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All the pastors I know greet this kind of a passage like this – Oh, good! Demons! If there’s anything we love, as pastors of progressive, non-dogmatic communities of faith, it is Bible passages with demon possession, miracles and the sovereignty of Jesus all in one fell swoop. It’s like the trifecta of sermon-prep heartburn for UCC pastors. How do I unpack this in a well-crafted, concise and entertaining and thought-provoking sermon that is 12 minutes or less?
Well, here we go.
Demon possession is, for the most part, a pretty fantastic thing for us to take seriously these days. Now, if we read closely, we might notice that the text doesn’t say demon, or even possession, it just talks about a “man with an unclean spirit.” In Jesus’ time, spirits here just an accepted part of the landscape, like i-Phones and $7 coffee are to us. Spirits were thought of as everywhere, so present that if there had been an artist around that did anything like still-life paintings, a spirit would have been as likely as a bowl of fruit to make the canvas. They were ordinary. So the text says “unclean” spirit to give it some distinction. What it doesn’t say is demon, but that’s where we typically go – straight to images of heads twisting around, thank you, Linda Blair. Nothing that graphic to see here, and yet still a remarkable encounter with this guy “with an unclean spirit” right there in the middle of the synagogue, amongst the people who just got done being amazed at Jesus’ teaching.
So maybe we can, with our modern, scientific ears, go along with a metaphorical retelling of the tale. Yet even that doesn’t get across what I think is going on here. I don’t know what it would be like to see someone possessed by a demon, I’ve never seen that. But I have spent time with people in the grips of addiction, who seemed pretty powerless to gain control over their lives. I have seen people up close suffering from a collapse in mental health so profound that they seemed like someone else had come to take residence in their body. And, of course, as a parent, I have heard repeatedly the claim that the “devil made me do it.” So maybe I don’t hear these kinds of stories as actual, in the sense of a journalistic account, but I do hear them.
There is something about Jesus that makes “possessed” people in our gospels always seem to recognize him first, like an AA vet can sniff out an addict when they walk in the door. The text says that the man doesn’t call out until after Jesus does his teaching, for he teaches as one with authority and not, the text says, like the scribes. If you have ever had someone give you advice who clearly has never been where you are, maybe you understand this. You know, like someone who has never set foot in a classroom trying to dictate how you should teach, or a male Senator on an all-male panel giving out advice on pregnancy. I hear the description of this encounter from Mark as people being impressed by someone who is actually living the scriptures, not just giving some rudimentary facts and figures. Someone who knows beyond the book learning part. The word exousia, translated for us as authority, is a kind of authorization, something you might grant to someone who is authentic. Remember the movie City Slickers? The Jack Palance character, Curly, is given a whole lot of authority by the city dudes because he is a very authentic cowboy. This claim of Jesus’ authority is another way of saying that the crowds see, and perhaps even feel, his authenticity…first in the way that he talks about God and then in the way that he lives those claims out.
Whether we understand the healing that follows to be literal or metaphorical, the purpose of the story is that Jesus’ authenticity gets recognized even by demons. Mark is setting the stage for his Gospel story, with the forces of darkness in the world getting notice and the miracles starting to garner Jesus a rep in the village. The words begin the story, that’s where people first anticipate Jesus’ authority, but it is his actions that solidify it. Jesus begins to walk his talk, which is the mark of all great leaders. His is not the authority of his position, or authority imposed, rather it is authority granted by the people. It is the only kind of authority Jesus will seek, though the “Son of God”, he will give away his power…though the “Savior of the World”, he will serve rather than rule. For Mark, this may be the defining aspect of Jesus, and it begins with this act.
Each of the Gospel writers choose something different for Jesus’ first public act. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus as teacher. Luke has a sermon that is well-received until the punchline turns the spotlight on the listeners and they try to throw Jesus off the cliff, Jesus as prophet. John has Jesus turn a bunch of water into wine, Jesus as party-animal? No, more a sign of abundance from nothing. In each case, the writers choose to give us a hint as to who they think Jesus really is…and Mark’s answer is? The Exorcist? Well, maybe not so much. More like Jesus, the boundary breaker.
When we think of the ways that we draw lines between one another, or more specifically how we create hierarchies of human value, then the metaphor of possession carries new weight. Just as in the legal jargon of Jesus’ time, those with “unclean” spirits are segregated in some way, literally or figuratively. Mental illness, addiction, criminal record, immigration status, not to mention the demonic division present in all of our “isms”, in our homophobia or religiously based bigotry, we use all of these as boundaries and the first public act of Jesus in the first Gospel ever written (as far as we know) is to break such a boundary. Ultimately Jesus will break the strongest boundary, one that exists for all of us, the boundary of death.
It is Jesus, Mark tells us, who steps into the boundaries that we think are hard and fast and claims the presence of God. It is Jesus who drives out the darkness and lays the foundation for hope in places of hopelessness. It is Jesus who goes to the unclean spaces and says, “God is here.” That’s how he uses his power. That’s how he earns his titles. That’s why the dove descends on him in the Jordan and why the fishermen drop their nets to follow him and why the ones who are so divided from the rest fo the world recognize him immediately.
Several days ago I sat in a small room with several people from the New Sanctuary Movement and two undocumented women to discuss a program of accompaniment. Both women had immigration hearings scheduled in Dallas, the closest federal ICE court, in the upcoming weeks. One for herself, she is here as a political refugee, and the other as support for her husband, who has been on an ICE hold for months in David L. Moss after being picked up for charges that were later dropped. Both women, as you might imagine, were terrified to go to the court, a terror that possessed them like a demon, making them exhausted, weak and emotionally pessimistic. I got word early this week that one of the women, whose scheduled appointment in Dallas was yesterday, got picked up and is now in David L. Moss on an ICE hold. The charges that brought her in have been dropped.
The idea of accompaniment is that documented citizens would travel with those who are undocumented as a way of saying, “God is here.” We walk with them to their encounter with a system that is terrifying and dehumanizing in order to cross that same boundary that Jesus did and to use his authority to assert our own human authenticity. Of course we know that such accompaniment doesn’t mean that healing will happen – that is, if by healing we mean a complete and perfect resolution to the crisis in only the way that we picture it. No, the boundary-busting hope is miraculous only when it continues to seek hope. So, when one crisis turns into another, we still accompany. When impending hearings turn into ICE lockup in the jail, we accompany. And when the threat of deportation turns into deportation, we still accompany as best we can, with physical, emotional and spiritual presence — even in the form of maps, a list of resources or something as simple as a snack sent with them to the border, so that when they eat it to help comfort that very human need, they can remember there is someone with them, and we continue to proclaim into the darkness, “God is here.” That’s the authority demonstrated to us in Christ Jesus…the authority of authenticity.
I still don’t know about demons, but I know about the forces of evil that reside in people who cannot escape their own pain, or who cannot see the humanity in someone else. I don’t know about miracles, but I do know about the times that I saw no hope and yet hope appeared; times that I did not understand and yet meaning came about slowly; times that I thought it was all over, and it wasn’t. I don’t know about the sovereignty of Jesus, but I do know that each and every time I reach out with the same trust in God’s gracious love without exceptions in which Jesus trusted that something holy happens…each time that I manage to practice grace, something magical happens…each time I decide to meet the tidal wave of disappointment and despair with even a modest glimmer of hope, a miracle has happened.
May it be so.