The unclean, the people that think, believe, act, eat, drink, smoke, walk, talk, dance, and raise their children differently than polite people like us do.
It’s not a coincidence that the perception of Jesus’ “astounding teaching” is solidified by the poor sap that had the unclean spirit within him.
His “unclean spirit” was something that clearly made everyone uncomfortable, and why wouldn’t it?
He probably looked awful and smelled bad.
Probably not too different than the poor folks that camp under the overpass at Eight Mile and Woodward.
They listen to that horrible music, they watch those awful television shows, vote for those reprehensible candidates, and they probably worship some false god on some odd day that passes as some weak excuse for a Sabbath.
They are busy in a secret bunker outside of Phoenix, deflating footballs.
They may even embrace that “new teaching with authority.”
In our first reading Moses prophesied that God would raise up a prophet like Moses from among the Israelites and God would speak through him-or more literally, God said that he would “put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak to them everything that I command.”
As Christians, we believe that this prophesy was fulfilled by God sending his son Jesus to become the Christ, and that he speaks to us not only as a new prophet speaking with authority as the temple scribes, that day’s arbiters of Jewish law, astonishingly describe, but also as Moses describes, a prophet that speaks God’s words in God’s name, and that those of us who hear the words, but do not heed them, shall be held accountable.
And this is troubling.
How are we doing?
Are we heeding God’s words?
And which words in this very contradictory book shall we heed?
And if we are heeding them, what about the others?
How about the folks a mile down the street that share our lectionary, but read another second lesson from First Corinthians, different than ours, and call this season of Epiphany, this season of revelation “ordinary?”
They read Paul’s words about not letting the distractions of marriage keep you from the things of the Lord, while we read about the ethics of eating the discarded meat from pagan festivals and puffing ourselves up with false religious knowledge.
But there are plenty of other “others.”
You know them.
What about the people that we see every day by necessity, that we would never choose to deal with?
If we had a choice.
But we don’t have a choice, because we live in a modern world where we have to work and do business with a wide variety of people that do not share our beliefs or values.
How are we supposed to respect these values and beliefs when we know them to be false?
How do we become more like Christ with people who do not even understand that He is the Messiah even though they have heard that He is?
And we know that they have heard this message because we have told them!
There are a lot of aspects to this lesson that I could have glommed onto; fulfilled prophesy, evil spirits, idolatry, the path to knowledge, or even the merits of veganism, but for me, the examination of the other is the most pivotal, most compelling and the most urgent issue of our day.
Our ability to resolve this issue could very well determine our survival as a civilization.
Today our basic pillars of civilization are in jeopardy because we cannot, or will not compromise with the other.
Do we avert our gaze of the beggar with the cardboard sign at the corner of Woodward and Eight Mile?
Or do we throw him a buck and hope he doesn’t blow it on booze or drugs, but we know he probably will.
Do we roll our eyes every time someone from the political party opposite ours speaks?
And just hope his sound bite is mercifully brief?
Mark’s gospel, Paul’s letter, and to an even greater extent the reading from Deuteronomy makes us uncomfortable.
When we look at it from the aspect of the poor man possessed by an unclean spirit in the temple and how he was probably shunned by the temple authorities, he had no reasonable expectation that Jesus would pay any attention to him.
But that was not the case.
Jesus did not back away from this man.
He didn’t look for the closest exit and sneak away.
No, he engaged him, and basically performed an exorcism on him releasing the man’s unclean spirit.
This is a story from early in Jesus’ ministry, and as Jesus continued to practice His ministry, could very well have kept to his inner circle and grown his group quietly and slowly.
Or He could have built on this early experience and played nice with these scribes.
He reached out to all He met.
He engaged them.
Made them uncomfortable.
With His “new teaching-with authority!”
And He didn’t back away from the possessed man, as unpleasant as he probably was.
We have many among us that we could describe in much the same way.
Too liberal-ok, that really doesn’t work well here, but too conservative sure does.
