Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 31, 2021
I stepped into the big stone pulpit at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas for my first sermon after my ordination. It is no embellishment to say that they loved that sermon. One guy who went to the early 7:30 AM service even came back for a second helping at the 10 o’clock service. Afterwards they threw me and Maggie a big reception with barbecue and gifts. They were kind and generous and gracious. Admittedly, it was not the best sermon I’ve ever preached. And I’m certain that I made all sorts of mistakes in the church service. But everything was peaceful, and calm, and joyous because who doesn’t like the new guy?
Jesus’ first sermon did not go over nearly as well. No barbecue, no gifts, but rather a face off with an unclean spirit. So it wasn’t only his first sermon, it was his first exorcism. The bishop would not have approved if I had tried something like that.
This is the beginning of the conflict that runs throughout the Gospel of Mark between the power of Jesus and the power of the evil one. And all throughout the gospel, the people are the battleground for this conflict. Sometimes the battleground is the hearts of the disciples; Peter makes a confession of faith and then betrays Jesus. Sometimes the battleground is the crowd; they hail Jesus as King one minute and then demand his crucifixion the next. And sometimes, the battleground is a nameless character, like this man in the synagogue, who has been possessed by an unclean spirit.
I know that in twenty-first century, we are not accustomed to talking about possessions and unclean spirits. This can be especially difficult for us strait-laced Episcopalians. But there are powers in this world that try to possess and destroy our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. See, we are not these three neat little compartments; we cannot separate body from mind from soul. We are one thing. Think of what happened to this man with the unclean spirit. When Jesus casts out the spirit, the man’s body is convulsed. A spirit possessed him, certainly, but his whole body was affected. So today I’d like to talk some about the powers that convulse us – body, mind, and soul.
Let’s start with the body. For instance, I do think it’s possible for food and drink to have power over us. And over time, that power becomes possession. Eventually our bodies begin to suffer, and with it our souls and our minds suffer. Now, I’m not saying that a donut here and a taco there is bad; goodness knows I love a plate of enchiladas. But there is a difference between enjoying a good meal or drink and that meal or drink destroying you. You’ve heard me talk about this before – as a Type I diabetic, I’m keenly aware of how my physical health impacts my mental and spiritual health. When I’m eating right, when I’m exercising, my mind is clearer and my times of prayer are more enlightening. When I’m not doing what I ought to be doing, it’s harder to concentrate when I pray and it’s harder to keep my mind clear when I work. Food and drink can possess us; and from what I know of Jesus Christ, he wants us to be free; free for worship and free for service.
We should also talk about mental health. All the data shows that mental health disorders are common, impacting eighteen and a half percent of all adults in America in a year. That means that forty three point eight million adults in America in any given year experience some type of mental illness (Mental Health First Aid, 3). And that’s before the pandemic. Those mental illnesses could include depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance abuse disorder. Now, there ought to be no shame in going to see a counselor or a therapist or a clergy person or a spiritual director to talk through things going on in your life. It’s what I do, just as I go see my doctors on a routine basis. When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, this man can be himself again. That is the liberating power mental health; that is the liberating power of the gospel; that is the liberating power of admitting to Jesus that we need help.
And now we come to spiritual health. Yes, I do think that we can be possessed by outside forces. In today’s world, I have seen especially how social media, cable news, and the internet takes over people’s lives. Those are powerful forces that, used wrongly, can possess you. Without strong physical health, without strong mental health, the internet can overpower your body, your mind, and your soul. You don’t need me to tell you that there is a lot of really weird stuff on the internet, and because the internet is the way it is, anybody can make anything look legitimate. You also don’t need me to tell you that social media can be addictive – we just love seeing how many people like our posts. I’ll be the first to say it; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram used to be fun places to connect with people. Now they’ve become dark places of conspiracy, alienation, and division. People think they’re connecting, but they’re really not. Facebook tells me that I have one thousand two hundred and ninety one friends. I do not have one thousand two hundred and ninety one friends. It’s a lie. But if we buy into those lies, the internet will possess us. I know it’s hard to put down those little screens and to turn off the cable news. It’s so hard that it feels as if you’re being convulsed like this man in the synagogue and the unclean spirit. If it’s hard to put it down or turn it off, that is a sign that we have been possessed by these things. When you can’t peel your eyeballs from that little screen, when all you can hear is the screaming, talking heads on the news, allow Jesus to speak that command, “be silent!!” And then, then, you can finally get some peace – body, mind, and spirit.
Now, let’s get back to our scripture passage. Notice that the man with the unclean spirit is in the synagogue. He is right there, in the community, worshiping on the sabbath. This is not some stranger out in the caves and tombs. He’s there listening to Jesus. This man is us. For we are the ones who are struggling with the powers that fight against our bodies, our minds, and our souls. People in the church do not have it all together. People in the church know that they don’t have it all together. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Because we want to be healed. Because we know that without Jesus, something is not right in our bodies, our minds, and our souls. And so we gather, week by week, to hear a word from Jesus that would heal us. I’m not saying that unclean spirits or demons don’t exist. I think they do. But what I am saying is that they often masquerade as other powers.
In our 2021 – Year of Prayer, we are committing to pray for ourselves. This is one way that you can pray for yourself. Pray that Jesus heals your body, your mind, and your soul. Offer your body, your mind, and your soul to the Lord God so that you can finally have some peace and quiet; so that Jesus can restore you to the fullness of health.
We need healing because we are a battleground. The things we put into our bodies, the things we read, watch, and listen to, they have the capacity to possess us. But they don’t have to. So when you are struggling in body, mind, or soul; when your body, your mind, your soul, are crying out; when your whole being is convulsed by the harmful powers of this world; allow Jesus to speak those same words over you, “be silent and come out.”