A Reflection on Mark 1:21-28
the Gospel for
February 1st, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
by David Somerville+
Carol Louisa Gawain was born in 1948 to atheist Californians. She is the author of several popular self-help books, the most influential of which is Creative Visualization: The Power of Your Imagination. One will not find her work in your garden variety Christian bookstore to be sure; most Anglican theologians would also agree with the evangelicals at the bookstore that the assumptions of self-help writers, by and large, should be looked at with a very critical eye. They tend to ignore the mystery of God.
Gawain is a child of the “New Age” movement. That said, this popular writer, nevertheless, has moments of deep insight from her experiences with Indian culture. Gawain has taken the name of that nation’s feminine deity, “Shakti”, hence her nom de plume, “Shakti” Gawain. It was there in India that Gawain was able to see, from both a distance, and with perspective, the destructive folly of materialistic American culture. So these are some of the reasons why this non-orthodox, non-Christian author, writes a few things that any thoughtful disciple of Christ would find to be very true. Take, for example, Gawain’s confession that “I gave away all my possessions…. I realized that …[in the universe] we will be given all the things we truly need … and all that is needed for their keeping is a small canvas bag!”
I could easily imagine Gawain’s thought as being close to what Jesus may have communicated to Simon and Andrew, and then shortly later to the Zebedee boys on the shores of Lake Galilee in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. Whatever it was Jesus conveyed to the four young men in addition to “Follow me! I will make you fishers of humankind”, it caused them to immediately do what Jesus told them to do. They responded to something strangely irresistible, namely genuine authority.
Next Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson is worth noting before getting to the Gospel. Deuteronomy 18:15-20 begins with the promise that
The Lord God will raise up …a [new kind of] prophet … from among you…. You must listen to him.
The Revised Common Lectionary has chosen this particular passage in order to lead us forward into the theme of the gospel lesson, Mark 1:21-28. In the passage from Deuteronomy we learn of God’s promise of a different style of minister, a prophet equipped with a revolutionary new authority, one whose ministry is not authorized by some traditional institution of human origin, but one who is truly the mediator from God, and authorized by God’s spirit alone. This prophet like the one promised by Moses in Deuteronomy, will be, by his nature, an outsider, and therefore not influenced by the politics of his society. Since we are the Church, this passage reminds us that Jesus, the perfection of prophecy, will serve us with a charisma that will charm some, but threaten others – because even though he lived and dwelt among us, as we are told by the Gospel of John, our God-in-Man made manifest, is still an outsider. He is able to proclaim the truths that need to be revealed without asking for input from some cabinet of advisors that are paid to assess whether or not their master has the “political capital” in his popularity account to make troubling observations.
The radical element of our Church is its drive to inclusiveness — which leads on occasion to some uncomfortable moments. Mark relates just such a moment in the Capernaum synagogue. It was something like what happens in some church somewhere, anywhere, every Sunday. Two outsiders appeared on the otherwise normal Sabbath morning. — not unlike the way we find outsiders coming into in our worship places today. A homeless crazy appears through the open doors, and shuffles randomly down the aisle in dirty, ragged clothes, drooling, and babbling. Those of us with children pull them away. The choir continues to sing. Another couple (let’s call them John and Mary Stepford) exchange whispers. John: “Oh damn! Here’s Billy again, and, he’s off his meds right in the middle of our favorite hymn, All Things Bright and beautiful”. Mary, impeccably dressed in Laura Ashley, rolls her eyes on cue. He continues, “I wish we could get him permanently committed to St. Jude’s Institute, but every time we put him in, he always signs himself out. And there is nothing legally we can do to keep him where he belongs – in the rubber room where we can forget about Billy, and do our singing.”
If the fictitious worship center I just imagined experienced a scenario more like the one in Capernaum, things would unfold differently: A stranger would appear soon after Billy enters the church. Billy looks like he has the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. (People in our time rarely give serous thought to the idea of demonic possession and exorcism).
