Epiphany 4B Mark 1:21-28 The unclean spirit, Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama January 28, 2018
My friend John begins experimenting with drugs and alcohol in his twenties when he is a surgery resident. He begins very scientifically as a curiosity about how his patients feel with their pre-op medications. John immediately knows he feels good, very good, especially with the opiates. He is conscious that what he is doing is wrong, he feels guilty, but he becomes powerless over this “unclean spirit,” so similar to those beautiful but dangerous Sirens in Greek mythology whose enchanting musical voices cause sailors to be shipwrecked. Indeed, his life soon is a shipwreck. John loses his job, his marriage, and his medical license. He is depressed, feels unlovable. His mother rejects him. He spends a few days in the hospital but does not go to treatment. He goes to a few AA meetings, only going through the motions. He rejected a belief in God after his father died. Why would a loving God allow a good man like his father to die and keep alive a bad person like himself?
John applies for a psychiatry residency in New York and is accepted with the understanding that he goes regularly to an analyst. He finishes his residency and works again in medicine as a psychiatrist, using his great gift of charm, but soon he experiments again, this time with beer, pot, and codeine. With codeine, he knows euphoria as he has never known before. Codeine and alcohol cover up all his feelings of inadequacy. His addiction, his unclean spirit grows like Topsey. For the second time he loses his job, his license, and all his money. He learns about a treatment center in Little Rock. The founder is a black man, Joe McQuany, world renowned for recognizing and calling out “unclean spirits.”
The “unclean spirit” eventually does come out of John convulsing and crying in a loud voice. John describes that experience as becoming humble, so humble he can listen and follow someone else’s direction. He still cannot believe in God, but as CS Lewis and Joe teach him, he “acts as if.” He says his prayers, works the 12 steps. He acts as if there is something greater in his life, and slowly and surely this God of his understanding fills the hole in his heart previously occupied by the “unclean spirit.” He knows he can only become clean and sober with the help of God and a recovery community, for he has tried everything else to stop his addiction, and nothing he could do on his own worked. John goes to three AA meetings a day for a year. These meetings begin with a prayer presumably written by Reinhold Niebuhr that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The meeting ends with the Lord’s Prayer: “thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive, deliver us.”1
John moves to a half-way house and earns money re-upholstering chairs. Friends in recovery help him find another job in medicine. He is on probation for his medical license for twenty years. That means he has to have papers signed at several meetings a week and has drug screens for 20 years. He now works helping others with their “unclean spirit” of addiction, marries an amazing woman in recovery, and they are hopelessly in love after 20 years.
We often talk about why he is in recovery and the great majority (90%) are still living and dying with their unclean spirit, their addiction. We both agree that Mark’s story is true, that the “unclean spirit” knows and recognizes God so readily. There also is the part of us that tries in every way to believe in ourselves, that we can recover on our own. We do not need this God that we are so angry at because this God has abandoned us. We have to reach a place of desperation, a bottom, where we are ready to turn our will and our life over to this God, for as in John’s and Mark’s story, only God is the one who heals and commands these “unclean spirits” to come out of us.
Addictions are not the only “unclean spirits” that live among us, but they are the flashy, spectacular, florescent ones, for they are like tornados, destroying or wounding and crippling everything in their paths. There are more subtle unclean spirits that are just as harmful that harden our hearts:/ gossip, the need to control ourselves and others, functional atheism which is a belief that only we can do the job, the resentments we hang onto for harms done to us, the family member or co-worker we refuse to forgive, our hatred and self-righteous thoughts we hid behind well-mannered looks, our blindness to the suffering of those around us. We may not be a part of the heroin or cocaine epidemic occurring in our country presently, but without thinking about it we gossip or try to take control, or do things not healthy for our bodies, or take credit for something someone else has done, or say something unkind./ I have had an intimate experience with all of these as well./
Mark starts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with this short story set in Capernaum, Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Jesus calls his disciples by the sea shores, and they leave their fishing boats and follow him on the Sabbath to the local synagogue, where Jesus teaches “with authority” as he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. In Jesus’ time, an unclean spirit could be anything, any illness, any disease. Again, note that the demon recognizes Jesus, and has the most dialogue in this story, the most dramatic soliloquy, filled with fear, crying out with a loud voice, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of God!’”
Our unnamed man with the unnamed unclean spirit is teaching us that whatever our illness or addiction or sin or character defect is, it is always coming out, leading us in a straight path to Jesus. People in recovery will tell you this is true. It is their addiction that leads them to God, just as it does for our friend John and the man in Mark’s story today. People with debilitating illnesses will tell you that their illness leads them to God. Does God cause theses illnesses in order for us to reach out to God? Don’t go there. Just know God redeems every part of us, constantly trying to heal us. There is some form of resurrection in every Good Friday experience. Remember this. /
Are you wondering what a man with an unclean spirit is doing in the synagogue? Not allowed! We, like our friend in this short story, take our unclean spirits with us to places where we think the unclean spirits will not be recognized. We are so good at hiding our unclean thoughts and actions, but we are powerless and not as good at hiding our unclean spirits. At some inopportune time, like in church, or in front of our children, or with our spouse, or at work, it appears like a flame-mouthed dragon as it did for John and for the man in the synagogue.
But this is the season of Epiphany, the season of light and this sermon is becoming more appropriate for Lent. Let’s turn on the light. The light bulb goes on when we like the man in Mark’s story and our friend John recognize that God uses every part of us, the unclean and the clean. God uses the unclean part of us, our demons, to draw us to him just as he uses the clean part, the Sunday best of us, the part that says our prayers and visits the sick, and makes soup and sends cards to the homebound and grieving./
Today’s story is about how deeply God desires our healing; how God will interrupt whatever is going on, even a church service, to heal us. Mark is the premier gospel writer emphasizing Jesus’ healing power. Of the eighteen miracles in Mark, thirteen are about healing.2 Typically Mark only records a few of Jesus’ words as he heals in the synagogue. Mark’s Jesus teaches by doing, by action./
Our unnamed man in Mark is healed in the daytime on the Sabbath in church. John in our story is also healed in a church but in the church basement perhaps on the Sabbath but at night as well as daytime, just as many are healed in rooms in this church in 12 step meetings almost every day, as well as at your Wednesday night healing service.
Buechner1 describes what happens at these church basements and meeting rooms. (Note the similarity of spirit and spirits.) The people who come to these 12 step rooms “try to follow a kind of spiritual rule, not only uncovering their own deep secrets but making peace with the people they have hurt and been hurt by. Through prayer and meditation, through seeking help from each other, they try to draw near any way they can to God. They sometimes make serious slips. They sometimes make miraculous gains. They laugh a lot. Once in a while they cry. When the meeting is over, some of them embrace. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another, agreeing to be available at any hour of day or night if the need should arise.
They also have slogans, which you can either dismiss as hopelessly simplistic, or cling on to like driftwood in a stormy sea. One of them is "Let go and let God.” Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straightjacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you, your children's lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends, because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are God's business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It also is God's business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become life-transforming.” Turning our life and our will over to God is turning on and looking to the light. And Jesus replies, “Be still,” and suddenly all that has been tormenting us comes out, as we stand before Jesus, quiet and healed.3
1Frederick Buechner, “Let Go,” Telling Secrets, pp. 91-92,
2P C Ennis, Feasting on the Word year B, Vol 1, p. 310.
3Walter Russell Bowie, “Epiphany 4,” Synthesis, January 2018.