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Silence! Frenzied Unclean Spirit

January 29, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2012


Psalm 111          Mark 1: 21-28


Following the reading of the gospel, our choir sang an original arrangement of

Thomas Troeger’s three verse hymn “Silence! Frenzied Unclean Spirit.”

This interpretation of the gospel story is the basis for the sermon.

The first words of the sermon are the final words of the hymn.

“Make us faithful, true and whole.” Amen.

Last week we heard Jesus’ initial announcement of the Kingdom of God. We heard how, when he revealed himself to simple fisher folk and called them to speak prophetic words of judgment and mercy, they had an epiphany of God’s great purpose; as a result they left all to follow him. Today we begin to hear how Jesus revealed himself in words and deed to the larger community. Mark reports many were “astounded” and “amazed” by Jesus – especially his power to exorcise demons.

Thomas Troeger wrote the hymn “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit” out of personal desperation to come to terms with the meaning of demons and the profound emotional turmoil he encountered in many people when he was a pastor. He wanted to draw on the strength of Christ’s exorcism for facing these painful situations.[1]

Lord, the demons still are thriving

    in the grey cells of the mind:

Tyrant voices shrill and driving,

    twisted thoughts that grip and bind,

doubts that stir the heart to panic,

    fears distorting reason’s sight,

        guilt that makes our loving frantic,

        dreams that cloud the soul with fright.[2]

Powerful, powerful images. Made more so, for us today, by Ty’s arrangement for our choir, replacing the second verse hymnal music by Carol Dodd with a Latvian folk tune, in a mini-canon, discordant, haunting. At the end of choir rehearsal on Wednesday Mary Degener leaned over and said “That’s a sermon all by itself.”[3]

Indeed. For beyond the sin to which we are prone and which we are responsible for, we do also live, possessed and oppressed, by powers larger than ourselves – you know this in your own life, through your own struggles: addictions, to alcohol, gambling, food, or sex; anger, directed at yourself, your spouse, your neighbor – the kind of anger that seems to use you for its own purposes, rather than the productive anger that responds to injustice; and there are other, more silent powers, depressions, doubts, or damaged self-concepts and self-esteem, the kind of powers that make you feel that change is not worth the effort, or you are not worth the help. The kind of powers that keep us from ever hearing “good news.”

When Jesus gathered with those in Capernaum for the weekly synagogue service, a man with an unclean spirit disrupted worship. He cried out, whether on his own behalf or as the spokesperson for the community. “What have you to do with us? What have you, Jesus, to do with the unclean spirits, the principalities and powers of this world, the grey cells of the mind?” And Jesus speaks a word with authority –

 “Silence! Frenzied, unclean spirit,”

    [cried God’s healing, holy One.]

“Cease your ranting! Flesh can’t bear it.

    Flee as night before the sun.”

At Christ’s voice the demon trembled,

    from its victim madly rushed,

        while the crowd that was assembled

        stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.[4]

Jesus not only speaks with authority, he speaks because his authority comes from God. And it is important that he demonstrate this for all to see, because soon, very soon, he is going to give that same authority to his disciples. In Mark 3:14 we will see that “Jesus appointed twelve to be with him, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom, and to have authority to cast out demons.” Or as it is put in John’s gospel, “These things you have seen me do – you will do them and more!” Like Jesus’ disciples, we in the church are to exercise use this same authority to free people from powers that possess and oppress today.

On Tuesday, five of us traveled to Goshen, on the other side of the Tappan Zee, to attend a meeting of the Hudson River Presbytery.  Our Presbytery is comprised of all of the pastors, or teaching elders, who serve in our eighty-nine congregations, as well as the pastors and commissioned lay pastors, who work in specialized ministry, or who are retired. But not only pastors. Central to our Presbyterian understanding of how God speaks to us in the church, the practice of discernment and governance is shared with the ruling elders of each congregation. Here in White Plains, that means authority is vested in the session – your pastor, or teaching elder, and the twelve ruling elders – called by God, elected by the congregation, and ordained for ministry. At the level of the Presbytery it means authority is shared by an equal number of teaching and ruling elders.

Meetings of the Hudson River Presbytery are a real joy to attend, and you, by the way, all have an invitation and opportunity to attend a Presbytery meeting because our congregation is hosting the next one on Tuesday, March 27. At the meeting this week we received two new pastors, for the congregations in Peekskill and Scotchtown, two pastors who bring energy, intelligence, imagination and love to our life together. We examined Sarah Henkel on her faith and preparedness for ministry, and approved her for ordination, which will take place here during the March meeting I just mentioned.

During worship, as we gathered at the table for the Lord’s Supper, we surrounded ourselves with the great community of saints, reading the names of ruling elders, good and faithful servants, who had died during the past year. The five of us from this church stood to honor Tweet Timmons, and Louise Jones. It was a profound and humbling sense communion as we met the Lord we serve and the church through which we are called.

And in the midst of our meeting, a word with authority came to us in the form of a man named Theo Harris. Theo is our new Prison Partnership Associate. Theo speaks as one who discovered prison ministry while serving time at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. He was mentored by the chaplain there, and now he mentors us, our Presbytery and our congregation, in our commitment to those who are both literally and metaphorically imprisoned, bound, and captive. Theo said:

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to be able to speak at churches, radio stations, college campuses, or wherever there is an “ear” to hear, about the need for prison ministry.

My job is even more fulfilling in that I am able to put my own prison experience into a much broader perspective by comparing where I came from to where God has brought me today.

Prison ministry is really nothing more than living Scripture. How can I truly call myself a Christian, and turn a blind eye to those who are still in bondage? Because a man or a woman is in prison does not diminish his or her capacity for change, and it certainly does not mean that there is no chance for redemption. I am a perfect example of that.

I am also an example of God’s capacity for love and forgiveness. Therefore, since God has already set the standard, who are we to say who is deserving or un-deserving of a second chance?

Warren Buffet summed it up like this: “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” I can just picture Jesus nodding agreement. Can’t you?[5]


Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit

    in our mind and in our heart.

Speak your word that when we hear it,

    all our demons will depart.

Clear our thought and calm our feeling,

    still the fractured, warring soul.

        By the power of your healing

        make us faithful, true and whole.[6]

 Jesus comes into our midst today, as he did into the synagogue long ago, with a word of authority. “Silence. Come out. Be free.” He does what we cannot do on our own. Not because we deserve it but because we need it. He comes to us, and bids us come to him.

Hear the invitation in the words of another hymn which will be new for us today, but which we will learn to sing

Come, live in the light

Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord

We are called

to be light for the kingdom,

to live in the freedom of the city of God.


        We are called tp act with justice

        We are called to love tenderly

        We are called to serve one another

        To walk humbly with God.[7]



[1] Hymn notes in The New Century Hymnal. The PIlgrim Press, 1995.

[2] Verse 2 “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit.” Text by Thomas Troeger. Music by Carol Dodd.

[3] Thomas Troeger. Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music, and Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2010.

[4] Verse 1 “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit.” Text by Thomas Troeger. Music by Carol Dodd.

[5] Newsletter of the Presbyterian Prison Partnership. Volume 2 Issue 4. Visit for more info.

[6] Verse 3 “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit.” Text by Thomas Troeger. Music by Carol Dodd.

[7] “We are Called.” Text and Music by David Haas. (in the forthcoming Presbyterian Hymnal)


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