Sunday, May 24, 2009
Signs of Life: Sermon on Mark 16:15-20
This week, prompted by this passage from the gospel of Mark, I watched a short film called “Homecoming,” about one of a handful of churches in the United States where snake handling is practiced as a part of worship.
It wasn’t what I thought it would be.
The first thing that appeared on screen was a series of black and white still photographs of a small town in West Virginia… coal country, nestled in the Appalachian mountains. These were followed by scenes from a small town church, with candid shots of worshipers raising their hands in prayer, and the voice over of a preacher with a strong Southern drawl, urging them trust in the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us. “Doesn’t God mean what he says?” he yelled. And then the film began, and the music started. The description of it read “a rocking hybrid of blues infused gospel.” To me, it sounded like early Elvis—those jangly guitars, driving bass and quick percussive drums. The people were dancing… the words “whirling dervishes” comes to mind, and they spun and swayed to the house band. One man twirled all the way down the aisle and nearly out the door, spinning towards blinding sunshine until gentle hands from other congregants reached out to guide him back.
And then they finally appeared: the snakes. One man held an enormous cluster of them… rattlesnakes, copperheads, all sorts of venomous varieties. The snakes seemed to be frozen in a kind of trance of their own. The men danced with the snakes, draped them around their necks like some kind of grotesque jewelry. But always, at the same time, the ecstatic dancing to the rockabilly music. Dancing with snakes! The lead singer would issue a call and the dancing congregation would join in the refrain: “What’d you think about Jesus?” “He’s alright.”
I’d imagined something else entirely: a darkened room, candles lit, an intensity of silence, and one by one, people carefully, gingerly picking up the rattlers as everyone looked on with bated breath. Instead, the mood was more of a rave. It was a dance party. Instead of fear there was a sense of gleeful abandon. Instead of the dark and silence, there was the effusive music, laugher and song. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.
Beneath the video—I watched it on YouTube, on the internet—there were viewers’ comments. There were certainly some scathing remarks, mocking the participants. One viewer suggested the snakes were not really dangerous. Another had low marks for Christians generally. But one person wrote, “Man… That is some good music! A fine example of collective effervescence!” And another, rather plaintively, commented simply: “They got something that I wish I had.”
We are at the very end of Mark’s gospel, reading one of the lectionary passages offered for this Sunday. This is a Sunday when we are standing on the bridge between the seasons of Easter and Pentecost. You may be interested to know that this passage was not a part of the gospel of Mark originally. Everything following the account of the women at the tomb on Easter morning is a late addition to the gospel: that’s the scholarly consensus. So what we’re reading now is someone’s attempt to finish the story. Jesus has risen from the grave, but it doesn’t end there. He is giving his followers some last minute instructions.
The first thing Jesus tells them is something we are very familiar with. You may have heard these words referred to as the Great Commission. Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Jesus’ final instructions begin with the idea that his friends and followers should share the good news they have received with the whole world—not even just the whole human world, but the whole of creation, the cosmos. All beings, all things. The good news applies globally.
After instructions about baptism, Jesus advises his disciples on how to recognize the marks of the true church, the authentic fellowship of believers. And this is where the passage gets a little strange. Jesus names the following signs of his life, present among the believers: “… by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
We are people of the book. We take very seriously the words of scripture, especially as they help to illumine the Word made flesh. But even as we receive the book, we receive interpretive tools to help us to understand it. So, we have some choices we can make in reading a passage like this. We have at least three options before us. We could read this passage and decide that we need to send our Sexton out in their pick-up trucks to bring us back some snakes so that we can get to it. Or, we could read this passage and wonder if there might be a deeper meaning to these words of Jesus, one that is more universally applicable to our understanding the signs of Jesus’ life among us. Or, we could let the passage question us, probe us, as we struggle with the question, “What are the signs of Jesus’ life today? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What are the things we think would be the essentials to any place, any fellowship that calls itself a gathering of Christians?
I’m going to opt for the middle way. As to my first idea, I think we just might lose our Sexton if we sent him off on such a safari. As to my third, I think those are questions we might all take with us as we leave today. I’m going for the middle route. How might we understand these words of Jesus in a way that makes them more applicable for today?
