Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
My friend Tom was telling me about
this time he lived in Virginia, a few years ago:[i]
I had just returned home from a business trip,
a couple days away, when I was told:
“David”—that was our next door neighbor—
—“David has taken to BARKING at night.”
And I said: “You mean he’s got a DOG?”
And my wife said: “NO, I mean David is now BARKING at night.”
And I said: “You’re sure he doesn’t have some kind of ANIMAL who is barking?”
And she said: “NO, David is barking…at night…”
We went on and talked about some OTHER things,
but—around two o’clock in the morning,
SUDDENLY I began to hear this strange sound impose on my dreams.
So I got up and went over to the window and looked down—
–and there was DAVID, on the curb,
BARKING his heart out!
By now, my wife had awakened and said: “What is it?”
And I said: “It’s David—he’s BARKING!”
And she said: “That’s what I was trying to tell you—
–DAVID now barks at night!”
So, (Tom continued)
I’m looking down through the window,
and all of a sudden he looks up – and sees me,
and he STOPS barking – and stomps off into his house.
The next day, I was taking the garbage out
and DAVID came over to me and said:
“I want to apologize for BARKING last night.”
…I don’t think ANY book of etiquette
addresses the proper response to an apology
from a grown man for BARKING!
And he could see I was puzzled, so he said:
“It’s NOT YOU I’m trying to get—its THEM!”
…and he pointed to the house across the street.
“Its that’s dog of theirs,” he said.
(They had an old flea-bitten dog named “Babe.”)
Evidently, David worked late at his job, so he slept later, too,
and our across-the-street neighbors were letting “Babe” out at 6:00 a.m.
and then Babe would BARK to get back in—waking up DAVID…
…Now, David said this to me straight-faced—
–as if this were a PERFECT explanation
for why HE had taken to BARKING!
And Tom said: “David, have you ever gone across the street
and just asked them to take in their dog sooner—
or to WATCH their dog so he won’t bark?”
And David said: “Oh! I COULDN’T do THAT!”
So…he was VERY afraid of a confrontation,
BUT NOT frightened to stand on the curb—BARKING?
So, Tom continues…
Mindful that I really like to sleep at night,
–I finally said to David: “Would you like ME to go over and talk with them?”
and he said: “I’m going on vacation for the next week,
so anytime before I get back would be great!”
Typical of MOST human beings—Tom said
I don’t find CONFLICT very attractive—
–so the week came to an end and I had not yet gone
across the street to talk to our neighbors with the DOG.
But, I finally summoned my energy and went across the street
and said to Norm, who lived in the house,
“Norm, we have a problem.”
He said: “I know, its Dave, he’s taken to BARKING.”
But I went on to explain Dave’s problem of waking up when Babe barks.
And Norm said: “Why didn’t he just come over and tell me that?”
“You know, with five kids in the house,
we don’t hear ANYTHING anymore…”
But he immediately added: “I’ll be happy to get one of us
to come out with Babe every morning.”
And with that—Babe…AND DAVID…stopped barking!
/ / /
Now…ever since Tom told me his story
the sound of David barking at night
OFTEN RETURNS to me whenever I run up against
HOW IRRATIONAL human behavior is…
Whenever I think:
Why couldn’t we just walk across the street and talk with one another?
Why can’t we reach across ALL the STREETS that have us separated—
–men and women,
–black and white,
–straight and gay,
–parents and children
–partners and friends
–wives and husbands
–poor and rich
–Palestinian and Israeli
–Muslim and Hindu,
–liberal and conservative
–why couldn’t we just reach across these streets?
Why do we go into this CRAZY BEHAVIOR?
The sound of BARKING comes to me
whenever I encounter that which is SO IRRATIONAL
The sound of David barking also comes to me when I read this story,
from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
Even though the lectionary planners dice it up for us
today’s reading continues and picks up on the themes
from the reading last week…
where JESUS taught them in the Synagogue as one having Authority…
and he doesn’t just teach, he CASTS OUT the unclean spirit,
and then, as soon as he leaves the synagogue,
he enters the house of Simon and Andrew
and greets Simon’s mother-in-law, in bed with a fever
taking her by the hand and helping her up.
And the fever leaves her,
and in grateful response she begins to serve Christ…
this one whom some call the first Deacon
the first to respond to Christ’s healing gifts
by moving to heal others herself.
And then Christ moves on, to heal the sick, the hurting
and those whom the text calls “possessed by demons…”
Together, these stories of Mark are apparently trying to describe
the AUTHORITY of this one, this Christ
who teaches AND heals, this one who restores, makes new again.
We have our issues with Authority.
“AUTHORITY” is a red-flag word in our day and age.
What kind of authority?
On what basis does he have authority?
