Monday, January 30, 2012
Notes from the Capernaum Synagogue
Sermon on Mark 1:21-28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
I'm trying something a little bit different this week. The more I studied this gospel passage, the more I wondered about the man with an unclean spirit. I wondered what his life was like before that day when Jesus taught and healed in the Capernaum synagogue, and what his life was like after. I wondered what he might say to us, if he could. So the rest of this sermon is my imagination of how this man might tell us his own story.
We didn’t have air conditioning back then. We didn’t have electric fans. Those wouldn’t come for almost two thousand years, and the heat in summer in Capernaum was relentless. It was so much cooler in the Capernaum synagogue – the thick stone walls retained the cool night air, and the wooden roof let any heat rise out. I could usually stay there for a long time before they made me leave.
I don’t know what you call people like me now. You’ve sorted us all out into categories – schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, bipolar. But then, we were all called demoniacs. Or they might say that we were en pneumati akatharto – with an unclean spirit. There are different names for it these days, and there are pills and things, but in a lot of ways it isn’t so different. There are still people like me wandering out on the streets with nowhere to go. People still act the same way around us, looking at the ground and hoping we’ll go away soon, no matter whether you call us schizophrenic or possessed. Whatever you call it, I was different. I was unpredictable. I heard things that other people couldn’t hear, and sometimes I would just know something was true but people didn’t believe me. I heard voices sometimes, and they told me to do things and I knew something bad would happen if I didn’t do what they said. I was usually pretty jumpy, because the centurions were always watching me and following me, although my brother said I was just imagining it, and that they had better things to do with their time. I shouted a lot, sometimes to tell the centurions I was onto them, or sometimes because the voices said to. I didn’t want to be like this, I didn’t want the voices and the thoughts in my head, but I couldn’t stop them no matter what I did. Prayer, fasting, healers… nothing changed it.
I lived with my brother and his wife, but they didn’t like me hanging around the house all day. I heard my sister-in-law say she didn’t like me home with just her and the children. Sometimes I would try to help my brother with his work – he was a fisherman – but I couldn’t always do that. A lot of days, he said he just couldn’t deal with me, out there on that boat.
I liked the synagogue, though, because it was cool, and quiet but not too quiet. It was calming, sometimes, to sit and think while the people would study or pray or talk. I liked the music, too – when they sang the psalms.
I was sitting in the synagogue one Sabbath– that’s Saturday for you – when a man I’d never met before came. He had some guys with him, and I recognized a couple of them – they were Zebedee’s boys. He walked up to read something from the Torah. Then he sat down, and began to talk about the passage he had just read. That raised some eyebrows. Everyday people don't really do that, that's more for the scribes and educated people, and who knows who this guy was, wandering around with a bunch of fishermen. But after a few words, he had everyone’s attention. He told these stories and none of us quite understood what they meant, but you just wanted to keep thinking about them. He said that God loves and blesses poor people, and people who are hungry. I wondered if he would tell what God thought about me.
That's when I started to get excited. When I get excited, that can be a bad thing – when my mind gets busier, often there are more voices, more shouting and acting strange.
First I started to get a little bit jumpy, and then I stood up and started pacing back and forth. And I just felt like I had to shout. I knew the guys at the synagogue wouldn’t like it so I tried to hold it in, but I kept hearing these words, so I shouted them: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are! The Holy One of God!"
Joel who helps run the synagogue rolled his eyes and sighed. He's usually the one who has to tell me to leave.
Jesus looked frightened for a second. People usually are when I shout. Then his face softened and he asked, "How did you know my name?" I don't know how I knew his name. That was just what I had to shout.
I had to keep shouting. I knew I had to, or something bad would happen. So I shouted more. "What have you to do with us?" He came towards me, and he put his hands on my shoulders, looking very stern. "Please stop shouting," he said. But I kept shouting. Then he was shouting, too: "Be silent, and come out of him! Be silent, and come out of him!"
I get angry at myself when I shout, because I try to stop it and I get so frustrated when I do it anyway. Sometimes people get angry and shout back at me. It’s not fair that people get so angry at me for something I can’t help. But Jesus wasn’t angry at me, I could tell. He was angry at the voices that were making me shout, and he wanted them to stop as much as I wanted them to stop. He was angry at them, not angry at me, and he was shouting for them to be silent, shouting for them to go away, to leave me forever. “Be silent, and come out of him! Be silent, and come out of him!”
I kept shouting and he kept shouting, and I kept shouting, and he kept shouting. No one had ever acted like that when I was shouting, like they weren't afraid of me. Like they knew that I was still there, that I was still me, a me separate from all of the shouting and voices and strange things I said and did. Like they actually saw me. I started to weep, and I was shaking, and I wasn't shouting anymore, and I kind of wanted to just run away and get out of there as fast as I could, but I wanted to stay near Jesus, too.
All the other men were glaring, glaring at me, and Jesus still had a hand on my shoulder and he looked right back at them. It was like he really knew and saw them, too, imperfections and all. It was like he knew that Joel got really irritated about tiny little things in the synagogue being exactly perfect, and that Samuel was always trying to be the center of attention, and he talked so much all the time and never wanted to listen. And Levi and Joshua just never stopped bickering with each other over things that didn’t even matter at all.
Jesus just looked at them all glaring at me, like "Well? You think he's the only who struggles?" And then Joel said "Jesus, why don't you sit down and tell us more about the guy on the Jericho road." So that’s what Jesus did.
I think people read my story these days and they assume that I was normal from then on. They figure that whatever was wrong with me, Jesus fixed it and that was that.
Well, yes and no.
I was definitely better. Maybe a lot better. I think that after that day with Jesus I shouted less, and I didn’t worry as much about the centurions. Sometimes when things were getting bad I would remember Jesus and it would calm me down and bring me back.
But something else happened, too.
Joel and Samuel and everyone who was there treated me differently after that day. They weren't so afraid of me, and when I was yelling or muttering or pacing, sometimes they would just talk to me.
I think that when Jesus and I shouted at each other in the synagogue that day, he changed the way we all thought about each other, and ourselves. Because all those other guys, they’re not perfect; we all have things about ourselves that we would change if we could. We all have ways that we’re broken. Mine is right on the surface for everyone to see. Everyone saw it that day, but Jesus said in every way he knew how that I mattered and belonged anyway. He said in every way he could that God loved me and that those people in the synagogue should love me too. God goes and finds the lost sheep, he said. God loves all those people on the edges. And God loves the people whose brokenness is hidden, like the priests who walked past the beaten-up guy on the road, or the responsible brother who got ticked off when his dad threw a party for the irresponsible brother who came home alive. Jesus told us every way he knew how, with his words, and then with his actions, and then with words again. And the miracle is, I think all of us heard him.
Things are different around the synagogue now. Sometimes I get to read from the Torah, even -- I learned how when I was a kid. When I have a bad day, if I shout too much or say something horrible or mean, Joel still tells me I have to leave. “No blasphemy in the synagogue,” he says, or “You can’t be so loud here, you need to leave for now.” But other times, Joel comes and sits by me and talks to me, even if I’m having a little bit of a hard day, he just talks to me and I talk to him. The other guys are nicer to me, too, and sometimes they call me over to sit with them while they study. It’s like everyone can see me now, like when Jesus sent away my voices that make me shout, he sent away everyone else’s voices, too… the voices that make people hate me and fear me and ignore me. I think we’re starting to be friends, maybe. I think that’s how Jesus wanted it to be.
I think that is how Jesus wanted it to be.
God of the lost sheep, send away the voices that whisper fear and hate. Help us to see one another as you see us. Amen.