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"On Being Possessed" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer


January 28, 2024

Mark 1: 21-28



Possession – To be moved by strong feeling, influenced or controlled by something, to be dominated or controlled from within.


Synonyms – mad, crazed, consumed, haunted, obsessed, frenetic, taken over, dominated.


            On May 17, 201, my possession began. That was the day I learned of my parent’s coming divorce. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day, two days after my 25th birthday and the same day I completed my finals to end my second year of seminary, a journey began in my life that I was wholly unprepared for.


Except, calling it a “journey” isn’t right because journeys follow a path. There is a beginning, middle, and end – even if you only become aware of these milestones when the whole thing is over. It would be more accurate to describe that day as having my foundation pulled out from under me, and then watching as pieces of myself collapsed.


            If you’re thinking this sounds dramatic, or worse, melodramatic, overblown know that I am aware of that possibility. And know that I hesitate to share this part of my story with you because I still don’t have the words to express what that day felt like.


I share this with you because it’s a connection I can understand to our gospel story, which contains this element of possession. And though we frequently throw around the idea of “personal demons” or things that haunt us, how often do we honestly think about what it means to be possessed?


            Which is not, as it happens, how I would have ever described myself before this morning. But…until May 17, 2011, I wouldn’t have believed it possible to actually hear your heart break either.


Since that day more than a decade ago I have been moved by strong feelings; anger, betrayal, jealousy, disbelief, intense grief. I’ve been consumed with the desire to hurt others in equal measure to my own pain. I have said things to people I would never have thought myself capable of thinking, let alone saying. I‘ve been taken over by anger at my loved ones, at God, at my friends whose parents are still happily married and therefore couldn’t understand what I was going through. I’ve been haunted by grief and shame.


And on more than one occasion, I’ve retreated so far into myself it was as though I was watching from the inside where it was still safe while things happened around me. Even now there are things that touch that long since scarred-over wound and I find myself in tears. Likely this is lingering grief and sadness in what was, until recently, the worst loss I’d ever experienced. But maybe, just maybe it’s at least a possibility to think about those moments as a kind of possession.


            Before I go any further, let me make something clear. I do not believe there’s a foreign entity in my body affecting my behavior and emotions. I don’t have a sensitivity to holy water or crosses, and I don’t plan to hang from a ceiling anytime soon.


Indeed, “we would be far better served to abandon our Hollywood-fed images of demons causing us to vomit and spin our heads Exorcist-style,” and instead think about demons “as forces that are diametrically opposed to God’s will. Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.”


            Jesus and the people in this story from Mark likely understood this and much more about demons, because for them, demons and possession were real. They were the explanation in a time that did not have our knowledge of science, of brain chemistry. That did not understand the connection between emotional disturbance and behavior, and in which mental health could not be conceptualized.


            You hear me say this often and it’s entirely appropriate to say again this morning: context matters. That’s vital to include in this conversation because our understanding of what’s likely happening here is so divergent from Jesus’ understanding of what he’s experiencing. Context matters because Jesus is a man of his time. Our gathering here proves that Jesus’ life and message transcends time and place, but we can’t forget that he is a first-century Jewish man. He lives in a land that is itself possessed by a foreign power. He is poor. His level of education is questionable, though we know he reads and writes. And he believes in demons.


            Context also matters because just as Jesus was a man of his time, the biblical text is a product of its time. The evangelists who wrote the Gospels “[were] as much artists as they [were] historians, as interested…in telling a good story that would attract people [as they were] in getting the facts right.”


This doesn’t mean the Gospels are wrong or uninspired. Their context is not historical record or artistic creation – it’s a combination of the two and it means, “that each and every time we read [the Gospels] we are invited to notice the details” the evangelists used and allow those details to guide us through the theological claims that are being made.


            So, the detail to notice here in Mark is that Jesus’ first ministerial act is a confrontation, an exorcism. You’ll remember that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the first gospel written. Matthew, Luke, and John came later and pulled from their own unique sources, which is why we get 4 stories of Jesus’ first ministerial act. In Matthew, it’s the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is the teacher extraordinaire. In Luke, it’s a sermon Jesus preaches in his hometown that makes people so angry they try to kill him. And in John, Jesus first turns water in wine and begins his ministry with a sign of abundance. But in Mark…in Mark, the first ministerial act Jesus performs is an exorcism. So, what does this first act reveal about Jesus?


