End the Isolation

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Ordinary Time 4
January 31, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In the story of the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue, we are shown someone who can be found in the midst of the community of faith, yet who is isolated and all alone. When Jesus heals, Jesus restores the relationships between God and all of us. It may not occur to us that people in our midst feel isolated even when they're sitting in our midst. But it happens. For that matter, some of us may not have figured out we're the ones who feel apart and lost. We have a part to play in the healing, in the restoration and in the salvation.

Sir Ian McKellen is an accomplished actor, renowned for his Shakespearean portrayals. He might be better known, however, for playing the role of Gandalf in the three Lord of the Rings films.

McKellen reprised that role in the three-part Hobbit movies that came some years later. In one of the opening scenes, one hobbit, 13 dwarves and the wizard share a boisterous and confusing meal in the hobbit's home. Hobbits are half the size of a human being, and dwarves are not much taller. So how to bring them all around the same table when the actors playing these characters are roughly the same size?

Peter Jackson, the director, decided to build two models of the hobbit's house, one regular-sized for the supposedly shorter characters, and a second one half that size so McKellen had to bend over to enter, dodge chandeliers and squeeze his lanky frame between a half-sized bench and table.

After filming the confusing scene of the unexpected party that opens the show, with food and plates and cutlery flying in all directions, it was then filmed again with Gandalf in the smaller dwelling. McKellen had to move according to Jackson's directions, dodging dwarves that weren't there. They then filmed Gandalf in the larger, empty house, telling him what was happening, expecting him to look like he was dodging much shorter dwarves, and forcing his way behind the table. He had to look in the direction of and talk to the characters supposedly there. Then the two sets of film were merged so it looks like a very tall character was seated in the midst of very short ones.

Technically it all worked just fine, but one of the documentaries included on the Blu-ray release showed that during the filming of that scene McKellen, an experienced actor used to all sorts of discomfort in his career, simply broke down weeping during that scene. The feeling of isolation and loneliness in what was supposed to be a merry gathering overwhelmed him to the point where he could hardly continue.

Over the course of the last year we've all learned a little something about isolation, and loneliness. Even with remote worship services, many of us have had to maintain some level of distancing from our beloved church. As much as we may have joked about wanting to sleep in on Sunday morning, we weren't ready for what it meant to be together apart.

In today's scripture, the evangelist Mark tells us a story of someone who was physically present with fellow worshipers but was as isolated as if a pandemic were raging. In a way that's exactly what was happening - a private pandemic that isolated the demoniac in their midst.

The question we need to ask is if this is happening in our midst as well, and if so, why aren't we noticing it, or doing something about it?

We gather together

During the time of Jesus, two quite different kinds of worship were taking place. There was the sacrificial worship in the great temple in Jerusalem, in which a hereditary priesthood performed dramatic rites involving life, death, sight, sound, smell and taste.

However, that century when Jesus lived also saw the development of the synagogue. Worship of a different sort took place there. Synagogues provided social fellowship, scripture reading, preaching, singing, a place to study scripture, and also a center for community meetings. They were a lot like our churches in many respects.

Jesus, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, seems to have found a home in Capernaum, a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. Much of his ministry was centered here.

Jesus astounded the people with his teaching and preaching in the synagogue. They were impressed as much as anything by the power and authority he brought to his lessons.

At this point, everything was interrupted by a person possessed by a demon. Unlike similar stories in the gospel, this person was not isolated outside of town, in a cemetery or a wilderness. He seems to have been part of the synagogue. Yet because of his inner demons, he still seemed isolated. He was defined as a demoniac. He was different from everyone else.

Throughout scripture, sickness meant isolation. The strictures of Leviticus demanded those who are sick self-segregate, live apart from the support structures of the community just when the sick person needed them. When Jesus healed a person, they were also restored to full participation in family, community and faith.

This incident begins when this person cried out emotionally while Jesus was teaching. No doubt many cringed and were embarrassed by this person's behavior, when his inner demons 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."

And Jesus, in response, replied, "Be silent ...!"

So what's so secret?

The Gospel of Mark is known for what's sometimes called the "messianic secret," where Jesus frequently tells his followers to maintain silence about his messianic mission. But why is Jesus so concerned about preventing others from sharing what he said and did? Maybe it's because they don't have a clue who he is.

People in this Gospel look on Jesus as a teacher, a wonder worker, the one who can walk on water, heal the sick and raise the dead, but without the knowledge of the cross, they don't know who Jesus really is!

Only after Jesus reveals the cross to his disciples does he cease to silence people. In the Gospel of Mark, until you know about the cross, you don't know about Jesus.

The great African theologian, Augustine, wrote, about this passage, "These words show clearly that the demons had much knowledge, but entirely lacked love."1 The love, I would add, expressed on the cross. Knowledge is important, but love is the best filter when it comes to using the knowledge we are given.

The love of Jesus silenced the imperfect knowledge and opened the door to the relationship with God and his fellow believers in the synagogue.

The people of the synagogue get some credit for allowing this man who must have been difficult to deal with to be a part of their fellowship. But it's easy to imagine that many of them would have kept him at arm's length. Rightly or wrongly, they might have felt uncomfortable or even afraid around him and his outbursts.

In isolation

We all learned what it felt like to be isolated when it was necessary for us to practice some level of self-segregation during the recent pandemic. But our level of isolation and suffering varied according to our situation.

Some suffered physically. That includes those who were sick, those who were caring for the sick and those related to the sick. Some were dying and succumbed. Others who eventually recovered were first seriously sick. Anyone who thinks emotional or spiritual suffering is worse than physically suffering hasn't had a toothache recently. Suffering is hard.

Some suffered economically. People felt the insecurity of not being sure if they could pay the rent or the mortgage. They struggled to afford food and medicine. It was hard to take care of kids or elderly parents. This was real suffering too. Though it may not be our fault, we feel shame when we have no security. Rightly or wrongly that shame sometimes keeps us away from the community of faith.

And for some of us, these and other factors made us feel isolated because we suffered spiritually. Sitting on our couch and watching worship on TV didn't relieve our isolation. Even if there were others in our household, we may still have felt isolated. Many of us missed the spiritual comfort of sisters and brothers of faith. There is this quiet desperation that doesn't have to be rational to be real.

Isolated people are still in our midst. They may be sitting two pews over. They may be us!

That's right. We've been in the demoniac's shoes. Or his head. We now all know what isolation feels like. Sometimes we wanted to scream out. Maybe we did, but no one heard us. Maybe we were heard, but no one responded. What does this tell us regarding the insight we have for folks sitting here in these pews, or who may wander in through our church doors?

We can't judge by appearances. We can't assume that just because someone is sitting in our midst that they aren't suffering. And if we're the ones who are suffering, we can't isolate ourselves. We need to reach out. We need to holler out so that Jesus and our fellow believers can respond! Listen. Look. Ask! Don't isolate those in our midst who are different.

Jesus Christ is Lord! That's our confession of faith. Shout it out loud. But getting the right answer is not enough. We need love. Without love we just don't get it. The love behind the cross gives us hope, but the love that gives eternal life through the cross must be lived by us toward each other. We are called to be one family, in God, the whole world over. Let us claim and name the cross, and by doing so, see more clearly the isolation in our midst and eliminate it.