Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Healing the Demons


                                    Isaiah 40:21-31
                                    Mark 1:29-39
                                     
As you reflect on the New Testament passage for today, what things stand out for you?  The part that always strikes me is summed in the last sentence of the New Testament passage, “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Jesus sees two aspects to his ministry.  First, he is proclaiming the message – and what is that message?  According to Mark it is “the good news of God, that the kingdom of God is near” - (Mark 1:14-15).  This was once again in direct contrast to the message of the Pharisees and Scribes who were insisting that God and God’s kingdom were far away, holy and separate and required strict obedience to the law.  Instead, Jesus is saying that God is close – God is ABBA, which literally means “Daddy” – not a distant father figure, not someone who stands in judgment and concern about following rules, but a close Daddy, a loving, close parent.  The kingdom of God is not inaccessible, but present, here, standing in front of them.  Proclaiming that is Jesus’ first job. 
The second part of that passage says that he was doing what?  Casting out demons.  In other words, he was making that kingdom of God present for the people in his community at that time who were isolated, who were ill, who were rejected and outcast and who were unable to be the whole people God created them to be. 
These are the two things that made up Jesus’ ministry during his life: proclaiming that God’s reign was here, and bringing God’s realm to earth, just as we pray every week in the Lord’s prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  This is what Jesus did and he mostly did this in the form of healing – at all levels – those around him.
Today I want to focus on that second part of Jesus’ job; the part about casting out demons. This is language which is different from what we are used to. We don’t usually talk about demons or demon possession. But it is not really that we are afflicted differently from the people of Jesus’ time. It is, rather, that we don’t use the same name for those things that USED to be believed to be demons.  To put it another way, we still experience things that prevent us from being the best versions of ourselves, the most effective, most fulfilled, most giving, most serving, most present, most whole, most holy versions of ourselves.  For example, it used to be believed that schizophrenia and other mental illnesses were demon possession. They certainly can prevent people from being the best God-servants, or the most whole that they can be.  Addictions are also "demons" in this sense.   If it is an addiction to drugs or alcohol, these can also prevent people from being active, contributing, helpful members of society.  They cause us to act badly towards other people, to be irresponsible.  Other addictions can injure or possess us in other ways that maybe only affect us internally, but still do not allow us to be the fullest, best, most whole people God calls us to be in our bodies as well as in our minds and spirits.  We can often see these kinds of demons from a long way off, we recognize these problems or issues that others have and we know they need to get them under control or exorcised or "fixed" in order for people to reach their greatest potential.  Jesus, in his ministry, cast out these demons. 
There are other obvious burdens or handicaps that also make life hard for people to thrive in this world: poverty, lack of education, a lack of resources and the knowledge of how to “work the system” leave many people in places where they cannot be the best they were created to be.
But, using this same language of demons, I think there are many other kinds of "demons" that are harder to see - or that are so common that we forget how limiting and problematic they really are. Fear is at the top of this list. Fear stops us from being generous or caring for others ("if we give what we have, there might not be enough for us!").  Fear stops us from reaching out to those most in need ("I can't go into that neighborhood - I'll be hurt!" and "Those people are just going to take advantage of me!"). In an extreme amount fear stops people from loving ("I might be hurt: might be rejected") and we know that phobias prevent people from living.
There are other demons as well: low self-esteem keeps some people from being able to respond to opportunities, or stops people from being allowed, at times, to really be of use to other people. Guilt, shame, regret: these can be useful in small amounts - helping us to see where we need to change, what we need to do to grow. But in large amounts these too can be debilitating, stopping us from taking the risks needed to be whole people, preventing us from living in joy and love and hope. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, jealousy, even grief - all of these can be debilitating, limiting and can feel like we are carrying unwanted demons around with us.
