Dear Working Preacher,
Tell me the truth: don't you just dread exorcism stories? I mean, if there's one kind of biblical story we have a hard time relating to, it's got to be this one. Miracle stories are hard enough in our post-Enlightenment, scientific age, but at least we have experience with longing for healing or a desire to feed those who are hungry. But demon-possession? This is simply beyond the experience and imagination of most of us. (Or, if we have any imagination about exorcism, it's been unhelpfully shaped by William Peter Blatty and Linda Blair.)
Which presents something of a dilemma for us this week, as Mark tells the story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. And not only does Mark tell this story, but he tells it right up front. In fact, this is the first miracle story Mark reports. Which should make us sit up and take notice, as "firsts" in any narrative usually aren't by accident.
So what is Mark trying to tell us about Jesus and his significance for our lives in the world through this story? To be honest, I think much of the opening chapters of Mark is meant to unpack Jesus' first and very short sermon, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." So it might be helpful, as my colleague Karoline Lewis suggests in this week's Sermon Brainwave podcast,
to see the series of miracles Mark narrates up front as describing for us what this kingdom of God looks like. And right up front, Mark describes Jesus as what? An exorcist? Maybe, but I think it's actually a whole lot more!
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, a spirit that is most assuredly not telling him that he is beloved of God or God-pleasing in anyway. Indeed, we would be far better served to abandon our Hollywood-fed images of demons causing us to vomit and spin our heads (Exorcist-style) than as those forces that are diametrically opposed to God' will. 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.
So maybe we could boil down the first chapter of Mark leading up to this story this way: Jesus has been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, and now comes to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth, and he does this by opposing the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.
Seen this way, I have to admit that not only is possession not quite as foreign an event as I might have thought, but that I actually have first hand experience with it. I have, that is, on occasion been possessed by anger at a colleague or family member that has led me to say and do things I regret. I have been possessed by jealousy and envy that had led me to use my resources in ways I regret. And that's just the beginning. And can you, honestly, tell me that you haven't had these experiences also, when you feel possessed by something that is so clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us to be a blessing to others?
And guess what, our people know this experience as well. (Take note that the man in question in today's reading is at synagogue on the Sabbath!) Further, for some of them the experience of possession is even greater and more damaging than what I've described, as they have felt possessed by addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography. Or maybe it's a hidden but pervasive prejudice that keeps them captive. Or maybe they've been possessed by more society-approved unclean spirits like workaholism, affluenza, or greed. (Remember Gordon Gekko's Wall Street speech that "greed is good" and, more recently, the way the attitude he represented has in recent years not just possessed but ravaged our economy and citizenry?)
So maybe the key to preaching this passage is to open it up a bit, or really to open up our imagination about how we, too, are sometimes possessed by an "unclean spirit." Further, we might talk about how Jesus is still at work cleansing us from such spirits and to ask how that happens. Is it as dramatic as the story here? Actually, sometimes it is. Ask around and you'll soon find stories of people who have had dramatic and sudden encounters with grace and mercy. But sometimes it's not. Sometimes the road to healing and restoration takes both time and company. Sometimes it's not about a single pastoral visit but the steady support of a grief support network, or an AA group in the church, or a prayer chain, or parenting group, or notices about anger-management classes, or whatever. God is at work in all these ways and so many more to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us.
So what if we invited folks to contemplate and even name -- perhaps with each other, or perhaps via email or in the privacy of one-on-one conversations we might have with them -- some of the things that possess them and that they would like the support of their congregation to escape. This can be risky business, I know, and I trust that you'll be able to discern the best way to broach the subject and encourage honest and faithful conversation about it (whether on Sunday morning or elsewhere). But here's the thing: I believe that Jesus is still in the business of freeing us from those powers which seek to rob God's children of all God hopes and intends for us. And I want our people to believe that as well.
Thanks so much for your bold witness and proclamation of the Gospel, Working Preacher. What you do matters because in and through your words the kingdom draws near!
Yours in Christ,
P.S.: Speaking of casting out DMin's, check out Luther Seminary's Doctor of Ministry program in Bibilical Preaching.
(Okay, okay, I know it was a terrible pun but still, you've got to admit, clever.) It's a great program that each year only gets better. And maybe it's time for you to consider joining.