I’m pretty sure that the minute we hear the words – casting out demons – in a gospel story – immediately the story starts to feel pretty far away from our reality (even on a morning where our reality feels far away from our reality). What do you do with these stories of miraculous healing and especially these stories of exorcism and people possessed? Where is the relevance, let alone the good news, for our lives?
Well – let’s look for what is relevant shall we? For instance – mother-in-law. Before the many exorcisms, Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. The visit to Peter’s house, actually happens between exorcisms. Last Sunday’s gospel and this Sunday’s take place on the same day. Jesus cast out an unclean spirit in the synagogue – then goes to Peter’s house to lift up this woman – before all the people descend and he casts out the spirits that bind so many.
Family is a big part of this context of this story. The families that would have been together in the synagogue that morning. The family of Peter, a disciple, - and then all the families Jesus heals later that day. We just heard the whole city was brought to him. If that’s the case, how many families do you think brought someone with a disease you could see – in addition to all the ones you can’t? Those inner, hidden illnesses that bind and possess that we want to cast out?
When that happens in a family – everyone is bound up and broken apart. When people we love seem possessed – not by demons like legion – but the names familiar to us bi-polar, depression, borderline, schizophrenia, PTSD – survivors of trauma. And there’s addiction – so many kinds of addiction – those rates are up in pandemic. Addiction and mental illness have correlations too.
All families know the pain of one or more of these hidden illnesses in varying degrees. And at a certain point, most of us know what it is to be on the hunt, like Peter. When he is left to deal with the struggle of all that sickness he goes searching somewhat desperately for answers – for help.
This long ago story is a living text that speaks to me within that context and prompts - Where have I experienced God casting out? When have I been on the hunt for hope and healing? When has my faith in God, my following Jesus led to be lifted up – so that like Peter’s nameless mother-in-law – I too can serve?
It’s around midnight on a Thursday in the fall of 2004. I’m standing in the ER – in one of those make-shift rooms – you know with curtains on either side. I’m standing next to a hospital bed, where there’s a young woman, starting up at me. Her mouth, the lower part of her face is covered and caked in charcoal – and she is laughing. Like a person possessed – because when you’re in the ER at midnight and there’s charcoal around your mouth – there’s nothing to be laughing about.
Her stomach had just been pumped. And it wasn’t the first time. I certainly wasn’t laughing. This wasn’t a parishioner and I wasn’t a priest. I was an older sister. Who was eight months pregnant – and had been woken out of a deep sleep on a worknight – to go to the hospital (again) to be with someone who was sick and had been struggling with mental illness and addiction for a long time.
And I was struggling too. I didn’t feel compassion. I was consumed with anger.
When someone in your family is sick with mental illness or addiction, it doesn’t only take hold of them – it takes hold of everybody. Some of us try and be saviors. Some of us run away. Some of us pretend its not happening. And sometimes we’re all those things at different times.
No one wants to deal with the demons in Jesus’ time either – they’re shameful. Demons are the things within us that we don’t want to bring to light.
My demon for a long time was this anger, this resentment. I once heard someone describe this anger like a fireball in an elevator shaft – and that’s exactly what it felt like. And shame was at the very bottom. And when I stood in the hospital that night, with the intensity of that anger – along with the weight of a full belly with a baby coming – looking at my sister who would soon be an aunt – I knew I had to heal something in me.
That was such a big part of my hunting for God. I’ve never felt like I was called – so much as I was in pursuit of this vocation. What drives me now is different, that’s part of the healing.
There’s a wonderful book called meeting Jesus again for the first time. That’s what I discovered in my pursuit. In my pursuit of answers, in my pursuit of what to do. If you just keep searching in your doubt and anxiety, like the disciples, you’ll keep meeting Jesus again and again.
You see it in this story and others. The disciples, don’t want to feed the masses, they don’t want to deal with the people considered unclean, they don’t want to deal with the demons. And whenever it’s left to them – they go find Jesus and say, “Hey, can you please deal with this.” And 9 times out of 10 – when they find him – Jesus is taking care of himself. Just like this morning. He goes to be by himself – to practice self-compassion – and prayer. Restore wholeness.
I thought religion would heal me with answers of what to do. What would give me a sympathetic understanding of someone else’s illness and how to help them. What faith gave me was trust that with God’s help I could understand how to be. How to be when that anger and resentment threatened to overwhelm me. The strength of faith came through doubt – digging through to the bottom of all that anger – to what was underneath – grief. All healing moves us through grief.
Honestly organized religion can sometimes shame us into keeping silent with our grief. Not Jesus. The still small voice of God asks – where does it hurt? What is broken? What is it you are so afraid of? What do you need to heal?
I do not have an experience of instantaneous healing where it’s all fixed for good. Nor did my sister – although being an aunt brought healing. Ten years after that hospital visit – in another hospital – she could not be revived. And there was and there always will be – grief to be worked through. All were brought to Jesus – many, but not all – were healed. But my faith assures me that my sister knows the wholeness of communion we will all know on the other side of this journey. And I know that eternal life – is how I carry her eternally with me.
We opened this service praying to be set free. And in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel we see Jesus doing just that – and when those disciples find him he says – this is what I do – this is my message – I set people free – I cast out and I lift up.
Reach out for help if you need to be lifted up. Shame feeds on isolation and darkness. Connect to people and groups who can support you. And if you are walking alongside someone in this struggle – you need support too. Connect with people and groups that can help.
God is Love. God heals the brokenhearted. God calls us by name. Jesus came to holds our hands and lifts us up – and set us free – so through our healing, we can serve.