One day in October, a year ago, I led chapel on a Wednesday morning that I’ll never forget.
The two-year-old class walked down the hall of the education wing, single-file with their teachers, made their way through the commons, came into the chapel and sat down in front of the altar, crisscross-applesauce right in front of me.
Normally we follow the same outline for our little service: First, we count 7 candles as we light them, and say a little poem: “Seven candles burning bright, reminds us of Jesus’ light.” Then I offer a little message which is almost always an object lesson to talk about how God loves us. We have a prayer, we sing “Jesus loves me,” and we invite each of the children to take a turn with our little acolyte’s bell and come up and extinguish a candle. Then they stand up and walk out, and head back to class and other activities.
But I’ll never forget this one day because in the orange class – that’s the two-year-olds – there was a new little boy. And this Wednesday was his first day EVER at school. His father had just dropped him off, and chapel was the absolute very first activity of this very first day.
This little boy was overcome with such sadness, stricken with such grief, to be away from his parents for the first time, that he was literally unable to stand on his own legs. All he could do was wail. His sobs were convulsing his whole, tiny body. The teachers and I were at a loss for what to do and so everything I just described about how chapel normally unfolds – none of it happened.
But one of the teachers, who is a member of our congregation, took this little boy in her arms and held him in her lap and tried to comfort him.
Perhaps we did light the candles, I’m sure no one else remembers either, and there was just 10 minutes of chaos, and no one knew what was going on, and that was chapel, and the little class all stood up and walked out.
Something has a hold of this man in Capernaum – an unclean spirit that has overcome this man’s ability to control himself – and now through him it has hijacked the morning service taking place in the synagogue.
As this man begins to cry out and thrash around, bursting through the circle of men who have gathered and are sitting crisscross-applesauce around Jesus, no one is sure what has just happened, and everyone is at a loss about what is going on.
These learned men, or men anxiously seeking learning, had been absolutely spell-bound by Jesus’ teaching until this intruder, who doesn’t belong, shouting loudly, interrupts and cries out: “what do you have to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
And you have to give it to the unclean spirit, because it knows what’s up.
Indeed… We have Jesus – the Holy one of God – in the holy place of the sanctuary – on the holy day of the sabbath…and one of these things is not like the other…this demonic spirit doesn’t fit…it doesn’t belong in this Holy moment!
And so, with an object lesson of divine proportion, Jesus speaks and heals the man.
Jesus says, “be silent! (literally: be muzzled) and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit opens its jaws and takes its teeth out of the man, let’s go, and the man is set free.”
And Jesus’ healing itself becomes the object lesson that helps those in the synagogue, and us, grasp what Jesus’ teaching is about.
Jesus’ words and action are one thing – and through them he brings God’s freedom and healing to this man in the synagogue.
Jesus’ words silence evil and help us see that God desires to see us healthy.
God’s ultimate authority and power reside in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus God enters into our reality to show us God desires us to be well.
We all make to-do lists: on paper, or on our phone, or on our laptop, and we all know that process of gathering all the things we have to do – personal and professional, the business meeting and the trip to the grocery store, and doing the hard work of prioritizing it…the struggle of figuring out what can wait and what needs to have been done yesterday.
Jesus begins his ministry with a to-do list. And the thing and the very top of that list is our healing.
After calling his disciples and assembling his team (which we heard about last week) Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the very first thing he does is heal this man in Capernaum’s synagogue…he casts out the external force causing the man’s madness and restores him to his health, his family, his work, and his community.
God’s priority is our health and freeing us from the sin, the shame, the brokenness, and the fear that possesses us.
Not only is healing this man Jesus’ first work of ministry, but in Mark’s gospel Jesus performs 18 miracles and 13 of them, nearly three-quarters of them, are miracles of healing.
God desires to make us well from the forces that constrain us and contain us.
God desires to free us for abundant life.
Last Sunday night high school youth who going to be going on our service-learning trip to Houston this summer gathered for our third “getting ready” session, and we watched a video by the “Jubilee Project” called “50 People. One question.”
