The Bishop and the Man with an Unclean Spirit

Preaching, Theology

Preached with St. David of Wales for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.

In the summer of 2008, Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected and consecrated a bishop in the global Anglican communion, was preaching a sermon at a West London church when a man stood up in the congregation and began to speak violently against him. Just moments before, Bishop Gene had been preaching on the deep divisions in the church. The man, shaky with rage, rose to his feet and lanced a condemnatory finger in the preacher’s direction, screaming, “You’re the reason for such division! You’re the heretic!” I can only imagine that in that moment, the Bishop’s life flashed before his eyes. He was already a man who had to wear a bulletproof vest to his own consecration as Bishop for fear of assassination attempts. This particular tour of London was already full of tension, as he had been specifically excluded from the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world at Lambeth Palace, and was determined to make his presence known in a circuit tour of those parishes which dared to host him while the conference continued on with his absence. I cannot imagine what it is like to walk a foreign city which is seething with a base of contempt for your very presence, tinder ready to catch a spark of rage at any minute, though I am reminded of a scene from the recent film in which Martin Luther King Jr and his companions walk into a Selma Whites Only Hotel to a warm insincerity which quickly gave way to a sharp blow to the jaw from the owner. I can only imagine Bishop Gene expected the same. Perhaps this man was about to lunge at him. Perhaps he had a gun. Perhaps even worse than a physical assault is the jarring moment when a long-held underlying fear suddenly takes on flesh and blood, suddenly becomes a moment in time, suddenly now, suddenly this, the enemy we’ve heard about, the one that we’ve been waiting for. In video footage of the incident, Bishop Gene steps aside. As the congregation realizes what is happening, they begin a slow clap to drown the man’s hateful speech out from being heard, then the whole church stands and spontaneously starts singing a hymn as he is pushed out of the church by a handful of others, all the while screaming “repent! repent!” It is reminiscent of another drowning out of hate made famous by the Laramie Project, when Westboro protesters at the funeral of Matthew Shepard were blotted out from the family’s sight by the wide white wings of a row of costumed angels. As the congregation settled back into their seats, before Bishop Gene continued with his sermon, he simply said, “pray for that man.”

The difference between this story and the one we hear from the Gospel according to Mark this morning is that Jesus did not cast a man out of the synagogue, he cast an unclean spirit out of the man. This happens every time an exorcism occurs in the Gospels. The demons or unclean spirits recognize Jesus long before anyone else does, they call Jesus “Son of God” while other followers are still puzzling over where such authority in his teaching could come from. They are confrontational, something about the mere presence of Jesus causes them to rise to the surface like iron filings to a magnet. And once they have shown themselves, Jesus simply removes them, all the troubling influences are gone and a solitary soul is left sound, clothed, and in their right mind. Because every time there are demons in the Gospels, there is someone whose relationship with their neighbors is impaired, whether by disease or by madness or by any number of lesser spirits which tarnish the one given to us by God. Every time demons are cast out in the Gospels, there is someone who is given back whole to the community from which they had been cut off.

I’m left wondering whether such a miracle would have been possible in the case of the Bishop and the heckler. When I was a teacher, I often envied Jesus the ease he seemed to have in sifting out the troubling spirits from the one being troubled by them. So many days, the techniques of behavioral management which I had been trained in seemed a pathetic match for the desire of a child to render my ordered classroom into an environment as chaotic as the home they came from, or as chaotic as the interior workings of their own minds. I could see, struggling beneath the miring web of compulsions and tantrums a child who wished to be at peace, a child who wished to be seen and known. If only I could have cast aside the unclean spirits which held that child captive. I imagine Bishop Robinson feeling the same way about his heckler. I imagine him walking over to the man and embracing him. I imagine all the rage leaving the man, years, perhaps, of neglect and abuse suddenly dissipated, or of compacted layers of desires deferred and anger stoked, whatever it was that led to his passionate resistance of a man who preached a gospel of newfound freedom in Jesus Christ. This is to say nothing of the possibility of the even subtler miracle of reasoned debate between two differing opinions. Was there anything that could have left this man healed and restored to the community around him, rather than cuffed to a police motorbike outside the church? I find the question terrifying, because of what it requires of me. Am I willing to take someone who confronts me and engage them with compassionate, nonviolent embrace? Does such embrace happen only in the context of a supportive community or must it happen when I walk the streets alone at night as well? If a stranger were to stand up in our midst this moment and begin condemning us here, could we make peace with him, or would we prefer to keep our own peace by excising him from among us?

Practical, common sense can show us where to draw the line. Unfortunately, practical, common sense is not what Jesus came to make out of the world. We have only the troubling image of wholeness, a church which contains all parties, the self-righteous and those whom we would like to condemn, the healed and the hurting, the enlightened and the ignorant, those by whom we’ve been inspired and those we cannot stand. The only one who can hold such a tremulous, convulsing body together is the one from whom it came, the one through whom it exists, the one who knits it through with the prayer, “may they all be one.” “Pray for that man,” the Bishop said. And they did. And Jesus did, too, as he always does with the ones who are shoved outside the walls, as he had when the Bishop had been left outside as well, showing yet again how much more vast he is than the tiny places we have tried to build to hold him. It is a sure sign of our carrying Christ’s work out in the world that unclean spirits may rise up to meet us there. It is the pattern of that work that we hold fast and wait upon the one Spirit of God which will reconcile all of us together into one body in the end.

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