After worship today, we’re holding an artist’s reception for Cordelia Pierson; her photos of water are currently on display in Pilgrim Hall. One of these works immediately caught my eye. It’s a photograph of an island in the Mississippi River that lies beneath the Camden Bridge and across from the Minneapolis water works. Our family lives near this spot. We call the island “Heron Island.” In the photo, the ice has melted on the river. Neat tangles of sticks and mud dot the top branches of the tall, slender trees—hundreds of herons’ nests are cradled there. This image takes me back to the April our daughter Eliza was born, nearly six years ago now. (As she likes to remind us—a birthday is coming.) In the first weeks of her life, we took many walks with her tiny body nestled carefully in the front pack. On those warming spring days our wanderings often led us down to that very spot along the river, to watch the herons—their ungainly strutting, their swooping flight, their constant puttering, gathering sticks for their nests and plying their young ones with food.
Just the other afternoon, I took a run down to Heron Island. I paused for a moment there to watch the river and reflect. The heart of the “North Minneapolis tornado” ripped through that very spot in the spring of 2011, nearly four years ago now. The storm caused long-lasting damage to our neighborhood—ripping off the roofs of homes, smashing windows, and toppling the largest, most beautiful trees through walls and onto cars. It also brought disaster to our non-human neighbors. Many herons, and their newborn babies, died that day. Against the stark winter landscape, the injury to the island and the forest around is still evident. Some of the tall slender trees are gone entirely, and the tops of the others are jagged and broken. Piles of logs and brush, and severed tree stumps, are scattered everywhere.
We are broken, body, mind and spirit by the traumas and losses we experience. We are broken by sin—our own and that of others. We are broken by the immensity of injustice and pain in the world. And because we are interconnected with all life, my brokenness is related to yours, and to that of the herons and the river, and the climate that is changing and more frequently, causing severe storms.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus begins his ministry dramatically, with a fight. He confronts one man in his brokenness. But this encounter is not meant to be an isolated event. It is supposed to be a sign, a signal, of Jesus’ intentions. He will liberate all creation from its brokenness. We’re not told what Jesus actually said as he taught in the synagogue that day, but only that his teaching shocked the hearers because it was confident and assertive; it was authoritative. There was something about Jesus’ powerful voice and energy that disturbed the equilibrium of the community, and one person in particular. A man interrupted Jesus, crying out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Actually, according to the Gospel writer, this voice that confronts Jesus was not the man’s voice at all. It was the cry of an “afflicting spirit,” or demon, that inhabited him. Jesus, in turn, performs an exorcism. He expels the spirit from the man. He does not place healing hands on him. He does not pray or quote scripture. He simply orders the spirit to leave: “Quiet, get out of him!”
You or I might have different, more scientific, language for naming the things that harm us and harm our world. (Then again, we might value the language of the spirit-realm, because we know that science doesn’t provide all answers.) Did the man have what we might today call a mental illness? Was he possessed by a “demon” such as substance abuse or out-of-control anger or debilitating fear? The bottom line is that he was not well. He was broken, as I am, as you are.
Jesus astonished everyone in the synagogue with his authority over the afflicting spirit that inhabited the man. As Mark says, “Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. ‘What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says?’” Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, explains:
“When Jesus strips the spirits of the ability to inhabit their human hosts, perhaps the gospels’ authors claim that Jesus denies the unclean spirits’ capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world. Losing opportunities to win over people’s bodies and minds, they lose the authority they were thought to have. This exorcism, then, does not eliminate evil and oppression; it denies those kinds of forces the authority or power to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives.”
Healing is a mysterious process of liberation that unfolds in us through our partnership with God. And this healing comes to us not just through faith or willpower or positive thinking or grand effort, but by any means possible: therapists, traditional and nontraditional medicines, prayer, meditation, twelve-step groups, rest, exercise, nature, good listeners, loving friends and family. Healing may not mean that the tumors go away, or that the grieving gets easier, or that the betrayal stops hurting, or that the bill collectors quit calling. It may not mean that the herons return to their island home, or that there’s never another storm. Healing is not the same thing at all as a cure. It is a change in the balance of power. It is about what we allow to have authority in our lives. Jesus, through his acts of healing, declared that we need not allow brokenness to rule us. God heals us by making us whole, in a way that honors and encompasses our brokenness but does not allow it to define us.
After the tornado, the surviving herons found a new home. They relocated a bit further downstream. As far as I know they have not returned to “our” island. But they still fly over our neighborhood all through the spring and summer, commuting morning and evening from the river to Crystal Lake. “Heron!” we often cry out to each other, urging one another to pause, to look up, and to take in the gangly beauty of their flight. Though our family grieves the loss of the herons on our island, they still bless us with their continued presence in our days, and the seasons of our life. In their resilience, we find healing.
Jesus’ healing confrontation with the afflicting spirit is about so much more than the life of one isolated person. This event dramatically inaugurates a new reality, a new creation, even a new cosmos. The “reign of God” which Jesus announced and embodied is not a place; it is the liberating effect of God’s authoritative “no” to all that harms us and God’s emphatic “yes” to all that gives us life. In this Epiphany season, we remember that we are each called by God, called “beloved” in our brokenness, called to share in the divine ministry of healing, called to be part of the Jesus movement that changes the balance of power.
What is healing, for you, today? What does it look like and feel like? Where does it come from? How are you called to receive this healing, to surrender your brokenness to God’s wholeness? And how are you called to be an agent of healing, to rise up and confront all that harms you, your neighbor, and our intricately interconnected world? Let’s take a few minutes to consider these questions in silence before we enter into a time of prayer.