This sermon was preached Sunday, January 31, 2021 at Danville Congregational Church United Church of Christ. The featured text was Mark 1:21–28.
This morning, we have heard a complicated text about healing.
A text that assures us: healing is coming.
It is Mark’s account of Jesus’ first miracle, a healing of sorts. After calling the first disciples, Jesus journeys to a nearby fishing village. As would be his custom, Jesus attended the local synagogue where he would end up being the day’s “guest preacher.” He has everyone’s rapt attention, teaching, the text says, with authority, with confidence.
At some point during his teaching, one of the members of the community there to hear the teaching bursts out, interrupting Jesus. Now, this was not a Zoom session so the producer couldn’t just ‘mute’ the man; Jesus rebukes the nature of the interruption and heals the man of whatever was afflicting him.
Now—the text, and the opening hymn we heard today, uses some complicated language to tell this story. And so it is here I want to make some notes and disclaimers up front about this text.
First: To present scripture, we typically prefer to use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (or NRSV). Today, though, I wanted us to hear the text from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. Though not at all a literal, word-by-word translation, The Message is an attempt to relate the ancient text into a more contemporary context. Today’s reading helps us access the text without some of the more problematic language I will discuss in a minute. I highly recommend reading The Message in conversation with the NRSV to perhaps deepen one’s understanding or discover new insights.
Second: Mark uses the language of “unclean spirit” multiple times in his gospel to describe the condition of many people Jesus healed—the man in our story today; crowds of people with various diseases (ch. 3); a man referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac (ch. 5); a girl (ch. 7); and a little boy who could neither hear nor speak and suffered violent seizures (ch. 9).
[Curiously, those who did not understand Jesus’ teaching or the healing he did accused Jesus himself of having an unclean spirit! (ch. 3)]
This language “unclean” is rooted in the Jewish people’s understanding of their law’s requirement of ritual cleanliness before being able to worship God; in their understanding, only “places [and bodies] and things that were clean could host or safely encounter the divine presence [of God].” [Simone, 2018.] Think of it is your mother refusing to let you sit down at the table until your hands have been washed—and not just hold them under the water for a second and shaken off and wiped on your shorts—I mean the thorough-use-soap-and-hot-water-scrub-for-20-seconds-and-your-fingernails-too kind of hand-washing. And so in that day: people with diseases or presumed to be possessed by unclean spirits or demons, to name a few, were considered unclean. As a result, these folx were excluded from religious rituals and often marginalized to the point of being cast out of their communities, left to suffer alone.
So while this text could be taken literally to mean ‘demonic possession’—and maybe it was—it is also possible that this language is how ancient people, who lacked an understanding of medical science, explained a range of conditions and behaviors, from acute mental illness to long-term, untreated mental health issues.
And this is where the description of “unclean” and even “demonic” is unhelpful if not also harmful to many who hear these words today.
So I say very earnestly to anyone who hears or reads my words: if you or someone you love struggles with mental illness—that does not make you or them unclean. People may stigmatize you because of it but this text does not mean and should never be used to make you think that there is something about your body or mind that can separate you or them from the love of God, that makes you or them something less than the very reflection of God’s SELF.
We have a very rich and complex language … but sometimes language fails us, and our understanding lacks. I am so sorry if God’s Word, the Gospel of Jesus, has been used to hurt you or make you feel like an outcast. My friends: this text very definitely speaks to us today to inspire hope of healing, whatever our condition—but never, ever to make us think we are “unclean” or separable from God.
Third: this text, I believe, does not refer only to supernatural possession or illnesses of the body and mind. It also speaks to human conditions, ways of thinking, and actions that “can distort and completely hinder encounters with God’s presence.” [Simone, 2018.] This space is where I would like us to journey for the remainder of the morning.
And so going forward, instead of considering the condition of “being filled with an unclean spirit,” I will instead reframe these ways of being as “being occupied by a spirit that separates us from each other and inhibits our experience of God’s presence within us.” Think of this in the way we think about a territory being occupied by an unwelcomed, unwanted, foreign entity.
Movement 1: Reading the World
As we seek to [uncover] the meaning a text like this might mean for our lives today, I invite us to try to understand the Word of God not just through the lens of our own reason (which we in the UCC love to do!) but also by “reading the world” around us.
Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire, best known for his influential work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, framed the experience of learning as the process of a learner continually reading the world around them, then learning—and reading—the word, cyclically—on and on—throughout life. Now, at the risk of over-simplifying this liberative pedagogical method: I’ll try to explain it this way:
A child may learn that together the letters c-a-t spell the word cat, but what gives the word meaning is the child’s experience of a cat.
- Read the world: I love this little furry thing that makes purring sounds and meows.
- Read the word: c-a-t, k-aaa-tt. cat.
- Read the world: Oh, that thing rubbing up against my leg and purring is a cat.
- Read the word: C.A.T. is cat.
The result: I know what the word cat is and I know that this is a cat.
Reading the world gives reading the word meaning.
Repeating the process expands and transforms the meaning.
So, in seminary, our spiritual guides and professors applied this concept to our interpretation of the Bible, also known as the ‘Word’, continually urging us to,
“Read the world, then read the [W]ord.(So grateful to Rev. Odette Lockwood Stewart for this lesson which has never left me.)
Read the world. Read the [W]ord.”
So with that in mind, what might this text about “being occupied by a spirit that separates us from each other and inhibits God’s presence within us”—what might it mean if we pause first to read the world around us?
Let’s read the world together.
Type in the chat…behaviors…ways of being…attitudes that separate us from each other and inhibit God’s transformative presence within us. What might we consider occupying spirits within us today?
[Read what is contributed]
There are a variety of ways occupying spirits can separate us from each other and inhibit God’s transformative presence within us.
