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Born to Set Thy People Free
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 10, 2018
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
… and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The campus of Georgetown University, where I spent my college years, sits about five stories above the Potomac River just alongside it, which means that if you want to get from campus down to the water’s edge, or, indeed, down to the street level where most of the good shops and restaurants are, or, even, down to the Key Bridge that takes cars and pedestrians both across the river into Virginia, if you want to make that journey on foot, you have a couple of options. You can take the long way, down along Prospect Street until about 33rd, where the slope becomes gradual enough that the roads can connect down to the intersection below and you can follow the sidewalk that plummets alongside it. But if you want to take the direct approach there’s only one path, somewhat inconspicuously hidden behind an otherwise unremarkable administration building, a set of 75 narrow and awfully steep stone stairs cut into the hillside that descend quickly and hauntingly between solid brick walls on either side, emerging somewhat unceremoniously in the back parking lot of an Exxon station. Those stairs are not for the faint of heart, not only because of their character, but because of their namesake — they are known, far and wide, as the Exorcist Stairs.
If you are a fan of the genre you may recognize them. The Exorcist Stairs are so named because they were prominently featured in the climax of William Peter Blatty 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” in which a Catholic priest takes a rather famous tumble down them as part of his struggle against a demon that has taken up residence in a young girl living in the house next door. Now, the movie was based on a book that was already a pretty big deal, especially around Georgetown, where it was set, and so the filming was also a pretty big deal, such that by time they got around to filming the climactic sequence on the stairs, the production actually charged Georgetown undergrads for the good spectator spots so that they could watch some stuntman — presumably — tumble down stairs onto which they had already affixed a good half inch of foam padding. But by time I got there, and through on to today, the spectator sport at the Exorcist Steps is a bit different. It is no longer a place to watch people go down. It is now a place to watch people run up.
In fact I spent a year walking across that bridge first thing every morning and first thing every morning I would see athletes of all stripes making what has become a sort of Georgetown athletics rite of passage, which is the over-and-over run up the Exorcist Stairs. I’ll even admit to having done it a few times myself, but really more out of curiosity than anything else. I’m a far cry from the folks who would come and do that 5, 6, a dozen times a day, up the stairs and back down, up the stairs and back down, and I will admit not proudly that I have never been enough of an athlete to understand the dedication that it takes to make that happen. To me it always just seemed fundamentally incomprehensible, like what gets hold of person to make them voluntarily subject themselves to this torture, like maybe the real reason we call them the Exorcist Steps is because so many of the folks who use them have clearly been possessed with something I do not understand and which terrifies me. There are demons and then I guess there are demons and everybody is battling something.
We have to talk about demons because the Gospels are full of demons — particularly Mark’s Gospel, in which we find ourselves today. The first major confrontation in Mark’s Gospel is between Jesus and a demon, this unclean spirit that possesses a man and speaks to Jesus in its own voice — I know who you are, the Holy One of God. And Mark uses Jesus’s victory of this particular demon to launch him into a career of exorcisms — he casts out demons throughout Galilee, and as you might imagine this propels him to a certain level of celebrity, and by time he comes back home, as he does in today’s story, the people have so mobbed his house and have so mobbed the streets that he can hardly move. He is now Jesus of Nazareth, Celebrity Exorcist, and he’s got quite a following.
But Mark barely pauses long enough to give us any kind of sense about what these demons really are. In some ways it’s not even a question he’s equipped to ask; it’s a modern question, it’s a modern skepticism. I suspect that I could write our collective objection pretty easily, and it would go something like this — Mark calls it a demon, the people call it a demon, because it’s something they don’t understand, and what they call a demon we could easily imagine to be schizophrenia or epilepsy or something else somewhere in the recesses of the medical encyclopedia. There are certainly no shortage of forces in the world that the people of Mark’s Gospel don’t understand and labeling them demonic simply highlights how incomprehensible they are. All of which plays out beat for beat when Jesus enters into the scene here in chapter 3, as the religious scribes from Jerusalem have arrived to see the fuss and they also don’t understand Jesus himself and so they assume that Jesus himself must be demonic himself because this is just shorthand for things that are somehow beyond our comprehending. “He has Beelzebub,” they say, “and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.”
But Jesus’s understanding of the demonic doesn’t work like that. First of all, he points out the internal inconsistency of their argument — why would a demon go around casting out demons, he says, ever the know-it-all. But then Jesus changes the definition of demonic in the first place with this curious aphorism. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” And this is truly a curious phrase. But the word Beelzebub itself probably echoes of an old Philistine word that means Lord of the house or God of the house. So probably Jesus is playing, with the idea of a demon, this strong man, who has taken control. The demonic strong man rules the house. The demonic strong man has all the power. And now all of a sudden Jesus is talking about demons in ways that are completely different. It’s no longer a word used to describe something that is scientifically incomprehensible. Now it’s an image for something even more fundamentally human. It’s not something that eludes us. It’s something that controls us. It’s something that traps us. It’s something that holds us captive.
