Text: Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 1, 2009
Every few years we United Church of Christ clergy attend an event called boundary training.
It is, on one level, a friendly reminder to us to not get engaged in improper behavior with members of the church. On the other hand, it often ends up being an adventure into telling pastors to keep their distance from the members of the church. After our last session I was afraid to smile at anyone from St. Marks. Well, that’s an exaggeration. A little. Ultimately there is a value of boundaries but there are certain areas when people are called to move beyond boundaries.
Mark tells us of a significant moment in Jesus’ ministry that moves not only beyond boundaries, but leaps over them in a single bound.
Jesus lived in an era and a culture of strict boundaries. In Judaism there was a boundary of clean/unclean, pure/impure. It was part of a greater cultural boundary of honor and shame.
Some passages require an insight into the ancient world and how world views differed from our’s.
The ancient world, the Middle East, Rome, and Greece, for example, lived on the premise of honor and shame. One did all they could to cultivate and live lives of honor; one avoided shame. Shame was the ultimate bad thing.
To give an example of this using modern times and that era.
If a person from that era was captured and given an option of having their fingernails removed forcibly, inflicting great pain upon them, or running down the street naked to humiliate them, they would choose the pain over the humiliation. There is honor in pain; shame in humiliation.
Most of us would not particular want to stroll down the street naked, but if we could avoid the pain, we’d do so. We are not a society that lives on the premise of honor and shame like they did.
There was a huge boundary between honor and shame. And, in particular to the Jewish culture of the era, that boundary was also about pure and impure, clean and unclean.
It starts with this. Jesus entered into a Synagogue. A Synagogue, like a church, was a sacred place, a place of Worship and prayer, a place where God dwelled in a special way.
Into this sacred place a man with an unclean spirit enters.
There was a proper response. Ignore the man and leave. He was unclean, he was impure, he was the personification of shame. He brought all that was filthy into the Synagogue and everyone was expected to depart----and come back another day to purify what the man defiled. The man was to be ignored and fled from. That was the rule.
Yet Jesus, instead of fleeing, instead of living within the boundaries of the times and traditions not only did not leave, he confronted the man and confronted the demons. In doing so he defies every boundary of his time and people.
The narrative continues:
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."
25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"
The man, through the demons speak an Jesus tells them to shut up and compels the evil spirits out.
Jesus teaches us a couple of incredibly profound lessons on when it is a good thing to cross over boundaries.
The first one is this. Evil and impurity are not so much to be fled, but to be encountered with goodness. The way to combat evil is to be better than it and confront it.
One of the hallmark differences between good ane evil is that evil seeks to divide people and good seems to always try to unite people.
Adolf Hitler taught hate by division. Love people like you; hate those not like you. Josef Stalin did likewise. Charles Manson did the same thing. Osama Bin Laden does the same thing. People who are like this are good; people who are like that are evil. Create labels and division and create large boundaries to maintain that separation.
Goodness does otherwise. People who strive to do good seek to unite people. They put labels aside and speak to everyone. They confront evil by attempting to lower the boundaries and by trying to be above that which is evil. Jesus’s goodness was always so present in breaching the boundaries and in John’s Gospel when his prayer is that all may be one....words of great goodness and grace.
The second thing is this. We are challenged to recognize that many boundaries are artificial and need to be crossed.
There is a legend about Merlin teaching the young Arthur about boundaries. Merlin turns Arthur into a hawk:
From the earth, Merlin shouts to Arthur, “What do you see?”
Arthur shouts back, “I see rivers and trees.”
“No,” an irritated Merlin responds and repeats his question. “What do you see?”
“I see villages and...”
“Come down,” orders Merlin. Arthur, the hawk, returns to earth and becomes Arthur, the young boy. Merlin tells him, “Someday you will know what you saw.”
The theologian John Shea tells us that the day that Arthur knew what he saw was the day Camelot died. He realized what he had seen was a world without boundaries, limitless possibilities. It wasn’t until the dream died and new boundaries were in place, that he realized what he had seen.
St. Paul wrote in Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The words of St. Paul are these. In Christ, there are no limits, there are no boundaries. In Christ, the power of God’s love is a power without any limits on it. Those boundaries, those limits are usually created by us, but never God.
Truth be told, I live most of my life with a sense of boundaries and I actually do see a great deal of value in the boundary training we receive. Some of it is, frankly, silly, but much of it is very valid and important. There are boundaries that we all do live by and those boundaries are appropriate and good.
We are reminded, however, that God has no boundaries in His love for us. God will confront anything evil, anything impure, anything unjust with great power, great goodness, and great love. And invites us to do likewise.
Jesus confronts demons in the most unlikely place, the most sacred space, freeing those around him from the boundaries of hatred and the darkness of despair, and inviting everyone into a world of love filled with the light of Christ.