Unclean Spirits

Deuteronomy 18:15–20; Mark 1:21–28, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on January 28, 2024

Here we are, already four weeks removed from the Epiphany of the infant Jesus, as revealed in the stars to astronomers from the east. It’s a season for reminding ourselves, or maybe revealing for the first time or in a new way, some of the characteristics of God’s hopes for us, described as God’s kingdom in the New Testament. So far this Epiphany season we’ve touched on our belovedness in God’s eyes as witnessed in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river. We’ve heard the story of how Jesus’ first disciples were called, reflecting on our interconnectedness, like mycelium, the underground fungal network that forms the very system of resurrection in our planetary organism. They’ve been brief stories, but dense and meaningful. 

Now we move to another brief and important nugget: Jesus’ first day of public ministry. In this week’s reading, the small group of fisher folk who followed Jesus’ call accompany him to Capernaum, a town not far from the Sea of Galilee where they had met. On Sunday they enter the synagogue, and we hear that Jesus teaches “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” No sooner does Jesus begin this authoritative teaching than a man accuses Jesus of coming to destroy them. It’s a tense moment that I think speaks to the tense moment we’re in, as a church community discussing the Gaza conflict, as a country at the outset of an election year, and as a church reconnecting with our identity as a just peace church.

As I started sitting with this passage from Mark a couple weeks ago, I had just been reading a game recap on a blog that covers the Minnesota Timberwolves. If you follow sports, you may know that the Timberwolves could be in the midst of their best season ever. This game recap described a narrow loss to a good team, and there was one particular person in the comments—clearly an Internet troll—who was convinced that Anthony Edwards, our star player, has basically come to destroy the team with his turnovers, his ill-advised shooting, and his immaturity. This commenter, like Internet trolls everywhere, was devoid of balance. Nowhere did he acknowledge this player’s amazing scoring, the energy he brings to the arena, his growth over his fairly brief career. All that mattered was that, in the heat of that one game, he couldn’t put the ball through the hoop enough times for the Timberwolves to win. And if he couldn’t do it that time, obviously, the only other possible conclusion is that he is incapable of being a member of a championship team. And if we’re not winning a championship, just tear it all down now.

Now, to be fair, this Internet troll does have the intersectional identity of also being a Minnesota sports fan, which brings its own set of neuroses. The fans among you can attest to how Minnesota fans—having been burned so many times before by flawed-but-promising teams who tried valiantly but eventually failed to emerge from the small-market backwater that we Minnesotans represent in the world of professional sports—we know that there is no better time to announce the end of the world than in the midst of a 10-game win streak, no better time to get skeptical about a quarterback than when he’s the NFL’s top-rated passer. Because then, when the inevitable loss comes, you’ve not surprised, you predicted it. You’re ahead of the curve, the one that leads to heartbreak.

But let’s get back to Jesus teaching in the synagogue, because sports are too depressing. We read, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Again at the end of the passage the congregation is “amazed” by this new teaching with authority. In between the astoundedness and amazement, there’s this guy. “Have you come to destroy us?” To which Jesus responds, “Be quiet and come out of him!” Mark’s writing is almost like a game recap in its sparseness and focus on action. But there’s enough here to see that the man and the congregation are reacting to how different Jesus is from the scribes. 

According to theologian Ched Meyers, the gospel writer uses the scribes as shorthand for the dominant Jewish social order: the status quo. Although the gospel writer doesn’t tell us the words Jesus preached that day, we can imagine that the theme of repentance that he heard from John at his baptism came up. To call for repentance is to say that the status quo is dangerously off-track. And while Jesus’ teaching clearly got something moving in the congregation, it set something else off entirely in the troll. I wonder: was this man living in a backwater small-market town on the outskirts of the Roman empire thinking like a Minnesota sports fan? Like, I see what you’re doing here Jesus. You’re an impressive young prospect. You can clearly shoot the basketball, and I like that spin move you and your folks put on Herod when you were a kid. But you can’t be serious, Mr. Man of God. Who do you think you are, Elijah? You’re from Nazareth! Those troops from Rome are going to destroy you on their way to destroying US. Sure, the scribes don’t excite us like your teaching does, but they give us something stable to structure our lives around, and they keep the peace with the Romans. Give it a rest, Jesus. Don’t get our hopes up only to let us down. I need the stability of the status quo.

