a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme, “Defining Moments”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 31, 2021
Mark 1:21-28 NRSV
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Imagine being so captive to something that harms you and controls you so much that you do not even want to be free from it. Addicts and alcoholics know what I mean. Those in abusive relationships sometimes suffer this. What would be worse is to be captive to something harmful, even destructive, yet believe you are not ill. You are imprisoned by your illness but believe you are the only one who is free.
This morning I want to speak about the church in America, the body of Christ. It has a cancer, and it is malignant. It is eating up the Church in America and it must be excised. I am going to sound harsh to some, but you cannot be nice to a malignant cancer. You must excise it from the body. It is a cancer that claims it is the only healthy cell and it is multiplying in its aggressive, destructive attitude. It is devoid of the grace of God. It has none of God’s loving, healing, forgiving spirit we know in Jesus Christ. It is a religion with chains that bind, and Jesus came to unbind us.
This Scripture shows how Jesus dealt with an “unclean” spirit that had taken over a person who was right in the midst of the congregation. Mark tells us that Jesus sets a man free from an “unclean” spirit. Don’t get bogged down trying to make a modern medical diagnosis of his problem. It is not important whether it was what we would call epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or some other psychological dysfuntion. His spirit made him act in ways that would define him as “unclean.” It didn’t mean a “dirty” spirit. It meant he acted in ways that were outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Something unclean in Mark’s time and religion was something that acted against God’s ways. This man, right in the midst of the congregation was filled with an unclean spirit, acting in ways inconsistent with God’s ways.
Now, I know folks of our type of church are generally less “judgmental” of others. We don’t like to sound harsh. But I believe that the Christian Church has been taken over by an “unclean” spirit and needs to be exorcised. We welcome everyone we can. We have, for some time now had to apologize for not being like the evangelicals and fundamentalists who claimed from the start that they were the only true Christians because they were judgmental, harsh, and exclusive and they claimed that was Jesus’ way. But they were wrong, and they are wrong, and I am here to say we need to stop apologizing and start calling that “unclean” spirit out and exorcising it from the body of Christ.
Evangelicalism and fundamentalism as a type of Christian faith that sprang up in the late 1800’s as a reaction to the scholarly study of Scripture, religion, and faith in colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools. It was an anti-intellectual heresy that claimed you could read the Bible literally, while never actually doing it. It claimed an exclusive hold on truth, while lying about the Scriptures, and it exalted beliefs in Jesus that were considered heretical as far back as the first Century. They made Jesus into a “spiritual” figure who did not care about the physical body or nature, except to overemphasize the physical suffering he endured on the cross as the only solution to our sin. It was the restating of the old belief that this world was evil and you had to endure it until you got your reward in heaven, after you died.
It has morphed now and has decided it has the authority to take over the world in the name of Jesus. It’s leaders have lied to their followers and misused Scripture to make Jesus into a white, conquering warrior who is American, politically conservative, and wants them to use any means, including violence, to take over the nation in Jesus’ name. They believe in a freedom that is so limited it only includes those who believe and look like them, and they have twisted the Constitution to limit the freedom of others. And here is the most damning part: they have proclaimed that their enemies, those they disagree with, as doing the very things they are doing. They claim that anyone not with them is the anti-Christ, is anti-American, not patriotic, and not following Jesus. They are the only true believers, the only true patriots, and like all zealots of every age, they are a dangerous, murderous, violent mob. They have defined freedom in a way that cannot survive.
We need to be set free from this “unclean” spirit and we need a Savior to do it. Mark says it is Jesus. Mark tells us the people saw that Jesus spoke and acted with authority and power. They even compared it to the religious leaders they called scribes, who claimed authority they did not have and were leading the people away from freedom and into chains. Scribes recorded the Scriptures but also added their own interpretations and judgments, what were called “traditions.” In short they claimed the power to decide who was “clean” and “unclean,” and they had power to control the lives of the faithful, but their power was self-proclaimed, not authorized by Scripture or any other source but the religious system that used them to protect their own authority. The people saw Jesus as speaking and acting more authoritatively, speaking God’s truth instead of human traditions of the scribes. He spoke about serving rather than seeking power to chain others into service and therefore he was a threat to their power.
So how do we cleanse the church of this unclean spirit. We turn to Jesus and see what he really did and who he really was. We start by telling the truth not lies we wish were true. We seek truth, not ignorance. We work to find truth when we are wrong instead of doubling down on old falsehoods. It takes a commitment to learn, to grow spiritually, and to change. The second thing it requires is a commitment to what is just, not using power to treat others unjustly. Injustice binds us with chains of from the abuse of power. Justice shares power for the good of all. That is the Biblical message. And thirdly we recognize that we are not “God’s nation,” anymore than any other nation. We choose a humble spirit rather than a privileged pride. We need to stop claiming privilege as freedom and recognize that others are not taking our freedom when they demand we stop chaining them down with our prejudices and our power and our priorities for self over service. We need to stand for real freedom. We need to redefine freedom and stop anointing our prejudices, priorities, and privileges to chain people to hatred and division.
The Apostle Paul was criticized by people within his own churches. One of those criticisms was that he was too inclusive of others. In his epistle to the Corinthians Paul defines freedom for us as Christians:
19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them…. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings [ 1 Cor. 9:19-23 ].
Christian freedom is found in being free from using power, control, and fear as chains to make others do what we want. Paul says it clearly: he chooses to serve all as if he were a slave, so that all might share in the blessings of the Gospel. Jesus said it even more clearly: the greatest of you must be the servant of all. The gospel of the evangelical and fundamentalist church has become one of power, control, and violence to enforce these things. It is an unclean spirit. We – those of us who do not believe that way – must look to the power of Jesus Christ to speak the truth to the lies, to redefine real Christianity, and real freedom in the way Jesus did. Unless we do, the American church will continue to be heretical, unclean and sensible, ethical, intelligent people will turn away from it even faster than they are now. It will die from the unclean spirit that makes healthy people reject it and its claims.
I began by asking you to imagine being so sick, so filled with unclean beliefs, anger and hatred of others that you actually think you are the only healthy one, the only right one and all others deserve to die. This is how Crusades start. This is how Jewish holocausts begin. We must not fall into this same trap. Christ came to show the grace of God. Christ came to liberate people from living with fear, anger, and hatred. We must break the chains of fear, anger, and hatred in his name. This is the grace of God we must embody. AMEN.