Unlike many of my teenage friends who were interested in romantic comedies about other teenagers finding love for the first time, I was always attracted to books and movies about demons, demon possession, exorcisms...that sort of thing. I can remember when Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie) first came out in the theater and how disappointed I was because it didn’t seem “authentic” enough. So when the TV show started, I was very excited by the magic, mythology, and of course, the demons.
But in the realm of fantasy, movies and books about demons are just that...fantasy. People are always terrified, running away, and trying to survive. The plot is built on fear and struggle, and at the end, there’s always this sense of relief because it’s “over”.
And yet, when we read the gospel stories of demon possession and exorcism, we don’t have that same sense of terror and suspense. For some of us, we might think of these stories as miraculous...things that only happened in the time of Jesus. Others of us might view these types of stories as a way for people in the early church to understand mental illness. And some of us might outright dismiss these stories as part of the “mythology” of the Jesus movement.
In the Gospel of Mark, there are 18 recorded miracles; 13 of these miracles are about healing. Of these 13 healing stories, 4 are stories of exorcism. For the writer of Mark, exorcisms performed by Jesus are always in the context of healing...of bringing someone back into a state of “cleanliness” or “purity”.
So in today’s gospel story, Jesus and his first followers--the men whom he’d called to be fishers of people--have entered into the temple on the Sabbath. There Jesus is participating in scripture study with other men and the writer tells us that he is speaking with authority. Among those gathered is a man with an “unclean spirit”.
As we are learning in Bible Study, there were many customs and traditions for the Jewish people around temple worship and cleanliness. Throughout the Old Testament we learn about sacrifices and purification rituals that were necessary for someone who was ritually unclean to perform prior to returning to the temple to worship with the community. Yet, this man appears not to have violated any purity laws, but rather is filled with an unclean spirit.
And Jesus speaks with authority. It’s an authority that even the demons--this unclean spirit--recognizes. It’s an authority that offers healing because it comes from God. And this authority will heal lepers, the blind, and a woman who bleeds for 12 years. It is an authority that brings peace to the broken and the broken-hearted.
Outside of fantasy novels, movies and the occasional tv preachers who perform exorcisms, we don’t think about casting out of demons on a day to day basis. It’s not part of our daily reality. And most of the time, if someone presents with mental illness, we refer them to appropriate resources, or flat out ignore them.
But let me tell you about Kevin. Kevin was a guest for two nights at the warming shelter. He was quite, polite, and grateful for a warm meal and a safe place for the night. As I was welcoming the guests, addressing questions and concerns, Kevin shared with me that he was trying to get to Boise. And he was hopeful for a bus ticket. We made arrangements for him to come by the church the next day to get a bus voucher.
The next day, after Kevin and I got his bus ticket situation settled, I asked him how he came to be at the shelter. He told me bits and pieces of his life story...his past struggle with drugs and alcohol and trying to live sober, his son in the army, his on again off again life on the street for twenty years. His story was both unique and somewhat typical of many of our guests at the shelter. But then he got quiet. And he told me how unworthy he was of God’s love and mercy. I told him that everyone is worthy...God’s mercy and love were boundless. Kevin, with tears in his eyes, with the words getting stuck in his throat, told me he was too broken.
And now I understand, Kevin and this man in Mark’s gospel story, this man with the unclean spirit, they both need the healing that only Jesus can give. We aren’t called--I’m not called--to exorcise the demons that people have. But we are called to be present, to listen to stories, to pray, and to invite--through word and deed--to invite others to experience the healing, love and mercy that only God can give.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.