Partisan Division: An Unclean Spirit

Mark 1:21-28

When I was in high school, I had a political sticker on my car. And to me this sticker represented my identity. It showed the world that I was intelligent, engaged…even worldly. It proudly announced to the world that I was mature and smart. To me, this sticker and this affiliation reflected a clear-cut understanding of the world. Everyone should think this way! I would muse. These issues are just so clear! I imagined. How could any logical, thinking person think differently? So I zipped around Elkin, North Carolina with my Datsun heralding my sophistication for all to see, smugly maintaining that at 17 I had it all figured out.

Well as you can imagine, as my world expanded and my interactions with others increased, as I gained a little more real-world experience, I developed a more thoughtful understanding of the issues facing our country. I was confronted with situations and circumstances that challenged my neatly packaged worldview. It became clear that the issues and stances I once thought were so clear cut- were actually complicated and more nuanced. There were multiple perspectives to the issues and all of them from thoughtful, loving people.
It dawned on me that in my naiveté I had neglected to consider that there were always many sides to a story.

Recently our Men’s Group had a discussion about faith and its impact on the Civil War. One guy took the perspective of the South and another guy took the perspective of the North. And we discussed how the faith lives of the leaders in this war shaped and informed their decisions. It was a fascinating and eye-opening discussion. Because what we all learned was that historically, both sides felt God was firmly on their side.

We have a tendency to do this, don’t we? Become so entrenched in our own worldviews that we co-opt the divine to substantiate our perspectives. And this is happening EVERYWHERE. In our churches and denominations we all claim that God affirms our theological stances and surely disapproves of the others who might challenge these positions. But in the midst of this, we forget that oftentimes these issues are far more complicated and nuanced than we imagined.
In the gospel today, Jesus enters the synagogue- the establishment of the day–the center of the community—and began teaching in a way the prompted questions. During this time, rabbis would teach and often cite respected religious leaders with authority. But Jesus was doing something new. He was teaching a new message that hadn’t ever been cited before. We don’t know exactly what Jesus was teaching that was different, but it’s fair to conclude that something was different enough for them to ask the question.

And just after this, he’s met by what Mark describes as a “man with an unclean spirit”. When Jesus encounters the man, the demon speaks, “what are you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of God” But Jesus rebukes him, and calls him out of the man. And with this the demon comes out convulsing and crying with a loud voice. And again, people are amazed and proclaim this “new teaching” and one “with authority! They’re amazed that even the unclean spirits obey this man. And Mark concludes that Jesus’ fame begins to spread.

There are many different ways to interpret this passage and all of them are compelling. We learn that Jesus has the power over the demons in our lives. Which I believe is true. We believe that Jesus’ teachings likely challenged the establishment of the day, which is also true. Especially since we obviously learn that Jesus’ radical ministry ultimately leads him to be executed. But what this passage saying to us today?

So as I was mulling over this sermon, prayerfully reading the text, trying to figure out what message God wanted me to lift from this passage and deliver to you folks today, I kept getting reminded of the heaviness I, and many people in our country feel today in light of this divisive political climate. And I couldn’t help but imagine the partisan division of our day as the demon in this story.

And maybe the establishment that is facing this new teaching is our political system?

So I’m asking- Has our partisan affiliation become an idol? Are we seeking first our partisan views prior to prayerfully inviting God’s perspective? Are we so entrenched with our political affiliations that we’ve convinced ourselves that only our views are sound? Whose authority are we seeking? And have we somehow convinced ourselves that God is on our side?
Because what I can say is that God is on the side of unity.
The world will always seek to divide.
But God is in the gathering. God is in unity.
As we walk through the Bible we consistently see this theme, don’t we?
The world through Pharaoh divided God’s people and what does God do?
Gathers them together. God liberates them and frees them, bringing them safely to the other side where they could convene and rebuild.
The world again divided God’s people, separating them from their land and their families. Sending them into captivity in Babylon. And what does God do? God brings them back together and unites them as one nation.

God gathers. God unites.

Jesus says in Luke, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”

God is for unity.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Now there are many passages in Scripture that seem to suggest Jesus divides.
For example, In Matthew, Jesus says, ““Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
But a closer reading of this text shows that Jesus’ intent is not to divide, as one might think, but to warn that his message of love and unity might not sit well with some.

God knows this won’t always be easy. Jesus warns us that following him can be divisive for those unwilling to surrender to the unity; who are unwilling to allow their allegiances to take the backseat of a higher authority.
But ultimately God liberates us from those forces that are dividing us. God is always on the side of unity for the sake of the kingdom.
Our political climate has us so divided that many of us are no longer seeking understanding. We are drawing lines of division that are hurting us. People are hurting.

This is not of God. God is in the healing.

God is in the conversation that seeks first understanding.

