In the kind of arcane discussion that perhaps only preachers can have, some UCC clergywomen had a lively back-and-forth on Facebook last week about some of the finer points of today’s lesson.
The conversation began when one pastor wondered aloud why an “unclean” person was allowed in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching.
Someone replied that the man himself was not “unclean” according to Jewish law; rather he was simply possessed by an unclean spirit.
The back-and-forth on this matter continued for days, which I know only because the thread kept popping up on my Facebook feed with the note that a scholar whose opinion I highly regard had weighed in. I was curious to hear what my colleague had to say, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in the focal point of the conversation.
I wanted to focus on what I felt were the more salient points of the text:
1. That immediately after Jesus called his first disciples, he set about preaching and teaching the good and subversive news of the realm of God—not to people who didn’t know from God, but to those who thought they had God and goodness all figured out; and that
2. Proclaiming God’s call to love, equality, and justice for the marginalized, healing for the sick, wholeness for the broken, and community for all is all-but-guaranteed to create blowback from the death-dealing systems and unclean spirits who benefit from the status quo; and that
3. A big part of what some folks call “salvation” is essentially spiritual health and wholeness, and therefore,
4. To be about God’s work, we must attend to the brokenness of the world.
And, besides, I thought, don’t we all know the difference between an “unclean” spirit and the person it has victimized? Can’t we distinguish between someone’s political or social beliefs and whether they’re a good or bad person?
Oh, I thought. Maybe not so much. Isn’t a good part of the hateful division gripping our country right now caused by a largely unconscious and practically universal association of some ideas with bad character and certain beliefs with ulterior motives?
Oh, I thought, recognizing myself as someone who is sometimes guilty of that very thing.
And yet I still couldn’t shake the unsettling sense that I have shared with you before: the newly heightened awareness I have had over the past year or so of what feels like a very real struggle—not only in our country, but also within our own hearts—between the forces of good and evil, tolerance and hatred, change and fear, individualism and the common good.
Even as I try to follow more faithfully the Jesus way of love and justice, I have become more aware of the very powerful human resistance to God’s ways. Even as I try to overlook political differences with my family members and others and to, instead, focus on what unites us, I can’t help but see the all-too-real results of the church’s historical failure to confront the “unclean” spirits in our midst: racism, white supremacy, deep poverty, and increasing inequality, to name just a few.
The political division and enmity that beset us are but symptoms of a much deeper spiritual struggle. And the locus of that struggle, as well as our reactions to it, is not somewhere out there—in Washington or the heartland or some backwater we’ve never been to—but right here, in our own hearts and in our extended families and where we live.
I have been reminded of that this past week.
For much of the fall, my neighbor two doors down flew a Trump 2020 flag from a tree near the street. The election came and went, and still the flag flew. But sometime during the night of January 6 or early the morning after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, my neighbor got up on a ladder in the dark and took down the flag. I was relieved, thinking that a violent coup attempt against our government was a bridge too far for this committed Trump supporter. I was able to walk down the street feeling good about my neighbors again.
But last week I noticed that the American flag, which normally flies from the corner of this neighbor’s house, had been replaced by a different flag. I didn’t recognize this new flag; it featured a pine tree on a white background and had above the tree some words I couldn’t make out. I didn’t think too much of it until that evening, when I was watching the news and saw the very same flag in video footage of the violent mob storming the Capitol. The words on the flag said “An Appeal to Heaven.”
A little research revealed that while the “appeal to heaven” language dates back to George Washington and the Revolutionary War, the stated mission of those who now fly this flag is to decimate government programs by electing conservative evangelical Christians to as many public offices as possible.
My neighbor has not backed away from extreme expressions of Trumpism. Now that a devout Catholic and disciple of the social gospel is in the White House, my neighbor has simply doubled down. Which is to say, national law enforcement agencies are warning of more far-right violence. Which is to say, now that at least some large-scale Covid vaccination efforts are underway, far-right protestors have begun disrupting operations.
The unclean spirit in Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching in the Capernaum synagogue knew exactly who Jesus was: both the Holy One of God and a serious threat to all that is death-dealing and oppressive, at once Lover of All and disrupter of all that is not Love.
There is a time and place to listen to other points of view, to respect different perspectives. But as he will show time and again, Jesus does not engage evil; rather, he rebukes it—with the authority that comes from being spiritually grounded, with the authority that comes from having an intimate and ever-deepening relationship with the Holy.
How do we rebuke the evils in our world while loving our neighbors? How do manage to separate the horrible beliefs and causes that possess some people from the people themselves? How do we boldly live out the good news of God’s transforming love for all people when we know that very news will stir up opposition and resistance?
For too long, many of us have chosen to take the path of least resistance. Not wanting to offend anyone or cause trouble, we have rationalized that faith is a personal matter and we should keep ours to ourselves.
The Talmud has this to say about personal responsibility:
Whoever can protest against the transgressors of their household but does not is held responsible for the sins of [their] household. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of [their] community but does not is held responsible for the transgressions of the community. Whoever is able to protest against the sins of the entire world but does not is held responsible for the sins of the entire world.
To follow Jesus is to love the world so much that we take responsibility for the poor and hungry, the marginalized and oppressed, and the changing climate. To follow Jesus is to love our neighbors so much that we see in their death-dealing behaviors not evil but dis-ease. To follow Jesus is to love with such authority that we commit ourselves to ministries of justice and healing. To follow Jesus is to trust God so much that we let the Spirit heal and transform our hearts, our minds, and our ways of living.
To follow Jesus is, as the late John Lewis said, to stir up good trouble by calling out what is bad or false or harmful.
So let us be on our way—and let us give thanks for the one who continues to be revealed to us.