Mark 1:21-28 “Breaking Free”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
For many of us who place ourselves on the theological continuum left of center, this story from the Christian scriptures has all the components to make one squirm. This is not a comfortable story. We tend to get fidgety around flashing neon words like “demon” “unclean spirits” and “exorcism.”
I’ve never had anyone tell me that this is their favorite healing story. And, clearly, it isn’t what I longed to wrestle with this week. I’m often reminded that the three year lectionary cycle of scripture invites us to deal with all kinds of texts that we’re tempted to ignore.
The Gospel of Mark reminds me of my emails with my youngest son. I write a litany of what’s going on in the family and when I’ll next be in Eugene, and I carefully ask how things are going in his life…and, from my history, it actually looks like a letter. I press send. And a few hours later, if I’m lucky, or the next day, I get back a short response made up of a few sentences with several of my questions having been overlooked…or perhaps ignored.
Mark does not flesh anything out…it’s just facts. In the first chapter of Mark he takes a mere 28 sentences to tell us about the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the arrest of John, the calling of the disciples, and today’s lesson, the story of Jesus teaching and healing in the temple in Capernaum. Mark focuses on how Jesus lived and died while we have the Gospels of Matthew and Luke who flesh out what he taught. All of Mark’s stories, narratives, parables and miracles are invitations to enter a new order—a new structure—a new spiritual reality. They are stories of deliverance. They invite us to let go of old outdated, useless systems that do not promote the good news and in many cases suppress the good news.
The setting of today’s lesson is the synagogue which served as a community forum for teaching and instruction. This was the logical place to bring a new teacher as well as a new message. The text tells us that Jesus taught with authority. People experienced this authority through his power, presence, truth telling and his miracles of deliverance. He offered a model of living that embraced compassion and love as key elements, rather than laws.
The ancient world believed in demons and devils which in today’s text is referred to as an “unclean spirit.” They believed that spirits sat on thrones, hovered around cradles, lived in unclean places such as tombs and spots where there was no cleansing water. The ancients also believed that they lived in the desert and were dangerous to the bride and bridegroom, to a woman in child-birth, and to children who were out after dark. It doesn’t matter whether or not we believe in all of this…I personally believe that most women in the final stages of labor and child-birth could be easily convinced that they are under some kind of attack.
It behooves us to understand the contrast with the traditional teaching style that took place by the scribes who gave their lessons based upon quotations –teachings founded on their heritage, built on the prophets of old. No scribe had the authority to give a decision on his own. Jesus’ teaching was so new, so powerful that the people listened in amazement. It is in this historic setting that Mark invites us to review the miracle around the first case of demoniac possession.
Mark takes us into a world that is far from our habits and our thought patterns…or is it?
This week, I found myself scanning the pictures taken in Poland at Auschwitz at the 70th anniversary of the day of liberation. I was stunned as I viewed the 40 kilometers of interconnected camps with 28 brick buildings that each housed 700-1000 Jews between 1940 and their liberation on January 27, 1945. This was the setting for over 1 million deaths. On the edge of the camp was the huge villa that was the home of the camp commander Rudolf Hess. 90% of the prison population were Jews, and the other 10% were Homosexuals, gypsies and Soviet prisoners.
Ten years ago, at the 60th anniversary, those gathered numbered 1500, this year, with most of the attendees in their 90’s there were less than 300. As the witnesses, they can all speak to the power of evil. They understand the power of unclean spirits. I was touched by the overwhelming emotions that were experienced by those who courageously travelled back to Poland to revisit not only the site, but their memories—memories of torture, humiliation, constant cold, hunger and the endless grief that had engulfed them. As always, their prevailing question was “Who will continue to tell the story after we are gone?”
On the day after the Auschwitz memorial, the media took us into a South Carolina courtroom where we listened to the witnesses and storytellers talk about the “unclean Spirit” that was a powerful reality in the segregated South. As a nation, we reviewed the story of the nine men, known as the “Friendship Nine” who were students at the now closed Friendship College. On January 31, 1961 all nine entered the popular McCrory’s five-and dime store and took a seat at the lunch counter. They were arrested and found guilty of trespassing for sitting at an all-white lunch counter. They became the first demonstrators to choose jail time rather than pay a fine. They served 30 day sentences at the county prison farm. Their prison records haunted their futures. They endured harassment from local police for participating in the sit-in, and some moved away from the city in order to get jobs.