The unclean spirit would have us separate into our corners and shut down discussion.
The unclean spirit would tap into our egocentricities and have us believe that only our way is right.
The unclean spirit would cloud our vision so that the other is seen as an enemy rather than a fellow child of God.

But Jesus calls out this demon.
Jesus rebukes this demon.

Yes, it comes out reluctantly- kicking, screaming, and convulsing.
But God in Jesus is the authority. And that authority is love.
God pursues us all. Until every knee should bow.
We are all in this together. For the sake of the kingdom.
As the body of Christ we are all equal members.
We might disagree but we must stay united for the sake of the other. In love.
I’m not saying it’s easy.
It takes work. But that’s the power of Christ working in and through us.

Look at us here.
All of us share different views but we gather together each week under our shared mission of spreading the love of Jesus Christ with one another, this community, and the world.
Let us be the example in a world needing it.
Let us, as followers of Christ, demonstrate what it looks like to have the real authority informing our decisions.

Not the authority of the Republicans.
Not the authority of the Democrats.
Or the Green Party, Tea Party, Libertarian party… whatever.
Folks we are the party of Jesus Christ. And that holds more power, more potential than anything on the face of the earth.

At the time I thought that symbol stuck on the bumper of my car said everything about who I was and how the world was supposed to be. But as I got older and as the Holy Spirit got hold of me- that’s when I realized that the true mark of identity. The true symbol of meaning. Was traced on my forehead as a baby. Sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.

And that’s real authority.

Amen.

Come & See

John 1:42-51

In the breakthrough movie “Miracle Worker”, Anne Bancroft (who in my view will always be Mrs. Robinson) plays Annie Sullivan, the teacher who is hired by the Keller family in a last-ditch effort to help their young daughter, Helen, who as a result of a fever as a baby, is rendered deaf and blind. Now 6, Helen is unable to communicate and as a result is often prone to outbursts, tantrums, and the occasional violence. As a result, she is on the verge of being institutionalized. Helen seems lost in an interior world of silence and darkness and the family is at their wits end, unable to reach her. Unable to help.
Sullivan, who is half-blind herself, is brought from the Perkins School of the Blind to tutor the young girl. Despite her efforts, Sullivan is unable to explain to Helen the connection between words and meaning.
In the famous “Water Scene”, Helen has just had one of her blow-up tantrums and has thrown a water pitcher at Annie. In frustration, Annie grabs Helen and drags her out into the yard to the water pump and begins furiously pumping the water, forcing Helen’s hands under the spigot, repeating “WATER, water, water,” forming the sign language with one of Helen’s hands while water rushes over the other. And at that moment, a breakthrough occurs. The feeling of the water, the experience of water connects for Helen. The words are no longer just words. They now have meaning. And at the feel of the water, she slowly speaks the words, “WATER”.
In delight, Helen rushes further into the yard, drops to her knees, pounding on the ground, pulling her fingers through the dirt, reaching for teacher who takes her hand and forms the word “GROUND”
With the thrill of a world opened up to her, Helen gets up and runs to a tree, wildly grasping at the branches and the leaves and again, reaches for Annie who forms the word “TREE”
She then dashes for the house, throwing herself onto the porch steps, pounding her hands on the wood and learns they are “STEPS” then clambers up the steps to a bell attached to the porch and rings it, now learning the word “BELL”
Annie calls out to Helen’s family inside, who races out to experience this dramatic, emotional breakthrough in their daughter, one they had longed for for so long.
They witness the transformative connections their daughter is making on the front lawn and are overwhelmed with emotion, scooping up the young girl, covering her with kisses, and bringing back inside the house.
The scene closes with Annie sitting that evening in her low lit room in her chair, basking in the events of the day. Young Helen enters the room quietly, gives her teacher a kiss on the cheek and then curls up in her lap. As she gently rocks the sleepy child, Annie forms the word “love” in Helen’s little hands.
It’s a powerful scene in a powerful movie.
And it reinforces an important point.
The power of experience.
Some things can’t simply be taught, explained, or described. They must be experienced. There is really no other way.
In the gospel today, Jesus goes to Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me” and Philip, of course, immediately does.
I often wish I had the same sort of mojo as Jesus- where he tells someone to do something and they just do it.
I guarantee you if I did, I would have a sparkling clean house, kids with perfectly brushed hair, and I would never be late another day in my life! You might be good with these disciples, Jesus but let’s see how you do with a 5 year old!
But seriously, Jesus calls to Philip, who agrees to join him and then Philip, in turn, goes and invites Nathaniel to do the same. Now Nathaneal seems more like a Seaford, prone to a little bit of push-back. We’ll call that “discernment” but he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip responds with the ultimate invitation. “come and see”
Because most of the good things in life can’t be understood by mere explanation. The transformative things require experience. I recently crowdsourced this on Facebook asking the question, “have you ever been invited to something truly life-changing, but reading about it, learning about it, hearing about it, were all inadequate. It had to be experienced to be understood?” I got the most amazing responses, too many to recount here but they included mission trips to third world countries, fulfilling vocations, unique concert experiences, skydiving, watching a friends’ baby hearing their mother’s voice for the first time after cochlear implants, scuba diving, and marriage.
All of these examples were experiences that translated meaning in ways that explanation simply couldn’t.
You can’t understand the feeling of weightlessness until you’ve experienced the feeling of floating in water.
You can’t grasp the magnitude of our privilege until you’ve been to an impoverished area where even our most basic of resources are luxuries.
You can lecture your kids over and over again about the meaning of money but they won’t really get it until there is something they really, really want but don’t have the cash to buy it.
You can’t understand the Christian faith, truly understand it, without an experience of Jesus.
Oftentimes we want to intellectualize our faith through our complicated theologies, well-intended theories, and explanations. And there is certainly a place for those things, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t stand in place of experience.
Maybe this is what our passage today is getting at.
Philip is inviting a doubtful Nathaneal to “come and see” all of this he is hearing about Jesus. This is the same invitation Jesus uses with his disciples just a few verses before, and is the same invitation the Samaritan woman uses with her townspeople after her encounter with Jesus at the well.
These all suggest that one way to witness to your faith is by inviting someone to experience Jesus for oneself.
Because oftentimes when one has an experience of Jesus, they are transformed.
The theories become meaningful. They finally “get it.” And their lives are never the same.
We don’t exactly know how, but in this passage, Nathaneal experiences Jesus and in a quick transformation declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!”
And Jesus responds by alluding to the fact that the journey is only beginning. “you will see greater things than these.” Because Jesus rarely stops with the amazing experience of him.

