Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“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 Holy One of God.” Mark 1:22-24
This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Martin, Malcolm, and Masculinity.” The course aims to examine the religious orientations and political philosophies of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The course intends to bring the category of gender into our field of analysis alongside the traditional categories of race and class. And the course hopes to unpack the ways masculine performance both enabled and frustrated the public ministries of these two towering intellectuals.
It is difficult to discuss the intersections of race, class, and gender in American society and ignore the powerful and productive insights of the literary great James Baldwin. In February 1961, Baldwin published a probing piece on the interior life of the Montgomery based preacher in Harper’s Magazine. Entitled “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” Baldwin presciently and prophetically describes the dimensions of King’s moral character that will bring him the most trouble. Baldwin’s findings did not point to salacious gossip or known rivalries within the movement. Baldwin’s warning had little to do with King’s clinical depression or confirmed FBI dalliances. But rather Baldwin points this out about King. He was a man who dared to tell the truth clearly and consistently. Like most then-called “Negro leaders,” King did not have one message for African Americans and another for whites. King did not have one message for the poor and another message for those in power. King had moral courage. King had moral clarity. King possessed moral consistency. And, this, more than anything, according to Baldwin, would lead to his ultimate demise. King’s relentless truth-telling was inconvenient for the white power structure, as well as the black establishment. His truth-telling was inconvenient for those who preferred power over principle.
We see a similar scenario in today’s gospel lesson. The author of Mark juxtaposes the teachings of Jesus over against the teachings of the scribes. In contrast to the traditional religious leaders in the synagogue, Mark tells us that Jesus taught as one with authority. Unlike the traditional religious leaders, Jesus taught with candor and clarity. And unlike traditional religious leaders, when Jesus spoke, demons came out of the woodwork in attempts to silence him.
That unclean spirits in the synagogue became so riled by Jesus's teaching is an interesting point. Because when we look at the other synoptic gospels, both Matthew and Luke, we have a clear sense of what Jesus was teaching. Jesus was not teaching anything new, per se. To the contrary, Jesus’s greatest strength was his ability to revive the ethical teachings of the Law and the Prophets. We know what Jesus taught.
Use your holy ghost imagination here and let’s take a flight back to the first century CE. I can see Jesus walking into the synagogue and opening the scroll to Exodus the 22nd chapter and 21st verse. With crystal clear homiletic elocution and clarity of conviction Jesus declared, “You shall not mistreat or oppress an immigrant, for you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
Then Jesus turned to Psalm 82 and read, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
We know what Jesus taught!
I can see Jesus flipping over to the prophet Amos and calling out governmental corruption. “Woe unto those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:7)
And Luke chapter 4 records Jesus’s trial sermon in the synagogue. Jesus steps in, and like the Beatitudes in Matthew, he inverts the social power structure. Jesus opens up the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and reads, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” We know what Jesus taught!
Hence, the interesting question for me is not a matter of what Jesus was teaching in Capernaum. But instead, the more pertinent question is, “Why was it such a surprise?” What had the sages been teaching the people? If Jesus’s voice sounded so fresh and unique just by telling the truth of the Jewish tradition, what conclusions can we infer about the sages? Obviously, the sages were not teaching hospitality toward the stranger. They were not preaching about care for the poor. They were not calling out corruption. Nor were they inverting the social order.
More importantly, whatever the sages were preaching in the synagogue, it kept the unclean spirits silent. Their preaching kept the unclean spirits feeling safe and satisfied.
Woe unto the preacher who is so deceitful and duplicitous; so devious and disingenuous; so dishonest and dishonorable, that even unclean spirits find peace in your presence.
Woe unto the minister who is so cowardly, contemptible, cowering, cow-hearted, caitiff, and craven that demonic spirits seek you out for cover and counsel.
This is how I feel each week when watching so-called evangelical leaders make one excuse after another for behavior that we all know to be unrighteous and reprehensible. This week, for instance, the leader of Liberty University took the time to type a telling Tweet. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted, “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome-he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens...”
As difficult and despicable as it might be, let’s try to bracket Falwell’s use of the term “barbarian” to allude to undocumented immigrants. But that Tweet caused me to think. We are talking about Jerry Falwell Jr.—the son of Jerry Falwell Sr. The same Falwell family who have a history of complaining to Caesar about John and Jack falling in love with one another. The same Falwell family who lobby Caesar about what medical procedures Jane can elect for her own body. The same Falwell who petitioned Caesar to exempt them from having to hire anyone who identifies as non-Christian or as LGBTQ.
Yet when it comes to the poor and welcoming the stranger—two things that Jesus was most clear about in the gospels—all of a sudden Christians can’t say a mumbling word. We are supposed to become cowardly or conniving. “We don’t want to bother you, Caesar. We’ll just keep praying and minding our own business, while you run the empire. We’ll just keep coming to church and singing our hymns while the empire exploits, discriminates, divides, and equivocates.”
To all of the preachers out there, if your sermons can allay the conscious of the corrupt and justify the practices of the unjust, then you need to rethink what you are preaching!
And to all of the Christians listening to or reading this sermon. Whether on radio, online, or on Soundcloud, if you attend a church, and your preacher cannot call out unequivocally white supremacy and the Alt-Right, denounce unapologetically racist descriptions of the continent of Africa and country of Haiti and proclaim unashamedly that we seek to defend democracy, not placate a plutocracy, then I have news for you: You are not a member of a church. You are a member of a political brothel. Your preachers have prostituted themselves and the gospel for the low price of political access and power.
I can imagine that this is why Jesus showed up in Capernaum. I am sure Jesus heard that evil spirits had infected the community. I’m sure he realized that lying and lechery had laced the congregation. I’m sure Jesus realized that trickery and trumpery were testing the faith. Thus, Jesus shows up with the vocal chords of virtue and a tongue of truth. In a place where people maintain a conspiracy of silence, one drop of truth can sound like an explosion.
Jesus shows up. He shows up to replace deceit with candor, falsehood with frankness, vice with virtue, and duplicity with principle. Jesus shows up. Thus, all of the evil spirits begin to lash out. “We know what you're trying to do, Jesus. We know who you are. You will not replace us.”
Yet Jesus just kept on preaching and exorcised the unclean spirits. For Jesus knew that she who speaks truth stabs falsehood through the heart.
In the words of James Russel Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
That is the power of the truth! And when we speak the truth, even demons have to bow down before it.