4 Epiphany – January 31, 2021
So, I think today’s gospel story may be difficult for many of us to relate to. It sounds like an exorcism story and many of us have no direct experience of that. But there is so much we can learn from this story.
Mark tells this story about unclean spirits and he tells it up front. In other words at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Keep in mind that earlier in the chapter, Jesus was blessed and baptized with the Holy Spirit as he heard the promise proclaimed to him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased!” Now Mark contrasts this experience with that of the man possessed by an “unclean” spirit, spirits that are most assuredly not telling him that he is beloved of God or God-pleasing in any way. Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.
Maybe we could boil down the first chapter of Mark leading up to this story this way: Jesus has returned from the temptation in the wilderness, called his first disciples as he passed by the Sea of Galilee and the first act Jesus does is free this man from the hold of his unclean spirit and restore him to himself, to his loved ones, and to his community. The man is made whole. The very first thing.
Notice that in our story today, the people in the synagogue were “astounded” and “amazed”. When was the last time you were astounded or amazed by Jesus? We all know these are rough times, difficult times and it’s perhaps unlikely we would find amazement in our life, right? Almost one year into the pandemic, many of us are battling a deep and persistent malaise. We are weary, anxious, dejected, possibly you’re bored. We’re too worried about the future to be fully alive and focused in the present. Time drags on in “soggy shapelessness”, or flies at breakneck speed as we struggle to multitask under face masks, death tolls, mutations, and quarantines. Access to our spiritual community, our church space, ritual, and sacrament is limited. So how and why am I talking about amazement and astonishment? Perhaps it has to do with giving ourselves permission, or allowing ourselves, to be open to being astonished and amazed. To lay down our fear, our anger, our cynicism, our jealousy – all of our unclean spirits, because the list goes on – to lay them down for just a little while and be open to what Jesus is saying to us.
As Debi Thomas states so well: “Whether we regard such forces as spiritual, psychological, biological, metaphorical, or cultural, this Gospel story tells us true things about how “unclean spirits” affect and manipulate our souls.
In Mark’s story, the unclean spirit goes to the synagogue and listens to Jesus. It recognizes “the Holy One of God” before anyone else does. It calculates the stakes, realizes that Jesus’s presence signals its doom, and puts up a loud, vicious fight before it surrenders.
Does any of this sound familiar? Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places. That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our churches, our friendships, our families, and our workplaces. Sometimes our demons — our fears, our addictions, our sins, and our compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything. So they make us recoil as soon as he shows up in the guise of a loving friend, or a provocative sermon, or a pricked conscience. Sometimes our lives actually get harder when we move towards faith and healing, because unclean spirits always fight the hardest when their time is up.”
In this story we see clearly that God stands steadfastly against all those forces that are keeping us down. God is opposed to anything and everything that robs us of abundant life. God is prepared to do battle with the forces that seek to rob our lives of joy, meaning, and purpose. That is the promise in today’s reading.
I think it’s important to note that God stands against the “forces” that diminish life, not against people whom God has created. The forces of evil are hate, fear, selfishness, insecurity, etc. We seem to be in the habit of demonizing people rather than the forces of evil. The forces of evil need to be the topics of our conversations, not individuals or personalities. After all, Jesus didn’t demonize the man possessed, he released him of the forces the kept him broken.
In his healing of the man, Jesus offers us a model for how we can reckon with the forces that work against God’s desire for wholeness. Jesus responds to the spirit with calm authority. Jesus addresses the spirit from the core of who he is. He is not exhibiting a display of magic or seeking to dazzle the crowd with a show. Jesus demonstrates his willingness to confront and call out (to voice) what is contrary to God. Acting from that fiercely calm and centered place, he releases the man from the force that has tormented him.
This kind of change and reconfiguration means that a blessing is not always a comfortable and cozy thing. Sometimes the blessing most needed is one that involves confrontation and calling out, that requires standing against what is not of God. Such a blessing may be difficult to give—or to receive. It calls us to acknowledge and challenge and grapple with forces that thrive within chaos, forces that often work in ways that are exceedingly subtle and cloaked and require even more wisdom and discernment of us than when they take clear and obvious forms.
But, as Jesus shows us in this passage where we see him healing a man in the grip of a destructive spirit, such a blessing—the blessing that comes in facing the chaos rather than turning away from it, the blessing that comes in naming what is contrary to God’s purposes rather than letting it persist unchecked—makes way for the wholeness we crave. It brings release to what has been bound; it invites and enables and calls us to move with the freedom for which God made us.
“The human heart,” writes John O’Donohue, “continues to dream of a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of a life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming. To invoke a blessing is to call some of that wholeness upon a person now.”
Jan Richardson as us the questions: “Is there some part of you that has become bound—that recognizes what is holy and craves its blessing, but fears the change that would be involved? Is there a habit, a belief, a relationship, an aspect of your life that has you in its grip, that confines you, that limits the freedom with which you move through this world—perhaps without your even realizing it? Can you imagine what release would look like? Is there a destructive force at work in a person or system or institution you’re connected with, that you might be called to engage? Can you identify a first step that would help you confront what confines you or those around you?
There is an ancient Celtic Lorica, which is a prayer of protection — a prayer of encompassing — that is associated with St. Patrick because of the legend that St. Patrick prayed it when he and his companions were in danger. This prayer caused them to take on the appearance of deer and they passed safely in front of their attackers. It’s called the Breastplate of St. Patrick and also the Deer’s Cry. It’s a great spiritual practice for beginning your day. The most familiar parts of it go like this:
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name, the strong Name of the Trinity; by invocation of the same: The Three in One, and One in Three, of whom all nature has creation: Eternal Father, Spirit, Word, praise to the Lord of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.