St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2018)
Mark 1:21-28 – “Casting out Demons”
Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”
“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.
Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.
Depending on your perspective, it may be difficult to hear stories from the Bible that fall outside our worldview. Some of us aren’t quite sure what to make of the demon possession stories from the gospels. Others may not find this kind of experience unfamiliar or strange and may be drawn to this exchange between Jesus and the evil spirits. When I read this text, honestly, my mind immediately jumps to Linda Blair in The Exorcist, or those times when my Mom would yell at me when I was little, “Son, what on earth has possessed you?” But I digress…
Someday other than an annual meeting day, I’ll preach on that topic. Or better yet, let’s get a cup of coffee and talk about it, because I find the topic of Biblical language for evil to be a really interesting subject.
But just for a moment, let’s suspend our first impressions of the story and think about these evil spirits and Jesus’ authority over them in a larger sense. What are some of those “spirits” that torment us? Those “inner demons” that may be invisible, or that we try to hide, but are very powerful forces in our lives nonetheless?
And I’m not thinking of just those negative thoughts and impulses that we who live with codified mental health issues face. I’m thinking of those voices that can wear us down and make us feel small, those evil spirits that haunt all of us at some point or another, if we’re honest about it.
You might know what I’m talking about. They whisper…
“You’re not good enough.”
“Life isn’t worth it.
“What’s the point of trying?”
And those evil spirits chatter on and on. They’re hard to challenge and even harder to expel.
And then along comes Jesus. He speaks with authority! He not only challenges these spirits, but commands them. Calls them out. Casts them out.
But the story doesn’t stop with Jesus doing a little exorcism. In these episodes in the gospels, whenever Jesus casts out evil spirits, he always does so in such a way that the afflicted person is restored to community.
He expels the demons in full view of others because, generally speaking, those who were thought to be possessed were outsiders, pariahs in that time and culture. When people were isolated in their affliction, tormented by these inner demons, Jesus heals them by commanding the spirits out and by linking the people back with their communities.
That’s what community, particularly Christian community does for us: it casts out our “demons.”
I’ll tell you what I mean. Back in the summer of 2016, when I was studying at Seattle University, one of my professors took our cohort to Recovery Cafe. Recovery Cafe is an extraordinary organization that offers meals everyday, 12 step groups, social services referrals, etc., but more so is a safe harbor for people who are struggling—struggling with abuse, addiction, and mental health. It’s run by this one woman army of compassion, Killian Noe, who is one of the most gently charismatic people I’ve ever met, the kind of person whose hugs and kind gaze makes all your problems fade away.
Among the incredibly heartwarming stories she told our cohort, one stands out to me. A woman (we’ll call her Sheila) who fled an abusive family and grew up on the streets used to hear voices in her head. They were some nasty, cruel voices. She would hear them say terrible, degrading things about her and tell her to harm others. Her recovery group knew this. And they knew her so well and were so supportive that they could tell by her facial expressions when these voices would start to shriek in her head. What they would do when she would start to get agitated was slowly surround her, almost like a group hug, and tell her, “Sheila, we love you. Sheila, you’re OK. Sheila, you’re beautiful,” over and over like that. Medication didn’t help, but being known and being loved did. The voices eventually stopped. Hallelujah!
I invite you to think about our life together in the church through that of casting out our “demons.” When those voices in society say, “You don’t have a place,” you have a place here. When life tramples all over you with illness, grief, or other hard times and some voice whispers, “This isn’t going to get any better. You’re stuck,” you find some comfort in a visit, a call, or a card. Or when you’ve been feeling lonely or lousy all week, you come here to St. Mark’s and remember you are a part of an extended family. Or when you’re tempted to give into despair about the state of the world, you come back here the next Sunday and find a group of people who want to make it fairer, more just. Those evil spirits flee!
True, as someone who works here, I’ll be the first to admit that church isn’t perfect. I’ve often thought that the church is the only institution that fails from the start; we’re never going to meet our own standard for ourselves… but that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it? We don’t always care for one another like we should. We sometimes forget that the person sitting next to us isn’t just a fellow human being to ignore, but a sibling in Christ to love. Sometimes we neglect the ministry of Christ among us of casting out demons, we neglect to speak of our belovedness to one another, but rather amplify the voices of those evil spirits. And that pain is real. But we still try to be better, to do better.
To that end, our Session gathered for a daylong retreat last Saturday with our Presbytery Pastor, Brad Munroe, facilitating, and after a fruitful process of prayer and conversation, we came to the conclusion that what we need to do is prioritize strengthening the sense of community at St. Mark’s. Not at the expense of other priorities, of course, but as a top priority for the coming year.
There’s a verse from Ephesians that comes to mind. It speaks about God “equipping the saints for works of service, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity… as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.” (4:12-13) Our leaders believe we’re being called into a season of building up the body of Christ in this place, of nurturing and strengthening our bonds with one another.
What that looks like concretely, we don’t know yet. But I have hunch it will mean tending to how we interact with one another across lines of difference—across generations, neighborhoods, social circles. Fostering activities that bring us together—and here this, Presbyterians!—not just to learn something or accomplish something, but so we can simply be the church together.
A stronger sense of community is how Jesus, whose Spirit is still alive among us, casts those “demons”‘ out. When people are seen, heard, valued, listened to—in a word, loved—that’s when those spirits that speak self-doubt, isolation, and hopelessness are cast out.
One irony of postmodern life is that, as increasingly connected as we are electronically, we seem more isolated than ever. I read the other day where the United Kingdom now has a Minister for Loneliness. I’m not kidding! The problem has reached such epidemic proportions that there’s now a cabinet post to do something about it. But I don’t about you, but I doubt the government’s ability to solve an existential problem! And I’ve got news for you, as flawed as we may be that is the calling of the church!
And given the condition our country is in these days and how difficult life can be for us in the personal realm, we are in need of a little fortification, are we not?
So let us do some thinking and brainstorming in the next year on creative ways to be a stronger church together.
How can we reach out by reaching inwardly to the person sitting across the aisle?
How can we create spaces for people to take an active interest in each other’s lives beyond the handshakes on Sunday mornings?
In the words of Emily Green Balch, a Quaker: “We have a long, long way to go. So let us hasten along the road, the roads of human tenderness and generosity. Groping, we may find one another’s hands in the dark.” 
May it be so…
 Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk in the Quaker Tradition (2007), p. 86.
Featured image: “Ann from Detroit. Love and Happiness,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library