Sermon on Mark 1:21-28, January 31, 2021
When I was 17 and first got my driver’s license, I did not love the license itself, but the freedom it gave me. When I was ordained, I did not love my ordination certificate, but I loved, and still do, the ministries I’ve been called to these past 20 years. When I visit doctors’ offices and see their diplomas on the wall, I’m glad they’re there, but what I really appreciate is the expert care that rebuilt my foot, delivered my children, cured pneumonia, twice. The documents are the credentials, but it’s the stories that come from living out those credentials that grab our attention: my first drive along the Hudson River at night with my high school classmates, the sweet weight of a healthy infant in my arms, the 13-year-old in the pediatric hospice program I served as chaplain, who painted my fingernail blue a week before she died.
Human beings are wired for story. It took me awhile to realize that’s why the creeds feel incomplete to me – they give us Jesus’s credentials: his birth, his death, his resurrection – those things which show him to be the Son of God – but they leave out the story of his life among us, the stories that give him not just credentials, but street cred. It’s what the folks in Capernaum meant when they recognized Jesus’s innate authority. We need the creeds, the credentials, but we also need the gospel stories of the time when God walked the earth among us.
The gospel story we heard this morning tells of the first public event in Jesus’s ministry, so it carries a special weight. The people gathered in the synagogue didn’t know the story of Jesus’s birth, or even his baptism by John. For them, his story was just beginning. And what a start, not “a dark and stormy night,” but a demon, a demon who, recognizing Jesus, asks, “Have you come to destroy us?” And Jesus’s answer is basically an unequivocal “Yes.” He calls the demon out of the man — because yes, Jesus has, in fact, come to destroy the power of evil in this world, to heal what is held in bondage by sin or shame or separation.
Now a lot of people want to debate what “really” possessed the man – a mental aberration or illness, an addiction, an obsession — a demon? But what matters here ultimately isn’t so much about determining an answer as it is about exploring meaning. And, by the way, in case you think exorcism is an ancient and foolish rite, you should know that immediately after the Healing Service (the service we use every Thursday) in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services is a section “Concerning Exorcism,” which states: “The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself….In accordance with this established tradition, those who find themselves in need of such a ministry should make the fact known to the bishop…., in order that the bishop may determine whether exorcism is needed, who is to perform the rite, and what prayers or other formularies are to be used.”
So, a story: about 15 years ago, a former high school student of mine who had grown up here at St. Paul’s contacted me to ask about exorcism because the apartment he and a friend had just rented felt wrong, weirdly cold, as though possessed by evil in some way. I was grateful to be able to send him to the bishop, knowing that he would be taken seriously. I was less taken aback than I might have been because five years prior to that, Rick and I had sat in the living room of the guest house where we were staying on the island of Iona, listening to an English vicar and an Irish priest casually discuss the exorcisms they had performed.
I don’t pretend to understand the various manifestations of evil in the world, though I rather like the broad definition that “a demon is anything that has power that is not of God.” By that definition, we have a lot of demons right now in this country, a lot “that is not of God.” We are living through a time of transition such as Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci described: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Looking at the struggles that have been going on during this liminal time of transition between presidents and calendar years, I think we must take seriously Jesus’s authority to cast out “that which is not of God,” to tame the monsters. And we must be willing to engage in the work with him.
To do that, we have to acknowledge that we are meant to be part of the story. We not only have our drivers’ licenses and social security cards and various professional certificates, but our credentials as Christians. At our Baptism we promise, among other things, to renounce — to reject and repel — all “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “the evil powers of this world.” Sounds pretty straightforward. It’s time for us to gain our own street cred by living up to those credentials.
We know there is evil afoot in the world: systemic racism that brutalizes our Black siblings, a pandemic that was willfully and cruelly allowed to spiral out of control in this country, families deliberately separated at our border, lost to one another, the natural world ravaged in the name of greed, Christianity itself co-opted as a cover for white nationalism. The list is long.
But Jesus stands in the midst of it all. The demons ask, “Did you come to destroy us?”
“Yes,” Jesus answers, but then he beckons us to join him, knowing that in our Baptismal Covenant we promised to serve him in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to protect the beauty and integrity of creation. That Covenant gives us the necessary credentials.
Demonic powers may be real, darkness is certainly real, but the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. We may not be in that synagogue in Capernaum, but we are here at the beginning of a new year, and this is Epiphany, the season of light – and we are, as Jesus said and Paul affirmed, children of the light.
If we do well, perhaps in future years they will tell stories about us: “Once upon a time, a dark time, the followers of Jesus confronted the powers of darkness….and then there was light.”
With God’s help, and ours, there will be light.