“By using my name they will cast out demons.” We’ve talked a lot about demons this spring… they have popped up consistently in the gospel of Mark. One of the signs of Jesus’ power is that the demons that possess people are afraid of him, and recognize his authority… and his goodness. And let’s not forget one of the ways in which demons did their damage was by forcing people out of community, breaking their relationships with others, rendering them untouchable.
What does it mean for a 21st century Christian to be a part of a church that casts out demons? One way of understanding demons is to think of them more broadly as those things that possess or control us. Understood in that way, they might be actual forces of evil… I do not deny its existence, or downplay its power. Or, our demons might be the addictions that have us by the throat… those items or activities that we cannot seem to live without, that make life bearable, that we think we must have in order to get through the day, whether we’re talking about alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal), or the urge to purchase, or the urge to dominate or control other people. Or, our demons may be emotions that overwhelm us. Some live with the demon of regret, others the demon of resentment. When Jesus lives in us the stranglehold of demons is lessened. When we are part of a community that shares life in Christ, one of the signs of his life is that we are open to him casting those demons out. One of the blessings of the demons being expelled is that the community becomes richer, deeper and more real.
“They will speak in new tongues.” For the early church one of the signs of the power and life of Christ in their midst was the ability to communicate across boundaries of language and custom. A week from now, on Pentecost Sunday, that will be the focus of one of the most dramatic readings we hear all year. One of the signs of our life in Christ is that we will be open to new ways of communicating with one another. There may be no hotter topic in church circles than this: how do we communicate effectively across boundaries of language and custom? But instead of being 1st century Palestinian Jews trying to communicate with Medes and Parthians and citizens of Mesopotamia and Cyrene, we are 21st century church people in Endicott trying to communicate with people who Twitter and who blog and who update their Facebook status, and who wouldn’t dream of missing the latest episodes of “American Idol” or “24”… but don’t seem to have much interest in prioritizing our particular Sunday morning shindig. How do we speak in new tongues? How do we share the good news in a new language? If we are living in Christ, if we have Jesus’ life in us, we will be working like crazy to figure this one out.
“They will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” You may already have figured this out, but this is the verse from today’s reading that grabbed my attention in the first place. But how do we understand these words in our context? Clearly, there are those in our day and age who still interpret them literally. You too can YouTube it and see them for yourselves. For us, I think there are other ways to understand this concept. It might have to do with dealing with difficult or dangerous people, places or things. How do you “handle” the snakes in your lives… the people who, if they bit you with their anger or their malice, you’d be afraid you might not recover? In the video, the preacher says, “If a rattler bites you, you have 45 minutes to live without medical attention… unless God takes over.” I’d say that’s a pretty good description of what it can be like if someone truly tries to harm us. We may have 45 minutes, or a day, or a week…. but unless we allow God to take over, we will soon be, spiritually speaking, in critical condition.
“If they lay their hands on the sick, they will recover.” The last sign of life Jesus identifies is a continuation of his ministry of healing. Mark’s gospel is filled with stories of Jesus healing people, and by so doing, restoring them to the community they had lost because of their illness. The true church, the place in which the life of Christ is lived, will be a place where his healing continues, and where community is restored to those who have been on the outside.
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation, says Jesus, and these signs will accompany those who believe. As I read this passage, one theme runs through these signs of Jesus’ life in the new community he shaped. They are all about healing and wholeness. They are all about the freedom that comes when your life is centered, not around yourself, but around sharing the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. They are about both individual healing and the healing of relationships… making us stronger, more whole, both in ourselves and for one another. Healing not only our own hurts, but those things that keep us isolated from a hurting world.
I keep coming back to that viewer who commented on the film: “They got something that I wish I had.” That is a sign of life for Christians as well. When we, in our fellowship—in the ways we are together and the ways we are for the community outside these walls, in the ways we sing and pray and listen and speak—when we inspire that kind of wistful longing… we know we have something here. “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” May it be so, in Jesus’ name. Amen.