            When you think about words to describe Jesus, do you include exorcist? Teacher? Sure. Shepherd? Of course. King, savior, even rabble-rouser. These are all descriptors we’re comfortable with. But exorcist? Likely not.


Mark starting his gospel this way is like a movie that starts with a fight scene – it sets a certain tone. But unlike a movie, in which there’s a possibility the bad guy might win, there’s no doubt who's going to be the victor in this showdown. Jesus starts teaching and the spirit possessing the man protests; protests Jesus’ very presence. But did you notice what the demon says to Jesus?


            “I can see who you are.”


Do you understand why that statement matters? It matters because the demon knows who Jesus is. This unclean spirit is the first entity in Mark’s gospel to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, God’s Holy One, the Messiah. Though Mark tells us the people are amazed by Jesus’ teaching and his fame spreads through Galilee, it’s the ugliness existing inside of this man who recognizes Jesus first. I think there are two reasons for this:


            One: Jesus, as the son of God, has the authority of God. Notice in this story the spirit protests and Jesus casts it away with a single command.  “Be silent and come out of him.” In Greek, Jesus literally commands the spirit to be “muzzled” like a wild animal. “No prayers, no formulas, no props.” With nothing more than a few words from Jesus that unclean thing that has been inhabiting this man is gone, perhaps because from the moment Jesus starts speaking it’s clear he’s someone, something more than a mere man. Perhaps this demon could sense it was tangling with something larger than itself. Perhaps this demon was scared of Jesus. That folks, is some intense authority.


            Number two: The demon recognizes that Jesus is not just an exorcist, which was fairly common in the ancient world, but something more profound. This unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as a boundary breaker which makes this story Mark’s signal here at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus has come to “oppose all the forces that keep the children of God separate from the abundant life God promises.”

Forces such as those who tried to tell Jesus where he could go when he could heal, who he could eat with, and who was socially acceptable. As an aside, when I say “the abundant life God promises' ' understand I am not talking about the shallow Prosperity Gospel that tells you to pray for the things that you want, and they’ll be given to you because God loves you. I’m talking about actual prosperity or flourishing that’s found when you are in relationship with God.


            With this exorcism, Jesus doesn’t automatically eliminate evil and oppression. Neither does he doesn’t make it impossible for possession to happen again. But he does “deny those kinds of forces the authority or power to hold sway over people’s lives.” Through his boundary-breaking Jesus is making it possible for God to be in the spaces where it seems God could never be. Through his intrusive entrance into all the places he’s not supposed to go Jesus is present and he pronounces, “God is here.”


            Some of you will remember Gordon Gekko’s famous line from Wall Street, “That greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” That movie came out in 1987, so let me give you a more current reference that gets to the same point. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonard Di Caprio’s character makes a motivational speech that includes this bit of wisdom,


“I want you to deal with your problems, by becoming rich! All you have to do today …is pick up that phone and speak the words that I have taught you. And I’ll make you richer than the most powerful CEO in the United States of America.”


            Whether it’s the more society-approved unclean spirits of greed, workaholism, or affluenza, lightly veiled but genuine racism, the damage of addiction, anger at a colleague or family member that leads to us saying things we regret, jealousy, and envy that push us to use our resources in ways we shouldn’t, or simple selfishness that allows us to ignore the needs of others, can any of us say that we haven’t felt controlled, dominated, possessed by something that is clearly not the Spirit of God?


            The answer to that, if we’re honest, is no.


Because at some point in our lives, we’re all possessed by something. We all come into contact with an unclean spirit, but the Good News this morning is that Jesus never stops breaking down the barriers that keep us possessed. If this story from Mark tells us nothing else, it’s that Jesus has no problem being intrusive. Or personal. Or commanding. Emotions don’t scare him, neither do messes, and if we’re paying attention, we’ve already noticed that the possessed man was in the synagogue, not outside it.


            Sometimes encounters with grace and mercy are dramatic and sudden. They’re Emmaus Road experiences. Other times they’re not. Sometimes healing and restoration take no more time than having a pastoral visit over a cup of coffee. Other times the steady support of an AA group, a grief support network, an anger-management class, or a committed therapist is necessary for years. But whatever the form, whatever the need, God is always at work breaking boundaries and freeing us from those things that would possess us all.



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