How do we, in today’s society, overcome these challenges? Counseling, groups, education, in some cases medicine. But I believe that we would be better able to overcome these if we also recognized the spiritual aspect of each of these problems, or in a sense, returned at some level to seeing them as "demons:" demons that need to be sent out and away, demons that we no longer wish to carry within us, but hope to ban from our beings, demons that need to be spiritually treated as well as physically, emotionally, mentally. I can't help but wonder if the rituals that used to exorcise demons didn't help people to overcome them in a way that we have lost. If we were to use ALL the resources at our disposal in order to overcome these trials - counseling, groups, education, medicine, friends, AND the spiritual rituals that call on God's help in a community of people all praying and surrounding the one hurting with those prayers, and that commitment to asking God for help, we would undoubtedly have more success. 
Most of us in our churches are comfortable with prayer.  But there are other spiritual gifts, spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices that we engage less, or that feel uncomfortable to some of us. Asking others to pray for us can be uncomfortable, but God gives us this community to help us. Meeting in faith based groups to ask specifically for the purpose of healing is not as common but can be a very helpful spiritual tool.  Bible reading: especially praying some of the psalms of anger and lament can be spiritually healing.  We often feel it isn’t “polite” to cry out in anger or frustration to God, but many of our psalms are prayers which do exactly that and give us both the models for how to do that as well as permission to express our feelings, all of our feelings to God. Fasting, Meditation, the laying on of hands, and speaking the truth.  All of these are tools that we have with us all the time. 
            Jesus’ ministry was in large part about casting out these demons.  I realize that Jesus isn’t walking among us and I believe that God does send us the counselors and doctors and others who help us with these problems today.  Also, it can be problematic if we rely solely on prayer, and don’t use the other tools God has given us for healing.  For example, you’ve all heard of faith healers who, when they aren’t able to heal someone, accuse that person of not having enough faith.  That is hugely problematic, especially since, as Paul tells us, faith is a gift from God, not something someone can “muster” or increase on their own.  I’m not suggesting that we ignore the gifts of healing that surround us in our medical fields.
But failing to turn to serious prayer, to the power of the community of the faithful to surrounding a person, to the spiritual guides and practices and gifts that God gives us to help us with these problems is failing to recognize that half of Jesus’ ministry was about moving people out of their pain, isolation, the depth of their sorrow and into healing.
I think the power of 12 step programs is that they bring back into the struggle with addictions, a spiritual connection, prayer and spiritual disciplines.  The 12 steps of looking at yourself, giving up your attempts to control what is really God’s to control, facing those things that you can control and that you have done: offering amends, asking forgiveness, learning to forgive yourself and others – these are all spiritual disciplines.  These are all ways of releasing the things that block our relationships with God.  These are all ways of re-connecting with God, whatever God is for you, and recommitting to that relationship with God.
Frederick Buechner says this about healing in his book “Wishful Thinking” :
The Gospels depict Jesus as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people… 
This is entirely compatible, of course, with the Hebrew view of man as a psychosomatic unity, an individual amalgam of body and soul whereby if either goes wrong, the other is affected.  It is significant also that the Greek verb sozo was used in Jesus’ day to mean both to save and to heal, and soter could signify either savior or physician. 
Ever since the time of Jesus, healing has been part of the Christian tradition.  In this century it has usually been associated with religious quackery or the lunatic fringe, but as the psychosomatic dimension of disease has come to be taken more and more seriously by medical science it has regained some of its former respectability.  How nice for God to have this support at last.
Jesus is reported to have made the blind see and the lame walk, and over the centuries countless miraculous healings have been claimed in his name…  You can always give it a try.  Pray for healing.  If it’s somebody else’s healing you’re praying for, you can try at the same time laying your hands on him as Jesus sometimes did.  If his sickness involves his body as well as his soul, then God may be able to use your inept hands as well as your inept faith to heal him.  If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don’t let it throw you.  You are a fool of course, only not a damned fool for a change….If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he’s giving you something else.”

            Jesus was a healer.  He cast out demons of all kinds.  And he invites us to help him in the recovery, in the healing, in the movement towards wholeness of all we encounter.  That has to start with our faith.  From that place of faith we can help people find the ways to heal physically, emotionally, mentally, and especially spiritually.  We are called to see others as the whole people they are, and to address them with every tool God has given us.  Thanks be to God that Jesus was the master physician, that the Christ continues to be the master healer, and that God calls us to follow suit, proclaiming the good news and casting out demons, in all that we do.  Amen.