Jesus Heckled at Chautauqua

Roderick P. Frohman Third Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2012 Mark 1:21-28

I have shared this encounter before, an incident on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania where I served my first congregation right out of Princeton Seminary. It is the story of Maria.

She was stereotyped by the students as the “Duck Lady.” Everywhere the Duck Lady went she seemed to broadcast her presence with a loud squawking that truly sounded like Donald Duck

“Squzzzzz, Squazzzzz, Squzzzz, Squawzzz.”

One day I was riding the bus down Chestnut Street. About a block before my church the Duck Lady got on squawking away,

"Squazzzz, Squizzzz”.

She didn't pay the fare and the bus driver didn't challenge her. She headed right toward me! Stopped directly in front of me and in a clear voice said,

"Excuse me, may I sit there, I am very handicapped”.

I jumped up quickly and she sat down, squawking away. Everyone on the bus stared at her and, and moved quickly away. I was totally dumfounded. She had perfect diction. She was disheveled, unclean, well, filthy to be exact, and she didn't smell too good either.

A couple of days later I saw her again in McDonalds. There she sat, over in a corner all by herself, squawking away and attempting to eat. “Attempting,” I said, because, as she squawked she also shook. Consequently her milk shake and hamburger were all over her face and dress. She was a mess. I screwed up my courage and went to sit down at her table. I had on a clerical collar so I introduced myself.

“Hi ‘'m Rod Frohman, the Assistant Pastor at Tabernacle Church around the corner, may I sit with you?”

Everyone in the restaurant observed this and I could feel the eyes and the silence descend upon us.

“Hello,” said the Duck Lady, “My name is Maria, please sit down.”

She then continued to attempt to eat and squawk, continually spilling on herself. It was difficult for me to eat under these circumstances. I had to constantly fight a gagging feeling in my throat. I couldn't bear to see the trouble she was having. So I asked,

“May I help you with your meal Maria?”

"No,” she declared between squawks and gulps, “I have to manage as best I can by myself”. “I’m sorry I sound like this but I can't help it,” she said.

And in pastoral counseling 101 method I asked, “Have you had this difficulty long?”

“Oh yes”, she replied, “About 40 years.”

And then between squawks and gulps she explained her story, how at age 20 she had fallen helplessly in love with a young medical student. They had made all the plans to be married, the day arrived, the bride was at the altar but the fiancée never showed up. Maria, possessed by grief, snapped and suffered a disorder that left her shaking, only with the added problem of involuntary squawking. I invited her to worship. She never came. I don’t know what we would have done if she HAD come!

In Love and Will, one of my top two or three consulted books of my career, the psychotherapist Rollo May describes the diamonic (Sic.) as, “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex, eros, anger, rage, the craving for power are examples. The diamonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both.” He goes on to say, “When this power goes awry and one element usurps control over the total personality we have ‘diamon possession,’ the traditional name through history for psychosis.” (p. 123)

It is very possible for any of us, like Maria the Duck Lady, to face a crisis in life and come away badly wounded, to become possessed with the crisis in such a way that it become a psychosis, described by Webster’s Dictionary as “a fundamental lasting mental derangement characterized by defective or lost contact with reality.” (Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary) Many of us know someone with a psychosis brought on by a crisis.

A non-technical review of adult crises, is the classic by Gail Sheehey, Passages: Predicable Crises of Adult Life. In the time between age 20 and 40, adults are both rooting and extending, says the author. The crises faced are whether to couple up or remain single. There is the problem of rebound from lost love and there are money crunches. The decade of the 40s is the decade of some decline, of letting go of the impossible dream, and of asking, “Where have all the children gone?” It is a time of a crisis of creativity, and a groping toward authenticity. In the 50s life begins to dramatically change. This is the crisis time, as Erik Erikson has said, of generativity versus stagnation. During the 50s some people simply run out of gas and start to coast. I know of a lot of ministers who are coasting to retirement. (And there are some days when coasting sounds quite delicious.) The years of the 60s are years of the companionship crisis. Aging sets in, disease comes, and the body begins to feel worn out. Death is taken most seriously. People in their 60s begin to worry about money again. In the 70s and beyond, comes the crisis of looking backward and trying to get a sense of approval of one’s life, of enjoying the present. Future-anxiety is heightened during the 70s.

The truth is we all could get stuck any place, any time in life. We could be the Duck Lady, and we could get stuck and become possessed by our crisis.

Now Jesus was on the Chautauqua lecture circuit up north in the seaside town of Capernaum where he worshipped and taught in the synagogue many times. As the gospel text of the morning tells us, Jesus is right in the middle of his sermon when the Duck Lady of Capernaum interrupts him, only in this case it was a man.

Can’t you just see him at Chautauqua in that large, outdoor covered arena? He is restless, milling around the edge of the seated worshippers, sitting on that white railing. Bill and Larry Leafgren, volunteer ushers from Jamestown First Presbyterian, see the man but are frozen, caught between the dilemma of either interrupting the service by ushering the man out or hoping he will settle down. But it’s too late. The man is on his feet shouting at the preacher of the day.

“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.”

How’s that for an endorsement? It is the guy that is really wacky who sees the divinity in Jesus’ humanity. All the sane people are sitting around scratching their heads and stroking their chins, thinking in pseudo intellectual sincerity,

“You know he really teaches with authority, he is a good speaker, we really enjoy it when he comes around here.”

