My friends and fellow classmates from seminary have an ongoing text chain titled, “things they didn’t teach us in seminary.” During the pandemic, the number of entries, as you can imagine, has drastically increased with things like “becoming a Zoom expert, videographer, and sound editor,” but it was today’s gospel lesson, where we hear of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit, that reminded me of an experience that I shared with the text chain about 6 months into my profession as priest.
Things they don’t teach you in seminary, “how to perform an exorcism.”
Let me set the scene. I was sitting in the church office with my office mates (yes, think back to pre-pandemic times when people could sit in an office…together…without masks) when the phone rings. Andrew Freeman, our Director of Operations, answers the phone, and after a brief pause, says “let me put you on hold. Andrew, this person would like to speak to a priest immediately…she says it is urgent.” Now, for those of you who don’t know, the church gets a lot of random calls for requests which we are used to…people looking for money, people wanting to sell us something, couples looking for a place to get married…but I have to say, this request left me speechless.
“Hello, is this a priest? I’m desperate…I need someone to come to my house and do an exorcism! And whatever you do, please don’t hang up—all the other churches I’ve called hung up on me.” My heart immediately went out to the woman. I could tell she we frightened, and the least I could do was listen to her, even if I had no idea about demons and performing exorcisms. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hang up…I’m here to listen. Tell me everything,” I said.
As it turned out, this woman’s name was Esther. She was 94 y/o, lived in what she called an “old folks’ home” and was raised a devout Roman Catholic. For the past three nights, once she has gotten into bed, a large man appears at the foot of her bed out of nowhere and just stares at her… “it is a demon, I tell you! I have been a woman of deep faith my whole life, and I know evil spirits when I see them.” As most of you know, I was a nurse for ten years before becoming a priest, so after I asked a number of probing questions that assessed her level of safety, health history, current medications, and mental status, I came to the conclusion that this truly was a spiritual issue. After we chatted for quite some time, Esther seemed to calm down. She shared that she had never been married, didn’t have any kids, and since moving into the “old folks’ home” her friends (the ones that were still alive, that is) hadn’t come to visit. “I am so lonely,” she said, “but not lonely enough to have an evil demon in my bedroom!”
This ended up being the first of many calls I would have with Ester. While each conversation began with recounting the appearance of the man at the foot of the bed, the interaction, slowly but surely, would always shift to Ester’s faith, and what she believed. She claimed all her blessings came from God, the Almighty, but when asked to share some particular blessings she had experienced, it would take her a long time to remember—to name when she felt sure of God’s presence in her life. “It may sound strange, but when I think back, it was actually the hardest times in my life when I most felt God’s loving embrace…times like when I was laid off from work, and a friend would come over and make dinner…of when a beloved pet would die, having people there to care for me—care about me. I would remember praying “this is just too hard, God…I need you help—send your Spirit” and then through the kindness of others, I was assured that the Holy Spirit was alive and working in my life.”
This year in the Revised Common Lectionary, we hear mainly from Mark’s gospel. Mark, in comparison with the other Gospels, is a man of few words. Mark’s Gospel is much shorter than the others, and also has far fewer details. Think of an investigator taking a statement from a witness… “just the facts, please.” Because of its short length, the details we have are of far greater importance—the fat has been trimmed, and what is there is to be considered important and necessary. For example, Mark doesn’t include a birth narrative for Jesus. Instead, Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism. Each movement in the Gospel is integral to what came before, and it methodically builds on itself. I point this out, because in today’s lesson, we don’t just hear of Jesus performing an exorcism. Mark is making a theological statement about who Jesus is and how that impacts the lives of the hearers—how it impacts us.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, but he is teaching in a way that those gathered had never heard before. He was teaching in a way that conveyed confidence, power and authority…similar to the authority and confidence one would need to convince people to stop what they were doing and come and follow him, which is exactly what happened immediately before when he called the first disciples. During this teaching in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit spoke out against him, and Jesus silenced the demon and forced the evil spirit to leave the man. Mark decides to make his act of healing and casting out evil Jesus’ official first work of ministry, and it sets the tone for the remainder of his Gospel. Jesus will perform many miracles, healing the sick, caring for the marginalized and casting out demons of those who are afflicted. But Mark’s Gospel is not simply about a man who performed miracles—it is first and foremost about Jesus’ source of power and using that power for good and not evil. Mark first tells us of Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit at the very beginning, and it is through the Holy Spirit where Jesus is able to perform such teaching and miracles with power and authority. Mark proclaims of a savior, who with the help of the Holy Spirit, can defeat evil, and with his life as an example, and through the power of his death and resurrection, God has ultimately defeated evil by extending the Holy Spirit to each of us.
My new phone friend, Ester, knew the power of the Holy Spirit, because she was able to recollect for me over and over the times in which she realized the need for additional help and then, humbly and faithfully asked for God’s divine help which comes in the form of the Holy Spirit. But this current affliction, this time of the man at the foot of her bed, seemed different—it seemed like a step to far for anything to combat this evil. But this was also a time in Ester’s life in which she labeled the most difficult. She had never felt more alone, more isolated, and more scared. Knowing her faith and her previous experiences, I asked her a simple question, “have you asked for the Holy Spirit’s help?” I then recited a line that often concludes Morning Prayer (something I knew she would recognize and is from the letter to the Ephesians) “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” The next day, I was happy to receive a call from Ester… “you’ll never believe it, but the man at the foot of my bed is gone!!!!” She was right, I couldn’t believe it, but hearing the ways the Holy Spirit had helped her in the past and recognizing for myself how much I rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance and support, I supposed I wasn’t surprised.
This past year has left us depleted. For many, dealing with the realities of the pandemic have been harder than anything you’ve experienced before. The reality has now set in—evil exists in this world, and for most of us, we feel helpless. Whether it be loneliness, stress and anxiety about an uncertain future, seeing evil that exists that we never thought possible in the form of white supremacy and hate, it is easy to forget what we believe. But the Good News this morning is that we believe in a God who has been given the power and authority over all evil—in every form, even the unclean spirits and demons—and with the help of the Holy Spirit, that evil can be cast out and good will prevail.
Most of us aren’t as lucky as Ester to have such a tangible and clear image of the evil that exists in our lives, but in one form or another, we all have demons standing at the foot of our bed. This morning, I invite you to think of the last time you asked the Holy Spirit for help…if it is too difficult to remember, are you able to recall those times in the past when you undeniably felt God’s presence transforming evil into good—turning death into life? God’s will for us is to be healed, but we cannot heal ourselves or others…it is through the grace and mercy and love of the Holy Spirit, but it is up to us to extend that invitation.