Sunday, January 28, 2024 – Epiphany 4

Speaker: Drew Brislin
Category: Weekly Sermons

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111;

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The Rev. Drew Brislin

I brought with me this morning my copy of 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham. Mrs. Windham gave me this book and wrote in it To Andrew Scott, to help you with a ‘spirited start’ on your Alabama history library, Best Kathryn Windham & Jeffrey dated August 1974. I was two months old when I received this treasure. I love history and stories and I guess with a gift like this at such an early age, I was destined to be a history buff. That’s the thing about most ghost stories, they are history stories. They are about people or groups that were living their lives and encountered some kind of trauma that left them unsettled. Their relationships with loved ones and with life are abruptly severed and they are left wandering and seeking a way to restore those broken relationships. Over the last few weeks in our Thursday morning Men’s Prayer Breakfast meetings, we have been reviewing the sacraments. Taking a deep dive into how we settled on the seven that are now included in our prayer book. How they came into being, why we use them and the theology behind these services. Unction or the Ministration to the Sick as it is called in our prayer book, is a service that is often used when visiting the sick. Candice and I each have what is called a ‘pix.’ It is a small metal cylindrical container that holds oil used for anointing during this service. As Christians we know Jesus did a lot of healing during the course of his ministry and we find rest in knowing that God wants us to be healed. This sacrament during the course of history has sometimes been referred to as the ‘hallowing of suffering,’ or the making of our suffering holy. We are reminded that we share in Jesus’ suffering and are not spared from it but that we can find deliverance from it through God. Healing can take many shapes and forms as well which is why the sacrament of confession or reconciliation is prescribed within the service. Healing and confession are all about repentance. We are called to reflect and redirect our attention towards Christ. While we have these sacraments for healing and confessing, we also as Episcopalians believe in exorcism. In our most recent edition of a book called The Book of Occasional Services from 2022 on page 174 you will find a section titled “Concerning Exorcism.” In summary it states that the practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of messiahship. These rights in the early church were reserved to the bishop who delegated them to selected presbyters or priests and others. Essentially if we think we have encountered a situation that requires exorcism we are to call the bishop. While it is sometimes easy to get caught up in these stories about evil spirits, I think what is important about these services is that they are about restoration of relationships.

As we continue in our season of Epiphany that season of our scripture revealing to us who Jesus is, I find it interesting that it is the ‘evil spirits’ who know exactly who Jesus is first. That the writer of our Gospel uses that which reflects the exact opposite of the nature of Jesus to identify our Lord. So often we move throughout our day not stopping to pay attention to people around us. It’s almost as if we have blinders on, focused on the next activity or responsibility awaiting us on our ‘to do’ list. Our Gospel reading this morning places Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath in Capernaum in Galilee. A lot has happened so far in this first chapter. Jesus has been baptized, spent 40 days in the desert getting tempted and has called the first of his disciples. As we continue in Mark, we will see that Jesus will perform in total 18 miracles of which 13 are healing miracles. Of the 13 healing miracles, four are exorcisms. Healing is a big part of Mark’s Gospel and I think it is important to remember that a big part of healing is restoration. Restoration of the body, restoration of the mind, restoration of the soul and probably most importantly restoration of relationships. So often we hear and read the stories of Jesus’ miracles and get caught up in the mystery. We want to solve the mystery by trying to apply what is happening in a modern-day context. We think that the ‘evil spirits’ are people afflicted with what we would refer to as modern-day mental health illnesses. I think this can be unhelpful. I don’t want to discredit the existence of evil spirits in the world. But I do think it is important to keep our focus on what is important. I think that is that evil spirits, whatever shape they take, are those things that impede our relationships with each other and with God. I think what is important is that Jesus came to restore our relationship with the Father through his humanity. In these early days of his ministry, Jesus is growing his human relationships in the calling of his disciples and in his preaching. It is the evil spirits whether they be actual spirits or as some commentaries think may be those institutions that seek to inspire divisiveness.

Whatever the evil spirits are, they recognize Jesus’ divinity and subsequently his authority. In this season of Epiphany, the Gospel is all about revealing for us this divine authority and how word of that authority begins to spread. The point and purpose of exorcism, of the sacraments of healing and confession are to place us in right relationship with Jesus and with God. When I think of Mrs. Windham, I often recall her telling us as children her remedy for dealing with the spirits in our own homes. She would tell us that before we said our prayers at night, we should place our shoes or slippers next to our beds toe to heel. That this would confuse the spirits and they would leave. God has given us spiritual tools in the sacraments.  One day we will find ourselves in that ‘right relationship.’ Until that day we take comfort in knowing that our God is continually seeking us out and calling us over and over and over again, until we finally respond like Samuel and say, “Here I am Lord.”