Allow me to tantalize or torment you with the first half of a poem by my fellow Ohioan, Mary Oliver:
Those who disappointed, betrayed, scarified! Those who would still put their hands upon me! Those who belong to the past!
How many of us have weighted the years with groaning and weeping? How many years have I done it how many nights spent panting hating grieving, oh, merciless, pitiless remembrances!
I suspect that everyone here knows something of the experience Oliver is describing. I don’t believe it is possible to go through life without being tormented by something, perhaps by many things. There is something in the human spirit that is susceptible to having the events and happenings and incidents in our life change our spirit into something we are not, and definitely would rather not be.
That dark transformation may be kept internally where it saps our lives of health and vitality. It may be acted out only in the form of a sleepless night. Or, it may be something we inflict on others from time to time, or perhaps all of the time. Do you know someone so beaten up and beaten down that they make life miserable for everyone around them?
“There was in the synagogue a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ and he cried out…”
When I listen to this morning’s gospel there is a part of me that experiences it as completely foreign – demon possession and all of that. But there is another part that sees it as completely consistent with what I know about life and about myself. And it is certainly consistent with the universal experience Mary Oliver describes in her poem.
Mary Harris Todd, a Presbyterian pastor, offers this reflection on what the bible means by the description “unclean spirit”:
The word “unclean” basically meant disordered, mixed up, out of place in some way… An unclean spirit is a disruptive spirit, a negative force or power that resists the will and way of God and oppresses people. Unclean spirits hold people captive, hold them down, preventing them from being healthy and whole as God intends.
Many of us can think of people we would describe as “sick” in some way even though they technically might not be classified as mentally ill. These are people who drain the people around them, or thrive on negativity, or bring a disruptive atmosphere with them when they come into a room. An unclean spirit of some sort has hold of them, sowing the seeds of trouble and turmoil.
And, those of us who have the courage to be honest with ourselves, recognize that this person can, from time to time, be us.
Snickers has a series of commercials that depict various people saying and doing things completely out of character until a friend gives them a candy bar to eat. One bite and the person is restored to his or her true self. If you have seen one of these commercials, do you recall the tag line at the end? “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” We might say that the point of today’s reading is “You’re not you when you have an unclean spirit.”
For some it is a temporary condition: “All the stress of planning this wedding has me in a state.” “I don’t handle being sick very well.” “I always get this way around the anniversary of my husband’s death.” For others, it is so central to a person’s a state of being that he or she would be hard to recognize if he or she was not “sowing the seeds of trouble and turmoil.”
Mary Oliver’s unclean spirit revolved around what she called “merciless, pitiless remembrances.” How they affected her outer world we cannot say, but clearly it took its toll internally. Her poem, which she titled Grass, continues:
I walk over the green hillsides, I lie down on the harsh, sun-flavored blades and bundles of grass; the grass cares nothing about me, it doesn’t want anything from me, it rises to its own purpose, and sweetly, following the single holy dictum: to be itself, to let the sky be the sky, to let a young girl be a young girl freely – to let a middle-aged woman be, comfortably, a middle-aged woman.
Those bloody sharps and flats – those endless calamities of the personal past. Bah! I disown them from the rest of my life, in which I mean to rest.
Oliver has an epiphany while she is lying down on a grassy hillside. She learns from those blades how simply to be who she was created to be. And this insight gives her the power to let go of the remembrances that haunted her – life’s “sharps and flats.”
Today’s gospel reading is not just about a troubled person causing a disruption. It is also about Jesus, his authority, and healing. More than the other three gospels, Mark’s writing emphasizes Jesus’ healing ministry. In this reading, Jesus uses his “authority” to bring the man with an unclean spirit to a place where he can say “Bah!” to all that troubles him, to disown it, and to rest.
Healing like this, whether it comes from lying on a grassy hill or a psychiatrist’s couch, whether it comes from hours on the knees praying or from the final release of a sweat-drenched, sleepless night, is a gift from above manifesting God’s intention for all people – wholeness and peace.
I rejoice that some of the things that troubled me at different points in my life are long gone; dissected and done away with never to return again. Others are not so easy to dismiss. Unlike Oliver’s insistence that her painful remembrances were gone for good, I know that there are things that do not have a hold of me right now, but are sure to come back to grab me again: certain sadnesses, griefs, guilty memories, humiliations, mistakes I made that brought awful, horrible, pain to others. Am I the only one or do we all have those things in our past for which confession brings healing, but only for a time? Am I the only one who prays for and finds release, only down the road of life to be caught again in the grips of what torments me? I don’t think so.
I wonder, if you ponder it long enough, will you find, like me, that the condition of the man with the unclean spirit resonates with your own? But here is another thing I wonder: I wonder if his encounter with Jesus resonates with your experience of engaging the Holy One. We find Jesus in this reading making his first public appearance after his baptism, a moment that filled him with the power of God’s Spirit. Now he is in the synagogue teaching with authority; authority unlike anything the people have ever experienced. It is authentic. It rings true. It brings order and understanding to everything the listeners have known and experienced.
But it does more. It brings a holy authority to their lives, or at least to the life of one person with an unclean spirit. Jesus’ “authority” commands compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and release. It overpowers something which overpowered this particular person. He is not the only person to have known this. I have known it too. I know it now. And I trust that down life’s path, with its twisted turns and dark valleys, I will know it again. And as I look out at all of you I know that I am not alone. Each of us here this morning comes before the authority of our Savior longing to hear the command telling our unclean spirits to be gone; telling us that God loves us for who we are no matter what we have done and no matter what has been done to us.
May we hear these words today. May we learn to listen with compassion to our fellow suffers. May we learn how to stand with them in the presence of the One who has authority. May we walk together through life, healed and whole. May we support one another when a challenge in life makes this too difficult for one or more of us. May we marvel and give thanks that God has “authority” over the brokenness of our lives.