4th Sun in Ordinary Time • 2/1/15 • Leora Weitzman
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Inhabited by fiery mountains, idols, and unclean spirits, today’s readings might not seem to belong in the modern world at all. They will distance us still further if we use the first reading and the Gospel to emphasize the special role and power of the historical Jesus. Although that may well be Mark’s intent, we will miss a very practical, personal message if we stop there.
Consider the experience of the person who experienced healing. I’ve always been captured by the unclean spirit’s words: “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are…”
These words resonate for me because I have felt them inside me. I feel them rise up during a yoga class, when a big stretch painfully nails the tension caused by one of my unclean spirits, habitual bad posture. My muscles scream, “Have you come to destroy us?”
I feel those words on a tough day when I’ve put my hard shell on, and someone’s kindness threatens to dissolve that shell in tears. “Have you come to destroy me?” weeps the unclean spirit of that shell.
I feel those words when I realize it’s time to give up “who I am,” even though unimaginable new life opens up on the other side. “Have you come to destroy me?” wailed my former identities as a musician and later a philosophy prof, in the face of mounting evidence that I should change paths. “Have you come to destroy me?” accuses my ego, every time I begin to suspect I’ve been misjudging someone.
The healing that follows may not be pretty. The convulsions of an exiting spirit come in a variety of shapes. They can be messy and take time. I invite you to take a moment to recall a healing you’ve experienced, one that shook your world badly enough that you weren’t sure for a while that you wanted it.
Not sure that they wanted it is how the Israelites sound when they ask God to send them a prophet rather than speak directly to them ever again. “Have you come to destroy us?” At first I was impatient with them for this, and with God for humoring them. Millennia of clericalism, all because these few folks were chickenhearted? Isn’t a direct encounter with God something we all crave, deep down, and need?
But we’re not always ready. And this is where the great compassion of the second reading comes in. The Holy Spirit meets us where we are.
There are plenty of idols in my life, however small or hidden, and they do demand sacrifices. Like the exaggeration or white lie that comes out of my mouth when I make excuses for being late, a small sacrifice of integrity offered to the demigod of looking better than I feel.
In my teens, music was the closest thing to God I knew. I sacrificed many opportunities to be kind and helpful on the altar of a hoped-for career in music, which demanded hours of violin practice. A couple of close friends, arguing that their needs were more urgent, persuaded me to redirect a lot of hours intended for practicing. Though I’ve had some doubts, perhaps they were right. Yet there was something corrosive about the experience. Although my devotion to music was misplaced, there was a certain integrity to my faithful practicing, and when I let the practicing slide for the sake of my friends, something more than an unrealistic career plan was undermined. I had the sense that I’d betrayed myself.
Paul might have said my “weak conscience was defiled.” This, I suspect, is what it looks like when people consume a sacrifice intended for an idol. Of course the idol of the musical career did have to fall, and gradually it became clear that the fall was healing for me. It prompted growth in areas I would never have explored, which developed my relationship with God much more fully. But because the fall came partly from letting my practice time slide, it didn’t feel clean. It would have felt cleaner to give my all and then discover I didn’t have what it takes. It would have felt cleaner if my friends and I had not desecrated the sacrifices I’d intended for what was still a god to me at the time.
Perhaps life is one long story of letting our idols and demons go. Layer by layer,
specific healings punctuate times of seeming stagnation. In the times of seeming stagnation, we’re still worshiping the idol that we’re about to lose next. But under the surface, we’re slowly becoming ready to exchange that idol for the next painful growth spurt. Denise Levertov has a wonderful poem I’d like to share with you:
“In the dark I rest, / unready for the light which dawns / day after day, / eager to be shared. / Black silk, shelter me. I need / more of the night before I open / eyes and heart / to illumination. I must still / grow in the dark like a root / not ready, not ready at all.”
So let’s bless the times of procrastination and resting, the winters that prepare us for the sting of our next great healing. Let’s be thankful for the healings and the preparations, the shock of the light itself and the idols and go-betweens who shelter us from it until we’re ready. Let’s be gentle with each other’s idols and prophets, knowing that we each have our own. And when we find ourselves crying out, “Have you come to destroy us?” let that be our prayer—sometimes the best we can manage—for the rising of new life that will follow.
That the faithful of all traditions may be gentle with each other’s prophets and unfamiliar ways of relating to the Holy, we pray…
That as nations and individuals, we may be gentle with each other when we see each other’s idols before they are ready to be released, we pray…
That when we face what we think will undo us, we may have the grace to meet it saying, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.”