- Mark Singleton
“What have you to do with us, Jesus?"
Good Morning again as we gather to relax, reflect and imagine just what the living God among us really looks like this Pentecost season…especially now as the days get slowly longer and we can almost imperceptibly…shyly…feel the coming of Lent…and Spring…and dare I say…resurrection and new life.
I was 12 years old in 1973 when the movie, The Exorcist was released. It was rated “R” by the MPAA and as such, we could not get in without being accompanied by our parent. Never ones to let a little thing like a rule get in our way, one cold morning around this time of year, me, my sister and a group of friends hopped a bus to Union City and stood outside the theater shivering until some kind soul agreed to buy us tickets and pretend that this odd multi-racial group of vagabonds were his “kids”. So we saw the film.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, let alone seen it as a 12-year-old, but let me tell you…it scared the HECK out of me. Now I wasn’t raised with any religious education and the idea of demonic possession was not something I worried about…at least until that day…but there was something about the story of this little girl being taken over by an evil spirit and the attempts to free her, accompanied of course by head-spinning, vomit and some other graphic and unforgettable scenes, that absolutely scared me to death. I think I slept on the floor of my sisters room for about a week.
So here we are this morning in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel talking about exorcism. The first chapter! The very first public thing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel…is an exorcism. Fun. I find myself longing for John’s Gospel where Jesus’ first public act takes place a wedding feast with an open bar and prodigious amounts of wine was being enjoyed and multiplied and enjoyed some more …but here we are talking about exorcism instead. Mark’s Gospel begins with John in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance and announcing the coming of real power into the world. A new Power. A promised power. After he gets baptized himself, Jesus gathers up a few fishermen along the way and they walk to Capernaum…into a synagogue where Jesus begins to teach…and all was going well until “he” appeared. That guy.
The gospel doesn’t tell us much about the man…or his behavior or how his possession was manifested that day but I have to assume that this man with an unclean spirit became disruptive in some way or another. I doubt his head was spinning or anything as dramatic as the movie version but what we know for sure is that he noticed Jesus and that Jesus noticed him. There has been much scholarly debate about what having an unclean spirit meant in Jesus’ day and what our modern understanding of that might be…whether it was related to mental illness, or whether it was physical or spiritual in nature…but I don’t want to go there this morning. All we’re told is that this possessed person cries out, loudly interrupting Jesus’ teaching with a question: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us”? Jesus rebukes the sprit and orders him to come out of the man. He convulses and screams (a little drama there) and the spirit does in fact leave him.
Interesting that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry begins with a confrontation like this…a direct conflict between good and evil. Its also interesting to notice that there wasn’t really much of a fight. The unclean spirit almost concedes before he begins, acknowledging that Jesus could destroy him if he chooses. But what about his question? What do you want from us Jesus? Today. What is this story supposed to teach us?
It would be easy to pretend that “unclean spirits” only exist in fictional movies and in bible stories but all we need to do is look around at the world today to see that they are still everywhere. And I’m not talking about the delusional people you might immediately think of. I’ve spent a lot of time in shelters and soup kitchens and over the years I’ve seen lots of head-spinning. I’ve met historical figures from every age including a young African woman who is married to Donald Trump and many years ago a really interesting guy named Lloyd who claimed to be Mark Gastineau’s first love and would go around all day badmouthing Brigitte Nielsen. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
A few months ago I made the mistake of posting something on Facebook. I usually only post cute pictures of my kids and wife or PSA’s about the Hoboken shelter and LTM but this day, I posted a story from the NY Times about the children who have been separated from their families and are now languishing at the border and how the chance of reunification was getting more and more slim as time passed. I think I tagged it by saying something as radical as “pray for these innocent children”. I thought it was a pretty innocuous post.
Well let me tell you. The unclean spirits came out. I got scores of hate-filled responses which I never expected….from things like: , their parents dumped them here on purpose…to send then back where they came from…to one nice demonic who said that stray animals belong in cages. (ASPCA Sarah McLaglin) I took down the post. Do you watch the news? Did you see the faces of the people in Washington on January 6th? What evil spirit possessed them that day…that they thought storming the capitol and killing people was a reasonable expression of their first amendment rights? The spirits are riled up these days for sure. You can call them unclean…or uneasy…or evil or angry but there are some scary spirits out there. The political climate of the last 4 years has produced moments way scarier than any movie I’ve ever seen. If I was 12 I’d be crawling into my sisters room right now for sure.
But you know…even that’s too easy. A year into a global pandemic and the bone crushing isolation it caused, coupled with a divisive election and an all-out public assault on the truth makes it all too easy to point out the demons in the world. All too easy to preach that sermon, be that person, worship in that church. But you know what? I really don’t think we’re being called to be exorcists or demon hunters this morning.
So before we all get too smug and pretend this is just about “those folks” …let me remind you that many of us are possessed by unclean spirits of our own these days. I invite you all today to think about the things that possess you. What spirits are you possessed by? Speaking for myself, there have been long periods in my life where I was under the influence of some very unclean spirits…figuratively and literally and my head was spinning. So it’s easy for me to pretend I’ve come so far. But today, I find myself possessed by way more subtle spirits. What about you? What possesses you? Anger? Resentment? Loneliness? Despair? Greed? Comfort? Food? Alcohol? Drugs? Sex? Fear? Man. I am possessed by fear. And Hatred. Self-righteous hatred is SO EASY today! I have blood relatives who…if I’m being honest…I have had hatred in my heart for. And it makes me sad. I’m sure you all have people in your lives who you find it easy to “demonize”. And the moral high ground of being right does not make that hatred right. My spirits are screaming out and I suspect yours are too and this morning they are screaming…just like the man in the synagogue…
What do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? What do you want from me? I’m tired and I don’t know how long I can keep this up. What do you want from us?
I think that’s where we are called to be today: in that very question. In that intersection of good and evil, love and hate, clean and unclean because as Mark reminds us…that’s where we find Jesus…always…in the margins. That’s where we find peace and freedom. That’s where God can cast out the spirits…all of them…from delusion to self-righteous anger. But we must get over the fear of letting those spirits go…the fear that Jesus has come to destroy us… that if we really let go of those spirits, there will be nothing left of us and we will be unprotected.
So maybe today we are just being called to cry out…to act out…to own our profound brokenness and to make sure that Jesus notices us! And then to surrender our demons to him. If we meet God in that conflict and trust that on the other side of the exorcism…on the other side of surrender, there is peace. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer. I know it’s confusing. I know it seems like the unclean spirits are “winning” sometimes. And I know this current reality seems endless. I sometimes feel like we have this overwhelming desire for things to get “back to normal” but honestly, as every day passes, the memory of what normal even looks like is fading. But it’s the only answer I have for you today. But actually no…not only that. I can tell you that it has worked for me. I am not the person I once was. Not always and not easily but it’s worked and it can work for you if we all remember to cry out… and recognize God when God meets us in the conflict and to surrender our demons…because they won’t surrender themselves.
We never hear what happened to the man in the story…or the demon for that matter. Did he become a productive member of society? Did he, like the fishermen, take up and follow Jesus? I don’t know. We are told however, that after this demonstration in the synagogue, Jesus’ ministry blossomed and word of his power spread. That can be our calling too. We can write our own story today. We can go forth from the synagogue changed…and free of our unclean spirits…and our freedom can be a testament to the power of our surprising God who meets us where we need him most…even when we don’t know it…spinning heads, vomit and all. Amen.