How can they tell he has authority?
Mark sweeps through these stories with grand gestures:
Having declared Christ’s authority…
he depicts Christ teaching
he shows Christ confronting a man with an unclean spirit…
he tells about Christ raising up Simon’s Mother in Law
and he has Christ healing all those brought to him
sick or possessed…
and then going off to pray.
Mark is EXPLAINING the NATURE of the AUTHORITY of this Jesus!
How this Jesus moves and acts and thrives
not just to deal with our need
for a RATIONAL theology through teaching
but to ALSO to confront the DEMONIC and DIVISIVE FORCES—
that are alive in the depth of the human heart and mind,
and in human systems of oppression and hatred.
THAT side of Jesus’s authority is a bit scary. Isn’t it?
It doesn’t make much sense.
It deals with our IRRATIONAL natures.
And, truth be told, MOST of us would prefer a SAFER Jesus.
We WISH Mark would have said: “He taught with authority and THEN
gave us a RATIONAL explanation for how he cast out demons
or heals with a touch…and it ALL made sense!”
Let us also ask honestly: who among us is not
just a bit uncomfortable with the Jesus who does exorcisms.
After all, THIS is the FEARFUL side of religion.
THIS is the side of faith that deals with MYSTERY.
THIS is the side of faith in which we DARE…
…in which we DARE to NAME the DEMONS!
We DARE to name the demons of ABUSE and RACISM;
we DARE to name the demons of SUCCESS and FAILURE;
we DARE to name the demons of houses built on SAND—
financial houses…and actual houses as well;
we DARE to name the demons of runaway fear
and conspiracy theories;
we DARE to name the demons of OLD GRUDGES and HATRED;
we DARE to name the demon of RELIGION that turns in on itself—
–and shuts the WORLD that God so loved—OUT!
Naming these demons is a very FRIGHTENING act…
IF we do NOT come to terms with the DEMONS—they’ll come to terms with US.
They’ll come back and GET US.
David couldn’t go across the street, and share his conflict,
and so it took an EVEN MORE distorted form!
“What is suppressed,” Freud said in one of his greater insights,
“What is suppressed is NEVER forgotten.”
It comes back:
–A society that IGNORES racial injustice,
will have a break-down in the very fabric of our life together.
–A society that IGNORES what is happening to children,
and to women, within itself—
it will come back to haunt it with a generation
that knows NOTHING about
what it means to be COMPASSIONATE or JUST.
–A society that has NO HOPE of PEACE—
EXCEPT what is purchased at the end of a sword—
will find that a self-fulfilling prophesy,
lost in a continuing cycle of VIOLENCE.
–A society that thinks happiness truly is what money can buy,
will find itself BANKRUPT of soul,
and probably BANKRUPT of money, too.
–A society that obsesses over security will end up feeling quite…insecure.
Its not just society, though. It’s the church too…
–A CHURCH that thinks “SIN” is a word simply from the Victorian age,
but totally unsuited for us today—
will find “SALVATION’ to be illusive or HOLLOW…
–A CHURCH that shuts people out—
will find itself left behind…
–A CHURCH that cannot embrace the winds of the Spirit
that blow anywhere, and everywhere—
will find themselves in a stifling place…unable to breathe!
That AUTHORITY that Jesus had, he had because he TAUGHT and PREACHED
in a way that said:
“I WILL deal with whatever is destroying human beings!”
What might this have to do with us, today, in this place?
For starters, it might important to note that MARK is very consistent
with his theology of EXORCISM.
The very first missionary trip in Mark comes later, in chapter six, where we read:
“Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two,
giving them AUTHORITY over the unclean spirits…”
First time out, and the disciples get… authority over unclean spirits?
…Gee, couldn’t Jesus have done BETTER than that?
—INSTEAD, couldn’t Jesus have given them a manual on Church Growth?
—Or a survey of current trends
on what Generation Y and the Millennials want in a church?
Couldn’t he have taught them how to FEED people, first of all?
Or some blueprint for bringing peace on earth?
WHY is this the FIRST thing that is mentioned?
Well, I think it is the absolute REALISM of Jesus that Mark captures so well!
Mark realizes, through the witness of Jesus
that if we DO NOT come to terms with what is DEMONIC
in the human heart
and in human society—
–there will be NO ROOM in which we can welcome
HOSPITALITY, GRACE, GENEROSITY
Do we even need to be talking about this?
Why not focus on what is sunny, rosy?
Unfortunately, DEMONS are always at work—call it what you will
–but DEMON, whatever your definition—are always at work…
Every time you turn to look,
some goulish and grisly tale grabs the media attention of the nation….
…broadcasting into every home
some bomb, some scandal
some suicide cult, some escalation, some trial of the century,
some twisted tale of despair.
