January 29, 2012
Ellie was angry. She had young children and a husband who travelled for long periods of time. Her father-in-law was living with them, and his physical ailments along with his emotional and verbal abusiveness was creating stress for the entire family. Ellie was angry.
She was so angry that one day when she’d had a particularly difficult exchange with her father-in-law, she ran downstairs to the laundry room and kicked a full laundry basket across the floor. Hard.
So hard in fact that she broke her toe. She was embarrassed to be that angry, embarrassed that she’d lost control like that. Humiliated that she’d actually caused harm to herself because she couldn’t deal with her anger. And Ellie was never able to forget what happened because from that point on whenever the weather changed, her toe ached. She was reminded over and over again of how powerful her anger was. In her words, it was like being possessed.
Ellie shared this story at a women’s retreat I participated in when I was an Associate Pastor in Maryland. Although I didn’t want to admit it to anyone then, I resonated with Ellie’s description of feeling possessed by anger. I’d been that angry before. So angry that I didn’t feel like I had control over what I said or did. It’s as though the anger takes over your entire being. I’d felt that way before I heard Ellie’s story and I’ve felt that way since. Possessed by an emotion I feel I have no control over. Possessed in a way that I do or say things I don’t mean and immediately wish that I could take back.
According to most of the commentators I’ve read in preparation for this sermon, I’m taking the wrong tack by starting with the idea of being possessed. The scholars I’ve consulted believe that the greater point in this passage from Mark is not that Jesus healed a man besieged by a demon, but that Jesus has a previously unseen, unheard of authority. He possesses an authority that goes beyond even the scribes and Pharisees. He teaches and interprets Scripture with authority, and through that authority he casts out a demon.
It is the demon who recognizes Jesus for who he is. The demon calls Jesus by the identifying title of Holy One of God. The only other ones who know this so far are the readers. Mark has made it clear to us who Jesus is, but the process of understanding for the people around Jesus takes the entire gospel and beyond.
This is the first account of a healing by Jesus in Mark’s gospel. And this healing is probably the kind that we’re least comfortable with in our Western, enlightened, scientific thinking. It’s one thing for Jesus to heal someone who is physically ill, to bring that person into health and wholeness. But talk of demon possession makes us uncomfortable doesn’t it? It does me. So much was blamed on demons. People were irreparably harmed because it was believed they were possessed by demons. There was no understanding of emotional or mental illness; it was all just pinned on demons. But let’s face it even though we live in a scientific, enlightened age, what do we think of when hear the phrase demon possession? Anyone? Anyone?
I know what I think of. I think of The Exorcist. I’ve never even seen this movie, nor will I because I just don’t need to be that scared, but I know enough about it and have seen enough pertinent clips to get the gist of the movie. So when I think of demon possession I still get a mental image of Linda Blair with her head spinning around. And while The Exorcist may be the definitive demon possession movie, there are still plenty more being made. Our culture seems to be fascinated by them as equally as we are repelled.
But I think it’s far more helpful for our purposes and for our understanding to see demons in a different way. Dr. David Lose of Workingpreacher.org writes about the demonic as that which opposes God, works against God, breaks down, rips apart, and destroys. A demon is what keeps us separated from God and from one another. If I am so possessed with anger that I say or do something that causes great harm, then that’s not working for God, is it? Even if what I say or do harms myself.
If I am possessed by greed or jealousy or despair or despondency then I am not about building up God’s children, am I? I am not seeking to create or mend, but to rip apart and destroy.
Thinking of this in light of our passage from I Corinthians, if I am so possessed by my own belief in what I know, or at least what I think I know, that I can actually cause harm to come to someone else, then I am not just puffed up, I am possessed.
Possession grips us in other ways. Think about those who are addicted – whether it’s to drugs or alcohol, food or something else. There’s a line in a Tim McGraw song that says, “This is for the lost junkie who spends all his hard-earned money on something that he hates.” That’s a description of possession.
And none of us are immune from possession, from being gripped by something that feels much larger than us, more powerful than us. Let’s remember where Jesus encounters this demon possessed man. In the synagogue. The man was in church, listening to the preaching and the teaching. When Jesus speaks with his authority, the authority as the Holy One of God, the demon recognizes him. The demon sees Jesus for who he truly is. The demon calls out to him. And Jesus, with authority, with the power of his word alone – not a ritual, not a rite, the power of his word alone – casts out the demon.
Yet it’s also in the church where demons can be cast out. I am not speaking of ritual or rite. I’m not speaking of exorcism in the classic understanding of that. But we too have authority given to us by Jesus. It’s not the same kind of authority in the sense that we can command a demon to leave someone through word alone. But we have the authority to love one another. We have the command to love one another. And love, in the way that God loves us through Jesus, is powerful. That’s the kind of power that Jesus wielded. He wielded love.
One of the best movies I’ve seen in the last five years or so is Lars and the Real Girl. It’s the story of a young man named Lars Lindstrom. Lars is possessed by the demon of fear. He is so gripped by anxiety that he cannot bear to be touched or to touch someone else. At the beginning of the movie no one realizes this, not even Lars’ brother and sister-in-law. She is constantly trying to engage him, to bring him out of his shell.
But Lars is also lonely and in desperate need of human contact, so the way he solves this is by ordering a doll. A life size, anatomically correct doll. Her name is Bianca. Lars brings her to dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. He creates a past life for her. She was a missionary. She is suffering from some unknown ailments. Of course, Lars family is completely shocked by the fact that Lars thinks Bianca is a real girl and they maneuver him to their doctor.
The doctor is a kind and wise woman who realizes that Lars is suffering from a delusion that’s helping him deal with a reality he otherwise can’t face. She doesn’t prescribe something for him. She doesn’t recommend that he be committed to a hospital. She doesn’t even question Lars about Bianca being real. She accepts his delusion. If Bianca is real to Lars then Bianca will be real to her. And she tells Lars that she wants him to bring Bianca to see her once a week for some blood work, and while Bianca is being treated she and Lars will talk.
The doctor also tells Lars’ family to accept the delusion, to go along with it until Lars is ready to let it go himself. So they agree. What they do next completely overwhelmed me when I watched it. They went to their church. They told the board – the equivalent of our session – what was happening and asked them to play along too. The people on the board agreed. They were nervous, taken aback to be sure. But they went along with it.
Bianca was welcomed at church. She was welcomed at parties. She even got elected to the school board. And it wasn’t because anybody loved Bianca. It was because they loved Lars. They loved him through it. They used the authority of love that was given to them to love Lars. They loved him through the fears and the anxiety that possessed him, until they no longer did. They loved him through it.
I know that it’s not that simple. We are possessed by demons that cannot always be cured by love alone. But love is our starting point. Love is the authority and the power that we have been given. Jesus commanded the unclean spirit, the demon, to leave the man it possessed. And it did because Jesus spoke with the authority of the Holy One of God. What do we know of God through Jesus? We know love. It seems to me that if we’re going to be possessed, let us be possessed by love. Let us love one another through whatever demons grip our lives. Let us love one another through it, just as God loves us. Amen.