St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson
4 Epiphany Year B 2018
January 28, 2018
I was fascinated with the variety of expressions on the faces depicted in various places in the Holy Land of those who had seen Jesus, the living incarnation of the holy, the Son of God, and the source of our salvation. In each of the places where Jesus had been, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jericho and of course Jerusalem, there were mosaics, frescos, paintings and sculptures which attempted to capture a human response to the presence of the holy, standing there before them. I was particularly drawn to these images for I too was exploring both my inward response and outward expression to the holy in human form I was rediscovering on my pilgrimage as I walked in the footsteps of Jesus.
Some images of the people’s faces showed amazement. I was imagining these were people at the scene of the woman who touched the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, who was instantly healed, rid of the illness which had grabbed hold of her life for 12 years. Other people’s eyes showed loving adoration. I could see Mary knelt by Jesus’ feet, pouring the expensive nard lavishly over his body, with only love pouring from her heart and eyes. I also saw images portraying puzzlement and could see the faces of the other fishermen along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as they saw Peter and Andrew drop their fishing nets and immediately follow Jesus. And then there were expressions of pure delight seen in the eyes of the man who had sat by the pool at Bethsaida for 38 years, waiting for his turn to move into the swirling waters of the healing pool, and who suddenly stood up and took up his mat. Occasionally, there were expressions of consternation, and I imagined those on the faces of the crowd when Jesus sat and talked to Matthew and invited himself over to dinner at a tax collector’s house.
All these responses make sense to me, for they are all a human response to something not expected, something extra-ordinary, something beyond one’s imagination.
There was one image though, in the chapel in Bethany, that still haunts and mesmerizes me. It’s a mural depicting Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem. A mother is holding her young son, maybe three years old, and her eyes reflect a recognition of meeting something deep within Jesus that unnerves her, that disturbs her, that unsettles her, and which she knows will rip from her all that is not of God in a powerful and perhaps violent way. Her expression told me she has perceived the truth of Jesus we find in our gospel story today. For in Mark’s first chapter, we do not meet the tender good shepherd whose main acts are protection, comfort, and nurture. We do not meet the Jesus who bends down on one knee and calls the children to him. We do not meet the Jesus who stretches his arm on the hard wood of the cross so that all may come within his saving embrace. We meet the powerful Jesus who came with one purpose in mind: to rid the world of evil, of that which is opposing God, of that which grips our souls and that of our collective society and that which turns us away from the fullness God desires of us, that which separates us from the goodness born within us, that which alienates us from our true selves, and that which is alive and well in our world today as it was in Jesus’ day.
In Jesus’ first day of public ministry, he performs an exorcism in the synagogue. In that
somewhat violent act of healing, when Jesus combined his spoken word and action into one
seamless movement, Jesus calls his followers to move from amazement, adoration, and pure
delight to a deep faith in the One who fights evil in our midst. Our gospel story moves us from
our ‘Sunday School faith’ of the tender, kind, and affirming Jesus to a more challenging Jesus.
We need both images of Jesus to see the whole picture and purpose of Jesus, but this
challenging, “in your face Jesus” is one we often want to avoid, because it calls two different
responses from us as followers of Jesus.
First, we must recognize the hold of the force of evil within us. This is not language most of us
are used to or necessarily comfortable with us, but we promise in our baptismal covenant to
renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, which
means us. So this acknowledgment and push back against evil is a part of our being Christians.
It is hard sometimes to look within, to seek out and invite the healing power of Jesus, to rid us
of all things which hold us back from being fully of God– all our fears, anxiety, obsessions,
addictions, anger, and violent tendencies. And yet, I have to imagine, just because it’s such a
part of human life, that each of us has known someone whose heart, mind, body or soul has
been taken hold of by some force beyond them that they just can’t rid themselves of. I imagine
many of us may know the desperation that comes with this situation, of seeing something grab
hold of ourselves or someone we love, that we cannot heal ourselves, and we face that wall,
that point where there are no other options. Jesus may be your last resort in situations like
this—and our story tells us that Jesus will come through and cast out those demons which
seems so entrenched in our lives or another’s, for that’s what Jesus is all about.
I image that woman represented in that mural in the chapel of Bethany had a demon within
her, a secret too dark to share with others, a truth of who she had become that she wanted to
keep hidden and she knew that, through her encounter with Jesus, even just as he rode by on
his donkey, she would be forced to look at it and allow Jesus to rip it away from her. Her look of
fear and trepidation, which may be ours from time to time, invites us to remember that Jesus
did not come to destroy us, but come to restore us to our original state of goodness, for us to
have life and life abundantly.
