The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on January 31, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen

A few years ago I was teaching a class on Indigenous/settler relations and was reviewing vocabulary with the class. We were going over a list of words that can be used to describe Indigenous people and I was explaining why some words were good to use, some not so good, and some to be avoided entirely.

A student, who was born in India, raised his hand to interject and I paused to let him. “I understand what you are saying professor,” he said, “but also I really hate it when people use to the word ‘Indian’ instead of ‘Indigenous’ because I am Indian!”

And in that moment, I felt the difference between someone who taught as the scribes taught – me – and someone who could teach with authority.

In tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus and his followers go to Capernaum, and then on the sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach.  We are told that the people who were listening were “astounded” by his teaching because he taught as “one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (21-22)

Jesus may have looked like everyone else around him, but when he opened his mouth to speak, it became clear that he was not like everyone else. He spoke with authority.

What does it mean to speak with authority, to have authority?

In our reading from Deuteronomy we get a brief description of how to identify  a specific type of authority – prophetic authority.   A prophet will speak words given to them directly by God, they will speak in God’s name and will be accountable to God.

This lectionary reading ends very abruptly with the warning that anyone who speaks as if they were a prophet but has not actually been given authority by God to do so will die.

This is a rough place to end a reading, especially because the next few verses provide this helpful advice: “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.” (21-22)

I’m not sure why the lectionary omits these verses – “do not be frightened” seems like a much better place to end a thought than, “they will die.”

How do you know someone is really a prophet? They speak for God and what they say will happen actually happens. That’s the litmus test.

And Jesus passes this test.  Jesus does not simply speak with an air of authority, when he tells an unclean spirit to leave, it leaves.

Matt Skinner says that, “Mark depicts Jesus as the one uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God. Through Jesus, then, we glimpse characteristics of this reign. It is intrusive, breaking old boundaries that benefited another kind of rule. It is about liberating people from the powers that afflict them and keep all creation — including human bodies and human societies — from flourishing. It is about articulating God’s intentions for the world, defying or reconfiguring some traditions to do so, if need be.” [1]

According to the traditions of that time and place, a man with an unclean spirit should not have been allowed into the synagogue.

But Jesus doesn’t tell the man to leave, or tell the people assembled that it’s just fine to have unclean spirits in their midst, he tells the unclean spirit to leave, and in doing so, makes it possible for the man to be restored to his community.

So many things are happening all at once –  this man is no longer possessed, he has been freed, he has the chance to be restored to his community. Additionally, Jesus has given everyone present a glimpse of a hopeful new future.  The way things have always been, does not have to be the way they will always be.  A better way is possible.

We are in the season known as Epiphanytide. This is more than just the season that begins by remembering when wise travelers presented gifts to Jesus. Epiphanytide is the season where we begin to reflect on what is means that Jesus not only came and was born as a human baby, but what it means when people began to see him as a young adult moving through the world with purpose and authority. People began to listen to his words, observe his actions and develop a sense of who he was. Epiphanytide is a season where we are invited to reflect on implications of Jesus’ early ministry. What changed when people began to recognize Jesus’ authority?

Matt Skinner invites us to ask, “Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control? … Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.”[2]

Where are you still being amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend your assumptions about what’s possible? What additional expressions of Christ’s power do you long to see?

In our reading we are told, twice, that Jesus has authority. The people say it at the beginning and end of our reading.  Sandwiched in between those assertions is a story that illustrates the same point.

A man with an unclean spirit enters the temple and cries 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.” (23-24)

They know who Jesus is, but they are not sure what Jesus is up to.

The phrase translated here as “What have you to do with us” is a tricky one to translate.  Matt Skinner suggests two alternate translations, “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?” Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary.” [3]

Jesus has transgressed the status quo, he has stepped over an established boundary but he has done so as “one with authority” and so the unclean spirits are trying to level the playing field by naming Jesus.  “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (24)

Names have power. Naming is a form of power. Just ask anyone who has ever been called by the wrong name or referred to with the wrong pronouns.  Been called “Sir” when they are in fact a “Madam.”  Ask them how quickly the balance of power can shift in those moments.

When the spirits say “I know who you are,” and call Jesus by name, it’s a power move. Or more accurately, an attempted power move. An attempt to assert power. An attempt to gain the upper hand in this encounter.

But the attempt fails.

Jesus isn’t even willing to give this exchange the time it would take to answer the unclean spirits’ questions.

Instead Jesus simply says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (26)

And the spirits obey.

No fancy incantations, no magic tricks. Jesus speaks and the spirits obey.

Jesus doesn’t answer the unclean spirits questions, but if he did, what do you suppose he might have said?

Ched Myers observes that the opinion expressed by the unclean spirit is shared by the scribes. “Have you come to destroy us?”[4]

And in some ways,  Jesus has indeed come to destroy them. Not the literal scribes.  Repentance and a chance at new life are always available, but Jesus did come to destroy any institution, any idea, any power that does not bring life.  The kingdom Jesus came to establish is one of liberation, not oppression.

Jesus is not neutral. He takes sides, and he calls us to take sides as well.

Although the people recognize that Jesus speaks with authority,  this does not mean that everyone automatically accepts or welcomes his authority. Here and throughout Mark’s gospel we will see that Jesus’ authority is a contested authority.  Matt Skinner points out that, “Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.”[5]

If you are being oppressed, then it is good news to learn that Jesus has come to overturn oppressive systems.  If you are an oppressor, or even someone who benefits second hand from oppressive systems, then Jesus words will likely feel threatening and not like good news at all.

In Jesus’ time, enough people found his message threatening that they crucified him.  I don’t think we are all that different.

Although we are all gathered together as a Christian community in this time of Christian worship, we need to be careful not to become complacent or pat ourselves on the back. All too often our institutions, our churches, and our own individual lives reflect the very values Jesus came to overthrow.  All too often we are on the side of oppression, and not liberation.

Right now, I am aware that many of us are struggling because we want to believe that we are nice people, good people, and therefore we can’t possibly also be racist people.  But we can, and each one of us needs to decide what is more important to us – our image of ourselves as nice people, or doing the work it will take to create a society where people of all races are treated with equal dignity and respect.

My colleague Scott Sharman points out that stories like today’s gospel reading, where Jesus encounters an unclean spirit take seriously, “the very real fact that there are systemic evils which exercise influences on people and societies which are beyond their ability to control or break free from. These “principalities and powers” hold our spirits and hearts and minds and relationships locked in patterns of injustice and oppression and inhumanity.

If and how they are related to personal spirits I cannot say, but I believe [that] bigger-than-me-or-you-can-explain forces do very much exist and weigh things down: The spirit of white supremacy, the spirit of misogyny, the spirit of ableism, the spirit of bigotry, the spirit of sexual exploitation, the spirit of domination over the earth. The list could go on.

Whether we participate [] as direct perpetrators, as passive benefactors, or as the one’s they prey upon, these things control our lives and our world, and we are not able to untie ourselves from them on our own.

Scott continues -The voice of Jesus commands such spirits to depart, and does so with authority. The way of Jesus is stronger — strong enough to break the bonds that hold us down. And those who follow in that Way are empowered by grace to proclaim those liberating words to our communities and societies through speech and action which transforms and heals beyond what we could even imagine. We can’t do it alone. We need God. We need each other. Together, let us rebuke the evil that traps us, and with a louder voice. Let us go out to set and to be set free.”

Amen. May it be so.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains.











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