Sermon: Epiphany 4B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question: “Jesus, what have you to do with me, with us?” I wonder if you too know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question. Of what drives us there, to that place.
Truth be told, today’s gospel lesson from Mark is full of distractions. Perhaps the most distracting element in this story is that the man that Jesus meets is possessed, and Jesus exorcises the unclean spirit. When we read this, as 21st-century readers and thinkers, we might begin by thinking that we don’t really believe in demon possession. That’s the stuff of movies. And then our imaginations might wander to what those movies have shown us of possession and exorcism: bodies levitating, heads spinning, superhuman feats of strength, strange and otherworldly voices coming out of the mouths of children. Well-meaning but clearly out-of-their-depth Catholic priests throwing holy water around and shouting prayers and commands in the name of God, while sometimes ending up being thrown themselves, from the room, out a window, to their deaths.
Now that I’ve planted all of that in your brains, I’m asking you to forget it all. It’s a distraction from what this gospel has to say to us. And worse yet, when we read this gospel through the lens of Hollywood tale-spinning, we end up saying, “This is the stuff of fiction, of sensationalism. What does this gospel have to do with us, a bunch of middle-class, salt-of-the-earth, level-headed Episcopalians? What does this gospel have to with us?”
Just this. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was written for you. If you’ve ever known someone who has asked the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was also written for you. And I’m guessing that means that this gospel was written for every single person in this church today.
Because what drives people to ask that question is nothing more nor less than an unclean spirit.
Now. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep-end, or before you start thinking, “Oh good, she’s finally going to lay out a plan for our spiritual warfare against the demon world,” hear me out. Hear what a reading of Scripture has led me to believe about unclean spirits.
The Old Testament, and particularly the Penteteuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) are full of a concern regarding what is clean and what is unclean, about who is clean and who is unclean. Unlike what we might think, being unclean didn’t necessarily mean that someone lived an immoral or unethical life. One became unclean, for example, if one touched a corpse—even if that touching was done in order to prepare a loved one for burial. One became unclean if one ate an unclean animal, like a pig. One became unclean if one had a contagious disease, like leprosy and other skin diseases. A menstruating woman was unclean, as was one who had just given birth. Having a child or a skin disease didn’t mean that one was immoral, and there are certain types of uncleanness which could be redeemed, purified, and the person made clean once again.
On the other hand, a person could become unclean by killing someone, or by having illicit sex, or by worshipping other gods. These were considered immoral acts, and were punishable, often by death.
So, uncleanness might be caused by disease, contamination, infection, or sin. Why were all these things categorized as uncleanness?
Because the concept of uncleanness simply meant that one was in a state of being separated from God. It meant that one was separated from the worship of God.
I could go on and on. I’m not kidding. I could talk about why eating pigs was considered an unclean act that made the eater unclean. I could theorize at length about why a woman who had just given birth was considered unclean. I could explain why touching a corpse, even if it was to prepare a loved one for burial, made a person unclean, and why that’s actually not as cold as we might think. ‘Cause I’m a geek and this topic actually really interests me. But I don’t need to go on and on.
Instead, here’s what I want you to understand. An unclean spirit like the one we see in today’s gospel isn’t necessarily an evil spirit, or an immoral spirit. Being possessed of an unclean spirit simply meant that something in this man’s life was separating him from God, and doing so in a pretty permanent way.
In fact, I would argue that if this man’s unclean spirit was immoral, the man would be dead—he would have been killed.
Instead, this man was probably sick. Perhaps he was physically sick—since his exorcism included convulsions, he might have had a seizure disorder. Or he may have been mentally ill. But whatever was wrong with this man, it had separated him from God, from fully and truly worshipping the Lord. His spirit was unclean, or it been invaded by something unclean.
This doesn’t mean that I’m trying to make a spiritual matter into a physical one. What both the Bible AND science tell us is that body, mind, and spirit are intricately related. Our physical health impacts our spiritual health, and vice versa. But I’m guessing that I’m not telling you anything new. Chronic pain does its best to separate us from God. Chronic illness does its best to separate us from God. Mental illness does it best to separate us from God. How much harder is it to pray when our joints are screaming? How much harder is it to focus on our relationship with God when we’re always nauseated, or always fighting infection, or always fighting to move the way we want to move? How much harder is it to be right with God when we’re constantly battling overwhelming sadness, or anxiety, or feelings of paranoia, or the urge to self-harm?
