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Epiphany 4 January 28, 2018 - Steve Kieta
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Epiphany 4 Year B
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Wa.
Steve Kieta
January 28, 2018

As a Roman Catholic priest I will occasionally be asked about exorcisms, especially when I’ve worked with young people. Are priests trained in exorcisms? Do I know a priest who’s performed one? Have I ever performed one? The answers are no, most priests are not trained to perform exorcisms. The names of the very few priests who have been trained are kept secret to avoid a daily deluge of phone calls and e-mails, so no, I do not know a priest whose performed an exorcism. Have I ever performed an exorcism? My smart-aleck response is, well, I used to teach high school sophomores. I think that’s pretty close….No, I have never encountered anything that could be considered a hostile spirit or have seen a demonic possession. At least, I’ve never come across the kind of spirit that spars with Jesus in today’s gospel reading.

Many people living in the 1st Century, including members of the Jewish community, believed that their world was full of spirits. We see this in the Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, as he discusses continued belief in idols. People of the time believed some of these spirits to be benign, but many of them were believed to malevolent in nature, like this unclean spirit we encounter in the first chapter of Mark. First Century Judaism believed that unclean spirits were in fact lost human souls, afraid of moving on to the place of dead. They so now continued to exist among the living, hiding in the wilderness, but sometimes possessing human bodies. The signs of possession could be physical illness or even just odd behavior, but often the supposedly possessed exhibited symptoms that we would now diagnose as neurological and psychological disorders. Living with such illnesses is obviously a hard struggle, but as we have learned again and again, the pain of physical affliction was compounded by the pain of social isolation. The residents of Capernaum would obviously have been afraid of the possible harm this “spirit” could cause; they certainly did not want to suddenly become possessed. Moreover, by its very definition this spirit was “unclean”. If you were of the Jewish faith and you came into contact with someone believed to be under demonic possession, then you yourself became unclean, ineligible to participate in religious or communal functions until you were ritually purified.

We live in the United States in 2018, a much different society than 1st Century Palestine I imagine the majority of us do not accept the world to be inhabited by sentient spiritual beings. Some of us perhaps believe in angels or ghosts, but most of us tend not to think that they interact with humans in the same ways as they did in the ancient world. We do not talk about much about unclean spirits in our society. However, we do talk quite freely about “inner demons” or “personal demons”. “inner demons” We use these as metaphors, of course, for psychological and emotional experience, not about frightening entities which are going to spin our heads 360 degrees. But they are metaphors which suggest something within ourselves that is dark, painful, and often feels out of our control. When people talk of their “inner demons”, they can indicating long and hard struggles with addiction, with the effects of abuse or trauma, with depression and other forms of mental illness. “Inner demons” can indicate self-defeating or destructive patterns of thought and behavior that we have  carried for years, tormenting us like demons. These demons spawned not by wandering souls, but by experiences in our childhood and youth, by shame and regret, by impossible cultural expectations, prejudice, and injustice. These patterns, these demons, take possession of us by feeding us a steady diet of distortions, half-truths, and just outright lies, which vary from person to person. Sometimes our demons prey on our insecurities: they tell us that we’re not smart enough, successful enough, good enough; that anything short of perfection is failure. Sometimes our demons prey on our pride: they tell us that others are jealous of us, that we are always right, that it is our job to take on everyone’s burden, that most everyone around us is incompetent and has failed us. Our demons exist in falsehood and speak lies.

But not the unclean spirit in today’s gospel.  This unclean spirit is clearly afraid for its own existence. “Have you come here to destroy itself?” Yet is also afraid of the truth. As Jesus begins his public ministry in Capernaum, the unclean spirit fears not only of what Jesus could do, but of who Jesus is. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” It is the unclean spirit who reveals the truth of Jesus’ identity. Three weeks ago we read Mark’s version of the baptism of Jesus. This unclean spirit in today’s gospel  becomes a mirror image of the Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism and also revealed Jesus’ identity: “You are my Son, my Beloved”

Like this unclean spirit, our demons afraid of the truth. They are afraid of the truth about Jesus, of course, Not only the truth about Jesus, but the truth about each one of us. For each and every one of us is created by God, and is therefore also a daughter or a Son of God. Each one of us is God’s Beloved. We are children of God in a very different sense that Christ is the Son of God, of course. Yet God created each one of us, God loves each one of us, and God calls each of us to holiness. That is the truth in which God invites us to live. If our demons inspire fear, rage, anxiety, and despair by whispering lies, God’s spirit invites us to peace, courage, and inspiration by accepting the truth: We are the daughters and sons of God, God’s Beloved.
And, of course, we are invited to accept that truth about each other as well, to treat one another as God’s Beloved. Jesus’ expulsion of the unclean spirit not only saved the man from physical suffering, but also from isolation. The expulsion of the unclean spirit took place in the synagogue, in the very center of the town’s Jewish religious life, with members of that community present. It re-instated the man as a member of the community not through ritual washing, but through the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his power over the spirit.  By expelling the demon, Jesus has reconstituted the community. If we live in the truth that each of us is God’s Beloved, then we must work to build a society that accepts everyone as such. We must be those prophets that Moses speaks of in the reading from Deuteronomy, speaking God’s truth, proclaiming each of one us as the Beloved of God, fully deserving of dignity. We must challenge those voices who wish to exclude and isolate others from community, that wish to treat them as something less than God’s Beloved.

No, I have never encountered an unclean spirit or a demonic possession. I have seen inner demons, including my own. I have seen torment in myself and others. But I have also seen the reconciliation, the healing, the renewal of life that occurs as we live this truth more deeply: we are God’s Beloved.