"They were all amazed"-Sermon for Epiphany 4, Mark 1:21-28:
I will begin by saying I am speaking as a doting father here…but both of my daughters have the most beautiful voices…bias admitted and inherited entirely from their mother…noted. And, I know that is likely the experience or feeling of all the people and parents in this room about the voices of their beloved ones…children, spouses, significant others, dearest of friends. My daughters’ laughter and song fill my home, fill my life with joy. In the book of Nehemiah, it reads, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” And, I have found that to be completely true in my own life. And, though I have experienced that joy in quiet times of prayer, resting in the presence of God in Christ, I believe I have come to know that life-giving strength that flows from a heart-swelling, overwhelming sense of joy…most often…through the lives of those through whom God’s love pours so gracefully into my own…again…my two girls being chief among them…for me.
And, indeed, our home is almost always full of song! In particular, and I have her permission to share this, my oldest daughter Amelia seems to sing from the moment she rises to the moment she sleeps…loud and soft…silly and serious…Beyoncé and Botticelli…songs that exist and song that are made up. Sometimes its sounds so lovely it makes me want to cry…and sometimes it so crazy and dissonant it makes we want to cover my ears. And, I will admit the in the case of the latter, especially with something like the Longhorns on TV…or while Ashely and I are trying to have a serious conversation at the same time…or I am just trying to complete a thought…I will admit that I have wanted to yell…be quiet! And, in the spirit of parenting transparency here, I will admit that sometimes I have. I have avoided the dreaded words “shut up”…but my tone probably has said it for me. And, when she has responded, as she has on occasion, “What, you don’t like my voice? You don’t think I have a good voice”, it utterly breaks my heart. For, I don’t like her voice, I love it…and hope it is among the voices I hear as I take my very last breath on this side of glory. And, we have discussed that…and she knows that (she is hearing it again now). Sometimes there are just other important things to also hear.
And, I share these musing with you in the context of both the baptisms we will celebrate together today and, of all things, Jesus’ encounter with a demon in our Gospel lesson this morning, and I will begin with the latter. Demons are a complicated matter in Christian spirituality and theology. And, I cannot in this time say everything there is to say about the nuances of evil and the ways it inhabits our lives very personally and our world corporately. But, it is important to say that in the first century, in which Jesus’ earthly ministry existed, there was little to no understanding of neurological science…no understanding of the chemicals, genes, neural pathways, environment, and trauma that impact behavioral health…from mental illness to seizers to so much more. And, without a grounding for such experiences in modern science and medicine, such illnesses were, perhaps understandably, given otherworldly, dark, mystical causes. But, today, in most instances, most biblical scholars, theologians and scientists understand something like Jesus healing a person of an unclean spirit, as in today’s gospel lesson, as a physical or emotional healing…just like the countless other people Jesus healed of all sorts of illnesses and diseases…dis-eases…like broken hearts, broken bodies, and broken minds. And, the story before us today is no exception. What this poor man in our story today is actually suffering from, spiritually or physically, I do not know…but I do believe, with all my heart, that Jesus’ words of love, the very love of God that flowed from Jesus’ lips and into this person, for Mark tells us that Jesus spoke to the unclean spirit, healed him…and did so entirely, as the crowd who witness the healing professed. For, Mark writes, “They were all amazed.” And, I hope we all continue to be amazed, even overcome by joy, that our faith is strengthened, when God’s words of love spoken from one human life into another brings comfort, hope, light, and, yes, even healing.
Now, I recently attended a lecture by an Irish poet and theologian, a friend of our Bishop’s, named Padraig O Tuama. As a lover of poetry and, in particular, the ways art and spirituality intersect in powerful ways that lead to healing, insight and transformation, I highly, highly recommend his work to you. And, in that lecture, he shared one of the most insightful comments on demons that I have maybe ever heard. He said something like, as this is from my memory and not a direct quote, the only way a person gets a demon put inside them is if someone puts a demon inside them. And, my interpretation of his comment is this…friends…our words, what we say to and about someone, is more powerful than we could ever know. Our words are spiritual power. Let’s not forget that one of Jesus’ titles is the “Logos”…the Word. Let’s not forget that God spoke the creation into being. Thus, I believe that in almost every case in which someone feels, for example, like a failure…perhaps one could say suffers from the demon of failure…it is not because they experienced a failure…we all do that…but, instead, because someone, maybe someones, told them they were a failure…maybe over and over again…and those words having power…led them to believe the lie to be true…and it gets deeply rooted, internalized, and comes to define their life. And, as Padraig O Tuama, as a part of the LGBTQ community, shared…such words directed from one human to another…words like perverse, disordered, sinful, ungodly…can plant demons far more destructive than we could possibly imagine. So, as Padraig suggested to us in the lecture, let’s be really thoughtful about how we wield the spiritual power of our words…let’s not put demons in each other.
Which, back to my daughter Amelia, is why her response to my, sometimes unkindly, cutting off her singing, “What, you don’t like my voice? You don’t think I have a good voice?”…must, must be paid attention to. Sometimes silence is golden…sometimes it’s okay to ask someone to take a break so that something else can get the attention it deserves…like something her sister wants to sing or say…or for a conversation to be had…or a show to be enjoyed. But tone matters and so does the way we follow up, “Amelia, I love your voice. It is a gift from God and fills our life with joy. But, right now it’s just time to share the space.” For, friends, I would add a second part to the poet’s wisdom and say…the chief way courage and confidence and joy and strength and conviction and affirmation and vision…all of these Godly things…enter a person’s life is when another person puts them there. And, such words of love directed from one person to another can do the same work of miraculous healing…be just as life-giving…as the words Jesus spoke that healed the man of whatever ailed him in the very Gospel reading set before us today. For our faith in the God of Love fills our words and deeds with the power of the divine Logos…Jesus’ words…which are life.
Which takes me, in conclusion, to the two baptism we are just about to celebrate. Parent’s, Godparents, and the whole company of the faithful gathered here today will momentarily make a commitment to take an active role in helping God shape each of these children into the very person God created them, in the very image of love, to be. Thus, based on what I have shared, our task then is to choose our words with and for them wisely. Such that our words would participate with God in filling them…placing within them…all the courage, confidence, joy, strength, conviction, affirmation and vision they need to live the very life they were made for…to be filled with joy, which is the strength of the Lord, and become the healers, life-givers and love-spreaders, that they already are…but live into even more and more deeply…as they continue their own God-led, wondrous adventure. Amen.