Epiphany 5

Epiphany 5

Christine Staples

Feb. 8, 2020


Mark 1:29-39

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I’d like to offer thanks to Steve Hitchcock for inviting me to offer a reflection on scripture to share with all of you, my beloved faith community, and for his suggestions for judicious prunings. I have so enjoyed hearing the reflections from each of you who have shared so far; one of the things I’ve appreciated is the little description of the journey each of you took as you reflected on the scripture. Therefore, I’d like to lead with a brief overview of the different pathways I could have taken today: this piece of scripture is brief, but it contains multitudes!

Firstly: I’m picturing Jesus and James and John, after a long day at the synagogue, going to Simon and Andrew’s house. They are probably expecting a nice meal and a comfortable rest – but Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed – Jesus has to heal her. And she gets right up out of bed to make them some supper. Well, there’s an interesting pathway….

Then, there’s the matter of miracles. I’m willing to venture a guess that each of us has experienced many miracles, small and large in our lifetimes. I can immediately think of a few in my life: a large one – giving birth to our amazing daughter at the age of 39 and 11/12ths. And small: our dear, late kitty, Bean; a tiny cream tabby kitten, walking out of an empty welding shop parking lot in the dark and cold of a January night, coming right up to us and introducing herself, just at the exact moment I was expressing my profound need of a cat of our own.

There’s also Jesus’ relationship to performing miracles: he’s performing them all day, every day. He’s so exhausted from performing miracles that he leaves Simon and Andrew’s home in the middle of the night, and heads out alone into a deserted place to pray, and still his followers track him down and say “hey, man, everyone has been looking for you!” How exhausting this must be.

Any of these aspects of the reading could absolutely yield an interesting reflection. But the thing which really stood out for me, which really caught my attention was this: Demons. All day, every day, mixed in with the healings, Jesus is casting out demons. And most strikingly for me: when he casts them out, he silences them, because they know him.

The first question I have to ask is: what, or who, is a demon? The classic depiction we have of demons is of a fanged, clawed, snarling, monster. But I don’t think this is the type of demon we’re talking about here. And of course, there’s the vision we have of “possession” from films like “The Exorcist.” That doesn’t seem to fit, either. For one thing, Mark tells this story with such a simple narrative style; it’s like reading an ancestor’s diary you find in the attic: “Cold today. I made bread. John went into town to sell some hay.” Only in this case, it’s “Jesus spent the day healing people and casting out demons. Then we walked to the next town, and he did it again.” I think even Mark would have mentioned it if the demon was really interesting looking or behaving. There are also what we call “personal” demons; which include anything from being endlessly haunted by something unkind or unwise we did fifty years ago, to trauma from our past, to addiction. And there’s psychosis. But again, none of these things really fit.

…“he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” – What type of demon is so common that Jesus is casting them out day and night, and that KNOW THE LORD? And why does Jesus seek to silence them?

Last week in church we received a clue in another reading from Mark; the reading immediately precedes this week’s verses: Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum; they go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus proceeds to teach. And there is a man in the temple who is said to have an “unclean spirit”. The man cries out: “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.” And Jesus rebukes him, and says “Be silent and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”

How interesting! Once again, the “unclean spirit” knows Jesus – it REALLY knows Jesus –  it calls him the “Holy One of God”. Even the disciples don’t “know” him in this way until after his death! This demon knows for sure who Jesus is – and it is afraid that in his role as the Holy One of God that He has come to destroy them.

Truth to tell, it didn’t take long for the demons to reveal themselves to me; I just started thinking about current events: people attempting to violently overthrow our government, murder our leaders, and assault police officers using flags emblazoned with Jesus’ name as weapons. Church leaders vilifying anyone who upheld the election results. Fundraisers for Kyle Rittenhouse on a so-called “Christian” online fundraising platform. Politicians deliberately separating immigrant families at the border and imprisoning them.

My fellow travelers, this is what I think: if a demon is someone who knows who Christ is, knows what Christ’s message is, and must be silenced from speaking His name, I think that it’s because the demon is using Jesus’ name for profane reasons,  to pervert others. The demon is afraid that its old ways, its old powers are about to be destroyed: white supremacy, homophobia and misogyny are “old powers” which spring to mind right away.

How do we know a demon when we see one?

Those of you who have been worshipping with me for the last couple of years will probably not be too surprised to hear that I often think in musical terms. I’d like to sing you a verse from a hymn I learned in my youth at my home church; it was written in the 60’s by a Catholic priest, and it’s based on the Book of John – I imagine many of you know it, even though it is, sadly, not in our hymnal:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

If someone is talking about having a mandate from God or Jesus, or carrying a flag or sporting a t-shirt, hat, or bumper sticker with God or Jesus on it, but the content of their speech, or their behavior is not loving – if it’s not inclusive, if it’s hateful, if it promotes racism, homophobia, misogyny or prejudice – there’s a demon talking.

Of course, if we call out a demon, the demon isn’t going to go “ha, ha! You got me!” and slink away. No, the demon will likely turn straight around and try to gaslight you – these demons are wily! A common tactic would be a raging accusation that YOU are actually the demon! When the Christian activist network Faithful America called out Franklin Graham recently for his un-Christian behavior, their inboxes were flooded with messages like “your whole organization, every person involved is an evil anti-Christ deceiving lying forked tongue devilish mockery to God.”

Another response might seem calm and almost reasonable, but not feel quite right: demands that people who were almost murdered should just “get over it” and move on. Or victim-blaming: that people who peacefully call out wrong-doing are actually to blame for inciting violence against themselves. The insistence that victims should forgive unrepentant evil-doers. Or people telling us that it’s just not Christian to seek accountability. Here’s an example; my cousin’s husband Rick is a retired UCC minister. A couple of weeks ago, he posted on Facebook that Donald Trump should be impeached, that there would be no unity without accountability. One of Rick’s former congregants responded “let us keep in mind, pastor, God is love. It’s upon religious leaders to bring us together, worship one god, believe in salvation, forgive and, above all, pray. Just saying.”

Does “loving our neighbor” mean we shouldn’t call out evil?

Okay, here’s my next hymn, based on the Book of Deuteronomy – this one is sung as a round; maybe we can sing this one together in person someday:

What does the Lord require of you, what does the Lord require of you?

To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God

Justice, Kindness, walk humbly with your God.

As we travel through our days, let us seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.