I can stand up here and tell you until I’m red in the face about the transformative value of the Christian faith. I can talk to you about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, but you really won’t be changed until you’ve had an experience of Jesus. The word made flesh.
I can debate you and launch into a tirade of carefully crafted apologetics, I can articulate undeniable proof of the existence of God and the power of Jesus. But as they say, no one ever came to faith by losing an argument. You must experience it. Faith has to be experienced.
So how do we experience Jesus?
There are many ways, but one undeniable way is through a community of faith. As Jesus himself says in Matthew 18, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst”
When you are experiencing loss and are comforted by the compassion of loved ones. That’s Jesus.
When a friend is sitting with you at the hospital as you await test results or walking with you through some really difficult decisions, that’s Jesus. That’s an experience of Jesus.
Or when you are feeling really alone and you walk into this church and are greeting my warm, smiling faces, are soothed by the inspiring music of Randall, and nourished by Holy Communion, those are experiences of Jesus.
Few people have that mind-blowing Jesus appearance that Paul had on the road to Damascus. But many of us have that experience of Jesus through other Christians. And I would argue they’re no less powerful.
And when this happens, when one has a true experience of Jesus, it often sets them on an entirely new and exciting journey.
This happened to a friend of mine who was spiritual, but mostly agnostic, at least when it came to organized religion. But in the midst of the ordeal involving my wife’s illness, he witnessed the powerful example of Christians bringing us meals, caring for our children, and supporting us. He experienced the powerful example of faithful prayer and the love and support offered by not only our immediate family but from friends and family from all over. For him, it was an experience of Jesus. And I will never forget the day when he shared that this experience had inspired a life of faith.
We’d debated and discussed the impact of a Christian life countless of times over beers on my front porch, but it was a true experience of Christ that made the difference.
But what’s the key action in the passage? An invitation. Philip invites Nathaneal to come and see for himself. Don’t take his word for it, “Come and see”. And once he does, Jesus takes it from there. And Nathaneal is forever changed.
Folks we have that opportunity. Each and every day. We, too, can be Philip and simply invite people to come and see what makes this faith community so special. Because it is. Jesus is right here, active in our midst all the time. Ready and able to be experienced.
Jesus is here in the hands of those quilters who lovingly prepare warm and colorful quilts that will comfort people who are sick or have just undergone surgery.
Jesus is here in the work of the men of our handyman ministry who will go out and provide repairs for those unable to do it themselves.
Jesus is here in the smiles and hugs of Ms. Edith, the tireless dedication of Gordon, or in the loving and delicious Wednesday night meals of Terry and her crew.
These are just a few examples. There are way too many examples of Jesus at work in this place. Doing transformative work in the lives of this congregation and in this community.
There is so much here to “come and see”. So why not invite someone to experience it for themselves? There’s no need to try to convince anyone of why we’re the best church in town (which we are). They’ll experience it for themselves, right when they walk in that door. If you’re visiting today, welcome because you’ve just walked into an extraordinary faith community that I hope will offer you a life-changing experience of Jesus.
So the next time you’re at the Y, or at the grocery store, at your kids school, or walking your dog in your neighborhood, invite someone to church. This church. So they may experience Jesus. And be forever changed.

Come and see indeed.

Amen.