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Epiphany 5

Sunday, 4 February 2024
Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

The almost inevitable result of making poor choices, the impact of turning away from God, causes unspeakable harm both to innocent people and to guilty people.

Epiphany 5

Last Sunday, the Provost spoke about the urgency of Mark’s Gospel. He asked us to consider how we might respond to that urgency; how we might make it relevant to our time. This morning, I want to look at the urgency of Mark through a different lens.

The Gospel writers were essentially telling us stories. Stories that helped the people of their time to remember what they had been told, perhaps experienced, about Jesus of Nazareth. Stories that give people of our time an insight into the remarkable things that happened in Jesus’ ministry and offer us a roadmap for how we might best live the lives to which we have been called.

If we think about that story-telling from a visual perspective, I think that Matthew and Luke might be seen as something like the work of the Old Masters. They painted pictures that were pretty detailed. They invite us into the story, creating a scene where we can often spend time exploring and discovering new and unexpected detail. So long as we are willing to enter into the picture, the story is laid out before us.

Mark does something different from that. His Gospel is perhaps more like Minimalist art. We are invited into the painting, but we have to do quite a bit of the work ourselves. The outline of the story is there, but we are left to fill in the detail. And that means that the fuller story will be particular to each of us – and may indeed change each time we enter into that particular scene. That makes our reading, our attempts to do theology, firmly contextual. We take into the scene whatever we are carrying and so that, in some way, becomes a strand of the narrative.

So let’s look at what is before us this morning. We begin with 4 sentences about the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. We are required to do quite a bit of work to give this narrative the substance it deserves. It’s a significant healing miracle, that it would be easy to pass over as we rush onto the next image. If you imagine the painting of this morning’s Gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law would probably be in the foreground of the painting, perhaps in a bit of shadow. How easy it is to skim over the story in our rush to get to the main event. And it’s perhaps especially easy to rush past as she doesn’t even have a name. That makes it hard to engage with her, even as we pause to look.

And if we pause for long enough, we catch that final sentence- the fever left her and she began to serve them. This story has been written by, and fundamentally for, men. The woman had no time to recuperate, there was a task to be performed which, we are led to believe, was women’s work. Mark may not pause to explore what is going on here, but it may be something for us to consider. Is there something we could add into the painting, into our theology, that would give her a bit of dignity, would respect who she is?

Let’s move onto the next 3 sentences. Those sentences contain the word demon 3 times. And so the painting in my mind’s eye has some artistic expression of the demonic in a central position. Our attention is being drawn to the description and depiction of what might constitute evil. Now we know that the language of demonic possession comes from a world view that saw good and evil in absolute binary terms. A world view that encouraged people to find ways to defend themselves from the evil forces that were perceived to be constantly lurking, waiting to take an opportunity to make mischief. And healing came in the form of release from that evil intent.

This Gospel was written long before the doctrine of Original Sin. Long before the church had come to conclusions about the nature of sin. We’ve already given ourselves permission to contextualise, to read this story through a contemporary lens as we fill in the dots between the sparse imagery that Mark offers to us. And so I want to look at the language of demonic possession through that contemporary lens.

One of the recurrent themes from this pulpit in recent months has been discussion of how ready we can be to ‘other’ people. We know that in areas of conflict the dehumanising of those who are described as the enemy is a tool to enable ordinary men and women to commit acts of warfare that are far from ordinary.

Alongside that there is a strong societal narrative that demonises the perpetrators of acts that we find totally abhorrent and beyond our understanding. A narrative that others them. In some ways that’s not surprising. How else do we begin to make sense of the senseless cruelty in our world?

There have been a number of high-profile horrendous acts of violence reported in recent days. Some committed by children; some committed against children. And it hasn’t taken long for the perpetrators of those acts to be described as evil and demonic. For the commentators to get beyond describing what they have done as wicked and to begin to describe them as wicked.

When we hear those narratives, the individuals concerned quickly morph into being someone who is not like us. Someone motivated by different influences from us. Someone whose normal self is different from us. Someone from whom we celebrate distance and difference. Someone other.

What allows some people to behave in ways that most of us could not imagine? The answers to that question are clearly complex and perhaps contentious. It remains a fact that the language of possession and demonic influence takes away any personal responsibility for making choices. Responsibility perhaps for making many tiny choices over a period of time that culminate in an extremely bad choice at some stage on a journey through life.
The initial bad choice may be as simple as making a decision not to take prescribed medicines or to self-medicate. It may be a choice to engage with extreme views on social media or to follow a crowd of people who are also making bad choices. It perhaps feels exciting and radical in the beginning. It begins with just one small step on the wrong path.

What is the lesson for us from this story? What does it mean for the choices we might make? The final paragraph of this morning’s section of Gospel gives us a pointer. We’ve moved onto the next day. Maybe we’ve moved into another painting. This story begins with Jesus going to a quiet place to pray. And then, and only then, he got up and went into the towns to share the message, to give people tools to help them make good choices, life giving choices.

The almost inevitable result of making poor choices, the impact of turning away from God, causes unspeakable harm both to innocent people and to guilty people.

Our challenge is to do whatever we can to make the right turns in life. To find ways to get back onto the path when we take a wrong turn, to mitigate against a series of wrong turns. To take ourselves out of the painting that brings our focus onto evil intent and to put ourselves into the painting that has prayer and a focus on God and God’s message at its heart.

We can’t bring about instant change in our world, however hard we pray. But the steps towards healing are just that – small steps that may culminate in real change. We can model those steps as we find the will and the motivation to turn away from evil and turn to Christ.

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