St. Philip Lutheran Church
31 January 2021 + Epiphany 4B
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
What are you possessed by?
The truth is we’re possessed by many things – politics, COVID, mental or physical illness, addiction, strained or broken relationships – to name a few.
Some of us might feel possessed by our seemingly never-ending to-do lists, whether for work or school or just chores around the house. Or maybe we’re possessed by technology – from the compulsion to respond within a nanosecond’s time to every ping and buzz on our smartphones, to the ubiquitous condition known as Zoom fatigue. Living as we do in a consumer culture obsessed with stuff, we might even feel possessed by our possessions.
We’re possessed by so many things – anything and everything that weighs on our minds and consumes our time and energy. At times, it can even feel like those things are suffocating us and keeping us held down – like the man in our gospel possessed by an unclean spirit, cut off from his community.
Hollywood seems to be possessed by stories of possession like this – with more films about demons and exorcisms than we can name. To be perfectly honest, I’m never quite sure what to do with texts about demon possession in our bible…but I’m not sure that’s really the point of this story…
In a recent essay published in The New Yorker, writer John Matthias tells the story of his wife Diana, a passionate and gifted art curator who begins to suffer from symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. When Diana started to see hallucinations that became more and more real, some even frightening and sinister, John tried his best to enter into her world, to see what she would see.
As John reflects, “I had read that it did not help to deny the reality of these visions, so I stopped doing that. I began to deal with them as if I could see what she did. Friends were encouraged to make the same allowances… A fifth person at a dinner for four did not pose a big problem once you got used to this kind of thing. I informed the members of Diana’s reading group that she might refer to people who weren’t there, and they, too, made the adjustment… For years I have tried as hard as I could to see these things, to share Diana’s view of the passing world…”
When Diana’s illness ultimately became too much to manage at home and she moved into a care facility – all of this in the midst of COVID, no less – John is unable to see her, except through Zoom chats and phone calls. On one of their last calls, when it was expected Diana would not live through the night, John starts reading the first poem he ever wrote for her, only stopping mid-sentence when the grief hit him. “You’re doing great, Dad,” his daughter pipes in to encourage him, “but she wants to know about the Flowery Man.” The Flowery Man had been one of Diana’s many, more gentle hallucinations, inspired by a flower pot in their hallway at home. “So,” John concludes, “I told her everything I knew.”
Even in the midst of Diana’s physical and mental decline, there is healing in this story, as John enters into his wife’s reality, right alongside her, seeing what she sees… indeed, seeing her. To be seen like that is healing.
That’s the power of this healing story in the synagogue at Capernaum. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the man with the unclean spirit cries out, under layers of anguish and isolation. One commentator invites us to hear Jesus’s unspoken reply: “Everything. I have everything to do with you.”
Just as John lovingly and patiently entered into Diana’s reality to walk alongside her in her illness, to make her feel less alone, Jesus enters into this man’s reality to walk alongside him, to declare to him that he is not alone. For perhaps the first time in this man’s whole life, he is truly seen by someone who has everything to do with him, demons and all, by someone who is so deeply invested in his well-being that he’s willing to enter into the “unclean” space where no one else dared to go.
And in that moment, the man is healed. Released from his demons, yes, but more than that: Made holy by the Holy One of God. Liberated from isolation and loneliness. Restored to community. Possessed by a new Spirit. The Spirit that filled Jesus at his baptism, that accompanied him into the wilderness, that emboldened him to declare that the kingdom of God has come near, and that entered into the most painful and most isolated places of human existence to bring good news to us, even at our worst.
Our new hymnal supplement, All Creation Sings, includes one moving hymn text, written by the composer for a friend whose mother was living with Alzheimer’s. The hymn writer prays for God’s healing peace and patient courage, as the first stanza begins, “When memory fades and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused…”
Even in that space of uncertainty, even under the weight of all that possesses us, the hymn continues in its final stanza, testifying to God’s faithfulness and presence:
Within your Spirit, goodness lives unfading.
The past and future mingle into one.
All joys remain, unshadowed light pervading.
No valued deed will ever be undone.
Your mind enfolds all finite acts and offerings.
Held in your heart, our deathless life is won!
So much possesses us, dear church. Hear the truth of the gospel today: We are possessed by God’s own Spirit, a Spirit that never fades away, that holds our past and present and future, that enfolds us in infinite mercy, that bears us from death into life abundant.
The unclean spirits that possess us, whatever they are, are no match for God’s Spirit. The Spirit that names us beloved, that goes with us into the wilderness, that enters into our reality, right alongside us, and that assures us we are never alone.