Sermon - 29th January 2012
Scripture - Mark 1:21-28
Rev Andy Braunston
Today’s Gospel reading is a difficult one for contemporary preachers, who are not fundamentalists, to address. In these early weeks of the year we are taken through the early passages of St Mark’s Gospel and this is the first major event in the ministry of Jesus recorded in that Gospel. It’s difficult as we live in an age which has wildly contradictory views, at least in the West, on exorcism and demons. If we think about demons we may do so through various lenses – the cinematic lens of the 1970s film The Exorcist which involves spinning heads, the TV lens of the plethora of films about good looking young vampires or the literary lens of Philip Pullman’s books where demons are a sort of guardian angel and represented as animals.
Fundamentalists and more conservative Christians don’t have a problem with the passage as they would see the Biblical world view as essentially correct. They, like many people in Africa and other traditional societies would recognise demons as being part of the spiritual reality of the world and, logic dictates, that they can also possess people. Liberals and, I’d suggest, most Christians in most mainstream churches are troubled with this Biblical world view and wonder if many of the people whom Jesus healed through exorcism had diseases that we’d now label through psychology or psychiatry.
So any preacher addressing this passage is walking through a minefield – the mines are in different places depending on the make up of the hearers of the sermon! So save your explosions for later!
What does Passage Say?
This passage is early on in Mark’s Gospel – we’re still in Chapter 1. There are no birth narratives in Mark so chapter 1 covers Jesus’ baptism, temptation, his early proclamation of the Kingdom breaking through into our world, the call of the disciples. This exorcism shows that the Kingdom is about opposing evil.
There are some interesting things in the passage – aside from the actual exorcism.
First, there is the striking authority of Jesus’ teaching. It was customary for people to get up and offer an interpretation of a Scriptural text, but the way in which Jesus spoke was much more authoritative than the regular teachers – this seems to have struck people.
Second, this authority is also seen in his exorcism where he commands, and expects obedience, from the unclean spirit. These show that there is an emphasis on Jesus’ authority and his divine power as hallmarks of the Kingdom of God.
Third, no one is surprised that a man with an unclean spirit came to Synagogue! Possession if not a normal, was certainly a not unsurprising event in the life of this congregation. If a homeless person came into worship we’d not be surprised but it wouldn’t be normal. I read this in a similar way – this was a bit out of the ordinary but not totally unusual. And this got me thinking about the nature of possession.
Possession then and now
The view in the Gospels about possession seems to suggest that people behave in odd ways because they are possessed by an “unclean spirit”. We are never told how they came to be so possessed. They may shout and scream, they may live apart from others, they may have to be chained up because they would hurt themselves or others.
We may say now that they were unwell, epileptic or suffering from some psychological condition that would be explained in a different way now. I remember when I was a theology student we looked a bit at the life of Catherine of Sienna. Catherine was a very influential nun who had ecstatic visions of God. She hardly ate anything beyond the wafer received at Mass every morning – though she must have drunk fluids in order to stay alive. Her periods stopped too. Her divine visions and the cessation of her periods made people in her era think she was an anointed visionary of God – God blessed her so much she was set free from the most visible mark of her femininity – which in the pre-modern era was seen as a curse. On my course, my tutor suggested that Catherine’s visions and her menstrual cycle stopping may have been caused by her constant fasting. In fact he suggested she was anorexic. The visions made people think she was holy, the idea that she was holy gave her great influence, even influence over popes. One ages’ saint is another ages’ mentally unwell person.
But, many people now still believe in possession. In Africa and parts of Asia there is a widespread belief in spiritual powers and realities that people in the West, generally don’t accept. We have seen trials of people here in the UK who have treated children appallingly because they believe this will rid them of unclean spirits. The Charismatic Renewal Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the Pentecostal churches made exorcism more mainstream in the churches.
All this means we have people who believe that possession happened and happens and those who believe that the phenomena the Gospels describe can be explained in other ways now.
Perhaps the way between these two poles is to rethink the nature of possession.
Greed is Good
In the 1980s a very popular film Wall Street was made. It starred Michael Douglas as the objectionable Wall Street trader Gorden Gecko who mentored a young trader who gradually becomes disillusioned by Gecko’s corporate raids which make him money but leave others impoverished. The most famous part of the film is Gecko’s speech Greed is Good which came to epitomise a whole generation where capitalism was believed to have run wild.
Gecko could be considered to be possessed by his greed. He has persuaded himself that something we know to be bad is, in fact good, and he purses his greed with all his energy and without regard to the consequences it may have on the lives of others. He had allowed himself to be possessed by his own greed.
A Few Good Men
The 1990s film, A Few Good Men starred Tom Cruise as a young military lawyer taking on Jack Nicholson who played a ruthless Colonel in the army who had ordered two of his troops to kill a third troop who wasn’t making the grade. This order, called a “code red” was designed to instil discipline as part of the socialisation into the army and upon which the armed services rely. Armies need people who will obey orders without asking questions. In order to defend the freedoms that the Colonel holds dear it was necessary to act in ways which would disturb others.
The colonel has, like Gecko, allowed himself to believe that which is harmful and false. He has been possessed by his own self-righteousness and his believe that it’s possible to do bad things in the service of a greater good. It’s an old lie.
Possession is Subtle
In both clips it’s clear that neither Gecko nor the Colonel know they have been possessed. It’s also clear that others around them don’t realise either. Gecko’s fellow traders see him as a mentor, a leader, and someone to admire. They don’t notice how the poison of greed is slowly destroying him. It’s only the drama of the courtroom that the moral bankruptcy of the Colonel is laid bare - as is the lie that all officers are honourable people. Remember, the worshippers at the Synagogue weren’t that surprised that the man with the unclean spirit was amongst them.
What’s Amongst Us
Of course no one here is possessed by an unclean spirit are they? We’d notice! We’re good at helping people who are having a hard time and we’re good at insisting people behave appropriately. So we’d notice if someone came in and they were possessed. But would we notice the Gecko or the Colonel? Do we notice if we are possessed by:
· a desire for power
· a desire to use others for our own ends
· a desire to control,
· a need to judge others
· a drive to put ourselves first and ignore the needs of others
· a willing blindness to what’s really going on in the world.
· Or the many other things that we can be controlled by in our contemporary world?
Jesus recognised the possession of this man for what it was and, in a sudden and authoritative moment, healed him. Sometimes people reach crisis points in their lives and healing is pretty rapid. A friend of mine found his drinking was so problematic and, on one occasion resulted in such a crisis for him that he stopped without any external help. Others need help, support, prayer, therapy, and support groups in order to leave behind the things that control them.
The Kingdom of God is always about justice as God is always about justice. The Kingdom is breaking through as it’s the rule and reign of God breaking into our world. This rule and reign is about setting us free from all that drags us down, all that entraps us, all that harms us, all that is evil. We recognise this in the Lord’s prayer which asks for “thy kingdom come” and “deliver us from evil”. Both are linked.
We can be possessed by ideologies which turn us away from the values of God and of his justice just as our film characters were. We can be possessed by drives and urges which are bad for us and which lead us to harm ourselves and others. This indicates our continual need for healing, for a re-orientation of ourselves towards Jesus and the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom which is breaking through wherever justice and healing are found and wherever we turn ourselves away from all that is evil and towards all that is good.