But here’s where Jesus and the gospel writer flip the script. Just as the man tried to gain power over Jesus by naming him, now the gospel writer names the unclean spirit residing within the man. “Be quiet and come out of him!” Jesus commands. It does, and Jesus continues teaching. Jesus emerges from the confrontation with an established identity: that of a teacher, a rabbi, who knows how to be himself and deliver his message against one defending the status quo.

Can we flip the script in our own lives like the gospel writer did? Can we give voice to our deeply held truths and name unclean spirits when our truth threatens the security of someone else’s status quo? Can we hold onto our compassion in the heat of disagreement, in the complex, ambiguous, crucial conversations of this historical moment about war, systemic injustice, and the climate crisis? Can we recognize the traumas, fears, and anxieties—the unclean spirits—that animate the trolls, the nay-sayers, the ones we want to label “enemies,” and hold firm in advocating for a just peace—a peace that honors all perspectives?

Could it be that one thing we are to take from this passage is that unclean spirits aren’t there to be destroyed or defeated, and that those with unclean spirits aren’t evil? That maybe unclean spirits even have an important role in our striving for a just peace? I think of the gospel story of when the apostle Peter tried to get Jesus to stop talking about how he would need to suffer and die at the hands of the powerful, and that he would rise from that. Jesus responded “Get behind me, Satan” and kept on his path, but Peter’s inability in that moment to hear Jesus’ deep truth for fear of losing his rabbi—his unclean spirit—named something elemental embedded in the Way of Jesus that all Christians need to wrestle with: how do we maintain our trust in God’s work in the midst of fear and even death? Peter’s unclean spirit in that moment shows us, reminds us, that our faith calls us to move through our fears and anxieties, to soothe our unclean spirits, so that we can perceive God’s call and presence in the world.

Our commitment to being a Just Peace Church calls us into this spiritual work in community. “Nonviolence is a Christian response to conflict shown to us by Jesus,” the UCC’s Declaration of itself as a Just Peace Church states. “We have barely begun to explore this little-known process of reconciliation.” Jesus didn’t destroy the man’s unclean spirit, or have him thrown out of the synagogue. Somehow, he was able to snap the man out of his apocalyptic, black and white, deeply cynical trauma brain and keep him in the conversation.

The Just Peace Church declaration calls on each local church to become a thing that can be hard to even conceive of: “A community that recognizes no enemies, willing to risk and be vulnerable, willing to take surprising initiatives to transform situations of enmity. A community of repentance, confessing its own guilt and involvement in structural injustice and violence, ready to acknowledge its entanglement in evil, seeking to turn toward new life.” In our work for environmental, racial, gender, and economic justice, living into our identity as a Just Peace Church is our challenge as a white, progressive, prophetic Christian space: to hold the both/and of the hope that transformation is possible, while naming that our guilt over past transgressions—and our unconscious grip on the things about the status quo that give us power and comfort—sometimes make our spirits unclean, unable to see others in their full humanity. We cannot, if a just peace is our goal, ignore the voices of the unclean spirits, or shout them down, or label them the enemy. Like Jesus, we must name and listen to what our fears and the fears of others have to teach us so that we can truly hear what others—and what God—have to say.

Over the coming week I invite you to notice the unclean spirits around you and within you. Can you sit with them and listen to the fears animating their outbursts? This isn’t easy work. But Jesus calls us into community do the work together. May we hold God’s grace in our hearts as we seek a just peace with the unclean spirits in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world. Amen.