January 28, 2018

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the book of Deuteronomy we hear Moses speaking to his people. Here he announces that “God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen.” He then warns them not to ignore any prophet God chooses, but also he warns them not to listen to false prophets. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus and his followers “went as far as Capernaum.” Jesus taught in the synagogue and the congregation was impressed with his words. But there was a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The unclean spirit shouted: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Jesus then commanded this unclean spirit to leave the man and it did. Those gathered remarked that Jesus had the power over unclean spirits, and his reputation spread everywhere.

Today’s Gospel presents many of us with a problem: While the Bible is replete with unclean spirits interacting with Jesus (and others), here in the 21st Century how are we to understand these spirits? We don’t think much about demonic possession and exorcism with the possible exception of the 1973 movie The Exorcist. And frankly, we don’t know what these possessions have to do with us today. I’ve never met anyone who hosted an evil spirit and I don’t know anyone who has.

Passages of Jesus ordering out an evil spirit can almost become cliche only because there appears to be no connection to us today. But cliches don’t teach us anything and I think we sometimes reduce readings like this to: “Look how powerful Jesus is: he can banish evil spirits.”

And I have to confess that I’m puzzled by this evil spirit. We don’t know much about how much power it had over the man, but clearly not enough to prevent this man from coming to the synagogue to listen to Jesus. Also, it seems to me that if this spirit wanted to stay inside the man, it would have kept quiet instead of announcing itself.

Let me come back to my question: How to we see this Gospel today? What is inside of us that we need out of us, that only Jesus can do? This may be a stretch, but I think all of us have things inside us that need to come out. Maybe it’s jealousy, or some past resentment. Or it’s an addiction or a grudge we can’t seem to get rid of.

When I talk with my patients about church many of them mourn the fact that they can no longer attend services. I will often ask if they miss the music, or the preaching, or the fellowship. Alas, they don’t always say good preaching. But if they say fellowship I like to ask more about that. Almost without exception they tell me that they like spending time with people who share their values, and want the same things. They tell me that other areas, like work, challenge them because those places aren’t always good for them. I remember one patient telling me that she knew God was everywhere but was hard to find in her office. She told me that greed and deception were often rewarded and when she tried to do the right thing she was often seen as weak. And at times she was also seen as a target for the greed and deception of others.

When I think of her I think about the joy of community. When we gather for worship every week I hope we’re bringing out the best in each other. A few years back the pastor of my church was transferred. He is a good priest and he led us well and we could tell it was hard for him to leave us. In the course of his telling us how much we meant to him, he used the Jack Nicholson line from the move As Good As It Gets: “You make me want to be a better man.”

It was a touching moment and I think it spoke to something deeper. I will spend the rest of my life in gratitude for so many things, but one of them was the ability to hear confessions when I was a priest. It was an honor to participate in the process of having people continue to put their lives back together. Obviously most confession were not dramatic (and most Catholics have no idea just how boring their sins are) but I had several encounters with people who hit a time in their life when they recognized that their lives were not going in the direction they wanted. They often felt powerless, helpless, and sometimes hopeless.

In the midst of that darkness they came to a place of hope: church. I claim a little credit for my role. Obviously I give great credit to Jesus, but Jesus working through the rest of the community. I think if we look back on some of the toxic behaviors that no longer rule us we can see several signposts. Sometimes we were healed because we knew good people were praying for us. Sometimes we were healed when someone pointed out there was a path forward. Sometimes we modeled our behavior on someone who was living what we wanted. Most times it was a combination.  Good churches, ones that promote this, are easy to spot.  They are places that begin with welcome and community, then love and honesty, and finally healing.  They are places where we can bring our brokenness and not hide it for fear of ridicule.  They are places where we can accept the brokenness of others because we know their brokenness does not define them and if we let love define us we all become better.

I suspect that is what Moses foreshadowed when he spoke of “a prophet like myself.” Certainly Moses was foreshadowing Jesus, but we find Jesus in each other and when we reform out lives and we help others reform theirs, we are doing what we are called to do.

Let us continue to exorcise the demons we find in ourselves and the demons we find in others.