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The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 1, 2015
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | I Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28
Bruce
Epperly

What insights can a process preacher bring to reflection on unclean spirits and demonic possession? It is tempting to disregard Mark 1:21-28 altogether as an irrelevant era piece, pertinent only to studies of a bygone era. Progressive Christianity seldom deals with the supernatural or demonic. We have exorcized the devil and Satan from our theologies, and have doubts about angels and demons. Yet, there is a side of life that goes beyond reason and human control. We know that we can be possessed by “powers” beyond ourselves – addictions, mental illnesses, compulsive behaviors, and obsessional thought patterns. As intellectually erudite as we may be, we still may find ourselves under the influence of powers that we try to explain away.

Today’s reading from Mark begs the question: Are there spiritual powers that influence our lives for good or ill? In many ways, we need to consider this question simply because of the many television programs, cable investigations, and movies depicting dark and destructive powers just outside human consciousness. Many of us have inadvertently wandered into the “twilight zone,” experiencing shadowy realities or intuitions pointing to negative energies beyond ourselves. Others in our congregations have encountered angels and other spirits. Still, others claim or know people who claim to have had near death experiences. We must honor these paranormal encounters even if we cannot explain them. Philosophers err more in what they deny than they affirm, and process theology can make room for more advanced beings than ourselves, whose existence is ambivalent, some positive, some negative in their impact on human life.

The passage from Mark’s gospel suggests that even the demons have a Godward bent. More perceptive than the synagogue congregation, the unclean spirit knows precisely who Jesus is and greets the healer with apprehension. Is the unclean spirit afraid of being destroyed or is it hopeful of healing? In a process universe, in which many of us turn away from God’s vision and enter destructive paths, there is always hope that we may experience God’s vision of wholeness for us and others. God’s vision of wholeness is personal and ubiquitous, and accordingly must touch even the demonic elements of life.

Today, we might use terms like mental illness to describe this man’s condition. But, whatever his condition may be, it does not preclude God’s loving touch and our hospitality. Uncomfortable with our own mental fragility not to mention the mental fragility of others, we are tempted to shy away fromor ostracize (of course, politely!) persons with serious mental health issues. But, even in their lives, there is a hidden wholeness, to quote Thomas Merton, which cries out for God’s healing touch and our loving presence. The reading from Mark 1:21-28 might provoke a conversation on mental health issues or even forces beyond us that can control our behaviors. Everyone is in need of God’s healing touch, healthy and ill, sound and broken, saint and sinner. (For more on preaching Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel in Year B)

The words of I Corinthians 8 take us beyond idol worship and food sacrificed to idols to healthy and life-supporting relationships. As followers of Jesus, we have freedom to eat or abstain from virtually any food. We can eat or drink most anything, although it is good to remember that the body is the temple of God and we are called to glorify God in our embodiment. But, our freedom is not individualistic. There is no place for rugged individualism in Christian community. My rights are always conditioned by responsibilities to seek the greater good of those around me. Our behaviors and values shape others, and we need to be mindful of the impact our actions have on those who are spiritually or ethically “weaker” than ourselves. What matters is embodying God’s love in the body of Christ, and not following an individualistic path.

The grace of interdependence invites us to responsible relationships that nurture the whole body of Christ, which today is not just the church but the whole earth. We are connected and what we do can bring beauty or ugliness, growth or diminishment to those around us. Hospitality invites us to give as much consideration to the well-being of others as ourselves. When we “die” to self-interest, we are born to a larger, healthier self, and our world is healed one moment at a time.

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Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. He also serves as a professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of 34 books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. He may be reached for conversation and engagements at drbruceepperly@aol.com.

 

 

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