This exorcism was the first act of Jesus in the gospel of Mark and this is when it’s helpful to
remember that we don’t meet Jesus in Mark’s gospel in swaddling clothes in a manger with
sheep bleating nearby and shepherds offering their calloused hands in prayer and adoration
around him as we do in Luke’s gospel. Rather in Mark’s gospel, we meet Jesus knee-deep in the
Jordan River when the heavens are ripped apart and the Kingdom of God is set lose into our
world, ripping apart the good from the evil, restoring the world to justice. This happens within
us when we are faithful followers of Jesus.
I am not denying that this ripping away of what we no longer need in our hearts and souls is
hard work and I could end my sermon now and you would probably feel challenged and
overwhelmed – but there’s more in our story to challenge us.
If we are to believe that we are the body of Christ, then that means we are called to continue
Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, of exorcism, of ridding the world of the evil that
enslaves it. I have to believe that as members of the Body of Christ, as the manifestation of the
divine light of Christ, as those called to re-present Christ in the world, we too are called to fight
this battle against evil.
One question for today is “what do we imagine our church’s role to be in this holy work?” I fear
we have grown to expect a silent voice from the church on the social justice issues which plague
our society and allow the propagation of evil through systems of oppression and control. At the
Diocesan Convention, when people were asked what they most deeply yearned for, there were
many responses around naming and eliminating racism, or learning how to listen to and
reconcile differences with people of other faiths, or real action on social justice issues, but
when it came to the next question, “How can your parish live more fully into God’s mission?”,
those yearnings dropped away, as though God’s mission didn’t include the rooting out of evil
from our hearts and social systems, and everyone moved to safer topics, such as feeding the
My guess is that we all know from the story of Jesus that when you name and root out evil,
conflict ensues and most of us, myself included, aren’t comfortable with conflict that divides
churches or nations. We may choose instead to stick with interpreting the texts, as the scribes
in Jesus’ time did, rather than take action that actively brings in the Kingdom of God.
It can be easier to stay silent on issues until the time comes when we realize we’ve sacrificed
our integrity as we’ve hushed our voice and passion for justice.
It can be easier to focus our attention elsewhere in the gospel text, rather than look directly
into the challenging invitation. For instance, couldn’t I have focused on the spread of Jesus’
fame because of his healing and shared inspiring stories of how people’s faith was born when
they heard of other people’s being healed? It’s easier to look elsewhere, until we realize every
time we look away, we’re turning away from the face of Jesus.
It’s easier to explain the unclean spirit in our story as some medical condition the people of
Jesus’ time didn’t understand so they categorized it as “unclean” and that it’s not really the
force of evil. Then we don’t need to talk about the real issue, for don’t you often fear that, if we
admit evil is here and now, we have to do something about it? It’s easier to push this
conversation away until we realize our complacency is part of the issue.
But I’ve listened to the questions of our young confirmands and I know, even though they’ve
used different words to describe it, they are wondering about why there is still evil in the world,
why hasn’t God done anything about it. And if they’re wondering about it, then we need to talk
about it – for their sake and for the future of the world. Jesus came to reclaim what was God’s
and to do that, Jesus needed to exorcise the evil from it. And if Jesus did it, and if Jesus’
command to us is to teach and to heal the world, then we must. If seeking out and ridding the
world of evil is one way Jesus healed the world, then we must begin to get our head around
how to have a conversation about the evil that still has a hold on our world. And that means us,
our own hearts – and that means our world, the systems of oppression, and that means us
confronting evil in the name of Jesus, the One who came to heal what was broken in people’s
lives and in the world.
I must admit, that I, as a priest, am one called to re-present Jesus in the world in a specific way,
in a sacramental way, and I feel much more affinity to the Good Shepherd Jesus, to the one I
can look at with adoring eyes, or to the Jesus described in feminine terms, such as the hen
gathering her chickens under her wings, whom I can look at with loving eyes and look out with
loving eyes to you, or to the Jesus who on bended knee welcomes all the children, who laid
hands on the sick, who gathered people around him and sat and talked and taught and opened
up the truth in new ways with a different authority or perspective or power. Those images of
Jesus are ones upon whom I can look at with eyes of amazement, adoration, and pure delight.
My natural inclination is to meet the Jesus we meet in today’s gospel, with puzzlement,
consternation and truth to be told, some resistance. This boundary-breaking, conflict inciting,
and law-transcending Son of God, is a challenge for me – and maybe for you too – or maybe
this is the image of Jesus that most speaks to you, that fuels your passion for justice, that
ignites within you a fire to set things right, to push away the forces of evil so God’s reign can
take hold of our own hearts and our world.
I believe there are so many differing expressions of people seeing salvation, looking into the
face and heart of Jesus, because there are so many differing faces of Jesus portrayed in the
gospels. Our work is to meet each one and hear the invitation to allow each one to touch our
hearts. May we stay with this evil-bashing Jesus long enough for God’s truth to settle into our
hearts, to push away that which needs to leave us, so we can be fully God’s.