For the past three Sundays, the Gospel has told of the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean Ministry. The story introduces Jesus’ proclamation of Good News – the time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is near; it is time to repent and believe.
He calls his first disciples, Simon & Andrew, James & John. In the synagogue, he teaches and calls out his first unclean spirit.
People are astounded that this unknown man is not only speaking God’s will from a point of authority, but the unclean spirits listen to him and obey.
He goes out of the synagogue, the place of power, and into the world, the place where illness, dis-ease, and demons live.
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Jesus learns that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill. They go to her house where Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up. He lifts her up. She begins to immediately serve. He does not heal her because he is hungry. His action restores to her the authority she holds as a servant, matriarch of her household, the person in charge of hospitality. This is her work. Megan McKenna, author, theologian, storyteller and lecturer, notes in her book “On Your Mark” that “in gratitude for his taking hold of her and giving her life to do his work, she responds wholeheartedly …”. Simon’s mother-in-law ministers to them, just as the angels who ministered to Jesus, just as a deacon does to God’s least of these.
“Have you not heard?” Justice is crying out.
The word is out. Those who are sick or possessed with demons are brought to him. And the whole city gathers around the door. The whole of the city. All wanting for Jesus to take them by the hand and lift them up out of their sickness of body, mind, and spirit. Out of the tyranny that ruled their world. Into Healing. Wholeness. Salvation.
In the first century Israel, authority is clearly divided between those who have it and those who do not. The violence of the Roman occupation cannot be overlooked for it affects all of Israel. Life is dangerous for those who are not aligned with Rome. The Roman military is the ultimate authority and terror is their method of enforcing peace.
According to Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. in “The Politics of Jesus”, the wealthy hereditary priestly class plays a major part in this reign of terror. Included in this class are the high priest of the Temple, other priests, and elders. It isn’t just the Roman tax exacting such a monetary toll on the people; it is also the tithe that is demanded by the priests. The Sadducees and Pharisees serve, in one way or another, this greed of the priests.
This aristocratic hereditary priestly class and those who cling to its power are also to blame. It is a reign of terror against the people of Israel by the people of Israel. And it comes from an authority that is bound up in human desire for wealth and power. God is left out of the equation. Do they not know? Have they not heard? Justice cries out from the ground.
This unknown person, not only teaching but also healing as if he has authority to declare the word of God, to heal those who are sick, and is heard and obeyed by unclean spirits and demons….
Imagine the people of Galilee hearing Jesus proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. Surely for the Kingdom of God to be near, it means that the reign of terror is ending.
Theologian N. T. Wright states that Jesus came to stop the nightmare of terror, to rescue the people from the destructive forces that enslave them. He comes to heal fevers, illnesses, whatever dis-ease afflicts the people, even those “whose personalities seem taken over by alien powers.”
I wonder about the trauma that must have affected the people due to the horror of the Roman occupation – all the anxiety, fear, anger, flashbacks, nightmares – symptoms we now know are classified as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Surely, they did suffer. It is unlikely that our brains are that much different physiologically today than 2000+ years ago. Trauma affects how our brains and bodies function.
What dis-eases were present in the people, both physically and mentally due to the terror inflicted? Compare to the trauma that people in this City, this Metro area live under every day with the gun violence, hunger, homelessness, racism, and systemic poverty. Trauma affects all aspects of our present-day society just as it must have in first century Galilee.
I think about the people I meet at Trinity Food Ministry. Can we imagine being homeless? Being outside on the best of nights can be frightening. Imagine the sounds, the shadows, no place to rest. There is probably gunfire. Even if one finds a relatively safe corner to hide in, I cannot imagine sleeping. I have problems sleeping through the night in my soft warm bed! How traumatic it must be to be cold, maybe even wet, scared, hungry, thirsty? How long before I would exhibit signs of sleep deprivation? How long before someone thought I was psychotic, on drugs, or that I was possessed by an unclean spirit?
Jesus did not come into this space to seek fame and fortune. He came to do God’s will and to share that news with the people. When Simon comes to tell him that people are seeking him – they want MORE – Jesus says it is time to move on, time to proclaim the message in other places. He says, This is what I came to do – preach, heal, cast out terror – not in just one place but in many places.
Jesus’ authority over the demons, to call them out, means that this is the end of the domination over that person. It implies that the current evil terror is near its end. Theologian Pheme Perkins, in the New Interpreter’s Bible, states “The kingdom cannot be separated from the person of Jesus, who embodies God’s power.” God is everywhere – with Jesus in prayer in the deserted place, in the healing, in the casting out, wherever Jesus goes, whatever Jesus does, God is there. That has not changed.
“This is what I came to do.” The people recognized that Jesus was bringing them Good News, even if they did not understand it. The priests and scribes could not/would not testify to the authority of Jesus because they were a part of the systemic oppression – Jesus threatened their method of maintaining personal wealth. Yet the demons recognize Jesus. They know that his authority is of God over which they have no power. The priest and others could have recognized this, yet they did not.
Can we, the church, testify to that same authority of God? Will we be a part of that which stops the systemic violence of oppression? And do not be deceived – all oppression is violent and traumatizing.
Wright states that if we can learn to testify to the authority of God, we will find the saving power of God unleashed once more. There may be increased opposition from those with much to lose, yet, however the demons may still shriek, they will have lost their authority if we claim God’s.
Understanding this authority of God empowers us to speak and act against social injustices and to work with and for those for whom Jesus holds a special affinity – those who are poor and oppressed.
We have a power, the authority, to use our circumstances to speak against these same situations that Jesus acted upon. As followers of Jesus, we must know that the kingdom cannot be separated from us either. We are a part of that Kin-dom because we claim Jesus as the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with God.
Are we able to reach out to touch those worn down by injustices, oppression, and fear? To work to overcome the social injustices that perpetuate the dis-ease and oppression? To do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God?
Our first arctic cold of the winter is here. High today is predicted at 19. Single digit and negative temperatures later in the week. This is killing weather. What does it say about us as a society that we allow other humans to stay outside in this wet and cold?
I saw in the alerts about the weather conditions that it cautions us to bring our pets inside. If it is too cold for our pets to be outside, it is too cold for our siblings in Christ to be huddled in our doorways or in the corners.
We can actually do something about all the demons in our world. Homelessness, hunger, racism, gun violence … And that is just the beginning. We can end the oppression.
There is a great amount of work to do to unleash the power of God’s healing on our world torn by unjust social policies that cause injustice and oppression, fear, frustration, and anger.
It is why we are here.
Do we not know? Have we not heard? Isaiah reminds us: God is everlasting, the Creator of all that is, never faint, never weary. God gives us the power when we feel faint, gives us strength when we feel powerless.
We have the power. And we have the authority.
Set us free, God, from our human limitations, send us out into the world, sharing that abundant life and love which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Forever and ever.
Sermon offered for St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Carondelet, Saint Louis, Missouri on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, February 7, 2021