The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s116g15  Sunday 4  1/2/2015

‘What have you to do with us?’  Mark 1:24

I have noted before that the man with the unclean spirit is found in the synagogue.   Clearly religious places house those who believe that: ‘we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table’ - in the words of the ‘wee-donut’ - traditionally that most beloved of Anglican prayers.  (1)

It is an entirely human response to an experience of the divine to express one’s own unworthiness, but again, as I have noted before, when people have found themselves confronted by the Almighty and fall on their faces, they are invariably lifted to their feet,   Their primal dignity as humans, to stand rather than grovel before God, is always restored.   Isaiah expresses this when he says: ‘I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips ..’  (2)   When he regurgitates this ‘orthodoxy’ God dismisses it as entirely irrelevant.   The live coal cleanses Isaiah’s tongue - that he is unclean - and he is commissioned to .. what?

To say that unworthiness is irrelevant to the purposes of God.

Again Simon Peter is confronted by Jesus as he is fishing on the lake and he too protests: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’. (3)    Again this sentiment isn’t even dignified with a response - he will fish for people.   Do we not get the message that our worthiness before God is entirely irrelevant to God’s purposes, it is all about our relationship with other people?   Our incarnation in the world?

I suggest that it is precisely this that Jesus’ first hearers found astonishing, an authority which proclaimed incarnation and communion rather than dissociation and division.

The unclean spirits, fed by orthodoxy, proclaimed a ‘holy’ God unwilling to get the divine hands dirty with the existence of ordinary people.   Jesus’ whole purpose, life and ministry was to demonstrate the precise opposite .. and to encourage us to do likewise, to get our hands dirty with ordinary day to day activities.

I find the parallels between incarnation (communion between humanity and the divine) and fellowship among all - contrasts - dissociation (the separation between humanity and the divine) and divisions between peoples - significant.

Those who suffer from mental illness frequently find themselves alienated by perceived stigma, fear that their illness might become apparent, fear of being out of control.   Delusions of grandeur, and the intensity of some experiences also differentiates them from ‘normal’ people.   I am not sure I’ve met any of these mythical ‘normal’ creatures.   I have my own particular ways I beat myself up!   I am not sure I could tell where a religious delusion ends and a mental illness begins and when either of these are not just manipulation.

Most people, myself as much as anyone else, are victims of our own insecurities.   And these are fed, if we allow them to, by orthodoxy, by others, by ourselves.   I find the most difficult thing to do is to forgive myself, and I suspect that this is true of most people; those who count themselves religious no more than those who don’t.   How to stop ruminating, especially when one is in the business of reflecting on life and writing about it!   Often it is the perception that others do not have the same disabilities that we have - that we are the only one who is, or has .. whatever.   Yet no one gets through life unscathed, even the apparently rich and famous.   Each of us have made bad choices and lived to regret them.   What a relief it is to realise that actually we are all in the same boat, superficially serene like the duck on water but with our feet furiously paddling underneath keeping us afloat.  For me the best therapy is often to get back to work, to find positives on which to focus.   There is much healing in work and sleep and good relationships.

And incarnation is antithetical to leaders having followers.   Teachers and students; gurus and novices.  We are not to form a new movement - the place where we are to be is in the world, getting our hands dirty, providing for ourselves and those in our care, rejoicing that we are blessed as we are.   Even though I am a straight male Anglican I am glad I am not living in Nigeria!   Following Jesus doesn’t lead us into a more personal, real or spiritual relationship with the divine - it leads us to other people, people who believe differently, worship differently, live differently. 

For me it is significant to realise that the unclean spirit readily acknowledged who Jesus was.   Acknowledging Jesus’ special status is no guarantee that someone is not possessed by an unclean spirit.   The thing that makes a person clean is the acceptance of incarnation rather than dissociation.   Indeed ascribing special status to Jesus is often a sign of a religious sickness.   I have more than once observed that the people who are so effusive in their welcome of a new minister turn out to be precisely the ones who are the thorns in the flesh of the very same minister after a while, when things are not done THEIR way.

Mark does not include Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, but for me it is significant that Luke tells us that the people with whom Jesus had lived and worshipped all his life tried to ‘hurl him off the cliff’ after hearing him preach. (4)  He wasn’t preaching a religion done THEIR way!

I recall one of the very few people who have approached me for the sacrament of confession, a long time ago, a lovely man, a sufferer of paranoid schizophrenia.  He was the one person through whom I believe I heard the word of God directly.   He wanted to come again and again and confess the same sins, over and over again.   Absolution wasn’t effective, a job and a meaningful relationship would have been far more helpful, but society isn’t structured to provide these easily.

And these things are as ever, far more importantly true on a corporate level as they are on a personal level.   If the church corporate is ever critiquing society and differentiating herself from humanity, saying to society ‘what have you to do with us!’ (5) what good are our individual efforts at incarnation?

The good news for us and for the world is that God is indeed interested in you and I and all of society.   It is God who inspires each and every person and society as a whole, in the mantra of Bishop John Shelby Spong: to 'live fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intends us to be’.

2.  Isaiah 6.4
3.  Luke 5.8
4.  Luke 4.29
5.  Isaiah 65.5