What does this gospel message have to say to say to us today?
Gospel Reading: Mark 1:21-28
For Sunday, Jan. 29, Year B − Epiphany 4
I was in college, on a short mission trip to Uganda, Africa. One evening, we were at a religious boarding school for girls, leading a service in a concrete block building. The humid night air flowed through the open windows, and the crickets sang in the background of our liturgies. At the end of the service, a timid young teenager asked one of the leaders if he could pray for her. Of course, he did.
It was not long into the prayer, when she began to tremor and scream. It was more than a super-sized tantrum. It seemed like something quite outside of her took over her being. And we spent the next two hours in the middle of an exorcism, with voices, deep with authority commanding that the evil spirit come out of this young woman’s body.
I stood, understanding the cliché about a person’s hair standing on end for the first time. I whispered pleas that God would protect her mind and body, that God would somehow calm the brutal storm erupting in her.
Later, the British headmistress sidled up to me. She smiled and said with a voice I would expect to hear narrating a bright, cheerful
BBC report, “I see you had a live wire this evening!” She went on to explain with matter-of-fact clarity, that the girl was a descendant of a long line of medicine men. Because of that fact, she had been possessed with evil spirits.
As I recall that evening now, in the midst of my uptight D.C. culture, I often wonder how to understand the event. If the same thing happened here to a person of means, we would undoubtedly sedate, hospitalize, isolate, and label her. We would maintain control over the teenager and our own fear, in all of the ways that we do in our modern world—with medicating, institutionalizing, and clinical naming.
Do we believe?
I have great respect for modern psychology and I’m incredibly grateful that we no longer think of mental illness as demonic possession. Yet as I come to this passage in Mark, I wonder, what does it means that Jesus has authority over unclean spirits? It seems clear in the text and it felt clear on that particular night in Africa. But what does it mean in the contexts in which we work and serve?
Do we have faith that can bring wholeness in the midst of our heart-wrenching illnesses? Do we believe that there is healing power in our communities? Do we isolate those who struggle, keeping them out of our view in order to contain our own fears? Or do we surround them and pray for them? Do we only maintain control through the tricks of modern treatments—medicating and labeling?
The Hardest Question
Can we recognize the importance of relinquishing our control, admitting powerlessness, and reaching out for a wholeness that might come from a God who saves us?
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.