How do we get from the horrific divisions in our society to a place where all kinds of diversity can not only be accepted, but embraced?
Or are we trying so hard to be inclusive, we have widened the divide between us.
That seems to be a pretty common complaint, but if we don’t push the agenda, we will never progress beyond our current state.
Did Jesus shun the unclean spirit and the man possessed?
No, He engaged them.
As He did with all of the misfits, sick, crippled, failed, troubled, and broken souls in body and soul.
Like the ones gathered here.
Like this one-speaking to you now.
He embraced them.
He embraced us.
He embraced me.
How often have you been the outsider?
Freshman in High School?
And just last year you were riding high as the big man on campus as an eighth-grader.
Sometimes the harder we try to fit in, the more we are outcast.
It’s like our desperation has a palpable stench that can be detected for miles and miles.
Let’s flip that.
Because we can.
How does it feel when someone goes out of their way to welcome you, to show you where things are, how things work, who to go to for what, and takes a genuine interest in helping you?
It’s a great feeling that should spread like measles on an unvaccinated populous.
We need to find a way to accept, to forgive, to respect, and to understand all of the others.
We need an exorcism of our unclean spirits.
Make no mistake.
This is certainly not a virtue that I have mastered.
You would think, as I soon prepare to begin my sixtieth year on this Earth that I would have become a little better about that, but here’s a story about how far I have to go.
Recently, I was insulted by a coworker who made the ludicrous claim that I was lazy.
I admittedly have a lot of faults, but that’s not one of them.
Weeks later, I brought up that incident again, and when asked if I still had hung onto that insult, I told him that I remembered folks that caused me grief in kindergarten.
In the 61-62 school year.
It’s time for all of us to move on.
To forgive and forget the unfair treatments, the slights, the familial feuds and hatreds.
Yesterday there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about the rise of anti-Semitism in Western Europe.
After 70 years of political leaders proclaiming “Never Again,” we have seen targeted attacks on Jews on a regular basis in France, India, Belgium, and other countries that we would describe as pretty well-evolved.
The persecution of Jews has a long, intense and sustained energy.
From a misreading of the Gospel of John.
To the Crusades
To Spanish Inquisition
To the clearly discredited, but still believed “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
To the Final Solution
To the Soviet Anti-Zionist campaigns
To suicide bombers
To the current, organized, government-sanctioned bounties on the heads of Jews.
The persecution of the people of Abraham, Moses and Jesus-God’s chosen people-has a long, bloody, and well-documented history.
But yet, they survive.
Jonathan Sacks, the writer of yesterday’s article offers an answer as to why they survive.
He cites Moses’ admonishment in Chapter 23 of Deuteronomy for his people not to abhor the Egyptians-who had enslaved them and carried out a slow genocide on the Jews-because the Jews were aliens in Egypt.
Mr. Sacks goes on to say,
“Moses’ words are among history’s wisest political insights. If the Israelites had continued to hate their erstwhile persecutors, Moses might have succeeded in leading them out of Egypt, but he would have failed in taking Egypt out of them. The Israelites would still have been slaves: to their memories and resentments, their sense of humiliation—slaves, in short, to the past. To be free, you have to let go of hate. You have to stop seeing yourself as a victim—or else you will succeed only in making more victims.”
(Rabbi Sacks' words, not mine.)
We need to drive the unclean spirits out of ourselves.
There is nothing we can do about the others.
We need Christ’s exorcism.
In order to shift our collective behavior to emulate the Christ, to be Christlike, we must abandon the concept of the other.
We can’t control the other.
We must transform our thoughts, words, and deeds in ways that emulate what Martin Luther King described as a “colorblind society” one in which the color of one’s skin, the way that they worship, the places they hail from, the way they identify their gender, the partner that they have, the ways in which they raise their children, and even the crazy things they believe, have no bearing on how we perceive the content of their character.
Like the first and last line of that song:
“LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH AND LET IT BEGIN WITH ME”
It can’t be anybody else.
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