January 31, 2021
Annual Meeting Sunday-Christ Church
4thSunday after the Epiphany
Jesus was an exorcist. At least according to the Gospel of Mark. And Luke and Matthew. But that’s not the Jesus we talk much about these days, and probably something that makes some of us uneasy from our 21stcentury, scientific worldview.
But that’s the Jesus that Mark gives us in our Gospel this morning. In this season of Epiphany, our readings make known ways that Jesus is revealed as Son of God. And Jesus as exorcist, is one of those ways and important to Mark’s understanding of Jesus. Four of the thirteen healing stories in Mark’s Gospel are exorcisms, and we find the people of Israel and the Jewish leadership wrestling with this. Exorcists were familiar figures in the ancient world, and their power came from various sources. The Pharisees claimed in Mark’s Gospel that the power of Jesus to free people from their demons, or unclean spirits as they were often called, came from Beelzebul, ruler of the demons. Jesus claimed, of course, that the power came from God. And so he asked the Pharisees, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Evil doesn’t defeat evil, he’s telling them. We might hear a version of his words echoed in that famous quote from Martin Luther King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The idea that there was this ongoing struggle between the spirit of God and the power of Satan was alive and well for the Gospel writer Mark and his audience. Demons or unclean spirits were considered powers that opposed the will of God. They could manifest themselves in a person in different ways—sometimes as physical ailments and often causing the poor, possessed person to convulse and writhe, demonstrating an internal wrestling match with the evil powers. Those possessed were in bondage to the evil. But Jesus could free them with the power of the Holy Spirit
This was healing and liberation for the individual who had been possessed, but it also had wider implications. When Jesus freed people from the unclean spirits, he was liberating an individual, but also binding the powers of evil, so that they could not harm anyone else. The spirit of God working through Jesus could defeat the power of Satan. In other words, when Jesus freed people from their demons, he was also moving the world closer to the final reign of God, where evil would be no more.
(Notes on Jesus as exorcist from “Demon Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament” by James G. Dunn and Graham Twelftree, 1980)
As 21stcentury Christians, that might not be how we understand the battle between good and evil in the world. We may not be waiting for the power of Jesus to drive out demons from people. At least, not in the way we see his exorcisms take place in the Gospel of Mark. But who among us would argue that evil doesn’t exist in our world? Evil that needs to be rooted out and defeated?
One of the most devasting reminders of evil are cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Wednesday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to remember the 6 million Jews, the Roma, the disabled persons, and the LGBTQ individuals that were systematically murdered.
And we cannot forget our own national history of enslaving black people, beating, and often killing them…forcing Native Americans off their land through violence…and other atrocities against those that were deemed other—all sanctioned by government and often by American citizens. Not to mention the inequities among people in our nation that endure because of that history. Examples of evil can be found throughout history, and they persist today.
Acknowledging therefore the reality of evil, we must constantly ask ourselves, “What are the demons that possess us as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race?”
Our very baptismal covenant—the commitment that we make as Christians, who act as Christ’s body in the world, speaks of Satan and the evil powers at work in the world. These are two of the vows we take in that covenant: (1) “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And (2) “do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and the destroy the creatures of God?”
To each of those questions in our covenant, we answer boldly, “We renounce them.” But how?
The first step is truth-telling—naming the demons. This is why we observe days like Holocaust Remembrance. So that we don’t forget what evil we humans are capable of…and why we need exorcisms of love, justice and compassion to root out that evil.
A particular demon that we face in our country today is the growing movement of white nationalism. We can’t turn a blind eye. We must name it whenever and wherever we see it. We must name the demons of hatred and white supremacy before they gain power over us. And sometimes that will take great courage.
The next step in casting out evil is prayer. Prayer may feel, at times, like it is inefficient. Like it doesn’t have the power we want because we can’t always see our prayers being answered. But prayer is important in our struggle because by praying, we are affirming a belief that wecanfight evil, that we can change the world, and that the great hope we find in Jesus is not empty, but powerful. The optimism of prayer makes action possible. Through truth-telling and prayer, we can move into the hard work of freeing our world from the evils that bind it.
(naming and prayer as responses to evil comes from Osvaldo Vena in his “Working Preacher” commentary on the Gospel for January 31, 2021)
Today is the Annual Meeting of our Parish. Much of that meeting will be about the institutional business of the church. We’ll elect leadership. We’ll present the budget for this year. And all of that is really important. We maintain the institution, and we keep it healthy because of how it creates a space for us to do God’s work in the world.
For many of you, you have had very little contact with the physical building of our church over much of the past year, but I hope you would say that your connection with the community of faith that we are building here, has remained. It is that faith community, doing the work of Jesus Christ in the world, that emboldens us for this difficult work of casting out the evil in our midst.
Together, we support one another in this work of naming the demons and telling the truth about them, even when that truth is hard to hear. And together we pray. We pray for the needs of the world. We pray that we will find ways to be healers in the world. We pray, striving together to believe, that good can defeat evil, light can overcome the darkness, and love can drive out hate. May it be so. Amen.