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February 1, 2015, 9:00 AM

Possessed


Mark 1:21-28, NRSV
21They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
 
“Possessed”
 
What does this story have to do with us?
 
There are so many stories in scripture, so many passages in the gospels of Jesus Christ, that we love, that resonate with our souls, that draw us closer to God, to Jesus, to discipleship.
  • Those gorgeous Beatitudes that start the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew—“blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers.”
  • The feeding of the 5000, found in all four gospels, where five simple loaves and two small fish feed a multitude with baskets leftover.
  • Wonderful parables, rich with imagery, provoking thought and heart—the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Sower
  • Powerful stories of healing and restoration—touching the lepers and making them clean, lifting a woman up who was bent over for 18 years, restoring sight, restoring mobility, restoring community.We can see ourselves in some of these stories.
We can see them play out in our lives and in the lives of others. But today’s story, this tale of a possessed person—unclean spirit, demon-possessed—what does this story have to do with us?
 
Now, demons and angels are great money makers. They have been selling books, movies, and television shows for years.  The most famous, of course, is “The Exorcist,” that movie of a possessed girl—Linda Blair—and the priest who struggles to cast out the demon within her. We watch this demon levitate things, spin her head around, spew things…scary, gross, leaves an impression.  And that’s just it…this movie, and others like it, have left a very big impression. And whether we realize it or not, these Hollywood depictions bleed through into our imaginations when we encounter these biblical stories of possession. As we picture this man suddenly confronting Jesus, does he look a little Linda Blair; blood shot eyes, deranged expression? As he speaks to Jesus, does his voice in our hearing become a little sinister, a little supernatural? “What have you to do with us? We know who you are!” As this happens, as popular depictions tinge our experience of this passage, the story of the man with the unclean spirit becomes surreal, fiction-like, and we easily respond—What has this to do with us?
 
So let’s back up for a moment and come at this story as part of a larger story—the gospel of Mark. The gospel’s writer is telling a larger story, in which this encounter in the Capernaum synagogue is a part. Mark is such a fast-paced gospel—each segment of the story is short, succinct, to-the-point, and leads into the next segment, building toward the conclusion. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” and though our translators play with their thesaurus to give the story some variety—the idea is there. This story is urgent and Jesus is on the move. Our reading today is in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Just moments before in the chapter, Jesus begins his ministry on the banks of the Jordan River with his cousin, John.
 
We know this story. We heard it just weeks ago on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The heavens are torn asunder as Jesus comes up out of the water. The dove-like Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and the Divine voice echoes from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” That event is still echoing in the background as we encounter our reading today.
 
And washed in those waters, blessed by that Spirit, embraced as Beloved, Jesus comes face-to-face with this one possessed of an unclean spirit—a spirit that I’m sure doesn’t call him beloved. This person is in worship on the Sabbath—sitting within the congregation with all his community. He is not levitating, spinning or spewing. He is worshiping—obedient child of the Torah. But unbeknownst to his faith family, he has fallen sway to a spirit other than the Holy One. Darkness fights for control within him. He’s possessed of a spirit that
  • curses instead of blesses
  • tears down instead of building up
  • disparages and demeans instead of encouraging and empowering
  • sows hate instead of promotes love
  • divides and splits instead of unifying
These dark thoughts, these whispered words in the mind, are suddenly confronted with the divine light of God revealed in this traveling Rabbi. Jesus teaches with a new authority, a new and fresh message, of love, forgiveness, hope, mercy. Jesus’ message contradicts the internal dialogue of the man and the pain bursts forth from him—“What could this possibly have to do with me? Are you trying to kill me? I see who you are—the Holy One of God.”
 
All that darkness that seeks to possess the man, seeks to possess us is suddenly exposed. All that anger and jealousy, all that greed and lack of self-esteem, all the fear and hate, all the lack of confidence, all those stresses, and obligations and responsibilities, all that the world whispers that we must do and have, twists and turns in the light of such grace. Vulnerabilities and anguish now exposed, the darkness within lashes out, seeking to gain control, to reject vehemently this message that the darkness doesn’t belong within us, that what it whispers isn’t true.
 
Imagine this moment anew—here we sit, in worship, nice safe worship, familiar, comfortable, part of your schedule for the day. Suddenly the guest preacher for the day is revealed as bearing the very light of God, and teaches with an authority that is astounding; and that guest preacher, shining in glory, kneels in front of you and says, “You are my beloved! I am so proud of you! You are precious in my sight!” Would we not squirm under such loving attention? Would we not drop our eyes, look away, blush, cry? Would we too plead with the preacher, “What do you have to do with me? Are you trying to kill me, Holy One?”
 
Oh, this story has so much to do with us. So much possesses us. We too are often held hostage by dark thoughts; hurtful and hurting feelings; past wounds still raw and bleeding. We too lash out in fear, anger, and pain. We too have much to forgive others, and much to forgive ourselves. And here is the good news: Jesus came just for you, just for us! Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to stand against the unclean ones seeking residence within us—individually and as a community. Jesus came teaching forgiveness, breathing freedom, breaking chains, to set us free!
 
We can be free…together! Jesus meets us here, in bread and cup, in oil, in scripture, in song, in prayer, in the faces of the people around us. Jesus meets us here, this One with such authority that even the unclean spirits obey him.  Let us embrace this freedom! Let us rise from the darkness! Let us hear the word ‘beloved’ spoken to us.
 
Let us pray with these words from Jan Richardson...
Begin here:
 
Beloved.
 
Is there any other word
needs saying,
any other blessing
could compare
with this name,
this knowing?
 
Beloved.
 
Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
heard it.
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.
 
Beloved.
 
Comes holy
to the heart
aching to be new.
Comes healing
to the soul
wanting to begin
again.
 
Beloved.
 
Keep saying it
and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
anything else,
as if you could ever
have been other
than this:
 
Beloved.

 


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