Preached at University Presbyterian Church
The Reverend Elizabeth Michael
February 4, 2018
It matters how a story begins. Ask the gospel writers, all four of whom took on the sizeable task of capturing the life of Jesus of Nazareth, each piecing together the stories and teachings of his life in a different, but intentional way. Take, for instance, the way each gospel writer chooses to position Jesus’ first public act, thereby introducing him to the masses and setting the stage for the rest of his ministry.
Matthew leads Jesus up to the top of mountain, where he sits among the people and teaches them. That Jesus’ ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount shows him to be a teacher, one who will walk in the scriptures and tradition of the Jewish faith even as he reinterprets them. In Luke, Jesus preaches a sermon about just how wide and surprising is the embrace of God, bringing sight to the blind and release to the captives and good news to the poor. The rest of Luke’s pages are filled with just this gospel, as Jesus draws near to those on the margins. And John places Jesus first at a wedding, making sure the party is flush with wine as a sign of God’s abundance made manifest in this one who is one with the Father. But Mark—Mark, whose gospel we turn to in this still new lectionary year—Mark starts off the narration of Jesus’ public ministry with a fight.
The waters of baptism still glistening on his shoulders, his newly recruited disciples still shaking salt water out of their ears, Jesus moves from the seashore into the synagogue to make his first public appearance. This conflict has a very particular context: it happens the place of worship, in the center of the congregation. The unclean spirit rises out of the pews to pick a fight with Jesus, right there in front of the sacred scriptures and the people dressed in their Sabbath-day best.
It is a curious place for a confrontation. We think of worship spaces as safe spaces, as sanctuaries. Here we bring our children to teach them about love; here the stranger is welcomed and the weary find rest; here we escape from the chaos of the world and wrap ourselves in the warmth of the word and the community. If anywhere should offer us refuge from the conflict that plagues our public life, shouldn’t it be the community of faith?
Jesus knows otherwise. Think of the things that happen when Jesus walks into worship. The Pharisees see him healing the sick and immediately start plotting to destroy him. The people in his home congregation feel so threatened when they hear him preach that they chase him out of town toward the nearest cliff. The moneychangers in the temple are going about their daily business of exploitation when all of the sudden, Jesus is coming after them with a whip, turning over tables as he goes. And today Jesus gets just far enough into his teaching to get the crowds marveling at how he speaks with such authority, and that unclean spirit lashes out in opposition: “What have you to do with us, Jesus?”
Perhaps the place of worship is actually a very logical place for the power of Jesus to collide with the powers of the world. After all, this is the place where, week after week, people gather to profess their faith, to center their attention upon the living Lord and in so doing to center also their lives around that Lord. Should it come as any surprise, then, that the act of pledging our allegiance to this God draws out the powers who would claim our allegiance for themselves? Or, said another way, should it come as any surprise that the God who confronts us with good news that turns the world around would then be confronted by powers that like the world just fine as it is?
A story like this one from Mark feels at first like one in which we should be mere spectators, sitting on the sidelines as an ancient depiction of evil bears its ugly fangs. But I suspect most of us know something about the struggle in the sanctuary. That we have at some point felt the tension between the words of Jesus we hear announced in worship and the reality of the world we leave this space to inhabit.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. But many are the demands on our calendars and inboxes, and great is the pressure to get and stay at the top of our field, our class, our game.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid,” Jesus says. But we know the power of anxiety that keeps us up at night; the panic that takes possession of our all-too troubled hearts.
“The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free,” Jesus says. But we know the complexity of our current political system and global economy, forces far beyond any one of us that keep class structure stratified and too many yet in bondage.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, rather strive first for the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says. But we know the power of compound interest.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. Ah, but we have stood at the grave and seen the power of death.
We are not so far from that synagogue in ancient Capernaum. And if our spirits are a little quieter, a little more polite than that of the man who yells out at Jesus, well, we are still familiar with the struggle.
But that synagogue is not only the site of the struggle; it’s also the place of healing. Jesus says, “Come out of him,” and the spirit is cast out of the man, leaving him well. Right there in the midst of the congregation, Jesus’ power sets people free. And here, too, I start to think it is more than just coincidence that all this is happening in the community of faith.
