Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“Any time we contemporary readers find a text about demons, we tend to take a detour and just keep reading. But Mark (in his gospel), just won’t let us avoid those passages,” said the Rev. M. Craig Barnes. He preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Healing the Healers,” and the scripture reading was Mark 9:14-29.
There is hardly a chapter in Mark’s gospel that does not include an encounter with a demon or unclean spirit. Barnes named encounters in Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 where Jesus’ disciples are sent out to proclaim the good news and to cast out evil. “If you stay with Jesus, you can expect to be led to places in need of salvation, where evil has taken over,” he said.
In the modern world, we may use more sophisticated names to describe what is destroying lives, Barnes said, but “we can agree it is something demonic. Jesus expects you to do something about it. If you are a disciple, you are sent out to proclaim hope and to cast out evil.”
In Chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is coming back from the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration while the disciples are trying to cast out a demon from a boy. The disciples are arguing because they can’t cast the demon out. “We always argue when we can’t solve a problem,” Barnes said. “You know how it goes: ‘You’re not doing it right.’ ‘I’m trying. Do you want to do it?’ ”
He continued, “Put yourself in the disciples’ sandals. Jesus is on a spiritual retreat with the A-Team: Peter, James and John. Now you find out you are on the second team, and you can’t get the work done.”
The father in the story brought his son for help. He told Jesus he had asked the disciples to cast out the demon but they could not. Barnes said, “I know what it feels like to not cast out evil, to not get it done.”
As illustration, he said there are children in inner cities who grow up with violent streets and underfunded schools and abandon hope; children in the suburbs under the pressures of expectations to achieve, pressures of materialism and cliques and the possibility that a shooter might come into their schools.
“There are parents who know how hard the world can be and they ask, ‘Can’t you do something? Can’t you take away the reasons to be afraid?’ ” Barnes said. “This is not just a clergy problem. We all know what it is like when someone is counting on us and they have a problem we just can’t fix.”
He continued, “That is the day you discover you are not Jesus, and that’s good news. We are not called to be Jesus. That job description was filled by Jesus. We are called to be witnesses to Jesus. You are never going to behold the salvation of Jesus until you stop trying to be the Messiah.”
Jesus asked the father to bring the boy to him. “That is our real mission, to bring people to the one who can offer salvation,” Barnes said.
Jesus is not rushed to heal the boy. Barnes likened Jesus’ response to a doctor taking a medical history: How long has this been happening? Falls into both fire and water, does he?
Barnes said, “Jesus never hurries and that drives me nuts. He is never running, or even jogging, and I’m out there hustling for him. I want him to keep up with me.”
Healing takes time and we have to commit to something, he asserted. “If we are going to make a difference, we have to be in it for the long haul if we are serious. Our story begins with creation over chaos. The story continues through the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, sinners and saints,” he said.
Faith is still hammered out on an anvil, Barnes said, “nevertheless, we believe. That is our inheritance. It is what will make the difference. We need more than a little faith. We need a great big sturdy faith.”
Barnes told the congregation that in the modern world, we live under the illusion that “if I don’t dream it up, it is not mine. For centuries, faith was something that grabbed us; it was an inheritance. It is an illusion that we construct our own lives.”
He continued, “I think about my job, my family, my money. When I am stuck in traffic, I say ‘Why me’ as if all these people drove out to the highway just to inconvenience me. On the drive home, I say to myself that the people at work don’t appreciate me and then if I arrive home and the family does not sing the Doxology, I think they don’t appreciate me either.”
By Sunday, he said, “I am tired of me and ready for a better story. ‘In the beginning, God’ – these are the opening words to life. This is your story: ‘In the beginning, God.’ ” And if you are scared, he told the congregation, go to the end of the story. “It works out just great with God making a home among mortals, a river flows through the city and we have a vision of the peaceable kingdom.”
That is the story we are about. He asked the congregation, “Do you see the difference between our faith and my faith?”
Theologian Marva Dawn was often a guest preacher in many different congregations. One Sunday after preaching, she and the host pastor stood at the end of the center aisle to greet the parishioners. One parishioner said to the pastor, “I didn’t care for the second hymn.” The pastor said, “That’s OK, we weren’t singing it to you.”
“See the difference between our faith and my faith?” Barnes said.
He continued, “I am not trying to make the faith relevant to you, I am trying to make you relevant to the 2,000-year-old tradition of Jesus casting out evil. We need a faith that is strong, sturdy and worthy of doubt. We can lean on our faith when my faith is weak.”
The disciples asked Jesus why they could not cast out the demon and Jesus told them it was one that only comes out with prayer.
“Prayer is bringing the boy to Jesus,” Barnes said. “Prayer pulls together heaven and earth. If we take that risk, anything can happen. We will be less interested in the old arguments and more interested in each other and in the faith and in beholding what Jesus can do. We can lean on that conviction that the Savior is not done.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene T. Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. The Rev. Ray Defendorf, a Roman Catholic deacon for over 40 years and host, with his wife Patt, at the Roman Catholic House, read the scripture. The prelude was “Dawn,” by Cyril Jenkins, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir, was “Say to them that are of fearful heart,” music by Arthur B. Jennings and text from Isaiah 35. The choir was directed by Stafford and accompanied on the Massey Memorial Organ by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The Chautauqua Choir sang “Rescue the Perishing” for the offertory anthem, music by William H. Done, arranged by Amy Tate Williams and words by Fanny Crosby. Stafford directed and Stigall provided accompaniment. Stigall played the postlude, “Allegro maestoso e vivace,” from Sonata No. 4 by Felix Mendelssohn. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy.