The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – Mark 1:21-28
Do you remember the first time you ever felt alienated from yourself? Maybe you looked at your life and realized that’s not who you were or who you wanted to be. Or you felt like you were a stranger in your own skin. Do you remember what that was like?
My earliest memory of that was when I was about five years old. My mom and sister and I had gone to the dime store. There was a really cool little toy rocket that I wanted. My mom did not buy it for me. You know where this is headed, right? Now a smart criminal would have just kept it in his pocket, played with it when he got home, and hid it among the other toys. Not me. As soon as I got in the car I reached in my pocket and with much fake surprise said, “Oh Mom! Look what I just found in my pocket.”
Mission control had a problem with this. She took me by the hand and we went back into the store. I stood in front of the manger crying. I gave him back the rocket and told him I was sorry. And I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I felt so bad abut myself and I never wanted to feel like that again. But I would and I have. It wouldn’t be about toy rockets, however.
Around 1991 or 1992 I was a partner in a law firm. I was married. I had a son, a house, a car, a truck, a boat, and a cat. I had everything I wanted except myself. I remember sitting in my office one night in the dark, lights out, overlooking Corpus Christi Bay and crying because my life was such a mess. I didn’t know who I was or what to do.
Just a week or so ago I finished my week at the office and I spent Friday, my day off, at home working. Then I went out of town for work Saturday morning and early afternoon. When I got home I spent the rest of the day and early evening working on my sermon for Sunday. I can so easily get caught up in and carried away by my work. I realized, once again, that’s not the marriage I want or the kind of husband I want to be.
Those three little stories and a thousand others like them are ways in which I have been the man with an unclean spirit. I am the guy in today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28). I don’t tell you that to be dramatic or draw attention to myself. I simply offer it you as an invitation to look a your own life and the ways in which you too might be a woman or man with an unclean spirit. If I am unwilling to examine my life, who I’ve become, and what I’ve done, I have no credibility to stand here and ask you to do that in your life. If I am not willing to share with you my struggles to live the gospel of Christ and let it point to the truth and untruth about who I am, I have no basis on which to preach to you. I tell you my stories hoping they might help and encourage you to look at your own stories.
Take a couple minutes and look back over your life. What are your stories of being alienated from yourself? What’s your first memory of that? What is your most recent memory of that? When have you felt like a stranger in your own skin?
I think we all live as women and men with unclean spirits. They are those times when we betray our own integrity, when we are confused and lost about who we are or who we want to be, when we look at our life and don’t recognize ourselves or like what we see. Or maybe we want our life to be different. We want to stop causing trouble and difficulty for ourselves. We want to be more or different than what we have become. I think that’s what it’s like to live with an unclean spirit.
By unclean spirit I don’t mean that we are bad people, defective human beings, or hopeless sinners. I just mean that we’ve turned against ourselves. We’ve turned away from the truth about who we really are. We’ve become confused about ourselves and lost. It happens in so many ways and so easily. It sneaks up on us. It happens to us not only as individuals but collectively. That seems to be what much of the craziness in our world today is about. We are living lost to ourselves. Countries, governments, churches, businesses, organizations and groups are estranged from themselves. It’s all described in today’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28).
There’s a man with an unclean spirit “in their synagogue.” He’s not unique among them or us. He’s representative and he speaks not just for himself but also for and as one of them. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us” (emphasis added)? The people in the synagogue do not tell him to be quiet, to sit down, or to get out. They seem pretty happy to let him speak for them because he is one of them and they are him.
He’s become so familiar and accepted in their lives and community and so much a part of who they are that they neither react to nor are they affected by him. He’s not the unusual or strange thing about that day. Who is? Who is the unusual and strange one that day? Jesus. Jesus is the one that astounds them and seems so different from what they’ve seen or heard before.
They are so lost to themselves that the good news of Jesus becomes strange and unusual. “What is this?” they ask, “A new teaching – with authority!” I wonder if that happen to us too. I wonder if sometimes we become so lost to ourselves, so self-alienated, so self-estranged, that the good news sounds strange and a bit crazy to us.
“You want me to love my enemies? I can’t do that. Don’t you know what they’ve done?” “I should forgive how many times, Jesus? Isn’t seven more than enough? Didn’t you hear what she said, what he did? They never change.” “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword? Jesus, don’t you understand that might makes right and peace is gained by superior firepower?” “I’ve never killed anyone but now you’re telling me I shouldn’t even get angry?” “And it’s not enough that I’ve not had an affair? I shouldn’t even look and enjoy some thoughts?” “The kingdom is within? No, that’s not how it works here. What about my accounts, my successes and reputation, proving myself, and all those things I’ve worked so heard to get?”
