Beyond boundaries

Beyond boundaries

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 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.”

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

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Mark 1:21-45

We begin looking at this first of Jesus’ messages to us in this New Year with a story. Although this doesn’t sound much like an Epiphany story, there is indeed lots to be revealed in it. Which is, after all, the essence of what this day is all about.

An ancient British legend tells of a training session between Merlin the magician and a young boy, Arthur, a child destined to be king. Merlin takes young Arthur into the forest, turns him into a hawk (they could do that in those days), and sends him sailing into the sky.

From the earth, Merlin shouts up to Arthur, “What do you see?”
Arthur shouts back, “I see rivers and I see trees.”

“No”, an irritated Merlin responds, and repeats his question; “What do you see?”

“I see cattle and I see sheep, and….” “No”, Merlin interrupts and asks a third time; “What do you see?”

“I see villages and I see roads…” “Come down,” Merlin orders. Arthur, the hawk, returns to earth and becomes Arthur, the young lad. Merlin tells him, “Someday you will know what it is that you saw.”

The day Arthur knew what it was that he really saw was the day after his dream of Camelot died. His kingdom to be was part of a much greater whole, bigger than he could begin to imagine. He saw that there were no boundaries; he knew there were none. Anything appearing as a boundary was artificial, a creation of the mind. He then realized that what he had seen as a young hawk was all one; a unity; distinct but all of one creation; rivers, trees, cattle, sheep, all created by the same gracious and masterful Maker.

People create boundaries for many reasons. One reason is that it is a very orderly thing to do. It respects rights and differences. It helps us to understand and organize.

But people also cross boundaries for very good reasons, too. One reason is that it is the compassionate and loving thing to do. As the apostle Paul famously said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Jesus’ arrival crossed many well-established boundaries. Early in Mark’s gospel, Jesus crosses the boundary of the clean and unclean, those who are well and those regarded as ‘demon-possessed.’ This boundary led to division, and the division led to exclusion. Jesus then arrived to shared God’s loving outreach to all, especially to those society had ignored and excluded. That’s Jesus basic mission in Mark; in the name of love to cross boundaries and bring people closer to God and each other, over and over again.

Mark’s was the first gospel written, around 64AD, in the time of Nero’s reign as Emperor.

He strove to make his message short, sweet and to the point. Thirty years had passed since he last had seen Jesus in flesh and blood, and Mark wanted to be sure that all the stories he knew to be true would not die with him and the disciples. The message of Jesus needed to be more permanently shared, so he wrote his Good News about the Lord.

Public persecution of Christians was real, lines were being drawn between those who followed Rome and those who followed Jesus, and Mark wanted to make these distinctions very clear.

In Mark’s Gospel, it is Jesus who repeatedly chooses to cross the boundaries between custom and convention, guided by the power of love.

Immediately after John the Baptist is imprisoned, Jesus takes up his mantle and announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. He recruits his first disciples and goes on a healing spree. Jesus evicts an unclean spirit from the synagogue and heals many who are demon-possessed. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t out and out destroy the demons, but decisively displaces them.

Mark gives no information about what happens to the demons, which appear to have been disembodied, not destroyed. The New Testament is unique in ancient Jewish literature in descriptions of demonic possession, as opposed to demonic attacks. When Jesus strips the demons of their ability to inhabit their human hosts, they lose the authority they were thought to have. Losing opportunities to win over people’s bodies and minds, these exorcisms then, do not eliminate evil; they deny those kinds of forces the power to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives. It is Christ’s real presence that makes the difference.

Equally important in this account, healing comes through Jesus to people with little power; normal, everyday people, as they themselves muster up the energy to bring themselves to Jesus, or as they linger in their unwellness. Jesus crosses boundaries to make people well.

He evicts demonic forces that rob people of their wellness and deny them their place in society. And people are attracted to those who openly share love, mercy and wellness when they see it. Mark tells us that Jesus could no longer remain in the villages, so many had come to see him….

Jesus’ exorcisms and other miracles were never understood simply as raw displays of power but as signifiers of the gospel pointing to the “good news” of the arrival of God and the devil’s imminent departure.

So I have been wondering, these first days after the New Year, with some new hopes still in the air (as well as plenty of prayers for peace), what do these stories of Mark mean to us now?

How does Jesus reach out to us, sitting here— we who are mostly well, and not demon-possessed? And though we are not demon-possessed, we certainly have our own boundaries firmly set about the way things are; what is acceptable and what is not, where we might want to invite Jesus in to our lives, and where we’d rather not, thank you very much…

As a white American male of a certain age (boomer, anyone?) and a natural introvert, I’ve been doing some wrestling with what this passage really means to me… and what it might mean to you as well this morning, still on the threshold of a New Year.

In a book by my favorite author, Belden Lane, a recently retired Presbyterian faculty member of a Catholic Theological Seminary in St. Louis, he recounts some of the workshops presented by psychologist Jean Houston. She often used an exercise called “Are You God in Hiding?”

Working with more than a hundred people in a large, dimly lit ballroom, she would ask them to close their eyes and wander slowly around the room. (Something like in the kid’s swimming pool game, “Marco Polo”.) When they bump into another person they’re to ask softly, “Are you God in hiding?” That person then responds, asking the same question, “Are you God in hiding?” They continue on to someone else, asking the same question over and over. She has earlier quietly assigned the role of “God” in advance to one person in the group. When you run into that person and, ask, “Are you God in hiding?” you get no response. He or she is silent. After receiving this silence in response to your question, you become God as well, remaining silent when others question you. Gradually a stillness spreads across the room. Belden Lane says it never takes more than a few minutes for more than a hundred people to enter into complete silence, in awe at the fact that God is there, in every one of them. Boundaries have been removed, if they were ever there to begin with… [Belden C. Lane The Great Conversation (p. 229). Oxford University Press.]

Christian mystics speak of the mystery of ‘theosis’ or deification, a process of entering fully into the image and likeness of God. Theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church affirm that the endpoint of the Earth is to find its wholeness in God. Being ‘in-godded’ is the hope of every created being.

God wants to love each person, not as creatures, but as sacred members of all creation.

Maybe the boundaries we fear to cross aren’t really there at all.

Eventually in the New Testament, words of God’s love for us all are passed along like this: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Perhaps, in this New Year, in Christ’s presence we may see boundaries of all kinds pass away to be replaced by love. May it be so, in Jesus’ name. Amen.