and inclusivity, about God’s great generosity to us all.

We are called to be people who embrace that glory, the Kingdom of God, a place of welcome and inclusion. We are called also to be the fearless prophets like John the Baptiser who take God’s message of love into our world. So beloved, preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, this week, use words!

 

[1] I am using D. Mark Davis’s translation found on his blog Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/separating-man-from-his-cage.html#comment-form