I think this is closer to the truth of what the demonic is, both for us and for those Biblical witnesses. After all the threat of an epileptic fit in first-century Galilee isn’t first and foremost that they can’t understand it; the threat is that there’s nothing they can do about it, they’re captive to it, they’re powerless to help. And I have to confess to you that if the feeling of powerlessness is symptomatic of an encounter with the demonic then I think we have found ourselves a truly timeless phenomenon. If feeling powerless is a sign of meeting the demonic, then I think we have demons everywhere we look. In a moment when our country’s legacy of racism seems incomprehensibly everywhere and impossible. In a moment when our capacity for violence against women seems incomprehensibly intractable and inevitable. In a moment when our deep suspicion of one another and our deep inhospitality to one another threatens to codify into something resembling the very bedrock under our feet. It is difficult to read the news or open our eyes for one moment to the signs of the times and not feel the powerlessness, the captivity, the hopelessness which suggests the demonic, as if history itself, and perhaps especially 2018, were in need of an exorcism.
Or perhaps you feel that more personally. After all, there are demons and then there are demons, and some of them occupy our politics, and some of them occupy our hearts. Our minds. Our souls. There are a million ways to feel trapped, and a million ways to feel powerless. You or somebody you know is stuck with a disease that won’t respond to treatments, and just because doctors might understand it doesn’t mean doctors know how to help. You or somebody you know is stuck in a relationship that isn’t healthy, stuck in a relationship with violent tendencies, and just because we can see it doesn’t mean that we know how to help or what to do. You or somebody you know is stuck in a cycle of addiction that occupies the body and takes residence in the mind and subjugates the spirit and just because we can diagnose it doesn’t mean we have power over it. And you or somebody you know lives in the shadow of mental illness, of anxiety, of depression, of the ways in which our hearts and minds are stolen from us, occupied right in front of our faces, of the ways in which we feel so powerless to help. If you’ve seen abuse work, then I think you know how very demonic the world can be. If you’ve seen addiction work, then I think you know what it’s like to be captive to powers incomprehensibly beyond. If you’ve seen depression work, as we have seen depression work too well over the past week, then I think you know what it’s like to be trapped, to be stuck, like there’s a strong man in this house and he will not let me go and he will not let me free and there is no good way out.
No matter where you find yourself in these stories, the Gospel wants you to know of course that you are not alone. The fact that the Gospel of Mark is littered with demons signifies first and foremost that that fundamental human experience of helplessness is certainly not limited to 2018 and that 2018 isn’t the first year that ever needed an exorcism. But Mark wants to say something more, too, which is that as strong as this demon may be, Jesus Christ is stronger still. In fact several chapters earlier, John the Baptist predicts the stronger one coming into the world and here Jesus is breaking into the house and binding the strong man and liberating everyone trapped inside and that’s very much the promise offered to you and to me. It’s not a miracle cure. The trick to escaping depression or overcoming addiction or just reading the newspaper without falling into a pit is not — let me repeat, is not — take two Jesus pills and call me in the morning. It is, rather, instead, a hope. It is a hope for some time beyond the now. It is a hope for some place beyond the here. It is a hope for some freedom, some escape, some liberation from all these demonic ties that bind. There’s a reason this verse almost sounds like an Advent reading — one of those handful about keeping watch for Jesus who comes in the middle of the night. And maybe this is just one of those Advent Sundays, where the world feels dark, where we light candles, where we wait on something more, and where we proclaim this Gospel, that no matter how powerful the demons, Jesus is more powerful still, and Jesus is coming.
So in the meantime. We put one foot in front of the other. This is not a story about falling down the stairs. This is a story about going back up, one step a time, over and over, one foot in front of the other. For those of you trapped in the darkness. For those of you stuck in despair. For those of you wrestling with the demon. I don’t have an easy way out. But I have a way forward, and it’s simply this. One step at a time, one stair at a time, we keep going, and we hold on, with hope. I need you to hold on. I need you to keep going. I need us to keep going, step by step, stair by stair, no matter how steep the passage, no matter how long the fall. And when we fall, I need us to get back up, and dust ourselves off, and keep going, step by step, stair by stair, over and over. This is, in the end, what hope looks like. Incomprehensible, and full of determination. This is what hope looks like, the relentless dogged stubborn insistence that we have to keep going, that something good is coming, that the light breaks over the dawn and any moment now it will break over us. This is what hope looks like, step by step, stair by stair, the faithful determination born of the hope of Jesus Christ and the promise of the Gospel. So, one step in front of the other. Hold on to another. Hold on to me and I will hold on to you. And we will make it to the mountaintop together, by the grace of God, who will never let us go.