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January 28, 2018

“A Theology of Words”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Deuteronomy 18.15-20

Mark 1.21-28

January 28, 2018

            We are people of the Word. In our Presbyterian tradition we emphasize the Word and sacrament. Great weight is given in our faith regarding baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the spoken and written Word. God created the earth through Word in the first creation story. God speaks to prophets and in the Gospel of John Jesus is the Word. God is an Author who creates stories that come to life. The Word is central to our faith.

            Now, some words are scary. As Presbyterians we like to avoid the two “E” words: Evangelism and Exorcism. The Gospel reading involves the latter. I usually like to skip over passages about exorcism because I don’t have much experience in that area. I had a classmate in seminary who did exorcisms, but I usually sat silently with wide eyes as he described them. I’ve seen movies about exorcisms, but I don’t think that really makes me an expert. Then, once, I had someone from another state call the church and ask if I would exorcise his friend. Since you now know my entire resume of exorcisms, you can understand why I declined and referred him to someone else.

            Since exorcisms are not something we like to talk about we might find it useful to have some context about the passage. The author of the Gospel of Mark was in a hurry and put great immediacy on the Word. This passage falls within thirteen miracles, four being exorcisms.[1] The author moves from one miracle to another, very quickly. Usually the Gospel of Mark is known for using the term “immediately.” While we do not see that word in this passage, it is there. The word for “then,” and “once” is the same as “immediately” in Greek.[2] This word is important because there is a need – an urgency for the Word.

            The disciples and Jesus go into a synagogue and immediately the people notice he is doing something new. His teachings are different, but he is still recognized as an authority figure.[3] Enter the man with the unclean spirit. This might be more perplexing than the exorcism itself. What is an unclean spirit? A demon? Sin? Misunderstood mental illness? The Greek word used for “unclean” or “impure” is defined as something other than divine.[4] So, this person was being controlled by something unholy, or maybe opposite to God’s will.

            Personally, I wouldn’t say demons are beings. I find that identifying something as a demon too often lets humans off the hook for sin. When an act is blamed on a demon, it is akin to saying, “The devil made me do it!” This assumes that humans have no control over their actions, but are mere pawns in spiritual warfare. Yet, Fred Craddock wisely wrote: “Not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in the world.”[5] Something still plagues this man. Evil still exists, whether you name evil as demons or something else.

            If this man has a mental illness, it is important to understand that people with mental illness or developmental delays are not demons, and that they do not act demonically. The unknown is where the difficulty lies – trying to find the right medication or trying to find the best methods of learning to help. If someone has an addiction, the person is not a demon. The person needs help finding resources – sometimes that is easy, and sometimes it is more of a struggle.

            If someone has a mental illness or developmental delay we cannot understand, frustration can ensue. If this man had some kind of mental illness or developmental delay, he could have been perceived as having a demon, merely because people could not easily communicate with him or know how to help. When someone acts outside of what is considered “normative,” they can be labelled. Perhaps the demon or sin or impurity was not in the man, but in the treatment of the man – misunderstood, made fun of, people walking far away so as not to “catch” what he had. Rather than embracing this man, people clearly shunned him and stayed away from him. The healing would not be to correct what was seen as an illness or disability, but the demon that sits within the gap between “normal” and “other.”

            The unclean man recognizes Jesus and calls him by name. We might imagine that it was a good response for him to know who Jesus was, but Jesus immediately shushes him, silencing his words. Some commentators have assumed that Jesus did this to stop the Word from spreading – to prevent others from knowing who Jesus was at that moment. That might have been true, but there is another consideration. To name something or someone would designate power over that person.[6] If you have ever seen the Harry Potter movies, you will know the power naming has over someone. The evil wizard Voldemort is so powerful many people do not call him by his name. They refer to him as “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” Harry Potter, however, has the strength and wisdom to call him by his name, because when he says “Voldemort” it shows that he is not scared of him, nor that Voldemort has power over him.

            Naming is powerful. When you wait for a diagnosis or test results, naming opens a whole new world, and maybe even some doors of opportunity to begin help. When you know someone’s name you can call out to them and have conversations with them, rather than just nodding to “the lady that holds the door open every day.” Jesus doesn’t want to be named by this demon, and so he silences him.

            That is power. Jesus speaks two words and silences. Silence and Word, especially so intertwined together, are effective. God’s Word gives us life, silences, heals, calms storms. This Word is life giving. We read scripture and hear the Word spoken because of its power. The Word is important to our faith.

            God speaks through prophets, giving them the Words for God’s people. A prophet is a go-between, who listens to God and speaks to the people – a balance between silence and Word. In the Deuteronomy passage the Israelites, who had been wandering the desert, are worried. Moses has been their leader and spokesperson. He has been a prophet who has spoken God’s Word and has shared their feelings and thoughts and complaints to God. In this passage the people are being reassured that God will not leave them alone. God gives them the Word through a new prophet. The prophet hears God’s Word, speaks it, and the people must choose if they will listen or ignore. God’s Word does not force us, but empowers us.

            God promises God’s people that we will not be without a prophet. We will not go alone. There are still prophets today. Anyone who listens for God’s Word and preaches justice and love and grace is a prophet. The prophets were not fortunetellers, but people who listened to God, examined society, and spoke truth – much like a parent. “If you do this, then this will happen.” Prophets keep us accountable and paying attention. Sometimes they are there to cheer us on, and sometimes they stand on the sideline, telling us, “I’m not going to tell you I told you so.”

            Where do you see prophets today? What Word is God speaking to you? What Word is God speaking to this church? There are many Words that we use to describe our church, and we use many in our mission statement. The session has been working on a sign for the front of the church to tell people that we are a welcoming and inclusive church. We want people to know that everyone is welcome. We have some words that describe our church – that name our church for others. So, I encourage you to write down a word that would describe the church – one or two words, and write it on these signs. It might get moved around or font change, but we’re hoping to create a sign eventually to place out front.

 

 

            Holy God, we give you thanks that you have named us as your own, and have given us your Word – the Word of life, of love, and of grace. Help us to treat people with love and respect and forgive us for the times we have treated people as “other” or “different.” Help us to love one another. Amen.

 

[1] P.C. Enniss, “Mark 1.21-28” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 310.

[2] Gary W. Charles, “Mark 1.21-28” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 309.

[3] C. M. Tuckett, “Mark” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: University Press, 2001), 890.

[4] Ofelia Ortega, “Mark 1.21-28” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 310.

[5] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 91.

[6] Tuckett, 890.