Sunday, January 31, 2021

Epiphany IV

Mark 1

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

It seemed too-clever-by-half.

In the December 2004 issue, Rolling Stone Magazine decided to announce to the world the top 500 songs of all time. As expected, the Beatles posted the most songs. Among Canadian artists, Neil Young was the most represented. The 1960s was the most popular decade (203 songs) and the 2000s the least popular (with only 3). Go ahead boomers, feel smug.

The too-clever-by-half part was Rolling Stone Magazines choice of number one and number two on the list: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Yes, both fine songs, but a little too meta (self-referential) as the kids might say.

Meanwhile, the song I really want to talk about is not so far down the list at number 48: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Thanks first to Taye for choosing it and singing it today. And thanks too to her talented accompanist. We can debate whether it belongs higher or lower on the list, but there is little debate about the magic of the song.

The story goes that in the spring of 1969 Paul Simon was reflecting on the state of the world, particularly the tumult of the previous year: riots and unrest around the world, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, the war in Vietnam. A tune appeared in his mind, and a fragment of lyrics, but he didn’t quite know where to go with it:

When you’re weary

Feeling small

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all.

“I was stuck for a while,” he admitted. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.” Finally, the block ended while he was listening to a gospel song by the Swan Silvertones. One line of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” caught his attention: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.” Simon readily admits to borrowing the line, and later in he shared some of the proceeds of the song with Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones.*

“I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.”

It has echoes of scripture, particularly Psalm 18 (also 2 Samuel 22) and Psalm 69, with one important caveat: the word bridge does not appear in the Bible. Amazing, actually, with the Roman world filled with bridges, and not a single mention in scripture. I’ll leave that for another sermon. Meanwhile, the experience of being in deep water has some sort of universal resonance, something I think most of us can relate to.

Out of our depth would be another way to say it, maybe out of control, or even possessed by something beyond ourselves. I think you see where I’m going here. Demon possession, the theme of our reading, and the theme of a number of Jesus’ healings, is generally problematic to the modern reader. We tread lightly when the lesson lines up with what we would now describe as mental illness, or epilepsy, or any other disorder that the ancients might have described as demon possession. We tend to set the whole thing aside, unsure how to proceed.

At the same time, we are well-acquainted with the idea of being in the grip of something: an idea, a movement, a turn-of-events that draw people in. People become possessed by the latest get-rich-quick scheme, or some counter-cultural movement, or a conspiracy theory. All of this can be subjective, of course, thinking of the adage that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Generally though, we can usually spot when someone is caught in something beyond their control.

Reflecting on our passage, and the various healings that involve demons, there are a couple of things to note. The first is the extent to which this is personal for Jesus. Time and time again, it is the demons who call Jesus by name, and name him for who he is: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This tells me that Jesus has unique concern for the demon-possessed, literal or metaphorical. His emphasis is freedom: freedom from the forces that would diminish us in some way, and freedom to love and serve God.

The second thing to note here is the connection between healing and speaking with authority. Like the Most High speaking creation into being, Jesus speaks (commands) the demons and they obey him. Speaking with authority here is more than sharing the Good News of the kingdom, it’s speaking new life into being, freeing those caught up in something larger than themselves, and giving them back their freedom.

I want to return to Paul Simon for a moment and encourage you to think of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” as an anthem for our time. Think of all we have endured since March of last year and listen to the poet:

When you’re weary

Feeling small

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all.

Maybe you are out of your depth, maybe you feel out of control, or maybe even possessed by something beyond yourself. It doesn’t need to be something dramatic, it can be something as simple as feeling sad. Whatever it is, recall that for Jesus this is personal: he knows what we face, and he seeks to free us from it, whatever it may be. He seeks our freedom—freedom from the things that oppress us, and then freedom to love him and everyone we meet.

It was no accident that Paul Simon found inspiration in a gospel song. In Old English, “godspel” means good news, or a good story—words to convey the message needed to find new life. The Spirit moves in us and around us to convey the message we need to find our way out of deep waters. The Spirit will form a bridge for us to pass over.

May God bless us and grant us freedom in Christ Jesus. May we be free to love and serve others, now and always, Amen.



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