Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 12, 2012
JESUS, HEALER AND EXORCIST
Text: Mark 1:21-45
Today, I speak of “Jesus, Healer and Exorcist.” When I speak of Jesus and healing, all kinds of issues come rushing to the surface, some hopeful, some painful, some bewildering. Can I yet be healed? Why are some people healed and not others? Do some have “enough” faith to be healed and not others? And what about the many ways we can be healed: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, relational? Here is an unending conversation with God, with Jesus, with self.
And what about the kind of healing in the Gospels called “exorcism”? The deliverance from what are called evil spirits, unclean spirits, demons. Jesus cast them out and set people free, healing them. What might such deliverance mean in our day?
Have I raised enough questions for the seventeen minutes I have left?
Mark in his fast-paced, action-filled Gospel tells of one exorcism and two healings before he gets out of chapter 1 – and reports numerous others!
Shall we take them in order? There is a man possessed of an unclean spirit in the synagogue. Yes, we bring our shadow and our light to church. The unclean spirit knows who Jesus is before humans do because he is of the spirit world, and he says to Jesus: “Holy One of God.” Jesus says, “Be Silent and Come Out of Him.”
There is not an easy transition of understanding between the first-century world of evil spirits and our day. We are well reminded by novelist L. P. Hartley:
The past is a foreign country.
They do things differently there.
But we could start by naming some such possessions as moral disruption. In Jewish tradition, where Jesus was first at home, we were said to have two impulses within: a good impulse, yetzer hatov, and an evil impulse, yetzer hara. Our job spiritually is to encourage the good impulse, what Lincoln called “the better angels” of our nature.
The story is told of an Eskimo who had two dogs which he raced for money every Saturday. One was white, the other black. Some days the white dog won, the other days the black dog won, but every Saturday the Eskimo won. He was asked, “How do you know which one will win?” He replied, “The one I feed during the week.” Here is wisdom.
Most of the time we know when our evil impulses take over. They are cruel and destructive to others; they are damaging to the self. They can be patterns of compulsion or addiction that sabotage our lives. Anger or jealousy or bitterness can take us over. The shadow side of our psyche, long ignored, can come rushing destructively to the surface and take over our behavior. Jesus comes to our aid. And he invites us to be partners in our healing.
Scott Peck says that human evil happens when we deny the truth about ourselves and project our shadow onto others. Moreover, human evil can become systemic, social, corporate, political – which magnifies the damage done to humans and the earth. Jesus calls us to stand against such evil. Though we must, again, be careful that we are not projecting our own evil onto others.
We can speak in psychological and spiritual terms of the “divided self,” or “split self,” or the “dissolved self,” a self so given to meeting the needs and expectations of others that we lose contact with our own true self. We can live out of a “false self” rather than our true self.
So we ask help from God, and from others. Asking is crucial! If issues are medical/psychiatric/psychological we seek help from physicians, psychiatrists, therapists; if spiritual we go to spiritual guides. We ask help from friends and family and community. We ask, “Help me be whole.” In all disruptions of the self God has the greatest compassion and wants to move us to wholeness.
There is an important spiritual affirmation to make here. Thomas Merton put it this way: “There is in all visible things . . . a hidden wholeness.” It is the deepest truth about us. We have come from the oneness and wholeness of God, and we are seeking to live from that oneness and wholeness despite the wounds of life. That oneness and wholeness is our origin and our journey’s goal.
Reinhold Niebuhr began his famous work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, with the words, “Man is his own most vexing problem.” Scott Peck began his famous work, The Road Less Traveled, with the words, “Life is difficult.” Both of these statements are true and speak of the dilemma that while we come from wholeness and oneness we experience often the opposite. So I offer alongside them the opening sentence of John O’Donohue’s work Anam Cara. (He is an Irish philosopher and poet who recently died.) “It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you.”
We experience dislocation, wounds, tragic events, but there is a deeper mystery of wholeness that surrounds us and is in us. In an interview with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith he said:
Jesus comes to lead us to that place. I think it interesting that Jesus says to the unclean spirit: “Be Quiet! Come Out of Him!” It is the loud, noisy, clamorous voices within us and around us that often lead us astray. Jesus delivers that man and us to a place of stillness and quiet, to a place where we have never been wounded.
The next healing miracle is Peter’s mother-in-law, stricken with a fever. He took her by the hand and lifted her up. I love the language: He “took her by the hand and lifted her up.” He would do so today. The fever left and she was back to her normal and best self. And what did she do? She cooked them a meal! She must have been a Southerner!
We read next that Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist had grown so great that many came to be healed. And what we read next is that he needed to be alone to maintain his centerness in God. How could he be an instrument of God’s healing if he did not take time to restore himself and stay connected to his God? So the text says, “He went out to a deserted place, a lonely place, to pray.”
Finally we witness the healing of a leper. Leprosy was more than what we call Hanson’s Disease today. It could include a wide range of skin diseases.
But all the skin disorders were thought to be highly contagious so lepers were often quarantined in colonies, caves, graveyards, and had to announce to any who came near: “Unclean, unclean! Do not touch me; I am a leper.”
In the Gospel story we see a startling miracle on many levels. First the man had the courage to hope and the courage to come to Jesus and say, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The text says that Jesus was “moved by compassion.” Compassion was Jesus’ middle name. And compassion itself is one of the great healing forces in the world.
Then he said, “I do choose.” And touching this untouchable man he healed him.
Here is the theological statement I wish to make. (I caution: Any theological statement possesses both a knowing and a not-knowing.) Here it is: Jesus demonstrated that God always chooses to heal. God’s healing mercies are always flowing toward us and to all people. Jesus never made a moral demand as a condition for healing. God wants all God’s children healed.
Healing as “cure” does not always happen. Sometimes the only healing possible and only healing left is the “final healing” of eternal life. Then we offer ourselves or our loved ones into the arms of God.
When some diseases reach some point, the death of the body will come. There are other healings available, however, healings on the spiritual, emotional and relational level. We pray, “O, God bring all the healing you can on any level, and let me be a partner with you in this healing.”
When Cheryl Patterson’s mother was dying of cancer, near the end she said suddenly with wide-eyed clarity, “I am healed!” She did not mean “cured.” Something deeper, more ultimate had happened. Perhaps she had glimpsed and experienced in some measure the “Final Healing,” the miracle union with God where as Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well.”
The leper that day was healed on many levels. His skin disorder was cured. And he was restored to his religious and social community, re-membered into the community of life where we are “members of one another.”
In a book called The Sanctuary of Outcasts, the author, Neil White, tells his story. He was a person convicted of white collar crime and sentenced to go to the last leper colony in America in Carville, Louisiana. One child of lepers growing up there was told, “You will become a leper.” (Such was its contagion.) But what she heard was, “You will become a leopard!” Maybe Jesus is saying today to you, “You are not a leper, you are a leopard!” A magnificent creature of God, strong and supple. Your spots are not your illness, they are your particular glory. Live in the fullness of life God has created for you.
There are many questions left as we live the mystery of life. But there is much to affirm. Friends sent a card to me with this Chinese proverb: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.” We’ve been given a song.
And I think a prayer as well, for ourselves and others:
Your identity is not equivalent to your biography. There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there is a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. The intention of prayer, spirituality, and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.
Bring to me all the healing available to me – and to those I know and love. And help me be your partner in the journey toward wholeness.