Rev. Kim Becker; 4th Sunday after the Epiphany; Feb. 1, 2015; Mark 1:21-28
As a scary movie buff, I have seen The Exorcist many times, including the uncut director’s version that is even more terrifying. The Exorcist is a classic because it portrays the ancient rivalry deeper than any Super Bowl: the contest between good and evil.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I once received a call from a patient convinced she needed an exorcism. I told myself there was probably a rational explanation for her claim. Still, as Christians we pray the Lord’s Prayer —deliver us from evil —and in our baptismal covenant we renounce Satan and all spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. The Episcopal Church recognizes the possibility of the need for the ministry of exorcism, however rare, stating that if a priest suspects the need for exorcism that priest is to contact the bishop, who alone has the authority to proceed. In this case my patient’s schizophrenia and cancer that had metastasized to her brain were the likeliest reasons for her sense of being possessed by evil, and thankfully she was reassured with prayers and the offer of a house blessing. Still, as I entered that house I was praying protection since I had no idea what was waiting for me once I crossed the threshold. In Jesus’ time no one would have questioned the possibility of the need for an exorcism or the validity of unclean spirits. No one would have been quick to explain the phenomenon away as being due to physical or mental illness as modern readers are apt to do. And yet as contemporary Christians we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility of evil.
Our collect for the day alerts us to the theme of God’s authority that ties the readings together. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus actually embodies, incarnates, a new teaching, one with authority. And so while today’s Gospel passage seems to be about exorcism it really isn’t. Or rather exorcism exemplifies the primary message: the authority of Jesus’ teaching.
Today, with so much information available from so many sources, how do we discern whether a source is truthful or not? Many of us rely on Snopes to fact-check circulating stories, but as Christians, we can rely on Scripture to faith-check our salvation story. Jesus has unique credentials: when he was baptized by the prophet John, a voice from heaven said “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus doesn’t preach on a street corner; he goes straight to the synagogue, the heart of Jewish sacred space and center of control. We don’t know the content of his teaching, only that everyone was astounded by it, including the scribes, professional authorities who interpreted Jewish law and therefore were used to controlling Scripture. Mark omits the content of the teaching in order to highlight the authority of the Teacher. The scribes’ authority was self-appointed whereas Jesus has already been appointed as God’s Beloved Son.
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out “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 did the man know Jesus’ name? Don’t we always study our enemies and know our rivals’ identity? Using someone’s name was a way to gain the upper hand. And who is the we? Does the man have multiple personalities or does the use of the plural resonate with the later confession we are legion Jesus extracts from another unclean spirit in another exorcism? Have you come to destroy us? Some read this as fear. I hear it also as challenge. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Maybe bravado. Either way, the unclean spirit knows it has met its match. But why did the man with the unclean spirit cry out? Why would something evil blow its own cover? Why would evil announce itself that way?
In watching news stories about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I remembered a quotation by Elie Wiesel who said that Hitler was the only person ever to keep his promise to the Jewish people. Sometimes evil does indeed announce itself. At my first parish, with help of some amazing teachers, I was honored to implement the first Journey to Adulthood program culminating in a pilgrimage to Prague. One of the places we visited was the concentration camp Terezin. This was the model camp set up by Nazis. I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a collection of artwork and poetry by these children. Evil speaks but goodness speaks with more authority. And lest we think the Holocaust was only in Europe let us not forget the genocide here against American Indians on the Trail of Tears. Evil can and does announce itself.
How does Jesus respond to the man with the unclean spirit? Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” It is also the only time in this passage that we hear any actual content of Jesus’ amazing teaching and it is then we realize that the exorcism isn’t an interruption to the teaching it IS the teaching! The writer of the Gospel of Mark silences the rest of Jesus’ teaching so that what we see is Jesus the Teacher: Jesus’ authority rests not only in what He says, but in Who He is: the Holy One of God. Life cannot always be scripted. Interruptions happen (and I remember my first bishop reminding clergy that our interruptions are our work!), but a good teacher knows that an interruption can lead to a teachable moment. A teacher with less authority than Jesus would have likely tried to shout over the commotion or called for the man’s physical removal without addressing the spiritual crisis. Rather than avoid confronting the man, Jesus instead meets him where he is, in his suffering, which is where Jesus meets all of us.
The reaction of the crowd was as expected: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” The effect on Jesus’ reputation is that his reviews on Rate My Professor go way up: At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. This may seem like good news, who wouldn’t want to be famous as a teacher, but remember that up til now even Jesus’ disciples didn’t know his true identity and as Jesus’ fame spread, he became more of a threat to those already in authority. A regular miracle worker curing people of demons would have been cause for celebration, not crucifixion.
But something still troubles me about the passage: why did the man with the unclean spirit cry out to begin with? Could it be that the man with the unclean spirit was hurting and wanted to be recognized? Maybe it was a human cry mixed with the unclean spirit’s cry. This reminds me of what the poet Rilke wrote: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Maybe it was not only the unclean spirit crying out, but the man trapped, helpless, by what he could not control.
Jesus not only delivered the man from the unclean spirit but also delivered the man back to himself. In his advice to a young poet, Rilke was suggesting that in the act of creating, artists must go straight to the scariest deepest parts of ourselves. In the act of freeing the man from the unclean spirit, Jesus reminds us that in creating a life we do not have to act alone: we can co-create with God to change even the most demonic parts of ourselves, so that by God’s grace, we are brought back into right relation not only with God, but with ourselves and our communities.
Only God can restore us to sanity and serenity.
Have we encountered evil? Perhaps not in the dramatic way of the Gospel, but what about the racial slur or homophobic remark we overhear and do not rebuke? Are we not then complicit? If we fail to respect the dignity of every human being have we not ourselves succumbed to unclean spirits? The antidote to unclean spirits is the Holy Spirit.
The world is full of heartbreak and downright evil, but there is also astonishing beauty. Not too long ago I saw, for the first time, a circum zenithal arc more commonly called an upside down rainbow or a smile in the sky. My response was much like the Psalmist’s: Hallelujah! …Great are the deeds of the Lord!….His work is full of majesty and splendor! Does it detract from the event to know there is a scientific explanation for it having to do with high altitude and ice crystals? Not at all. When we see with the eyes of faith we see things differently. It is good to use our reason. It is also good to use our faith. We live in that tension and our challenge is to discern what and whose authority we are willing to follow in our lives and then to rebuke whatever gets in the way of our relationship with God.
It is an ongoing process. Progress not perfection. But there are moments when evil is rebuked and we are amazed. The decision to overturn the sit-in conviction of the Friendship Nine who dared to sit at a white lunch counter was explained thus by the Judge: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” As a nation we continue to exorcise the evils of racism and our work is not done. As Christians the Holy Spirit has already begun a good work in us. And the Holy Spirit is always, always, capable of doing far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Amen