Unclean Spirits and Healing Powers

Mark 1:21-28

I Corinthians 8:1-13

For nearly twenty years, I served as Protestant Chaplain for Georgetown University. Just a short walk from my office was the famed “Exorcist Steps,” the site of an epic battle between good and evil and the divine and the demonic. I often took these stairs on my walks to a restaurant or to get some air, but seldom did I take them after dark. Although I did not expect to meet any evil spirits on my nocturnal strolls, I was apprehensive about entering what some would describe as the Twilight Zone.

Today’s gospel reading is challenging. Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit, a force beyond himself that has taken control of his psyche. We don’t routinely talk about demonic or evil spirits, even though countless movies and television programs have been loosely based on spirit possession or demons that take control of a house, city, or child.

Perhaps we are attracted to these stories because they remind us that as advanced as we are, beneath the surfaces of life there are forces that can and do take control of communities and persons. We don’t talk much about the devil and don’t blame the devil for our misdeeds, and yet we know that our will power is often weaker than the temptations that beset us. Deep down we know that the world is more amazing and possibly more terrifying than we can imagine.

Interest in spiritual forces and the paranormal is intense in many quarters. Television programs try to document angels, demons, and near death experiences. We hear accounts of angelic visitations, predictions of the future, and spirits that channel their wisdom to mortals. We implicitly know that we are not the crown of creation and that there may be more highly evolved spirits than ourselves – and we also intuit that these spirits may be ambiguous, some good and some evil. We may have laughed while playing with an Ouija board as teens but we also wonder about the wisdom of letting our children and grandchildren dabble in the occult.

At the very least, the man possessed by an unclean spirit had lost control of his life. Today, we might use words like mental illness, dissociative or multiple personality disorder, depression, schizophrenia, addiction, or post-traumatic stress to describe his experience. But, regardless of the name we use, he was controlled by forces, unconscious, addictive, or external, that robbed him of the ability to choose his life path. He was controlled by a destructive power greater than himself.

Because my mother and brother both had serious mental health issues, I have tried to stay in control of my psyche and remain non-anxious, calm, and rational in stressful situations. But, once several years ago, I was beset by a force I could not control on my own. For three days, I couldn’t catch my breath – I couldn’t sleep and felt panicky. Since it was the weekend, I tried all my life skills to overcome this power, short of going to the emergency room. On Monday morning, I high-tailed it to my family physician, who found no clear reason for my panic, but prescribed Ambien and Paxil to ease my anxiety. You see, I was anxious about being anxious. Within a day, long before the Paxil could take effect, the symptoms disappeared and have not returned since. I don’t know what happened, but I got an insight into the way my brother, mother, and other persons with anxiety disorders experienced the world. My sense of invulnerability disappeared and my compassion for persons with mental health issues increased. I realized that we are all in this together, and all of us need to lean on a loving wisdom and power greater than ourselves to find our way through life’s challenges.

In today’s reading, the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as God’s chosen one. More perceptive than the synagogue crowd, the unclean spirit confronted the healer, either worried that Jesus might destroy it or hoping for a healing. As broken as this man was, there was a hidden wholeness ready to come forth in the presence of God’s beloved son. And so it is with us – in our addictions, illnesses, anxiety, stresses, there is a movement toward healing; a voice that calms the frenzied spirit and shows us how to walk through the valley of anxiety and pain, when we have no way of going around it.

And, here in church, we need to take care of each other: we are both stronger than we can imagine and more vulnerable than we can imagine, and in our darkest days only a loving God and the incarnation of God’s love in a faithful community can help us find wholeness again.

God works in many ways to heal us. My friend Dale Matthews, a professor of internal medicine at Georgetown University, asserts that we may need both prayer and Prozac to experience abundant life. When you can’t do it on your own or by force of will, God provides us with medication, skilled counselors and spiritual guides, and supportive friends.

The reading from Corinthians can also seem foreign to our experience. We don’t worry about food sacrificed to idols. But, what we do – what we eat and drink and how we behave – may make a difference to the well-being of those who see us as models for their lives. Although Paul would counsel us to eat healthy foods, Paul says to the Corinthians and us that we don’t need to worry about what we eat or drink; God calls us to use our freedom responsibly. Within the body of Christ, we are responsible for each other. Within a family we are responsible for each other, and our responsibilities always place limits on our freedom if we are to be faithful to God.

Many of us have changed our behaviors when we became parents or grandparents – we know someone’s always watching and learning from us. We want to model healthy, loving, and ethical behaviors. Many of us also refrain from serving alcohol around friends who are struggling with alcoholism.

We are responsible for each other. If one rejoices, all rejoice, and if one suffers all suffer. Live your public life as if God is your companion and commit yourself to living worthy of the grace you have received. At the end of the day, whether we are concerned with our own vulnerability or the vulnerability of others, our own mental health or the mental health of loved ones, we are never alone – we have one another, we have the communion of saints to sustain us – and we have God, the wisdom and power greater than our own, to travel alongside us in every dark valley, insuring that even when we are lost and clueless of our destination, God loves us and will guide us home.