January 28, 2024 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Kalaupapa Sunday – Annual Meeting


Rev. Scott Landis

Mark 1: 21-28

Over the past two Sundays we have centered our attention on Jesus’ call of the first disciples including the invitation to follow him and the challenge to move from fishing in the Sea of Galilee to fishing for people in the broader region. I enjoyed using the series approach to preaching during those two weeks and have decided to do the same for the next three Sundays – beginning today. 

The next three gospel readings from the book of Mark introduce us to the more formal public phase of Jesus’ ministry. Here we witness three unique aspects of discipleship that Jesus taught by his words and life example. I will focus on one each week – with this week’s emphasis being “discernment” actively seeking God’s will for our lives. 

One of my mentors in the Shalem Spiritual Guidance program where I spent two years in training used to say, “whenever you are trying to figure out what God is doing in your life you must ‘discern, discern, discern.’” I can still hear her saying that, but what does that mean? How do we do that, and what does that have to do with this strange story from Mark?

Today’s gospel story may sound rather bizarre to you. The scene may take some of you back to that extremely popular movie in the early 70’s called, The Exorcist. You remember? The story is of a distraught mother who enlists the services of two Catholic priests to cast out a demon that possessed her daughter. Who can forget that spinning head and projectile vomiting? Is that what Jesus was doing? 

Well, in a way, yeah. It was not uncommon for folks at the time to consider mental illnesses of any sort was a form of demon possession. Moreover, it was believed that only holy powers stood any chance of effectively fighting and defeating the demonic. Thus, the dialogue between Jesus and the unclean spirit that was controlling the man he met in the synagogue. What we have is a classic cosmic battle between good and evil and the demonstration that God’s powers were mightier than the demoniac’s. But we all know – and have likely experienced – that life is not always that clear cut. The specificity of good and evil is rarely so obvious. 

So, rather than delve into the concept of demon possession and whether anyone – priest or otherwise – has the power to cast them out then or now, I believe, the more important aspect of this story is how we distinguish between opposing forces. This, in part, is the work of discernment, and it plays a key role as we stand between these two and deal with the tension they bring to our lives. 

It's rather easy to distinguish or “discern” between good and evil in scenes like the ones portrayed in “The Exorcist” or in situations like the confrontation between Jesus and the “demon-possessed” man, but how about when the motives or the appearances are not so obvious? 

Here’s a case in point. Today is Kalaupapa Sunday. On this day we recognize the travesty of how those afflicted with Hansen’s Disease (also known as leprosy) were treated. In the bible, those so afflicted were thought of as “untouchable,” “unclean,” and in some cases “demon-possessed,” and so, they were forced to live on the margins - separated from the community. The separation between the clean and unclean was easily made and like those relegated to the peninsula of Kalaupapa on Moloka’i, biblical lepers were also forcibly removed from family, community, and any services to assist them. They were left to fend for themselves. 

The numbers are astounding – nearly 8,000 people were shipped – and in some cases literally thrown overboard to swim or drown on their way to this remote location – 95% of whom were Hawaiian men, women, and children. Was this practice evil? Were they evil? Was the internment of Japanese Americans evil? Or how about the isolation of those suffering from AIDS in the 1980’s – or the quarantine of those infected with COVID — was that evil?

  You see discernment is not always easy. Discernment often uncovers many tentacles and a whole host of emotions that may cloud our ability to see and to understand. These compromising factors (fear being a major one) may distort our view or distract us from the real issue at hand. Yet the example set by Jesus, I believe, was both instructive and helpful. It was certainly noticed by those who witnessed what he did AND what he said.

Read the story carefully. Mark records, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having “authority.” Even the unclean spirit recognized this “authority.” “What have you come to do, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God. 

The difference between Jesus’ teaching and all the other religious leaders of the day, was he taught with “authority.” His strength, his power came from his authentic witness which was firmly rooted in Truth – not fear. That is how we must go about our discernment on any situation. 

We will fail to discern between good and evil, right and wrong, or the best course of action unless we are firmly rooted in the Truth – God’s truth – and that is only possible when engaging what I will be discussing in the next two Sundays – prayer and deep listening to surrounding voices as we seek God’s will. 

Discernment must be rooted and grounded in God – not the emotional turbulence which can quickly distort our understanding. 

Discernment is what motivated Fr. Damien – later known as Saint Damien when he went to Kalaupapa and ministered to the people there. In prayer and careful listening to God and the needs of those affected he found the courage and strength to minister to others not as  untouchable, but as children of God. 

Later this morning we will gather as church members to discern the way forward by adopting reports, passing a budget, electing members to serve various positions, and in reaffirming and modifying By-laws for our congregation. The greater work has already been done by a committee who painstakingly reviewed each sentence to determine the best governing structure and it’s relevance for our day. Sometimes discernment is that tedious. 

The bottom line is we are at what Hawaiians would refer to as “huliau” in our congregational history. It’s an important turning point – a time of transition that requires our ability to discern the way forward. 

Much work on that has already been done in the selection of the next Kahu to provide pastoral leadership for the church. But there is still so much more work to do as you determine the best way to use the resources with which God has blessed Keawala’i.  

So we have the opportunity to practice today. Through prayer and deep listening I encourage you to do this by standing in the Truth – God’s Truth – a path that you will discern together — a path that will be our guide and lead us home. 


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