Clean and Faithful
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-27
Just before sitting down to start the first final draft of this sermon, I cleaned the bathroom, putting all the towels and mats into the washing machine with hot water for maximal sanitizing effect. I even polished the mirror. As you probably know, cleaning the bathroom is the cleaning job with the shortest job satisfaction time because as soon as it’s cleaned you need to brush your teeth, go the bathroom, wash your hands or do something to mar the perfect shiny surfaces. Even so, as I stepped back to admire my work I felt a tremendous sense of goodness. Why?
Because cleanliness is next to godliness.
I was not raised as a neat freak and I’m not one now unless you ask Rowan right after I’ve bugged her to put something away for the umpteenth time. And I know that God is no more present in my freshly vacuumed rug – even if I take the time to make sure all the vacuum lines go in the same direction – than in my dog hair, dog toy and general disorder covered rug.
But cleanliness is still next to godliness.
This is an Old Testament ideal. And I say Old Testament instead of Hebrew Scriptures because it’s not a faithful reflection of the real underlying theological principle which is that as things get more chaotic they get further from God. Chaos is not the same as untidiness. And it’s not really further from God it just becomes harder to find God in the unpredictability and threats to life that are all around.
We no longer believe that I was closer to God on Friday morning at 10 a.m. when my bathroom was pristine than I am now after two days of use or than I was on Friday morning at 9:30.
All of which is to say that when we consider the man with the unclean spirit, we need to be very careful and about saying that man with that unclean spirit had a mental illness. Because the unclean spirit – we can tell this from the word “unclean” – was something that kept that man from God. It meant he was unholy, profane even, and we need to watch our language because for most of us in some way clean is more holy than unclean. It might not be house, it might be habits – like eating healthily is more pleasing to God and respectful of the life God gives us than eating unhealthily. Is eating healthy foods in moderation better than eating unhealthy foods, eating too much or eating too little? Yes. Does it make us more holy? I doubt it. And if it does, it’s probably for some other underlying reason.
Does going to church make us more holy than not people who don’t go to church or than ourselves on days when we don’t go to church? No. But it does connect us intentionally and communally to what is holy – God, God’s teachings, God’s holiness, God’s glory, God’s presence in our community and in our lives. Yes, we can do it at home, but there is something about reaching out to God together that is more profound and more satisfying.
And again, I’m back to the man in the synagogue, the man with the unclean spirit. The unclean spirit in him made him unholy and unfit to be in the synagogue. It is astonishing that he was there. Did they know he had an unclean spirit but chose to include him anyways or had he been able to hide it from those around him? Did the man himself recognize that there was something in him that didn’t belong? Or did that unclean spirit only manifest in that moment?
We have no idea and we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that when Jesus came in with him authoritative teaching, the unclean spirit recognized that Jesus represented a threat to the community: “‘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.’
Not me. Us. Later on, Jesus meets another man who lives in a graveyard and is so unpredictable and frightening that the community has tried to chain him and when Jesus asks his name, he says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” But before that, when he saw Jesus approaching he yelled, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ (Mark 5:1-13). Jesus can change me. But Jesus can also start by changing us.
I feel like all I do is talk about grammar but do you notice? The man with so many unclean spirits that their name is Legion, which means 20 000, says “me” and the man with the unclean spirit, implying one, says “us”.
I may be reading too much into this but to me that says that the man with the unclean spirit at the very beginning of Jesus’ story recognizes that what Jesus is about to teach – for the next 15 chapters of this story – is a threat to the community. Because Jesus has come to set the values system of the faith that has sustained them for centuries, that they have fought for and died for and struggle to live out day to day, on its head. Not to change it into something different, but to transform it into something unrecognizably the same.
This will call people out of families and society and into danger and new communities. This is the word of a prophet who is trying to reinterpret the Word of God for a new time and a new place. And if you ignore it, it will not go away. It is the Word of God and it must be told. To ignore it is to invite some kind of disaster, spiritual, political, geo-political, social – who knows?
So had Jesus come to destroy the community? Yes. Or no.
Yes. Jesus had come to upset the apple cart and put the horse back in front of it. He had come to call people back (Repent!) into a new way of entering their relationship with God through their relationships with their neighbours. Jesus was offering a sense of wholeness and holiness in every day living that had begun to seem distant. The community could be stronger and more godly than ever. Jesus continues to try to destroy our communities in this way.
No. Jesus had not come to destroy the community. He wanted to restore it. To shore it up. To make it strong in those things that make people and places and societies holy, not in the distractions that let us think we’re holy – like clean bathrooms, church attendance and noticing the faults of others.
God was and is not there for the status quo. Personal interests would not be protected. Illusions about our own special sanctity might tumble around our ears. And while that could make space for more spiritual religion to grow, it would come at the cost of self-image and self-righteousness.
If you want the Oscar nominated movie tie in, go watch The Post, in which the struggle to get an unpleasant but important truth out of the hidden files of the government is a threat to friendships, national self-image and personal freedom. But it’s the truth and it’s a movie so it all turns out.
Jesus’ audience didn’t know the ending. They just knew that what he was saying was new and compelling and had the ring of truth about it. But the man with the unclean spirit also recognized that it held a note of menace. A whole hearted buy in was going to change everything. And the struggle to ignore it could ruin all the carefully constructed patterns that held it all together.
And here we are. We are trying to discover the voices that will tell us God’s will so that we can inhabit the glory of God without being destroyed. We are trying to find a new way to be what we have always been: faithful, inclusive, servant people of God, open minded, open hearted, open armed.
And when when we hear the voice, external or internal, ask “Is this going to destroy us?” we get to wonder together – is what new direction might God be calling us that will destroy us as we know ourselves in order to create something new? or have we become so distracted by false promises and false prophets that we are now at risk of no longer being who we are meant to be?
Wrestling with this stuff is what faith, religion and spirituality are all about. It’s not about how clean we are, how shiny we look or how much we are like our own ideal of a Christian person or a faithful place. It’s the struggle to always be paying attention to that voice of God, that call to obey, to draw closer, to be true to ourselves, our faith and our God-given calling – even when it scares us. Even when it feels like it might destroy us.
Because we are not a people of cleanliness. We are a resurrection people, a people of repentance, grace and new beginnings. And it is only in those things that we find God’s abundant life.