Sunday, January 28, 2018
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:
Every so often, someone asks me whether I have or would if asked perform an exorcism. Now, sometimes it comes from someone who has a morbid curiosity, imagining it like it happens in horror movies and wanting a good story. But most of the time when I get asked something like that, it seems the underlying question is really about the presence of evil in the world. Are there still forces that tear us apart, that possess us and control us, that wreak havoc on individuals and communities? What are they? And, most importantly, can anything be done about the evil we experience in the world?
There is evil in the world. I think that goes without saying. But I’ll never forget a conversation that took place in our adult forum several years ago watching a documentary about people of faith responding to the events of 9/11. It raised the question for us of whether the concept of evil is simply the sum total of all the bad stuff we humans think and do – and pause to consider the tremendous force of that for a moment – or whether evil is that plus forces that operate beyond the human plane of reality. I think there are persuasive arguments and interesting implications either way, but more and more I have the sense that there are indeed forces larger than just the sum total of humans coming together to do terrible things.
Now, are those forces ruled by a fiery devil with horns and a pitchfork? I don’t believe so, and it’s a stretch to support that image from the Bible. Do those forces manifest themselves as shrieking, shadowy figures that possess human beings? Mostly not in my experience. But are we pushed and pulled, torn apart and turned upside down by things that seem to be more powerful than we can overcome even with the best of our collective efforts? Yes. It seems all the time.
I still can’t shake the sense of the forces at work last summer at the rally that took place in Charlottesville, brought again to my attention listening to the year-end wrap up episode of the Code Switch podcast. Without in any way absolving the people who planned that rally or ourselves for our racism, there is something about that event that speaks to me of the power and presence of the demonic at work in our world. And maybe the demonic is simply what manages to spew from our mouths, our hands, and our hearts to perpetuate systematic racism. Or maybe there’s something even more than that at work.
As we try to sort out how to move forward together as a divided country, there’s a lot we do to throw barbs at one another. There’s a lot we refuse to listen to because we have decided we are in the right. But it also seems to me all that is growing ever bigger than even the actions we take day-to-day. Maybe the demonic is that which keeps us from listening to one another, from acting in our own and others’ best interest.
And as individuals I see us trying over and over again to overcome the things that rob us of life – the drive for perfection, the quest for something more than our daily bread, the substances and addictions that control our minds and bodies, the illnesses that steal us away from ourselves and our communities. These things, these demons separate us from abundant life.
I don’t know which demons that plagued the man who entered the synagogue where Jesus was teaching. I don’t know what held him prisoner and kept him from abundant life. And I only know in an academic sort of way the kinds of social forces big and small that robbed people in Jesus’ own community of their life and livelihoods. But what Mark records is that when the man encountered Jesus, the forces that gripped him shouted out with a deep recognition both that Jesus brought the full power of God to challenge them and that Jesus wasn’t going to tolerate their presence.
Jesus orders the demons be gone. Not quieted down for a while, not kept at bay with careful attention and focus, not set aside until later. Gone. Get out. When Jesus walks in, the things that rob us of life are ordered out. We are witnesses to the tremendous power of evil in our world. We are witnesses to the forces at work around us and within us. I think few of us doubt their power. But it is harder sometimes to trust Jesus’ power to be even stronger than that. Because most of the time we don’t see this kind of once and done action. Instead we, like the original readers of Mark’s gospel, tend to feel defeated by the things that rob us of life, and for reasons we cannot fully explain they continue to dwell in our world and in us. But Mark tells this story as the first of Jesus’ public acts to remind all of us that through the Jesus’ death and resurrection the power unleashed on this one man’s demons is unleashed on all the world. The power to stand once and for all against evil and hatred, bigotry and falsehood, fear and grief, illness and anxiety.
So we are left with the question we started with – what are we to do with this evil we continue to experience around us and in us, even with the knowledge that Christ is the end more powerful. I’d like to suggest that one of the things we do is perform exorcisms. And before you get too weirded out, let me tell you that the answer to the question of whether I have done an exorcism is, “Yes, and so have you.”
If you’ve ever been at Immanuel for a baptism (or at another church that uses a similar rite in the tradition of the ancient church), before the baptism itself, before the prayer over the water, we confess our faith. And before we confess our faith, we renounce evil. I say, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” and you say: “I renounce them.” “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” and you say… “I renounce them.” “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” and you say… “I renounce them.” Three times to parallel our confession of faith, we renounce the forces of evil and all that stands in opposition to God. We call out the forces that seem to rule our lives and rob us of life itself. We silence them and send them – Be Gone! – with Jesus’ power. And every time for me the collective power of that renunciation does something. It doesn’t save us from everything forever, but something clears the room in that moment. And then in the baptism itself we find the assurance that God works that power once and for all in our lives forever.
Though I think the language in our baptismal rite is particularly powerful, we renounce evil every Sunday. We begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, or with other Trinitarian language. And you say, “Amen.” And we have reclaimed this space. Then we name out loud in the confession that those forces exist in our lives, and in naming them and hearing forgiveness in Jesus’ name they, too, are sent fleeing. With songs and prayers and gathering as one body at the table, we proclaim Jesus’ power over it all, sending the demons fleeing if only for a moment, until one day God does it for good. It’s this that sets us free to share good news and engage the hard work of transforming the world as it is now.
Evil, our own collective action and the forces beyond our control, exists in the world. But we gather in community as the people of God with others all around the globe week after week to speak against it, to use the power of Jesus, if only for a moment to bid the demons be gone and in doing so taste for ourselves the kingdom of God.
-Pastor Steven Wilco