"HEALING" - Psalm 103:1-14; Mark 1:21-28

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor,

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, September 22, 2019

Texts: Psalm 103:1-14; Mark 1:21-28


            The year was July, 1970. Serene Jones was a little girl living in Richardson, TX. Her father was a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. It was also Serene’s eleventh birthday.

            Here is how Serene recounts it: “My parents had planned a pool party at my request, and I had, in the days prior, turned the event into an overdramatic, self-involved stage play. The car weaved through the neighborhood as we picked up friend after friend, and each girl squeezed into the back seat, filling it with new bits of gossip and girl-speak, . . . We picked up the last invitee, and she had to stretch out across our laps to fit in. None of us were wearing seatbelts, of course. . . .

            We pulled up to the Richardson public pool and it was clear to everyone that it was closed. My dad drove closer to the entrance and got out. I could make out the hand-written sign: CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE.

            My dad looked up at the sky like he always did when he faced a conundrum. He wasn’t praying or asking for divine intervention, but I think the habit of praying and the sensation of being perplexed had somehow become one and the same for him.

            He walked back to the car, hopped in, and turned the key.

            ‘We are going to have to drive over to Lake Highlands pool,’ he said, as he pulled out of the parking lot.”

            “I was stunned,” Serene Jones writes, recalling the incident on her 11th birthday. “The party that I had imagined for weeks was now going to take place at Lake Highlands? . . . I wanted to cry, then I wanted to scream and punch the back of his seat. I remember those two emotions so vividly that I still clench my fists when thinking about that moment.

            “Oh, gross!” I said. “I don’t want to swim with black people!”

            . . . .”Who said that?” my father demanded. He dramatically pulled the car over, . . . his fierce eyes locking on mine.

            Serene said, ‘the words just came out,’ . . . Then she writes: “and my friends pulled away, . . .and I could tell they were relieved that I had said what they were thinking, and they were startled by my father’s wrath.

            “You have no idea how horrible what you just said is,” my dad said, his voice trembling with rage.  . . . “I am going to give you a choice, young lady. We don’t go to the pool and you never have another birthday party again. Or we go to the pool and you get to have parties each year. That simple.”

            Serene, at 11, with her friends squirming beside her, said this: “I never want to have another birthday party again,” feeling emboldened and staring straight into her father’s eyes. (See S. Jones, Call it Grace, p. 88-89)

            Serene Jones was picking a fight with the wrong guy. Her father, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, had also been in the thick of the civil rights movement, working to integrate Richardson public schools, something that was not going so well in the all-white neighborhood.

            They went home, instead of to the other pool. Serene went upstairs to her room and cried. Her friends stayed for cake and games downstairs. And Serene writes that the “knee jerk repulsion” that happened on her 11th birthday was the inheritance passed down – despite her progressive father and liberal upbringing – from hundreds of years of white people propagating and benefitting from this learned reaction to black bodies. She calls it an “unconscious bias” – a term that captures well the degree to which our deepest hatreds and fears live within us, burrowed away in places that escape the restraints that our conscious minds impose. Here is what Serene says: “White revulsion at blackness was in the air I breathed and the water I drank and swam in in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1960’s. And it was also confirmed, despite her parents’ positions and efforts on these things, by the power her peers had over her.” (see p. 92)

            A little more than a year after this unfortunate birthday scene, (when she was 12) Serene went with here father to a street corner in Richardson, TX where her dad was managing a school-board election campaign for an African- American man and a Jewish woman. That Saturday morning, he took Serene with him to hand out flyers in front of Gibson’s Hardware at a small shopping mall. Serene stood next to her dad as he discussed the issues and his candidate’s perspectives to those who passed by.

            Then, as a group of men in baseball caps approached, Serene says, “I suddenly felt what I thought was rain. How could this be? I looked up, squinted, . . . and saw a man spit straight into my father’s face. My father’s head whipsawed as if he had been punched; he kept his jaw against his shoulder for a moment, suddenly reaching for my hand; then he raised his head and watched as the men walked off. His hand clinched mine, but I felt his body relax and saw him stand taller.”

            After wiping the spit from his face, and from Serene’s hair, he looked down at his daughter and said: “We are all children of light and children of darkness – you and me and those men – we are children of the same God.”

            Serene says this about her dad: “He accepted their anger with what almost seemed like kindness. Kindness? What a strange way to fight for justice. And even more, his comment about how all of us being children of light and children of darkness seemed to suggest that he saw part of himself in those despicable men.” And that evening, her dad said to Serene, “I am sorry you had to witness that today.  . . . I do not agree with the views of those men, but it is critically important that we never allow ourselves to believe we are fundamentally better than anyone else. Who knows what life may have given them to deal with or how they are raised.” (p. 102)

            All of this comes from Serene Jones’ latest book – Call it Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World. Serene Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC. As you can tell, this book is a memoir – where she is brutally honest about her life and her struggles. Serene Jones reveals her passion to make connections between the deep challenges of her life and the profound theology that continues to shape her – God’s goodness and grace. And she does not hold back –describing her racist grandfather – who served with distinction as a judge in Oklahoma, whom she adored at young age, and then whom she discovered was not just a nasty racist, but a sexual predator, . . . who took advantage of her and her sisters and cousins.