After all, these things make for good ratings!
But I wonder why the cameras are not trained hour after hour
on the people seeking food in dumpsters?
…Why the cameras are not trained hour after hour
on the struggles of people in our midst?
I wonder why the cameras are NOT trained on the agonizing struggle
each of us goes through—whether we want to admit it or not—
–to live full, whole, unquestioning lives of GRACE.
…I wonder why the cameras are not trained hour by hour by hour—
-YOU name the demon.
Say what you will, we ALL have demons.
They might not be OBVIOUS, they may seem like just an ANNOYANCE, really—
–But if a DEMON is that ACTIVE FORCE which is at work
to keep us from the love and purposes of God
and from WHOLE living—
–if a DEMON is that force in our own life
that puts up formidable obstacles to living that full,
whole, unquestioning life of GRACE—
–THEN MAKE NO MISTAKE—we ALL have DEMONS!
…But ALSO remember the good news:
Jesus never hesitated to face this kind of challenge.
flinched when in the presence…of DEMONS!
The GREATNESS of what Jesus does, as MARK presents him,
that he was somebody whose AUTHORITY
came from this absolute conviction
that there is a Spirit of LOVE, a Spirit of REDEMPTION—
–in any time, any place, any circumstance—
–a spirit that IS STRONGER than any DEMON!
And, its very interesting: the DEMONS knew it!
When Jesus came into that synagogue and PREACHED,
and when he went around the countryside to heal and to love—
–the demons said: “I know who you are!
you are the Holy one of God!”
I saw Selma, the movie, a few weeks ago.
It shook me, as those types of movies often do,
and this one in particular, perhaps,
given how Martin Luther King, Junior resonates with me.
But it strikes me that Martin named the Demons in our midst
he named them and proclaimed authority over them
that they were no longer going to subject an entire people
to misery any longer.
And I sat there, in the theatre
with these texts of Mark on my mind, and I wondered:
What if we took this authority seriously,
and took it upon ourselves
to name the demons of our world and of our lives?
If we could live our lives proclaiming the Word of God
by our actions, no less than by our words—
–people might sense that the Holy One is working through us!
It is true that these are human problems, intractable issues.
Unclean spirits, and Demons, everything that keeps us from wholeness,
these do not come out easily.
This is a difficult path.
It’s difficult in ministry…and its challenging in life.
And there always seems to be MORE energy invested in keeping things—
–even bad things in life
–even destructive things in life—THE SAME
–more than in seeing them changed by the power and the presence of God.
But I believe that it REALLY DOES depend on faithful Christians
YOU (and me)—
–to consistently and faithfully NAME the DEMONS of our life and world.
That ALONE can create an openness for GOD to WORK CHANGE!
–EXORCISM is painful—
–but lives lived that CANNOT face, head-on, the demonic
will NOT have authority…
..and then we are just spinning our wheels.
…and we’re no better than any other well-meaning organization,
and we’re certainly NOT the church Jesus intended.
I was musing about all of this,
when I came across the work of an artist in Richmond, Virginia.
Its called the Light of Human Kindness.
They’re taking stories of human goodness, acts of love and forgiveness,
and they’re going to display them on an 80 foot wall, lit one by one,
a light in the darkness.
Here’s the video presenting the work:
People touch the mural, and they light up,
a thousand deeds of love.
It’s a sort of way of standing in the breach and saying: NO
LOVE WILL WIN.
And it speaks with authority….
Tom was told: “David has taken to barking at night…”
But we know that there are things FAR WORSE than a barking neighbor
that are mucking up our world.
+Fear and confrontation seem to be everywhere in our land and on our planet.
+Racial and ethnic divisions are NOT healed.
+The number of bruised and abused children and women is RISING.
+There are often commercials and media that appeal
to the WORST SIDE of our natures…
+Parents and kids worry about each other’s drinking…
+Our worries outnumber JOY on many days, it seems… You name the Demon…
BUT. We are the church!
We gather this morning, and every Sunday, to remind ourselves all over again:
–JESUS CHRIST is Risen. Today!
The Spirit of Love can confront our Demons.
If there is ANY Authority, that is ALL we NEED.
Jesus Christ is Risen. Today.
Jesus NEVER flinched in the presence of demons. He confronted them.
He named them!
And he overcame them with Love and with Power.
With signs and with Wonder.
JESUS CHRIST IS HERE
And he says to ALL of us, as he said to those disciples:
I give you AUTHORITY—over the unclean spirits!”
All of them. Everywhere.
…Now, let us Go and USE IT.
[i] Sermon illustration from a sermon once preached by Rev. Mark Ramsey, but the date and setting are lost to me.
Photo credit: found here. No photocredit was given.