In a packed courtroom this past Wednesday, near the sight of the old building that held the lunch counter, Judge John Hayes III, a nephew of the judge who had presided over the men’s trials 54 years earlier, signed an order vacating the convictions of the Friendship Nine. The local prosecutor, who helped initiate the motion to clear their names, apologized to the men. The men did not want the prison time stripped from their records. They wanted the proof of a time when unclean spirits ruled the segregated South. Having just watched the movie Black and White, we still have plenty of work to do around racism.
As I sat with this text, I was struck with the image that comes from verse 26. “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” The King James Version describes the spirit as “torn out of him”. We are offered a powerful image that touches us on a visceral level. We are given the description of the kind of pain that has been haunting the man who found himself in the presence of Jesus. Being freed by having that which bound him torn out of him makes us aware of how painful the freeing process can be.
One of the roles of pastoral counselors and therapists and those in healing ministries is to be able to offer a place of safety where those kinds of healing cries can be released. I often have the sense that when one is working through layers of abuse, that one is doing the work not only for oneself but also for others in the family who were plagued by the same unclean spirits. Having walked with some folks through the healing process of childhood abuse, I’m familiar with the release that sometimes comes in the form of a sound that can be associated with that of a wounded animal. It sometimes comes because the original pain that is being released comes from a place within the person that is so old and so deep that it is pre-verbal. It can be terrifying to those who are unfamiliar with how memories can be released and find healing. But in the release, a channel is made for getting rid of the old that has bound them for so long. In the honoring and listening to someone’s deepest and oldest pain is the granting of freedom to some discarded part that has been locked away. Making room for the cries and witnessing of the tearing free is a holy ground experience.
Years ago, scholar and Biblical Professor Walter Wink wrote an award- winning book titled Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Wink offers the concept of …”the demons” as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations.” He speaks of the “Domination System” as a means of describing what happens when an entire network of powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values. It helps me to use the word addictive over idolatrous. Our society is familiar with the web that is woven around addictive networks– be they family systems or business or religious systems.
Scholars tend to focus on this Markan text and on the man who was healed as Jesus living out his authority. However, I find myself wondering about how the healed man re-entered his community. I want to know who welcomed him. I want to know if he was now treated differently, or did the stigma of his former bondage still keep people from engaging him in friendship?
I remember a priest by the name of Father Bernard who was the retreat Master at Mount Angel Abbey here in Oregon. Many years ago, I felt drawn to go there seeking something that I had no language to express. On my stay it struck me that Father Bernard had served as the doorkeeper for the monastery. We tend to think of doorkeepers or gatekeepers as those who keep away anything or anyone who doesn’t meet the unspoken or spoken community standards or norms. Father Bernard gave me a powerful understanding of what it means to be a doorkeeper who quietly and inconspicuously makes room for the stranger. He seemed to have a strong intuitive sense as to when to make his presence known, and when to keep his distance. He offered me time to talk about my questions, and yet freely gave me the gift I needed most which was uninterrupted quiet space to do my own interior work. The key to his understanding was his compassionate caring in allowing me to grow and develop my own soul.
I was touched by the event that took place last Tuesday on the Ashland High School Football field as students, faculty, and community folks gathered and formed a heart in order to tell the world how much they love and miss classmate Hannah ”Moose” Thomas-Garner…who has been missing since November 30.
This was the work that Jesus was about. Loving people with such passion that the disordered parts of them could be torn free in order for them to experience newness of life—abundant life. This is what we are called to be about…helping and supporting one another to experience deliverance. Some of us carry unhealed childhood issues, some of us have unhealed wounds from war or some tragic experience. Some of us have abandoned earlier beliefs and are holding questions and struggles about what to believe. And, many who walk through our doors are looking for a place of belonging…a place where they can have the support they need to pass on values to their children. It is out of growing our own souls that we are invited to share the compassion we have experienced and open our doors to those who are in need of healing, belonging, freedom and relationships. Compassion was the hallmark of Jesus. May it also be the hallmark for us as we seek to live into God’s desire for all of us. Amen.