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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 5, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 8, 2015

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39


“So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good News and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.” This is characteristic of Mark. To describe Jesus’ ministry in terms of preaching and exorcism. At some point we need to come to terms with this. What do we understand to be going on? What is the event within but not contained by this terminology? This demonology? God be with you ...

One option is to assume that Mark is mistaken that references to demon possession would be better handled as examples of physical or mental illness. We might choose, then, to accept that Jesus had a gift of healing that something about him, his gracious presence, to put it mildly, emanated health and wellbeing. And/or we might choose to pray for the health professions that carry on his healing work in the Spirit of compassion. That might be the way we find today’s Gospel reading most meaningful. We won’t go too far wrong with an emphasis on compassion and wellbeing with a striving for wisdom that holds the art of teaching alongside the healing arts. There’s good news here for teachers and health practitioners alike. At its best, teaching is healing; healing is teaching.

Another option is to assume that Mark is onto something that references to possession mean more than physical or mental illness. We might choose, of course, to entertain literalist notions of demon possession as presented in the current issue of the Good Weekend. Spiritual exorcisms are on the rise, apparently. One problem with this notion is that what counts for possession differs greatly from one case to the next. The article cites “hindrance demons”, for example. These demons, it is claimed, deliberately interfere with public transport systems, with buses and trains, so that commuters are delayed. It’s a similar theology to that seen in thanking God for available car spaces. Superstition would seem a better term for this kind of thinking.

Mark, however, might still be onto something.

In today’s Gospel Mark talks about demon possession and sickness as if they were almost the same thing. Why is that? Because demon possession is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It’s not something anybody chooses. But the effects are awful, painful, miserable.

Elsewhere Mark says that demons are multi-voiced. Take, for example, the story of Jesus’ first miracle, an exorcism in the synagogue. Here the possessed person calls out to Jesus in a multiple voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Compare that to the story of the demoniac among the tombs of the Gerasenes. When Jesus asks the demon’s name, it replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion indicates a Roman military unit. This last story is particularly revealing. It tells us that demons have something to do with a people colonised by foreign powers, foreign armies …

So, what does Mark mean when he talks about demons? He is most likely writing his Gospel during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70CE. For Mark, according to various scholars, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation of Jewry. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Mental illness. Despair. Distrust. Lies. Envy. Greed. Murder. War. The kinds of demons one can see today in our world, and here in our country, especially among seekers of asylum, and among Aboriginal people.

The demons may well symbolise the devastating effects of colonisation …

With respect to Christian scriptures and tradition, it is not only Mark who takes this view. It is also the view of the Christian communities that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, but continued to live under the yoke of Rome. In the second, third and fourth centuries, as the Church developed its baptismal rituals, an important part of the preparations was a liturgy of exorcism. Here the baptismal candidates, or catechumens as they were called, were questioned by the bishop with regard to the way they lived their lives. The key question was: “Are you living your life under the fear of Rome, or are you turning towards the joy of Jesus?” At each questioning, as the many layers of Roman influence were uncovered, there would be an exorcism, a liturgy in which the colonising demons would be symbolically cast out, and the catechumen’s ears and eyes sealed with a cross, against the reinvasion of the hordes.

As we approach Lent and our own rituals of exorcism, we might ponder: In what ways have the demonic forces of our dominant culture and time colonised our lives (and the lives of our human and non-human companions)? In what ways have they made us afraid afraid for our financial futures, or anxious about institutional and vocational “success”? How have we taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because we feel there is no other way no other way than to live in big lonely houses, in debt to the big banks, at the mercy of big telcos and big food corporations; no other way but to work longer hours and build bigger prisons, and protect ourselves against the practice of hospitality and compassion?

Mark’s message to us, then, may be stated: There is another way, another possibility. For Mark also says of the demons that they know Jesus, fear and obey him. Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away.

In the end, the demons are a chimera. “Shadows that recede when the light of Christ’s truth is brought to bear” (Garry Deverell).

The Lenten season, which approaches fast, is an invitation and an opportunity for in Lent we hear the call of God to take our baptismal vows seriously to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and time, and turn instead to Christ his will and his (joyful) way. The promise of Easter lies before us: that if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; that if we lose ourselves, our colonised selves, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, then we shall find ourselves anew, in a new form of human life and community we could not have imagined before.

Bundjalung singer-songwriter Archie Roach, taken from his family as a child by government authorities, a trauma that drove him to drinking and homelessness, before recovering his culture as connection to people and country, says: “... I found that music was a great way to deal with a lot of my frustrations and a lot of the hurt and pain. It was just a great release ... You have to turn a corner, or you have got to realise that there is hardship and you rise above that. You can still be upset and hurt but I think now that anger is just a futile exercise” (Susan Chenery, Letting go, The Saturday Paper, February 7-13, 2015).

The promise of Easter is lives filled with the Holy Spirit demons cast out lives filled with the Holy Spirit, and freedom.

Shifting focus a little ... Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, speaks in this Spirit and of this freedom when she speaks of victims of family violence casting shame aside casting out shame and of imperatives toward law and order reforms and new social awareness: “What happened to me ... could happen to anyone ... I hope that makes some people think about getting help, and about moving out of an unhealthy or violent relationship. I also hope it makes politicians realise that this problem is about all of us” (Rosie Batty, “Why passion must lead to change”, The Saturday Paper, February 7-13, 2015).

In the silence I invite you to reflect on two questions, and then, if you like, to respond:

How do we name the demonic forces of our culture and time the demons that colonise our lives? The demons that make us afraid?

How might we approach losing our colonised selves for the sake of Christ and the Gospel that we might find ourselves anew, in a new form of human life and community?… Amen.