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Sermon for February 1, 2014

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Mark 1:21-28

Cooties!

         Jesus cured a man with Cooties. It’s right here in the Bible. We all know what it means to say someone has the cooties. Since we were children, we avoided that person. What exactly is a cootie? Well for one thing, a cootie is an insect, a body louse, EW, but that’s not what we mean here. We’re more likely to remember the playground taunt of children bullying another vulnerable child saying, “Jimmy has the cooties.” We didn’t know what cooties were either, but we knew it was icky and we knew it meant you were a social outcast if someone called you that. We would vaccinate ourselves against cooties as children, poking ourselves with sticks as if giving ourselves shots against whatever icky thing the child with cooties might be carrying. Boys thought girls had cooties and girls thought boys had cooties. Someone with cooties was to be avoided, someone different or undesirable.

Cootie was also a game we played as children, with a plastic bed louse. The point of that game was to get all the arms and legs and antennae connected to your Cootie and thus, win the game. A fisherman in Minnesota who carved a fishing lure that looked like a Cootie invented the game of Cootie. Thinking kids might like to play with it, he sold the prototype game to Dayton’s department. Later marketed by Hasbro, more than a million Cooties a year were sold by the time it landed under my Christmas tree as a child.

         The man with the unclean spirit in today’s Bible story would have been said to have Cooties. He was the kind of person that made children ring the doorbell on Halloween and run. We don’t know if he suffered from mental illness, or if he was simply a loud and obnoxious person, saying inappropriate and hurtful things in the wrong places, to the wrong people and at the wrong time. Whatever was really going on here, Jesus saw it as detrimental to the kingdom of God, behavior that had to be stopped. In this first story of Jesus acting on his authority as the anointed Son of God, baptized by John and pronounced the Messiah, Jesus exorcised a man of Cooties.

         It’s interesting that Jesus’ first act of ministry after teaching in the Synagogue was to cast out this spirit that had seized upon the man. Jesus. This exorcism demonstrated Jesus’ authority to act on God’s behalf, naming and removing any encumbrance to the kingdom of God. This kind of authority was unheard of; this is what caused the rumble among those who witnessed this event. The scribes and Pharisees spoke in speculative ways, “You have heard this, or you have heard that, referring to the great teachers who had preceded them. But Jesus spoke with authority saying simply, “I say to you…”

         This exorcism of the unclean spirits is remembered because Jesus spoke differently than anyone who had come before him. Even unclean spirits obeyed him. He was establishing his authority to usher God’s kingdom into the world, and flexing his muscle as the Messiah of the world through whom all things were possible.      

Here was a man who spoke with his own authority, not in the name of another. That alone was amazing. But if that were not amazing enough, Jesus demonstrated his authority when he told an evil spirit what to do, and the evil spirit obeyed.

In Jesus’ day, evil spirits were considered, even by many Jewish teachers, to be numerous and powerful, hanging around everywhere and doing whatever they could to inflict trouble and suffering. We characterize inappropriate behavior psychologically: someone has narcissistic personality disorder or a personality disorder. We tolerate inappropriate behavior in the spirit of Christian love. We teach tolerance for difference all the time as we should. But difference is not what we’re talking about in this story.

Jesus stops a man from disrupting the community. In Jesus’ time, a man without a community was a dead man. The evil of certain diseases like leprosy were that they isolated people from one another. The kingdom of God is a place where people are drawn in and everyone has a place at the table. When there was a breach in community, the whole community suffered. It’s interesting to note that Jesus wasn’t the “accept everybody as they are kind of guy” that we imagine he was, when it came to this. He included outcasts like prostitutes and tax collectors to be sure, but when somebody had cooties, that is, something that would cause harm to the community, real or imagined, he healed it first, he cast it out, he stopped the behavior before the person was restored to the people.

When someone seemed to be possessed of a demon, the exorcists, whether Jewish or pagan, used complicated magical rites and spells to compel the demon to leave. The power was in the magic, it was believed, so whoever knew the right incantations and ingredients and methods could use them to bring about the unseen conditions that would manipulate the spirit world.

But Jesus was astonishingly different. When the demon-possessed man disrupted the meeting, Jesus simply ordered the demon to leave, and it left. The people in the synagogue had never seen anything like it. Who could have such authority that even the evil spirits have to obey his straightforward word?