            These are just some of the stories she tells. And she weaves these personal stories into theological reflections from folks like John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others, making powerful connections and relating these theologians to real life struggles and concerns and crises of life.

            All of this is pertinent for us today because it is about the demons we all have to fight. All of us are shaped by the people, the culture, the stories, the happenings of our particular lives. And – no matter how old we are – or what has happened to us - we continue – like Serene Jones - to struggle with family circumstances, perspectives, issues and incidents that shape us.

            I had a conversation with one of you this week who said “the voices just remain so constant in my mind. Can’t stop thinking about certain things. Racing thoughts. Difficult images. They just keep playing, . . . on and on.”

            What is it that you struggle most with?

Maybe it is something that happened to you in recent times – . . . . or many years ago – and you never really can let it go. It is part of who you are – . . . and sometimes it takes up way to much space in your heart, . . . and in your brain.

            AND, . . .how do these thoughts and challenges, . . .these demons, relate to God, and God’s love, God’s grace, God’s care?

            We have a brief but important passage today from Holy Scripture. This story appears in several of the gospel stories, and it is really the first time Jesus confronts a demon – something that is haunting a person, something that has far too much power in a person. Sometimes we quickly pass over these demon stories, thinking that demons mean mental illness. We know people with mental illness. We see people with mental illness on the street or in the news. And we are glad Jesus deals with this. But we sometimes wonder how this really relates to our lives.  We are just normal people. Evil spirits are not usually our biggest issue.

I think, however, these stories about demons are super important because we all carry around struggles – perplexing issues that shape us, that can take up too space in our hearts and minds, and influence our sense of identity, or our ability to love and receive love, our ability to live, to forgive. What is it that you struggle with – that snatches your confidence, that gives you caution, that makes you irritable and resentful? We can call those our “demons.”

This story in Mark comes very early – Jesus comes on the scene. Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus announces that he is here – and the Kingdom of God has come near – everyone is invited “to change their hearts and lives.” Jesus then calls disciples to follow. Then this, from Mark 1:21f:

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            Jesus throws out a demon – an unclean spirit. Think about it like this - a perplexing condition that limits your joy and energy, a haunting thought that snatches confidence from us, a horrible memory that holds too much sway in your life, a troubling past that still affects your present, an overwhelming experience from which you cannot fully recover.

            We are all shaped by people and experiences, by culture and context, by good and evil, by light and darkness, by joys and losses. And sometimes, these events, or combinations of experience, can become anywhere from perplexing to paralyzing.

            Serene Jones’ memoir reveals the complexities of her life – even as a distinguished, former professor at Yale, and a national leader in theological education. She is honest about her demons – a heritage of hatred in her family, which is a mixture of liberal progressives working on civil rights and a very tainted and ugly knowledge of degradation and abuse espoused by her grandfather and others. She is honest about her demons – she was molested by her adoring grand-father; and she even shares many other honest challenges with which she continues to deal – demons.

            What are the biggest demons that you have to deal with? And how well do you think you are dealing with them?

            We should be gentle and kind to all those we encounter on our journey – for we do not know the wounds they are carrying, or the demons from which they need HEALING.

            Jesus comes to bring HEALING – to all of us and all parts of us. This is one of the first things that Jesus does when he comes on the scene to embody and bring, to preach and depict, the coming of God’s reign! HEALING.

            And the prominence of this story – and others like it – Jesus casting out demons and HEALING – and the prevalence of Jesus’ care – want to affirm some very important points:

-          God meets us where we are – in our pain, in our confusion and difficulty – but God loves us far too much to leave us there.

-          Jesus casts out the demons and points the way to new life toward God’s Kingdom.

-          Our life is rooted deeply in God’s love and care. That is the promise of baptism – which we experience again today.

-          God comes to defeat evil and demons – all of them – calling us to new life in loving service toward God’s promised reign. This is the Good News of the gospel.

Last week, in the church school class in the Dining Room taught by music and renowned hymn expert, Michael Hawn, we sang a hymn based on this very text from Mark, and this HEALING story. We will sing that hymn – written by Tom Troeger - in just a moment. Here is part of the hymn: “Lord, the demons still are thriving, in the gray cells of the mind: tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason’s sight,

guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.”

            We all need HEALING. Jesus comes to heal. By the power of God’s grace and Spirit, may we not only discover the HEALING, may we live lives that promote healing, wholeness and hope for all people everywhere. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And fill us with such grace and peace that we live following Jesus, and promoting wholeness and healing everywhere. AMEN

Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on September 22, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

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