- Compulsive vices like cruelty, or addiction, or pridefulness can occupy us and prevent ‘our better angels’ from functioning in life-giving ways.
- The prevalence of housing insecurity, food insecurity; the lack of resources for addiction treatment and mental health care reveals not so much individual brokenness—although that is a result—but rather a society that is weakened by a lack of empathy and dominated by an abundance of apathy and greed.
- The way bodies have been treated as a result of a virus—like those victims of the AIDS pandemic who were abandoned by society, families, and churches; or people of Asian descent who recently falsely and cruelly blamed and bullied for the spread of Covid19.
- The way the grip of homophobia and transphobia inspires churches and parents to reject LGBTQ+ people; incites bullying and violence; and generates self-hate and self-harm among queer people.
- The way Black bodies are treated in our streets and brown bodies at our borders…
And as we read the world, we must look at the prevalence of white supremacy throughout history and in this moment in time and the violence it inflicts upon body and spirit. How although racism in this country is nothing new, the evil it wreaks and the violence it inflicts upon Black bodies can no longer be so easily ignored. And we know that we do not have to be avowed white supremacists or white nationalists or to be descended from slave-owners or only be white for racism to occupy our spirits. Racist ideas are infused into our systems, our policies; consciously and unconsciously held in our hearts and minds; and continuously inflicted upon the bodies of Black and brown people.
So we have read the world and the world needs healing. We need healing.
Greed, cruelty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and yes WHITE SUPREMACY—are but a few occupying spirits that inflict deep suffering upon humanity.
So now, let’s read the [W]ord.
Movement 2: Reading the [W]ord
Returning to selections from verses 23–28:
“What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”
Jesus shut the man up: ‘Quiet! Get out of him’! The afflicting—[or occupying]—spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out.”
“‘What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? [Jesus] shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and tells them to get lost!’ News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.”
Now we don’t know the nature of this man’s issue but … It’s curious to me that despite the occupying spirit, the man is able to recognize Jesus’ healing power. Or, through the man, the occupying spirit is able to recognize Jesus’ healing power—either way. And it is the same with all of the other healings of “an unclean spirit” found in Mark—from the folx with diseases, to our interrupter today, to the man known as the Gerasene [guh-ra-suh-nee] Demoniac:
The occupying spirits not only recognize Jesus,
they recognize there is power to evict them from the body they occupy.
You know, I’m going to say some things that may not sit well with all of us.
TBH: They don’t always sit well with me.
- I think we know, if not tangibly then at least intuitively at some level… I think we know when occupying spirits are compromising, subverting, thwarting our better thoughts and actions.
- I think we know we’re more racist than we’re willing to admit.
- And in any given moment, I think we recognize the conflict between what we know is right and our inability to always do it.
[Share my silly example from my behavior at a grocery store.]
Now that was not me being possessed by a demon but I certainly was not expressing my best self; in those moments, I was completely given over to the sway of an occupying spirit.
Perhaps you have had an experience like this.
And to make a finer point:
- Countless times I myself have expressed racist thoughts and actions.
Sometimes in the moment I sensed it wasn’t right;
more often, though, I would realize it after the fact as my conscience slowly ate me alive.
- And I know that my lack of knowledge or willful ignorance has allowed occupying spirits to dig in and stave off my “better angels.”
But I do not offer this word without hope. Because you know what:
Jesus understood this condition when toward the end of his life he would say, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I believe he was expressing this understanding early on when he heard the man in church, perceived the spirit that was occupying the man, and then with a command, released the man from it it’s power.
Movement 3: Jesus helps us clean up our messes
I love so so much how our friend Nancy “read the world” and helped us understand this healing story in a particular way: how Jesus can help us clean up the messes we make. [Thanks to Christian educator Carolyn C. Brown for the inspiration!] White supremacy—and in particular anti-Black racism—is one such mess. Racism has deeply harmed the soul of our country and tears the fabric of humanity. As we will interrogate during our upcoming Lenten journey, white supremacy is indeed the way of suffering.
“Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed.
It means the damage no longer controls your life.”
My friends: I believe that healing is still accessible to us today.
YES: I 100% believe that healing of body, mind, and spirit can come with a word…or through a single prayer or the combined prayers of many…or prayed by a child at her bedside. I know it can happen—I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it. I bet you have too.
You can call it in the name of Jesus, you can experience it through therapy, you can find it in recovery, you can inspire it within your friend group, your family, here in this church—but however it manifests, it is the same:
Healing that is just as available to us right here in this Zoom same as it was to the man in his church 2,000 years ago.
Now, it is true that healing may be difficult. Even painful.
It may be gradual rather than immediate.
And the process of healing does not erase the memory of the pain or the scars left behind.
But what HEALING does promise is the wholesale eviction of occupying spirits so we can return to right relationship with one another and experience the fullness of God-with-us.
People of God:
Healing from white supremacy is possible—along with healing of all the other occupying spirits that separate us from one another and keep us from experiencing the full presence of God.
Healing starts with individuals working to heal themselves first.
Expands to cohorts of every-day people, like our Anti-Racism team for example, trying to inspire one another to be a part of the collective work of healing.
Informs congregations living out the fullness of what it means to be the church in their own generation…
Transforms the world.\
It’s not only possible, it is near.
And the occupying spirits of white supremacy quake in its presence…
…in the healing power of Jesus.
…in the ability of each one of us to access that healing
and disrupt the control they have over us.
…in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
Healing is coming, y’all.
Let’s get into it.
May it be so. Amen
You’ve inspired some hope in me tonight, Todd. Thank you.
❤ … i'm glad I could provide some inspiration to someone who's provided a whole lot to me!
Brilliant and one of your best! Thank you. Your loving brother, Mark
Thank you my brother … for the gift of your time .. and for who you are in the world. ❤