Sometimes the endorsement from the wrong person can be the kiss of death. Jesus tells the man to clam up.

“Be silent and come out of him!” He declared.

And the gospel writer reports, “The unclean spirit convulsed him and crying with a loud voice came out of him”. Now the summer Chatauquans are buzzing,

"What is this, a new teaching with authority? Even the unclean sprints obey him."

Unclean spirit, a curious designation to modern ears. You see, in Jesus’ time people were really “into” labeling folks as clean and unclean. We are most familiar with the biblical revulsion with lepers as disease-bearing people. But the sense of uncleanliness in Hellenistic Judaism goes much farther. Things that were designated unclean were so designated not only in their biological sense but also in a moral and religious sense. A person who had a disease was thought to be morally inferior and therefore religiously unclean and forbidden to attend worship. Uncleanliness, it was thought, could cling to objects like an infection. Consequently certain objects like the walls of a house, could be unclean, as were certain animals, places, dishes, people, women after childbirth, corpses and so on. People with mental illness, thought to be possessed by demons were also were designated unclean. (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3 p 427-8) As a matter of fact, according to custom, the mentally ill man shouldn’t have been in the synagogue in the first place.

“What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth, Have you come to destroy us?”

“Excuse me, I am very handicapped. May I sit down?”

“I don't think my husband loves me any more. When I touch him he recoils as if shocked."

“I am 40 and gay, but I am afraid to tell my parents.”

“You know, I just don't care about my work any more. 20 years ago I was enthusiastic. Now I can hardly wait for my 65th birthday.”

“I’ve got this disease, I know it is going to get me. But as I look back over my life I’m not sure I’ve done anything worthwhile.”

“What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

Us... we,...the possessed,... the depressed,... the troubled,...the tortured,...the defeated....We who are close to giving up, giving in to an addiction, an urge. We who are fed up, disgusted with many institutions and people. “Don't you come near me you Holy One of God, you might expose me for who I am. If you get any closer I will be embarrassed, I will have to look at myself, and everyone will look at me as if I were walking naked down the street.”

Sometimes threshold events become a crisis and expose anxieties long festering.

I will not ever forget the when I officiated at the marriage of my oldest daughter, Jananne now the mother of two children. It was a wonderful, celebrative event, but not without some anxiety leading up to it. A couple of evenings after we returned home to Rochester I was awakened in the middle of the night by a very strange dream. My infant daughter Jananne and I were camping out on a baseball diamond. We had pitched our tent on the infield and were having a great time. I was hitting flies to Jananne who, at one year of age, was simply sitting in the outfield pulling out dandelions. Along came the police who informed me that camping was not allowed on baseball fields. I engaged them in a debate about the right to peaceably assemble in a public place. But while the civics debate ensued a strange “Van Dyke” mustached man emerged in the outfield and began to kidnap my infant daughter. I screamed for the police to help but they didn’t seem to think anything was wrong. Then I woke up, breathing heavily and realizing that the kidnapper was my new son-in-law, Jeremy.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I thought, “I guess I still have some unresolved issues to deal with.” (Jeremy has become a wonderful son-in-law.) In over 40 years in the ministry I have officiated at over 300 weddings. Now as a parent I understand; the marriage of one’s children IS a predictable crisis of adult life. If you are interested in how various crises of adult life are calibrated, just go on line to Holmes-Rahe Stress Test.

To those of us in some crisis, predictable or otherwise, Jesus says,

“Look, calm down, be quiet, slow down, take it easy, come on out. Let it out, tell the story.”

With a convulsion of a life-time of holding in his fears lest he be thought to be unclean, after a lifetime of living with other people’s stereotypes of him, the man in the synagogue lets out a primal scream and releases his anxiety into the laps of unexpecting worshippers. The crisis is weathered, catharsis expressed, threshold crossed, a long oppressed spirit goes free.

In our frenzied go-go-go world we need to hear those words of Jesus over and over again,

“Be still, be silent, come out.”

We need to stop running, stop fooling ourselves, face the diamonic that lies within us: that rage, that depression, that sourness, that constant complaining, that hate, that intolerance, that low self esteem, that sense of failure, that exhaustion, that anxiety, that loneliness, that feeling of being stuck where we are. For so long we have denied that these feelings even exist.

Now here is the fulcrum on which all of this swings. The opportunity for healing arises precisely at the point of greatest resistance. Like the man in the synagogue afraid that Jesus would expose him, if we are unwilling to talk about our problems then we are truly possessed by them and they poison our entire system making us unclean, unhealthy, and, well, not very pleasant to be around. “Caught up by passions and compulsions that destroy us, we are closest to healing when we shout most loudly that we want nothing to do with those who can help. This is the difficult moment when, needing healing, we are called to resist our own resistance.” (Christian Century, 2-3-91 p. 74)

Be silent, be still, and with the strong presence of Christ with us, dare to face the situations and the people that need to be faced; spouses, colleagues, friends, bosses, institutions and most importantly, ourselves. Christ has not come to destroy us but to confront us and set us free. When the holy silence surrounds us then the demon will come out, perhaps with sudden insight, or more slowly, over time. The peace of Christ will set us free.

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