This is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, in Milwaukie, Oregon. The texts were Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28. You can read the text or watch the sermon below.
The Hebrew Bible reading today has Moses promising the people that after he dies, God will send them a prophet to instruct and guide them. God has sent many prophets throughout the ages to instruct and guide us. We generally think of prophets simply as those who tell us the future. But prophecy is much more than that. The prophetic warning has much more to do with the present than it does with the future. Prophets rise up in oppressive and violent cultures to warn the people that they better change their ways now, and if they don’t, there will be disastrous consequences in the future.
We lost one of our great modern prophets this last week. Ursula Le Guin, our fellow Portlander and great science fiction author, died last Monday. When I read our passage this week where Moses promises prophets to come, I thought of Le Guin.
Le Guin was a prophet in many ways. For example, she wrote a scathing critique early in her career of the science fiction genre. She said it “seemed to be all about hardware and soldiers: White men go forth and conquer the universe.” She, on the other hand, decided to write science fiction from another perspective. She highlighted those on the underside, those who are often the victims of human culture. Or, as she put it, she wrote: “from the point of view of the conquered.”
History is written by the winners. You’ve heard that before. It’s true, except when it comes to the prophets. They always point our attention to those who are harmed by the larger culture. And that’s exactly what Le Guin did.
The Once Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Prophetic Warning
Along with pointing our attention to those on the margins, Le Guin critiqued power structures. She did this particularly well in her short story titled, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I’m tempted to read the story to you, it’s so good, but I’ll summarize it briefly.
Omelas is a joyful place, filled with summertime festivals, music and, year-long happiness. Everyone is happy in Omelas, well, almost everyone. You see, there’s a catch. The joy of Omelas depends upon one child, who suffers while locked in an isolated broom closet. The child isn’t loved; it is fed just enough to survive. People enter the closet, looking at the child with fear and disgust as they drop bits of food. They occasionally kick the child who lives in fear.
The people of Omelas try to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the child, but they all know the child is there. Some of them justify their abuse of the child, reasoning that the child should not be freed because it wouldn’t know how to live in Omelas’s society. Besides, they made a deal, knowing that their happiness and privilege depends on this child’s misery.
Like many great stories, this one has an uncomfortable ending. Nobody rescues the child and, as a whole, the citizens of Omelas never change their ways.
Omelas and a Culture of Scapegoating
A few citizens begin to realize that happiness based on the suffering of anyone is happiness based on a lie. Some begin to realize their privilege is based on a culture of scapegoating. There was hostility and violence in Omelas. It just got channeled against one innocent individual. Notice that the problem in Omelas is not the child. The problem is within the larger community. A few people gradually sense that the joy in Omelas is corrupt and so they walk away. Le Guin writes, “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”
But I think the reason that this story is so gripping is because, at a fundamental level, we know it’s true. As a white, middle class, heterosexual male, it’s easier for me to identify with the people of Omelas than with the poor child in the broom closet. It’s far too easy for me to sit in relative comfort, joy, and privilege of my identity while I easily turn a blind eye to the suffering of those labeled “illegal” immigrants, from women suffering from sexual abuse, from the poor, from our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer siblings, from those with black and brown bodies, and from those suffering from US drone attacks halfway across the world. These people easily act as scapegoats for the larger culture, as the larger culture channels inner hostility and violence against them.
But the prophet Ursula Le Guin wouldn’t allow us to turn away from the scapegoats of human culture, and neither would the prophet Jesus.
Jesus, Authority, and the Man with an Unclean Spirit
In our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus begins his public ministry by entering a synagogue on the sabbath. He teaches them and everyone is amazed at his authority. Authority has a bad reputation in our progressive liberal culture, and for good reason. We know of many people in positions of power who have abused their authority without any regret. They lack humility and they become consumed with their authority as they become tyrannical authoritarians. This is known today as toxic masculinity.
But Jesus holds a different kind of authority. Interestingly, while people were amazed at the authority of his teachings, our story doesn’t tell us what exactly Jesus taught. Rather, the story connects Jesus teachings with his ability to heal a man from an unclean spirit. This man, like the child in the basement in story of Omelas, was ostracized by his community. He wasn’t loved. He was relegated to the margins. And some used their authority to keep him there.
