In our Gospel story today, Jesus performs his first act of his public ministry in the Galilean seaside town of Capernaum. It is the sabbath day for Jews and Jesus and his disciples enter the local synagogue for prayers. Within are villagers and scribes – scribes being the educated, esteemed, legal experts of the Torah, the law of God given through the prophet Moses. The scribes’ job was to interpret God’s law and instruct the people on how to keep the laws in their daily lives, in part to ensure they remain ritually clean, or pure, so as not to “infect” the rest of the community. To break the law of God was to risk banishment from the community altogether.
While the scribes offered their instruction, Jesus – having no title, no attribution of expert, no high social status – begins teaching, too. There’s a stir in the congregation. Their ears are hearing something new – not a new law, but a new interpretation of the law of God. Those hearing are “astounded,” we’re told, for from Jesus they hear not an oppressive, fear-instilling instruction, filled with warnings for those who break any part of the law, but something altogether different, something liberating.
Jesus possesses a captivating alternative authority. He does so because he is literally possessed, as we learn back in Mark 1:11, at his baptism in the Jordan River. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the voice of God booms from heaven proclaiming of Jesus, “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And in that moment the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell within Jesus, possessing him fully, informing, equipping, and empowering him for his call and mission from God.
While Jesus is teaching, a sudden commotion ensues as a man with an unclean spirit barges in, and immediately approaches Jesus. The man’s voice has been silenced by the power of the demon that possesses him. It is that demon who cries out loudly to Jesus, “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!” Spirits recognize spirits. The possessed man comes face to face with the possessed Jesus. The unclean spirit indwelling the man meets the pure, holy spirit of God indwelling Jesus, and is terrified of death. For no possession by unclean spirits, no demon, no evil, nothing that opposes the Realm of God, can withstand the power of the Spirit that possesses Jesus. For it is the greatest power there is – the transforming power of love which heals everything and restores the image of God of all in whom it has been distorted by the unholy.
It was into the synagogue – the house of prayer – that the man with the noisy, distressed spirit came, while the congregation was in the middle of their worship service. Imagine if that happened at Knox Church while we were gathered for Sunday worship – that in the middle of an anthem, sermon or prayers, such a possessed person, seemingly wild, barges in.
Although the scriptures have many references to possession by demons, unclean and evil spirits, for most of us today, this is not part of our usual language and day to day experience. But don’t we, in our own lives, experience possession by unclean spirits too – possessed by what is opposed to the God, to what distorts the image of God that each of us bears, by something that has a hold on us, physically, mentally, or emotionally?
Maybe a habit, a thought pattern, a person, has taken possession of us, enslaving our time, our attention, our desire and or ability to fulfill daily duties of work, home, and in society. If you have experience with addiction in yourself or a loved one, you understand how something can seem to take over – to possess – a life. (But we must remember that addiction is a disease, like cancer or any other, and though its manifestations may fall short of God’s desire for us, addiction is not a moral issue and we must take care not to judge, or demonize, the one suffering from addiction.)
Cultural realities can lead to possession – fears surrounding COVID-19, for example. Ideologies can take possession of us, and become our idols, replacing God as our object of worship. Not content with the slow but faithful work of God, we grow impatient and shift our trust to ourselves, another person, an idea or movement – none of which can offer any lasting security, but which can distort our image of God, silencing our true voice.
Though all unclean spirits oppose the Good of God, some spirits are, without question, evil. The Nazi holocaust is a prime example of an evil spirit at work, as is all genocide. Our own history of genocide and the enslavement of black, indigenous and people of color exemplify the power of evil to possess us and lead us to commit atrocities against our fellow humans.
And this possession by unclean, evil spirits persists in us today as our realities of structural racism, white supremacy, modern day slavery and lynching reveal; refusing sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees, placing them in detention instead, separating families, holding immigrant children in cages, where they will spend most of their childhood, unless we work to exorcise the demons from the thoughts, actions and systems that keep them encaged. Evils such as these lead to becoming blind to the image of God in another, making it easy to deem another less worthy than self, until eventually justice for all becomes justice for The Few.