Most preachers know there is good reason to be cautious with an exorcism story. Like any story of healing in the scriptures, these episodes introduce questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. What about the cavernous gap in time and worldview between a people conversant in unclean spirits, and a people with a very different set of anthropological, biological, and spiritual categories? What is the nature of Jesus’ powers when so many ailments—personal and societal—prove intractable? What about those who don’t get healed?
I cannot answer those questions. But I can tell you about the closest I’ve ever been to an exorcism. It happened several years ago, in a community of faith. I have Virginia and Larry Perry, members of that congregation, to thank for it—I share this story with their permission. Virginia and Larry found that church in the first place by walking right across the street—the door to the sanctuary and the door to their apartment were a mere 50 yards from one another. But in some ways, the two places were worlds apart: a downtown, Presbyterian church populated mostly by white and economically privileged faces, and a public housing apartment complex that was completely people of color. That Virginia and Larry were undeterred by these differences and made that community their church was a gift that bore much rich fruit in the congregation. This was one of those occasions.
Virginia called me one day and said Larry had some oil he wanted me to pray over and could they come over. Of course, I said, my curiosity up—I’d never had such a request before, but I felt familiar enough with the oil we used in services of healing and wholeness. A few minutes later, they came into my office, two 24-oz bottles of extra-virgin olive oil in hand. Virginia said they wanted to pray over the oil, and then they planned to take it back to their apartment and anoint their doorframe with it. She explained that their apartment complex was full of demons. I asked them to sit down.
They told me about the drug-trafficking that was happening in nearly every apartment in their unit. How rumors had been flying, deception was running rampant, and calls to the police implicated the innocent. They said they were concerned for their safety and their reputation. They shared how hard they’d worked to get to a point of stability in their lives and how these demons of violence and addiction assailed them from every direction. They asked if we could pray, because they said they knew the power of God was greater than the power of those demons.
Strangely enough, it was the second time in 24 hours I’d found myself thinking about demons. That year had been a season of anxiety in my own life. I was doing battle with a spirit of perfectionism that would not release its grasp on me; little by little it’d begun to consume me. It was often paralyzing; I struggled to accomplish basic tasks for fear of not doing them well enough. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep; always, I was worried that my mask of composure would slip and people would see the mess of a person that lay beneath. I fought that spirit as best I could. I surrounded myself with friends and family; I saw a therapist. I drew on my best powers of clear thinking and self-understanding and determination. None of it seemed to work. So just hours before Larry and Virginia called, I had found myself saying to a close friend, “I’ve been thinking more about demons lately. I just know that I can’t by my own power cast out whatever has a hold of me.”
But then Larry and Virginia said the power of God was greater than the power of demons. And there we sat in my office, with two bottles of olive oil. So together we laid hands on those bottles, and we prayed. We prayed for God’s Spirit to surround and pervade that apartment complex (and, I added silently, my own psyche), to protect all who lived there from all that sought to harm them. We prayed against anything that was not holy, pleasing to God, good for God’s people, on the side of life and flourishing, and we claimed the power of the name of Jesus, pleading that he might cast out every opposing power.
I wish I could tell you that the next day, that apartment complex was free of drugs and I started sleeping at night again. You would have to ask Virginia and Larry more about the struggle of the powers across the street—I know it is still significant, but last I knew, they persisted there, day after day standing up against violence and addiction in the name of Jesus, holding fast to what is good while the spirits shudder with convulsions and cried out with loud voices. As for me, well, it took some more therapy and some more community and some more time before the spirit of anxiety was sufficiently contained, content at least in recent years to release its hold.
But in that moment in my office as we sat praying over those bottles of olive oil, there was yet healing for me. Larry and Virginia told me that the power of God was greater than the power of demons. By their faith they pointed me to the God who had already laid claim to me.
This is why I keep coming to church, this place which turns out to be not at all safe from struggle. Because I cannot always see God’s power on my own, but invariably there is someone at church who can point me toward it. Because as long as those other powers are going to roar and foam, I need to be among a people committed to joining the Christ who stands above and against them. And because I have sat in the sanctuary as people have prayed over things—oil and water and bread and cup and one another’s wounded spirits—and seen freedom and provision and mercy roll down like a mighty river. And let me tell you—that’s powerful.