In the video we see snippets of many faces; a montage of people situating themselves in front of the cameras – young and old, African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, women and men, as we read on the screen:
“We gathered 50 people to ask them a simple question”
We then hear the interviewer say: “We have one question that we want to ask you today.”
After a long pause, an older woman asks “Ok, what’s the question?”
The interviewer responds: “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”
And we see lots of shots of people thinking, looking uncomfortable, a young woman laughs and says, “only one?”
Another woman looks up and says: “I would change my forehead. I have a really big forehead.”
Another, middle-aged woman answers after some thought, “I’d like to be taller.”
A young man touches his cheeks and says, “the puffiness of my face.”
Another young man looks at the camera without hesitation and says, “My ears. I have big ears. A lot of times kids would make fun of me. Hey man, you got big ears, look at Dumbo over here!”
A young mother, holding a toddler says, “my stretch marks after having a baby.”
Another woman says, “Definitely my skin because I have dealt with acne and eczema issues since I was a little kid.”
Another woman says, “When I was young, because everybody liked girls with big eyes, I also hoped my eyes could be bigger.”
There are more.
Then they cut to a montage of children walking out to be interviewed. The first child needs help getting onto the stool.
The interviewer asks: “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”
These 7, 8, and 9-year olds think. They squirm. They throw up their hands.
A little girl with curly, orange hair and braces says, “Um…you know…have a mermaid tail.”
The next little boy says, “Probably like, a shark mouth so I could eat a lot of stuff.”
And there are more answers from these little children:
“Legs like a cheetah so I could run faster…wings…extra pointy ears….”
Finally, one says, “I don’t think there’s anything to change.”
There are unclean spirits that control our lives and cause us to fear what other people think about us.
There are unclean spirits that cause us to relive old hurts and shy away from new relationships imagining how we might be hurt.
There are unclean spirits that invade our hearts and cause us to compare ourselves to others rather than seeing ourselves as made by God to love, and to be loved, and to share love.
And there are things that go even deeper than insecurities about how our body might look or be perceived. We live with a chronic illness, or cancer, or depression, or addiction…
It lives in our body, and God desires to cast these demons out as well and to free us from the things that hinder our essential being, and our essential humanity.
These things ultimately don’t belong in our lives.
The truth is that all healing in this life is temporary.
Our final healing will only come in our resurrection, when we are joined to our crucified and risen Lord in the life he already lives.
Until then, in this life, every day we must rely on God.
In this life, Jesus has created and sustains, inspires, and guides the community of the church where we are accepted, welcomed, and loved no matter what demons we may face, no matter what forces are attacking our lives, and no matter what illness we might carry in our body.
In this life, God gives us to one another for our healing.
Here in this Community we can build one another up and support one another.
Here in community, God invites us to learn to be comfortable with who God has made us to be, to really accept ourselves and one another, and to trust God will give us the daily strength we need so that we can experience the abundant life Jesus gives us.
Jesus lives in and through us and the ministry we share.
The first day of school for the little boy in the orange class was probably the worst day of his young little life, and I really think that for all we change and evolve and learn as we grow up, our emotions are essentially the same no matter what age we are.
So, a week later, the Wednesday after the boy’s first day of school, I watched as he came into the chapel with his class and sat in the same teacher’s lap and quietly cried all the way through our chapel time.
The next week he sat in her lap the whole time and whimpered.
The next week he sat in her lap the whole time and was quiet but looked very sad.
The next week he sat beside the teacher, and he looked like he would fall apart if he got an inch away from this teacher, but as long as he sat there next to her he was doing ok.
And then we went on like that until one Wednesday morning when we asked him if he would like to put out one of the candles on the altar, and he smiled and got up and took the bell all on his own, put out a candle and sat back down.
It was at an achingly slow pace, but the love of this teacher had cast out the fear that had a hold on this little boy, until he was himself, at home in the world of school, and contentedly a part of the little community of the orange class.
May God continually make us into the Beloved Community that knows we belong in this world, that we belong to Jesus, and the community that longs to see God’s healing and welcome extend from our lives into the world.