Jesus used his authority to stop bad behavior, to confront evil, to restore community. Jesus could have done anything he wanted with his power. Yet Jesus did not use his incomparable authority the way we humans tend to use our authority. We humans have a tendency to misuse our power to enrich ourselves, to get our way, to suppress or twist truth to satisfy our own way of seeing the world, or to avoid consequences for our own bad behavior. For many humans, authority becomes merely a means of enriching oneself. Witness the parade of totalitarian political regimes, corporate business abuses, government and church scandals, tyrannical parents, bosses, teachers, government officials and the like.

When we see this legacy of misuse of power, we have a tendency within our churches to overact in the opposite direction. We resist using our power to restore community at all. We take a live and let live approach that tolerates difference, as Jesus demanded, but also tolerates behavior that causes harm. As followers of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can do unimaginable things for the glory of God: feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bind up the broken hearted. We see these “God things” at work all the time. It takes even more courage to speak the truth in love, to confront evil when it threatens relationships or community and to hold one another accountable to the covenants we share, to live by, and for, and with one another in love for God’s sake.

Jesus has all the authority there is, yet he uses it entirely differently from the way many people would. Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. Jesus took action when necessary. Jesus cast out unclean spirits, and stopped a crowd of angry men from throwing rocks at a young woman. Jesus authentically dealt with challenges calmly and decisively when they arose.
  2. Jesus didn’t overreact. Jesus didn’t make a Broadway production out of making the demon leave. He didn’t knock the demon around for a while, tell it off for 10 minutes, scream at it, kill it or declare war on all demons. Jesus just invited the demon to go and stood his ground until it did, under great protest.
  3. Jesus didn’t take credit or make himself big. Jesus didn’t use the incident to further his image. Jesus didn’t tweet or text or email his accomplishment when he confronted the demon, or call up ten friends and tell them all about it. We have this story today because a witness was changed by what they experienced that day, Jesus’ exercise of power with authority that put a stop to harm.

Jesus used his authority to serve, not to draw attention to himself or his needs. Jesus tells stories and parables to teach us what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus shows us through his actions: teaching and healing and casting out demons what this looks like. Jesus then calls us as disciples to follow him, to act as he acts, to do as he does. He equips us with power and he shows us how to use it in love for good. Jesus wants us to step into our power as people of faith. He recruits courageous and capable people of action to do hard work for the kingdom of God.

         It’s a hard lesson for us to get, that the world doesn’t revolve around us, around what we want or prefer. There are plenty of mega-churches filled because some pastor preaches the American prosperity gospel that promises that if you love Jesus blessings will come to you, you’ll get rich, you’ll have everything you want in the world. Such sermons make you feel good, and they’re very entertaining. They just don’t happen to be true.

         Jesus didn’t come to give us a winning lottery ticket to pay for everything we want. Jesus came as a tool kit so that we might roll up our sleeves through him to give the world what it most needs. This takes courage, this fierce story of Jesus exorcising a demon invites us to use our authority and our leadership to build up the church, and to forward the kingdom of God, not to be right or to promote our own views or get our own way.

Jesus’ challenges us courageously to follow him. Jesus recruits capable people who are unafraid to use their power to get things done for glory. This is God’s good news for us and for the world. That in the fullness of time God sent Christ into the world to save us from ourselves, from our selfishness, from our tendency to turn inward on ourselves and care only for what we want and prefer, to take the easy and quiet path of least resistance. Jesus redeems our fears and teaches us how to use our power to love one another for the sake of the world.

 

Our Greatest Fear —Marianne Williamson

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,

talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of

God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

we unconsciously give other people

permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson

We heard this morning a fierce story of a great victory. Jesus walked into a space where a man was shouting out and causing harm and Jesus named it. Jesus stopped it. Not by yelling back, not by entering the drama. He simply stood his ground and spoke truth to power, power to evil. The people were astonished at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority, and then he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.

This Jesus isn’t a sweet, fuzzy soft Jesus. He’s a man of strength and substance, the kind of man you’d want walking with you down a dark alley on a moonless night. Jesus is the kind of man who has your back even when he isn’t in the room. He’s the one you’ll do anything for even when he isn’t watching because you would never want to disappoint or deny him.

As Christians we’re not like other people. I say this not by way of pride or of saying that Christians are better than other people. Rather I mean this. We don’t get to say whatever we think if it hurts somebody else or wounds the community.

God doesn’t care nearly as much what we in particular want as what the world needs. The world needs a Messiah, and the world needs courageous disciples of Christ, bold voices that proclaim evil doesn’t get to triumph. Death isn’t the end of our story. Cruelty is wrong. Love always wins.