No, I would guess that this man wasn’t evil. He was sick. His life had become a nightmare, and it might have felt like his personality had been taken over by alien powers—as indeed, it had been. He was no longer the man he had been created to be. He had an unclean spirit.
How many of us know what that is like? How many of us know someone who knows what that is like?
And here’s the thing. Scripture lays out degrees of uncleanness. I would argue that to have an unclean spirit doesn’t just mean that one’s life has become a nightmare. In fact, the Apostle Paul argues that all human beings are unclean because of inherited sin. We all live in a state of uncleanness because we live in a broken world. So I don’t need to be clinically depressed in order to be separated from God. I just need to be sad, or grieving, or hurting. We might be less separated from God if we’re sad rather than clinically depressed. We might be less separated from God if we tend to worry rather than struggle with clinical anxiety. But we’re still separated from God, to a degree, and for a time.
In other words, we all have unclean spirits.
What are yours?
That’s not a hypothetical question. I’m not going to ask you to speak out loud, but I am going to give you a moment to ask yourself, “How is my spirit unclean? What separates me from God?” You might find sin. In fact, you’ll definitely find sin. But you also might find other things. Things outside of your control. What are your unclean spirits? What are their names?
Now that I’ve taken you to that yicky place, are you ready for some good news?
Let’s go back to the man in the gospel with the unclean spirit. The man who was sick, whose life had become a nightmare, whose personality had been overcome by alien powers, who was no longer the man he had been created to be. Let’s go back to him. What happened to him?
My friends, Jesus happened to him.
Jesus entered the scene and spoke a word and healed him. Made him clean. Brought him back to himself. Restored his relationship with God.
Because Jesus has that authority. That is the major message of today’s gospel. That Jesus has a spiritual authority that is unparalleled. That his authority disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. That his authority liberates us, it heals us. His authority returns us to ourselves and to our God.
So, if Jesus has this authority, why do we continue to suffer? Why do illness and contagion and sin continue to impact us?
The answer is, I don’t know. I’ve said this before: I don’t know completely what God is up to.
But here’s what I do know.
When Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he healed people, yes. But he didn’t heal all people, everywhere. He released this one man from his unclean spirit, but he didn’t banish the unclean spirits from the face of the earth. The reign of God is both now and not yet.
That means that the healing of the man with the unclean spirit points us toward something. It points us toward a God who would and will heal us. It points us toward an eschatological future in which there are no more unclean spirits. In which all there is is God and us and God’s unfailing love for us.
And it points us toward what we’re called to do in the meantime. New Testament scholar Brian Blount argues that readers of Mark’s gospel are invited to follow Jesus into a whole new world, into a world of Jesus walking around possessed by the power of the Spirit of God. We’re invited to go with him and help him create the holy people and the holy world that he’s creating.
And that begins by taking care of ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. It means eating right and drinking right. It means getting enough sleep. It means exercising. It means reading books and watching TV shows and movies and engaging with technology in ways that feed the mind. It means developing coping mechanisms to get us through what’s tough. It means nurturing healthy relationships with one another. It means knowing when to go to the doctor, and when to go to the therapist. (And by the way, why is it that getting help for our medical woes doesn’t carry a stigma, but getting help for our emotional and psychological woes still does? Let’s stop that already.) It means reading our Bibles. It means praying. It means worshipping. It means knowing when to get the spiritual help that we all need.
But that’s not where it stops. Because we’re also called to be Jesus here on earth—to be filled with, to be possessed by, the Spirit of God and to transform and heal others. I’m not talking about faith healing, necessarily, though I never rule that out. But I am talking about spotting the unclean spirits in others and lovingly and compassionately naming them, exposing them. And then helping to banish their unclean spirits. To speak the word and to do the things that will replace the unclean with the clean, to banish the unclean in favor of the Spirit of God. To help bring them back to themselves, and to help bring them back to God.
So, what has this gospel to do with us? Only everything. What has Jesus to do with us? Only everything. Thanks be to God for that. And Amen.