It seems the more we look at our life and world the stranger the good news sounds. And I’ve come to realize that’s more a statement about having an unclean spirit than it is about the gospel of Christ. It’s a symptom of our self-alienation.
The great tragedy of this alienation, this self-estangment, is that
- We tend to let the most familiar and craziest voices among us speak for us.
- We’re no longer surprised when the demonic shows ups. I am talking about the attitudes that deny human dignity, the powers that destroy life, the self-interest and greed that refuse to see a common and interdependent life. We may not like it but we’re not too surprised at what’s on the news. Are we really that surprised when there is another terrorist bombing, another mass shooting, another scandal?
- We let those outer voices, whether it’s CNN, Fox, a parent, our spouse, a friend, a priest, have greater influence in our lives than that deep inner voice of truth and we lose just a bit more of ourselves.
- We forget that what is true, good, and beautiful are neither objects outside of us nor goals to be achieved, but realities within us to be recognized.
In those times of self-alienation we need someone, a different voice, to call us back to ourselves. We need a new recognition of the ways in which our life has become fragmented. That’s what my mom did for me when she took me by the hand and said we were going to talk to the manager. She was calling me back to myself. It’s what a priest named David did for me when I finally called him and said that my life was a mess and I was lost. It’s what my wife Cyndy did for me last week when she said, “I miss you.”
That’s what Jesus is doing in the synagogue in Capernaum today. He is calling them back to themselves. The first thing they want to know is what Jesus has to do with them. He’s the stranger. “Have you come to destroy us?” And I think the answer is yes. He comes to destroy everything that is not truly us. He comes to destroy the false voices in our lives. He comes to destroy the powers that diminish and deny the fullness of life and human dignity. He comes to destroy our false identities. Notice, however, that he does not exclude or reject the man with the unclean spirit. He clarifies for him that the unclean spirit is not his truest spirit. It is not a spirit of life. Jesus calls this man back to himself.
And it is in that moment of self-recongition that the man with the unclean spirit also recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are,” he says, “the Holy One of God.” That’s something for us to hang on to. Even in the midst of our self-estrangement there is still something within us that knows and can recognize the Holy One. No matter how lost we are to ourselves the ability to recognize the Holy One remains. The reason we can is because the Holy One has never left us. The Holy One is within us. The Holy One is us.
Maybe the recognition of who Jesus calls us back to be is what saves our life. Maybe that’s the antidote to the ways in which we have become alienated from ourselves. It means recognizing the truth and the untruth about our lives, the beauty of our life as well as the disfigurements, the places that are whole and the places that are broken. We’ve all got them.
As much as we may want to deny or run from those things, the recognition of those things is also the place of healing and wholeness, a place from which new life born, a place that gives rise to new hope. It’s a place in which we can catch a glimpse of our truest and best self
That means recognition has to become for us an intentional spiritual practice. We must look critically at our lives, reflect deeply on who have become and the shape of our life, wrestle with difficult questions, and search within. It also means that we have to let go of the idea that the one with an unclean spirit is someone apart from and outside our lives.
As easy and tempting as it is to ignore or cover up our self-alienation, it’s even easier and more tempting to project it onto and blame someone else. President Trump is the man with the unclean spirit. He’s to blame. The biased media are the ones with the unclean spirit. It’s their fault. Or maybe it’s my boss, my spouse, the troublemaker in life. Or maybe the ones with the unclean spirit are the immigrants, the proponents of the wall, the police, the Black Live Matter, Islam…. The list could go on and on.
To go down that road is to live more deeply into my own self-exile. And I’ve known since I was five years old I do not like that place. That’s not how I want to live or who I want to be. I don’t think you like it or want it for your life any more than I do. I want something more, something different, for my life and I think you do too.
What’s the recognition for us? In what ways are we lost to ourselves? What’s broken? How are we an alien to our own life or a stranger in our own skin?
However we might answer those questions, whatever our self-alienation might be, Jesus enters the synagogue of our life and calls us back to ourselves. He will not run from or avoid our self-alienation and the many ways we’ve become estranged from ourselves. He stands with us in the midst of it, inviting us into recognition. He clarifies the truth about who we are. And he does it over and over. It might take years of recognition but the promise of Christ holds true. One day we will look at ourselves and say, “I know you. You’re the holy one of God.”