With calm, but firm resolution, though, the stranger says, “come out of Billy in the name of Jesus Christ”! Billy screams. The choir and congregation stop singing All Things Bright and Beautiful. There is silence. The stranger walks with Billy out of the church to the Salvation Army offices – to get him a shower, shave, and a presentable suit of clothes. How would we react to all this? How would the Stepford’s react? Here is something the Stepford’s do not talk about. Billy is a first cousin to Mary Stepford. They are both grandchildren of the late George Winston Mayflower, a prominent industrialist, who had endowed their beautiful, neo-Gothic church.
After Billy and the stranger left, what were some of the remaining impressions? Would not some in that congregation have thought, “Well that was a little odd — to have this guy come in the way he did. How did he know about Billy? In any case we weren’t sure where things were going to go. It was all a bit unnerving. But it all ended O.K. However, would it not have been simpler just to have the legislature amend the law so that Billy could be remanded to St. Jude’s, and just kept there? That would have been easier to deal with, and the beautiful rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful would never have been interrupted in the first place!
What causes our natural preference to exclude rather than to include, like getting Billy permanently excluded, and locked away? I think it has to do with our faithless clinging to what we have, and that could be anything we possess, ranging from one family’s prestigious zip code to another man’s routine, daily lunch martini. These are predictable things we feel we can control, and the things to which we have attachments – even though some of them may carry with them hidden stressors and risks. We like being affiliated with people who are attractive to us because they are so nice, easy to understand. They don’t rock the proverbial boat.
I am a very fortunate man with several nice possessions. But I am driven to wonder: Are some of the possessions possessing me! I have a collection of antique toys, a bicycle with a twenty-six pound titanium frame, Swiss watches, antique clocks, a sports car, and another automobile with a turbocharged V-6 engine. Do I need the sports car? Obviously not. I do need a car and a license to drive it, of course, but not the turbocharged engine.
I also have a collection of concerns: worries about how well liked I am by the people I admire, some anger, self pity, and anxiety about a Parkinson’s diagnosis, and what that will do to the way I look in the future. These are just a few of the things both material and emotional that I could probably do without. But to include everything is so much easier than noting what among my attachments are the one’s that distract me from keeping my Christian vows. (Of course, the one thing I would like to put out by the curb is the Parkinson’s diagnosis. But that was also what Saint Paul wanted to do with his thorn in his flesh. He made the better choice – to love and serve God anyway). So then (Yuck!), I have had to conclude that there are several choices about how to work with this challenge that I will have to include: Example: Inventory and make realistic plans about the stewardship of my eroding physical abilities. That will require some life-style and changes of habits, with a willingness to accept God, whose companionship with me is not the same as that of a fantasized superhero. What is that? Simply a magical genie whose company I am tempted to prefer over God. He would pop up at my beckon call and remove the diagnosis. I could go on, good friend and reader. But you get the idea. It is a matter of living the faithful life that requires me to exclude what I cannot have anyway, and to include some things I do not like. Some of what I, in my faith, am called to include are people about whom I feel uncomfortable because they are dirty, homeless, mentally ill, and always asking for money. It is as if the darker side of me were to say to myself “They are like that unwelcome diagnosis. Having them in my midst is just not convenient! Therefore putting up a wall to keep people and things like that on the outside, and excluded from my personal life would make things so much easier and more orderly. Then I could go to church, and get to know the Stepford’s better, and maybe join them for brunch after singing All Things Bright and Beautiful”.
But the incident in the Capernaum synagogue suggests that when we live a life, striving to include just those “things bright and Beautiful”, then what happens? The inside becomes the outside; and in the long run I end up not only bored with the company I keep, but I miss the much more variegated life in the Kingdom I’ve spent my life preaching about. Then I am excluded from the great pilgrimage I was originally called to begin the day I embraced the vows of my baptism. To add insult to that injury, I also will not have found a big enough canvas bag to hold all my stuff – which is its own kind of perverse blessing, because if I did find such a bag, it would break my back!
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/