Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 28

Lessons:

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

 

 

It’s the Sabbath, Jesus has gone to the Synagogue (as is his habit), and there he is teaching. And the people who are listening to him, Mark tells us in his tantalising brevity, are astonished because he teaches as one having authority. Something about his words, his manner, the content of his teaching, just who he I, says that he knows what he is talking about.

As Jesus teaches with authority, abruptly, a man with an unclean spirit enters the scene. Today, our mental picture of what this man might look like is heavily shaped by medieval paintings and by Hollywood movies. It is not hard to imagine the man’s head rotating 360 degrees, him body levitating, his eyes burning red and his skin a cadaverous grey. That may or may not have been what Mark’s audience imagined when they gathered around the campfire and Mark first told this story to them. We don’t know.

While we don’t know much about his appearance, we do know that the man has an aggressive, yelling manner. He yells at everyone, he yells at Jesus:

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

So there is fear and recognition is the man’s voice. And then something fascinating happens. Did you notice it? From one sentence to the next, the man switches from the first person plural – from “us” – to the first person singular. He says:

I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

Jesus responds: Be silent. Come out of him!

And the unclean spirit does come out.

The people watching are amazed. Their mouths hang open in wonder, their eyes bulge wide, they gasp. They say – as you and I might say in the same circumstances:

What is this?

The people are like an audience watching a magic trick, asking the question: How did he do that? Except that Jesus’ magic trick is not an illusion. It’s real: the man is transformed. And then, like the man with the unclean spirit, what they say next is fascinating and, at least to my ears, unexpected.

They answer their own question – What is this? – by saying:

It’s a new teaching – with authority.

Huh.

So Jesus casting out the unclean spirit is not just gift to the man whom the spirit plagued, but it is also a lesson. A lesson for those watching and, across time thanks to Mark, a lesson for you and me. It is a lesson about who Jesus is and maybe, as his followers, who you and I are called to be. The Christian movement, after all, has long affirmed that one of the goals of discipleship, maybe the whole goal of discipleship, is to become Christ-like ourselves. In the famous words of Thomas à Kempis, we are called to The Imitation of Christ.

If the crowd gathered at the synagogue is right, if this is a lesson, then what is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us?

This morning, I’d like to wonder with you about that question by looking at the shift from the plural to the singular in the man’s speech.

Living in 2018 in Portland, the notion of an unclean spirit, of demonic possession, is not a common one. There may be some of our neighbours for whom this is a concept that is coherent or consistent within their worldview, but for most of us this is unfamiliar language. I often visit with folks who are struggling in some way or who have a family member who is struggling in some way, and exactly never has someone said to me, “Oh, Dave has an unclean spirit. He’s been possessed since the late nineties.”

(My apologies to anyone here this morning named Dave.)

Because the language of unclean spirits doesn’t dovetail into the stories and assumptions that most of us in Portland have about the world, a lot of Pacific Northwest Christians – particularly those of us who worship in what we might call progressive parishes – respond to a story like the one we hear today from Mark with embarrassment. One of our go-to strategies is to ignore these stories. You often hear Christians in parishes such as Grace talking about Jesus as an author of parables, as a healer, as a sharer or meals. But pretty rarely will you hear us acknowledging Jesus as someone who casts out demons.

Another strategy that we employ is to try to shoehorn these tales into our own, pre-existing worldview. So we will say: an unclean spirit is just how people in the first century understood epilepsy or mental illness. And I guess that could be true. We don’t know.

I’m wondering about another way, however. I’m wondering about a scenario in which, whether or not we think that there are literal unclean spirits or demons at work in our world, we allow that the idea of a demon remains a useful one. Could this be an idea, a lens for reality, that invites us into compassion for ourselves and for others and that deepens our commitment to justice?

This is where I want to suggest that the man’s shift in language holds a key lesson, that the shift is a big part of what Jesus wants us to know through this teaching. When the man first says, “us,” we may deduce that he and his unclean spirit are speaking as one. They are, in this sentence, a team or a single unit or a family, they are indivisible. But as Jesus confronts the unclean spirit, the spirit begins to speak on its own, independently of the man.

What this shift proclaims is that the man is not his demon. And across 2000 years, it proclaims that we aren’t our demons. We may have demons – but they aren’t who we are, they aren’t how God made us, they aren’t want God plans for and wants us to be. We are not our addictions. We are not the crime that we committed when we were young. We are not the cruel thing that we said or did to the one whom we loved. There is no escaping that there are things that we have done or left undone. And we are called to name those things and repent for them.

But those things aren’t us.

Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t intend in any way to argue that the notion of a demon represents an excuse for bad or immoral behaviour. If I cheat on my taxes, I don’t get to say, “Oh, that was my demon,” at which point the IRS gives me a mulligan. To the contrary, the lens of the demon insists that, if I am participating or I have participated in something immoral, then I am in profound need of healing, profound need of repentance, profound need to turn back to Jesus, to ask Jesus to help restore me to being the person whom Jesus wants and expects me to be.

And furthermore let’s be clear, this story says that there is nothing simple or easy or asking for Jesus to rid us of a demon. When Jesus cast out the man’s unclean spirit, the man convulses and cries in a loud voice. In a funny way, in a terrible way, there is a comfort in our demons. We know them, they are kind of predictable, we have learned how to make them fit into our lives, more or less. Saying goodbye to them hurts.

I guess that what I want to argue is that the lens for reality via which we speak of unclean spirits or demons is two things. First, it is an invitation into compassion: for ourselves and for our neighbours when we fail. We live in a age (maybe every age is like this – I don’t know) when we are heavily drawn into a binary way of subdividing the world, so that there are good guys and bad guys, people in Category “A,” whom we can safely admire, and people in Category “B,” whom we can safely hold in contempt. We become confused and frustrated and fearful when someone moves from one category to another or when it is ambiguous as to which category they properly belong. We become even more confused and frustrated and fearful when it becomes ambiguous as to which category we ourselves properly belong.

The lens of the demon or the unclean spirit says that everyone, everyone belongs to Category “A” and that all of us, at least to some extent, have demons which belong in Category “B.” Our Category “B,” our demon, is asserting itself when we call the humanity of another person into question, when we engage in destructive gossip, when our own comfort becomes more important than someone else’s suffering. When our demon arises, we are called to be patient with ourselves – struggling with the darkness is a universal part of being alive. We are called to repent. And we are called to extend the same patience and the same invitation to repentance to our fellow human beings, including the ones that we like least and respect least.

And that leads me to, second, the lens of the demon calls us as Christians to function prophetically, to name demons when we see them. That includes the hard work of naming the demons in our own lives. And it includes the maybe even harder work of naming our culture’s shared demons.

Consider the demon that is consumerism, the way of being in the world that says that the test for something being right or wrong is whether or not we have enough room on our MasterCard to pay for it, not whether this purchase will hurt the earth or the person who manufactures it for us. Consider the demon that is nationalism, the way of being that says that migrants and refugees from outside of our borders are, in a real sense, less human than us, less worthy of safety and stability. Consider – and we just passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let’s name one of the demons that he talked about – that of militarism, the demon that celebrates state-sanctioned violence. This is not even close to a complete list: let’s think about the demons of racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia.

Here, it is as a culture that we are called to repent.

Here is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us. In the move from “us” to “I” and the subsequent casting out from the demon, we learn that while God could destroy you and me because of the demons that we carry, God won’t do that. What God will do – if we allow God, because God never makes us do anything, God respects our free will too much for that – is to heal us and restore. Come to Jesus, this story says, with your own demons, with the demons of our shared culture. Come to Jesus, the one with authority, and he will set you free.