Casting out OUR unclean spirits

February 1, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

As many of you know, I spent much of my life in banking – mostly on the operations side. One of my roles was managing projects to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our business – like making sure the car payment you sent in gets credited to your loan accurately, otherwise you’re gonna get a call from our collections department, and nobody wants that!

sixsigma2A process improvement method we adopted was called Six Sigma, which is rooted in statistics – now, stay with me. It was initially used by the manufacturing sector. As you can imagine there are lots of places in an assembly-line production, especially complex ones, that can cause the end-product to be defective.

baggage-claim-crowd2“Six Sigma” is an actual calculated measure that corresponds to 1 in every 300,000. So, as a productivity measure, to reach 6-sigma, it means there is only one defect in 300,000 opportunities. It’s an ambitious goal to only have one defect in that many attempts, but for that person who waited in line overnight for the latest iPhone, or the one standing at the baggage claim carousel, but not seeing their suitcase arrive, it’s the kind of goal we want Apple or Delta to have.

But even so, to say that a business strives to achieve a 6-sigma defect rate is to say that it strives to meet a very lofty goal, kind of like saying we must forgive someone not just seven times, but forgive them seventy times seven.

Txg7FpkAs a point of contrast, to have 11 out of 12 footballs become deflated before game time, that would be a 0.12 Sigma defect rate… but I digress.

So, like I was saying, our bank adopted the Six Sigma methodology, so as a Project Management person, I went to New York and attended four weeks of training. Now, more than 10 years later, I couldn’t tell you much about the specifics of the class, but what I do remember is our instructor, Eva.

six-sigma-discussionShe was a statistician, yes, but she wasn’t the pocket-protector, black-rimmed eye-glasses kind of statistician that rattles off data and terms that were over our heads. She was the kind of statistician and instructor that could help all of us non-statisticians in the room, understand what the heck she was talking about. She knew it cold, and had such a command of the way the model and statistics worked, that she could simplify it into terms that made sense, even to us.

When we’d get to a principle that we didn’t understand, which happened a lot, she’d listen carefully to the questions, then she patiently and deliberately came at the answer from another direction to help us grasp the concept fully. I remember my boss and me marveling at her ability to do this. It’s the mark of a true authority, and it was really amazing.

We see similar marveling and amazement in today’s gospel lesson, which begins:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Like old-school statisticians, it’s not that the scribes didn’t know what they were talking about, or that they were doing it wrong, it’s just that Jesus was doing it differently. Although Mark doesn’t tell us this, as a Jew, Jesus would have studied the Torah from a very early age. He knew it cold. But what’s more, he taught in a way that made God’s message accessible to all people, not just the most learned.

We see examples of this later in the gospel. Instead of spending time restating the 10 BIG commandments, and further itemizing the 613 more specific commandments outlined in Leviticus which dictate daily life practices for Jews, Jesus boils them all down to their core intention: to love God and to love others.

What had previously been lessons of complex rabbinically-debated scriptures, in Jesus’ hands became the transforming message of God’s intention for us. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutia, Jesus invites his listeners to step back and see the bigger picture of what all this is for: to love God, and to love others – ALL others.

Then, we are given an example of what that looks like in action. It says:

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he [that is, the unclean spirit] 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.” But Jesus rebuked [the unclean spirit], saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He certainly could have been a little ticked off that some guy came up and interrupted his lesson. He could have asked the man to go away and quit disturbing the group. But instead, Jesus acted out of compassion. He understood that this man had an unclean spirit inside him. It was tormenting the man and needed to be exorcised so the man could be restored to a place of wholeness. Jesus didn’t condemn the man for having the unclean spirit; he didn’t shame or expel the man, but instead, he commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man; allowing him to be healed.

And while there are many people in various times, places and cultures who acknowledge the presence of spiritual demonic powers, and this may be that type of circumstance of healing by Jesus, I also invite you to explore other possible ways of understanding unclean spirits in our own lives; unclean spirits we possess inside of us, that Jesus invites, no COMMANDS, to be silent and come out!

These unclean spirits can be anything that is an obstacle to us loving God and loving others.

Bigotry comes to mind. It prevents us from seeing others as being equally made in God’s image and worthy of love. Yet I venture to guess that most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves bigots. But, what about the more subtle discrimination we practice in our daily lives when we have knee-jerk assumptions or exclusions of others because of their skin tone, or even how they wear their clothes?

Another unclean spirit is greed. We let the lure of wealth motivate our lives and greed creates unhealthy competition, and it puts our needs before all others. But this unclean spirit can take on a more subtle form, like when we turn a blind eye to the person who sleeps on the street each night; the person who could really use that extra jacket we have in our closet; the one we hardly ever wear.

Oppression is another unclean spirit. Unfortunately, it’s not just a thing of the past. We may not do it overtly, but what about our failure to stand up and speak out against systemic policies and conditions that perpetuate inequity in our society? Or risk speaking up to colleagues or family members when they do things that keep others down instead of building them up.

Addiction is a very real unclean spirit for many, and those afflicted often hit bottom before they seek the help they need. How can we be people that support them through their recovery, instead of creating obstacles for healing?

And then there’s Pride, prompting us to put on a false-face to the outside world, and sometimes even those closest to us, while we let feelings of unworthiness or shame prevent us from seeing and sharing our God-given gifts with others.

And another unclean spirit, perhaps less apparent, might be that of inflexibility – an unwillingness to allow for other ideas for the sake of keeping things familiar and comfortable. Perhaps this unclean spirit would have prevented some from hearing Jesus that day; unable to grasp his message because it was too radical; too new.

But, just as with this man in today’s lesson, these unclean spirits are not us. They have simply taken up residence inside us at some point. The good news is, we can live apart from them. What’s more, Jesus commands them to come out of us!

It may not be easy.  We may have come to believe that they are necessary for us to live; that they sustain us. We may think that they are the true source of our life or self-worth. But, they aren’t. Or, these unclean spirits may have been part of us for so long that we don’t know what our life would look like if they weren’t there – it’s easier just to stay the same.

But when we allow ourselves to recognize these unclean spirits for what they are – barriers to living into God’s command to love God and love others, including ourselves – we are then able to move toward wholeness. Wholeness not only as individuals, but wholeness as a people that won’t let the unclean spirits dictate our way of being in the world.

Using Six Sigma language, these unclean spirits are the defects, if you will, to our ability to achieve the end-product that is the Kingdom of God on earth. It is a lofty goal, to be sure.

  • for us to love one another, all people, without prejudice;
  • to care for others who are in need through tangible acts of compassion;
  • to combat the systems that perpetuate injustice;
  • to confront those things that have power over our lives, and seek the help of others to overcome them;
  • to open our ears and eyes to new ways of being; of learning and of welcoming;
  • and, to embrace the intrinsic GOOD inside of yourself, recognizing the gifts that God has given you, and sharing those gifts with others.

This is how we become good stewards of ourselves – of our own

We allow ourselves to enter into the place of worship and of learning, flaws and all, and see that Jesus receives us just as we are; that Jesus wants us to be whole; that Jesus knows that we are good and worthy of his love and his grace.

The kingdom of heaven is a life free from unclean spirits.

To achieve it, our first step is to simply walk toward Jesus, and see for ourselves that “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

He did it for this man.

He’ll do it for you.

It’s simply amazing.


2 Responses to “Casting out OUR unclean spirits”

  1. Thanks honey–this is right “on point” and compliments our women’s retreat weekend. I forwarded it to the “girls!”

    Lv u, Mom 😊


  2. Jim Greenwood said

    Well done. Love,

    Dad >

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