Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Place for Skeptics and Believers: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon.

A Place for Skeptics and Believers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 25, 2009

Whoever is not against us is for us.
--Jesus Mark 9:40

There is an interesting scene in the Gospel of Mark.

One of the disciples, John, says to Jesus:

‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’

But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

I chose that passage for reflection as today we welcome new members into our congregation. People ask me about the requirements to become a member, whether they have to believe certain things or behave in certain ways.

Anyone is welcome is my response. Just come join. If you are not against us, you are for us.

The disciple, John, thought it should be the other way around.

For John the circle was small. If you are not with us you are against us.

For Jesus, the circle was large and ever-expanding.

Throughout its history the church has struggled with boundaries. Who is in and who is out. So often it has been so worried about its boundaries and about making sure folks are followers, however that is defined, that it forgets its larger more important work.

What is that work? According to Mark’s gospel, the work is casting out demons.

I should probably say a few words about that. In a pre-scientific society such as that in which Jesus lived, demon possession explained the unexplainable. Spiritual beings both good and evil were seen to be active in the world and influencing events. They were understood to be the cause of physical and mental illness. What we might treat today with medicine or psychological therapy, was treated then with exorcism.

Someone who had power over these demons would be a valuable person. There were many, including Jesus, who had power to calm the troubled mind. I don’t know how casting out demons worked, but it must have worked at least some of the time.

One of my professors at Princeton Seminary, Donald Capps, has written a book entitled, Jesus the Village Psychiatrist. Capps looks at a number of the miracle stories of Jesus and sees that many of them are psychologically based. Capps sees that one of the main purposes of the ministry of Jesus was to heal people from mental illness. These mental illnesses could manifest themselves in blindness, paralysis, and other disorders.

According to Capps,
“the persons whom Jesus healed were largely suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, that Jesus recognized this fact, and that he used healing methods that took this fact into account. He was more skilled than the physicians of his day because his healing methods were more effective, and they were more effective because he had a deeper understanding of how psychosomatic illnesses work and how they affect the person who suffers from them.” P. xiv.
Jesus was able to heal because he had compassion. He was able to listen and through his listening find the cause of others’ distress. That was the kind of thing he tried to teach his disciples, that is, how to be healers.

While the language of the gospels might appear that Jesus used supernatural powers to cure illness, cast out demons, and so forth, much of it can be explained by understanding how healers healed in the first century as well as understanding the causes of illness. According to Capps, the mental and physical illnesses may have resulted from social stress. The people in the villages were an occupied people struggling to survive.

Of course, the gospel writers had other things to say about Jesus. They attributed other miracle stories to him, such as raising people from the dead, walking on water and so forth. I would attribute those stories to creative license on the part of the storytellers. As stories developed about Jesus the miracles grew and became more fantastic, drawing from similar tales of other holy men.

But it appears plausible, even probable, that the historical Jesus was a healer. His ability to heal was not because of supernatural power, but because he had compassion, skill, and understanding. This he tried to teach to his disciples with mixed success.

Apparently, according to the story in Mark, there were others, who were not in Jesus’ inner circle who were able to heal as Jesus healed. Perhaps they were quicker studies than his disciples and learned his technique.

The disciples are upset that these others are using this technique, or as the text says: “casting out demons in your name.” Jesus is not upset. This is a good thing. Healing is happening.

Every now and then I wonder what it is we are to be about in this life. Either as human beings or more specifically as part of a faith community. It is good to revisit one’s mission statement now and again.

I think we are to make that circle ever larger and to be about the ministry of healing. It seems to me less important regarding what we believe or what metaphysical theories we hold.

We are one human family. We have one home. As much as we like to think it is the case, there really is no “us and them.” We are all we. We need each other.

We need to be about bringing healing, comfort, and peace to a troubled world. Making the burdens lighter for others, extending hospitality and welcome, lightening the heart, taking the time to listen, and offering comfort are the kinds of things that are truly important and needed.

Whether we do this because we are conventional Christians or questioning skeptics, it is all the same to me. In the words of Jesus:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

I do like this fourth point of the eight points of progressive Christianity.

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we…

Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):

believers and agnostics,
conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
women and men,
those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
those of all races and cultures,
those of all classes and abilities,
those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope.

To our new members, welcome.
  • I hope that you will find strength here for your journey.
  • I hope you will find the freedom to question, to learn, and to grow.
  • I hope you will find the healing you need for your own brokenness, whether that be in body or in spirit.
  • May you find a friend to lean upon, in fact many friends.
  • May you in turn, be a welcoming presence for others, a soothing balm, and a source of healing and hope.
In that spirit, I will close with this poem from Edwin Markham. It is just four lines. It is entitled, “Outwitted."

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!