Preaching: Mark 1:21-28
On the main street in Capernaum there is a fourth-century synagogue. The remnants of this synagogue have been cleaned up and made presentable for tourists. Still standing are the front wall and one side section. The intervening years have caused even the stone to crumble. By the side wall is a stone ledge that serves as an improvised pew. The synagogue has a solid stone floor, but no roof. The two open walls allow the noise in. Hardly a sanctuary! But if one is so inclined it is still possible to sit and to meditate in this ancient house of prayer. Underneath this fourth-century synagogue is another synagogue dating to the first century. There is a reasonable possibility that this is the site where Jesus went to hear the scripture read and to pray.
Capernaum is a seaport village. Located on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum served as central headquarters for the ministry of Jesus. While in Capernaum Jesus would pause for rest and retreat at Peter's House (Mk 1:28-31).
In the four canonical gospels there are thirty-one different miracles performed by Jesus. There are seventeen "healing miracles" (those involving physical healing), there are eight "miracles of nature" (the feeding of the multitudes, walking on the water, the transformation of water into wine, etc.), and six "exorcisms." The eight "Miracles of Nature" tend to bear a heavy mark of the early church. With few exceptions, biblical scholarship uniformly agree that Jesus was a miracle worker. Most certainly Jesus performed exorcisms.
We begin with the premise: "A deranged man came into a synagogue and disrupted a service of worship." The service was in process. It was the Sabbath, and Jesus was teaching. Suddenly there appears a disruptive and deranged man. (A man with an unclean spirit.) Whatever the man's physical and emotional condition may have been, another self was in possession of this man's orientation to reality. This other self (this unclean spirit) cried out in a loud voice addressing and naming Jesus "the Holy One of God." This unclean spirit (the other self) recognized Jesus as God.
Jesus took command of the total person and addressed the unclean spirit. The second person within the life of the core personality was in such control that the total person went into convulsions. A psychiatrist who works with individuals with multiple personalities tells me that it is a coping mechanism. The additional personality serves as a means of coping—of maintaining some little sense of safety, and perhaps, of individual sanity? Sometimes individuals become a little crazy in order to cope.
Before and after the exorcism: the by-standers in the synagogue were "astounded" and "amazed." Jesus appeared and presented himself as somehow strangely different. Jesus was perceived as something other than "one of the scribes" and as "one having authority." What was this difference about Jesus that set him apart from the scribes? What was this unusual or unique characteristic about Jesus that he was perceived as one "having authority"? "What made Jesus unusual, if not unique, was not simply his role as exorcist but rather his integration of the roles of exorcist, moral teacher, gatherer of disciples, and eschatological prophet all into one person."1
No one likes to see a service of worship and prayer disrupted. It is against the law. You can be arrested! A couple of years back, on World Communion Sunday, there was a disruption in worship where I was presiding. It occurred at the precise point in the service where the "body of Christ" was being distributed. The celebration of the Eucharist at Salem Church is a time of special spiritual significance. There were fourteen elders standing in front of the altar. As my colleague and I carefully distributed the trays of consecrated bread, the chancel choir sang the Agnes Dei. While we were all being very spiritual, a middle- aged individual slipped quietly in a side door and suddenly appeared at the Chancel, directly in front of me. He was moderately well dressed and carried a green garbage bag over his left shoulder. In the other hand he held a styrofoam cup. I was silenced, stilled, unnerved. The choir was still singing. Standing nose to nose with me, the man said in a quiet but assertive voice, "I want to speak. Now!" I reasoned the worse, and tried to pray for the best. What was in the green garbage bag? Who was this stranger? What did he want? To his request to speak I responded, "Not now, later." And with my best authoritative voice, I commanded, "Sit. There. Now!"
The man seated himself in an available seat five rows down to the left. The "unwelcomed man" crossed his legs out into the aisle, opened his newspaper, and appeared to read as he drank coffee. There were several individuals between this man and myself. Besides this was a house of God! Christian people ought not to be frightened—especially in the sanctuary. We sang a closing hymn. I pronounced the benediction, and several ushers quickly surrounded this unwelcomed, disruptive stranger.
We had controlled a potentially explosive situation. The man was not violent and never was. He was angry and said to me. "You told me that I could speak later. The service is over!" I was told that the man's name was Lorenzo. I said: "What is it that you want to say, Lorenzo? What do you want to talk about?" In an angry, demanding voice Lorenzo said: "I want to talk about the systemic economic slavery that the institutions of this city impose on me and my family and other disempowered men and women in this community." It was World Communion Sunday. The man was disruptive to our carefully orchestrated service of worship. God can appear in unanticipated ways even in our regular services of worship.
James Richard Lahman Salem U.C.C. Rochester, NY
1. John P. Meyer, A Marginal Jew, Volume Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, l994), p. 407.