The authority of Jesus doesn’t rest on violence, coercion, or exclusion. Jesus’ authority is the authority to love and to heal. To bring those on the margins back into a loving community. And so Jesus healed the man by exorcizing the unclean spirit from his body. But we are left to ask, was it really the community that was possessed by an unclean spirit? For this man was a product of his community.
The Holy Spirit vs. the Unclean Spirit
We moderns have a difficult time understanding this language. What is an unclean spirit? The best way I know how to describe an unclean spirit is by telling you what it is not. The unclean spirit is not the Holy Spirit. A few weeks ago we briefly discussed Jesus’s baptism. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove and Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”
What did Jesus do to make him worthy of being God’s beloved child? According to the Gospels, nothing. Jesus hadn’t done a thing to earn the status of God’s “beloved child.” And that, according to spiritual author Henri Nouwen is the point. In his book, Life of the Beloved, Nouwen says that the words God spoke to Jesus at his baptism are the words that God speaks to all of us. The Holy Spirit only says words to us like, “You are my beloved child. I love you.”
So the unclean spirit says the opposite. An unclean spirit is any voice that tells us we aren’t loved. It says you aren’t loved unless you act a certain way or look a certain way or make enough money or achieve a certain amount of social status, power, or prestige. And even then, no one can keep up. The man possessed by an unclean spirit was tormented by the voice that told him nobody loved him. And where did those voice come from? Like the community in Omelas who dehumanized the child, the man in this story was treated by certain members of his community like he was worthless. It wasn’t just the man who needed an exorcism. Powerful members of the community were also possessed. They needed an exorcism.
Jesus and the #MeToo Movement
That was Jesus’s mission in enacting the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus didn’t see this man as the community that relegated him to the margins saw him. Rather, Jesus saw this one possessed by an unclean spirit as a beloved child of God. He knew that they were connected at the human level. Jesus was able to separate the man from the unclean spirit. And Jesus was able to empathize with this man possessed by the unclean spirit.
Jesus was able to empathize with the man because he also heard those demonic voices. Mark tells us that after his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus heard the voice of the unclean spirit, too. He had to grapple with that spirit, too. And so when Jesus came face to face with this man possessed by an unclean spirit, he was able to stand in solidarity with him. In essence, Jesus was able to say to the man, me too.
Isn’t this what we all want? Isn’t this what that poor child in the closet in Omelas wanted? Isn’t this what we want when we are suffering and in pain, when we feel isolated and excluded? We want someone to come to us and say “Me too. I’m here with you. You are loved.”
This is what’s so great about the Me Too movement. For too long we have lived in a culture that tells men that to be a man they need an abusive kind of authority and power. Economic power. Political power. And, yes, sexual power over women. And women are rising up to tell their stories about abuse. They are rising up to say Me Too.
Our Culture Needs a Good Exorcism
And men, we are often told to sit down, shut up, and listen. And, I must admit, as a pastor who preaches long sermons, I know there’s wisdom in the advise to sit down and shut up! But I think we men need to do more. We would do well to become more aware of the unclean spirits that possesses our culture. Like the child in Omelas and like the man possessed by unclean spirit were marginalized by their societies that were possessed, so we continue to live in a possessed culture that devalues women economically, politically, and that devalues a woman’s body.
And time is up. In fact, the time is way overdue. We men need to pay attention to those demonic messages that objectify women in subtle and overt ways so that we can deal with them. Our culture needs a good exorcism of the violence and dehumanization against women. Like Jesus said to the unclean spirits that possessed the man, “Be silent, and come out of him,” we can all tell those cultural messages that enter our heads to shut up and go away.
For God comes to all of us in Jesus and says, “Me Too.”
God comes to us through prophets like Ursula Le Guin and says stop the culture of scapegoating.
God comes to us and invites us to transform a culture of violence into a culture of love, empathy, and compassion.
May we participate in that culture today and every day of our lives. Amen.