Unclean Spirit

Randall Tremba
January 29, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

 Mark 1:21-28
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."

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I don’t know about you, but I enjoy following presidential campaigns. For the past several months I’ve been watching most of the Republican debates. And Tuesday night I listened to every word of the President’s State of the Union and then went to bed. Next morning I took a gander at the gospel lesson for today in which Jesus addresses an assembly in the synagogue, a kind of town hall auditorium.

While Jesus was speaking he was interrupted by a heckler who—as it turned out—was a demonically possessed person, or as the text puts it: “an unclean spirit.” So with the State of the Union still on my mind, I wondered what would happened if we substituted Obama for Jesus in that story or even Newt Gingrich. Why not? That might be fun, I thought. Of course, if we were fundamentalists we wouldn’t dare play around with sacred scripture like that. But THANK GOD we’re not like those illiterate, narrow-minded, bigoted, moronic fundies!

I’ll get to the sin of vilifying others but first let’s listen to the gospel lesson.

They (Jesus and his disciples) went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. People were astounded at his teachings for he taught as one with authority. Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—you Holy One of God."

Let’s stop there and redo it with Newt Gingrich in the role of Jesus.

They (Newt and his entourage) went to South Carolina; and when the time came for the debate, Newt stood up and spoke. They were astounded at his debating, for he debated as one having authority, and not like other candidates. Just then there was in the auditorium a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us Newt of Fannie Mae? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, you influence peddler, you!"

What do you think about that? I’m thinking that wasn’t such a good idea after all. With Newt in the role of Christ someone is bound to stand up and say: “Newt, I know Jesus Christ and you’re no Jesus Christ.”

So let’s put Obama in the place of Jesus.

They (Obama and is cabinet) went to the capital; and when the time came for the State of the Union, Obama entered the chamber and spoke. They were astounded at his speech, for he spoke as one having authority, and not as other politicians. Just then there was in their chamber a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Obama of Kenya? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, you Socialist, you."

I’m not sure I like that switch either. So much for our little experiment with scripture. Let’s go back to the original story.

But Jesus rebuked the spirit, saying, "Be silent, and come out!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing the man and crying with a loud voice, came out. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching and with authority (which is to say,authenticity!He speaks with authenticity!)He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an unclean spirit loose in our land. You can see it in the world of politics as well as in the world of sports and religion. For example, we saw it in the people vilifying the people who were vilifying Denver Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow. It got ugly and people just wouldn’t let it go. Everywhere we look these days somebody’s vilifying somebody else. People like me vilifying fundamentalists and vice versa. The spirit of civility has been battered and bruised and left for dead in our land.

I happen to like sports, politics and religion and enjoy talking and arguing about all three, almost anytime, anywhere with anybody. I know that some families have to ban all three subjects at certain family gatherings to avoid bloodshed. My extended family does pretty well with sports and religion—not so well with politics.

A few years ago I had to listen to the handful of Democrats in my extended family vilify and eviscerate former President Bush with visceral hatred. It made me very uncomfortable. On the other hand, over a much longer period of time I had to listen to the more numerous Republican side of my family vilify John Kennedy, then Jimmy Carter, then Bill Clinton and now President Obama. And, yes, that makes me very uncomfortable, too.

Visceral hatred troubles me. Period.

You know, the kind of hatred with which Jonah hated all Ninevites and wanted God to destroy them because letting them change would destroy Jonah’s reason for living. Jonah needed “the Other” to be pure evil so he could be purely righteous. Hatred formed his existence. And like most vilifications it was a projection of his own inner fears and insecurities.

For a long while I thought Republicans had a monopoly on vilification. But I was wrong. I’ve learned over time that vilification has nothing to do with political party, religious affiliation or sports teams. It’s a human thing. Vilification is an equal opportunity employer.

I must confess I’ve done some vilifying of others myself. It’s actually fun—in a sick kind of way. Try it sometime, you might like it. It can make you feel really good knowing that you are a far better person than your disgusting target who is beyond redemption. Heaven forbid they should ever change. Vilifying another may make you feel good in the short term but in the long term it is like drinking poison hoping the other person will die.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been offered a clinic on vilification as certain presidential candidates vilify each other with a variety of wicked blasts on a national stage, week after week after week. We might excuse it as merely bad manners or rude behavior if it weren’t so prominent in other sectors of our society, including sports and religion not to mention the hallways of our high schools. An unclean spirit is loose in our land and it delights in mutual destruction. And, sad to say, it slips into the church, including this church.

You might see it or hear it or feel it here in the occasional snide remark or sneering glance that reduces or marginalizes anyone who appears to disagree with the presumed political or theological consensus in the room at the time. And so, unwittingly, we create a hostile environment for our fellow parishioners just as sexists and racists create hostile environments for women, or homosexuals or people of color by their rude and snide glances and innuendoes. My brothers and sisters, we must be vigilant, humble and repentant when the Spirit Within convicts us of such things.

I’m not saying we’re all guilty in the same way. And I’m not pointing fingers except to say it’s mainly the people who sit on this side of the church—or is it that side! See how easy it is to point fingers. It’s dangerous.

This morning I brought up the national political scene not so we can gloat and feel superior. I bring it up because we are human and all of us are susceptible to a mean, hateful and unclean spirit. This is a teachable moment for our nation and for ourselves. It’s a time for some of us to confess, repent and come clean.

I’m not castigating anyone but myself. Nevertheless, to myself and to you I offer this gospel truth: by the grace of the Spirit Within, we can choose to act and speak differently. Jesus, our Beloved, did not come to condemn or destroy but rather to save us—to save and heal us by awakening us to the love that fills, forms, and surrounds us.