We saw signs of this a few weeks ago during the insurrection at our nation’s capital – people possessed by the unclean spirit of white supremacy, armed with guns, hate, and bigotry stormed the capitol building with little to no resistance.
The unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Episcopal priest Michael Marsh imagines a response from Jesus:
“What have I to do with you? Everything!” As the story and Jesus’ actions reveal, this is Jesus’ response: “Everything. I have everything to do with you…” words that can bring this man back to himself again,” and restore the Divine Image in which he was created, that has been distorted by possession (interruptingsilence.com).
Not with weapons or violence, but with the power of compassion and love, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent, to come out. Trying to resist, the unclean spirit convulses the man; knowing its hold on this man is coming to an end, the unclean spirit cries out, gasping for life. But the demon is defeated and is gone.
The scribes and the congregation are amazed as they witness the formerly possessed man come back to his true self and get his true voice back. The man will go on to help spread the news of his liberation throughout the region – that a holy one of God has come, the very Kingdom of God has come near to them, and that this is very good news.
I confess to a recent experience with what I would call an unclean spirit that often takes possession of me. I call it scarcity thinking – a fear of not having enough or of not getting what I need or think I need to feel secure or to survive. Here’s the story.
Thanks to the generosity of the Knox congregation, Knox is able to assist those with emergency needs for rent or utilities with some funds. This money can help keep people in their homes and the heat on for a while longer while they continue to search for work and income. During this pandemic, so many have lost their jobs and now are falling further and further behind with their bills. A young, single mother of a six-year old daughter, experiencing this very crisis, called the church last week seeking funds for rent. She had already called the social service and other organizations that we normally refer people to, and all are either out of funds or have not yet responded due to the high numbers of calls they are receiving daily.
As is customary, I phoned her landlord to verify and gather information. Jeffery called me back a bit later, and in his voice message he shared he wanted to talk to me about something else, as well. Immediately, I felt my body tense and my defenses rise. As a church with resources, I am wary of being taken advantage of or of the “give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
Jefferey has many tenants. Was he going to ask us to fund the rent for others too, so he could get the money due to him? Adam and I, as your pastors entrusted with this discretionary fund, wish we could help everyone, but of course we can’t. It’s hard to say no to anyone. Was Jefferey going to put me in a position to have to say no?
Projecting my spirit of scarcity onto Jeffery, bracing myself for the worst, I phoned him back. He shared that he and his business partner (they are two young men who started their own home improvement business this past year) have been wondering how they could help those in need during this pandemic. They have witnessed churches like Knox offering to help his tenants, and out of gratitude, he and his partner want to serve in return. Jefferey explained that when I called him about helping his tenant, he felt it was a divine sign. Not only did Jefferey not ask me for more money, he asked how he and his partner could help Knox, whether there were any building repairs or light construction needed, for they wish to volunteer their services as a thank you.
Upon hearing this a wave of relief – of pure grace – washed over me. Jefferey’s gracious offering brought tears to my eyes and shone a light on the unclean spirit of scarcity that had possessed me. I felt liberated. Jeffery met me with a spirit of love and compassion, the same Spirit that had possessed Jesus and led to the liberation of the man in the synagogue.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus, the Holy One of God?” the unclean spirit asks. The Holy One invites us to keep asking that question, to pause, get quiet and listen so that we might hear Jesus’ response, “Everything…I have come to set you free, that you might have life to the full.” What are you possessed by today? What has a hold on you? What has served to silence your true voice, to overshadow your true self – the image of God stamped upon you before you were born? I invite you to hold silence for 30 seconds right now, to be still with our God of Love and ask, ‘What have you to do with me?” and to listen.
No matter what experiences we have in life with being taken over by unclean spirits, let us never cease to claim the one who utterly possesses us – the ultimate power, the Holy Spirit of God. Let us conclude with an affirmation of our faith offered to us by the Apostle Paul from his letter to a first century church in Corinth, no less encouraging for us today:
Whenever anyone turns to our God, the veil covering our misunderstanding is removed. Now our God is Spirit, and where the Spirit of our God is, there is freedom. And we, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of God grow brighter and brighter, are being transformed into the same image we reflect. This is the work of our God, who is Spirit, who is Love.