Exorcising Anxiety: A Sermon
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 1, 2015. This was also the Sunday of our Annual Congregational Meeting.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Mark 1:14-21
They 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. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he 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 him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
When Jesus emerged from the desert after his baptism he began to declare, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Be changed and trust in God.” Our gospel reading this morning is part of a larger story arc in which Jesus establishes God’s kingdom through deeds of healing, challenging existing religious and social practice, and the establishment of a new community. Taken together, this dynamic of freeing people from whatever binds them, disfigures them or destroys them; dealing with the fear that generates in the community; and finally building a new community, describes what it means to announce and enact the in-breaking of divine rule. In this first, brief story, Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath and teaches with authority. His presence produces anxiety in the community, and a man with an unclean spirit gives voice to that anxiety – “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us” But Jesus rebukes the anxiety, exorcising it and making it come out. By bringing out, rather than ignoring the anxiety in the community, Jesus reduces the power that anxiety had over the community.
And all were amazed by his authority. We may wish that Jesus would appear right hear and now and do the same with the anxieties we all carry as individuals and as a community of faith, but Jesus imagined a different way. The authority he exercises in this passage, he later gives to all his followers: “And he appointed twelve and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:14). We have been empowered in Jesus name, to identify, bring out and name our anxieties so that they no longer have control over us.
Sometimes when we become anxious in our own personal lives or in our congregational life, we can imagine that something is going wrong; that perhaps we have done something wrong; or that we are not following in God’s way – for wouldn’t following in God’s way mean that we weren’t anxious about anything?
But this passage gives us a different picture. Remember this passage is part of the long story arc of Jesus ushering in God’s kingdom by healing, challenging existing religious and social practices, and establishing a new way of life together. Such change, such challenge, is bound to cause anxiety – even among those who welcome the change. This passage underscores that anxiety in the face of change is something we as individuals and communities experience. It’s not surprising; in fact, perhaps we should even expect it.
But it is also clear that exorcising those anxieties is necessary if God is to truly reign, if the coming of God’s kingdom is to be a reality in our lives.
So we should expect that when we are engaged in doing God’s work we will become fearful and anxious about many things. The question is, what happens next? Will we allow our anxieties and fears to drive us, to control us in our decision-making? Or will we bring these fears before Jesus and one another, allow them to see the light of day – examined them but not be driven by them? Jesus never denies there is an unclean spirit – the unclean spirit is there; the question is will it continue to control this man and that synagogue.
When we come to the communion table, we come with all of who we are, we bring our fears and anxieties as well as our faith and eagerness to the table. And here we encounter a loving God who honors us by taking our fears seriously. But we also encounter a God who unburdens us, inviting us to lay those fears down at the table, to name and examine those fears together, and in so doing, stop those fears from controlling us, even as we open ourselves to new possibilities in our individual and congregational lives.
With Jesus, nothing is swept UNDER the table. There is no escaping or denying the fears. And there’s no “quick fix.” Rather, there is an exorcism. When we put our fears ON the table, together, we get control of them, rather than they of us. When Jesus called that unclean spirit out of the man, he freed that man from its dominion over him and that synagogue.
So perhaps you are anxious about whether you’ll be able to make rent this month. That’s real. Money is tight. You can either allow that anxiety to keep you awake at night, or you can allow it to come forward, to name it, to say “Hello anxiety! Thank you for reminding me to be careful with my spending.” But then move forward. You’ll still need to spend money and you’ll do the best we can. You acknowledge your anxiety, you keep moving forward.
Another example. Remember how the council made the decision to allow the board of deacons to dissolve? And remember the wonderful way everyone has started to step forward to visit one another, to help set up communion and more? Well there was another piece to that decision. When the board of deacons was dissolved the Council decided to expand the number of seats on the Council. Now there was no small anxiety around the table and with the nominating committee as to whether we would be able to fill these seats. After all, we never did quite fill the deacon board. Would we have the same trouble here? Everyone has busy lives and it is a big commitment that people make when they agree to serve. They say, “yes” we are willing to gather monthly and sometimes a little more, to discern God’s will and make our best decisions so that the congregation can show God’s love in everything we do. So we voiced our anxiety, but we then carried forward in the nominating process. From time to time someone would get very anxious and we’d talk about it and then keep going. Well guess what. We are so excited to report that we have filled all five seats for the Council and four of those five seats are being filled by deeply committed members who have never served on our Council before. By not letting our anxiety control us, the Session and Nominating committee were able to discover new and able and eager people to serve in this important way.
Friends, placing our anxiety on the table allows us to make room for God’s power. Because this passage from the Gospel according to Mark reminds us that if our anxiety is in control, then God is not. Let me say this again, if our anxiety is in control, then God is not.
But if there’s one thing we learn from the Christian story, it is that God is able. God is able to bring life from death. God is able to make a way where there is no way. God is able. In a famous invocation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped his congregation name their anxieties so that they would not longer reign over them. He wrote,
Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death?
Why be afraid? God is able.
Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child?
Why despair? God is able to give us the power to endure that which cannot be changed.
Is someone here anxious because of bad health?
Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.
Surely God is able.
This morning, as you come to the table, I invite you to bring your anxieties with you, and as you line up to receive the bread and juice to name in your heart those fears that are driving you right now; name them and bring them before God. And as you receive the bread and juice together with everyone, allow God and this community to help you walk in a new way, a way of courage and compassion, of honesty and hope.
For God is able. Surely, God is able.