Date: February 1, 2009
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Author: Isaac Villegas
I usually rent movies from the shelves of the new release section. But last week I quickly glanced at that section and got bored. So I walked around some of the other shelves and a movie caught my eye. Now, I’m a sucker for good covers—whether it is a book cover or a wine label. Yes, you can judge a book by it’s cover; and I’m never disappointed with a wine that has a good label—but that’s probably because I’m not a connoisseur. This cover for this movie jumped out from the shelf—all black with a big, white X. Malcolm X.
A great movie, a fascinating conversion story. Malcolm X said something in that movie that came back to me as I thought about our passage today from Mark’s Gospel—the story of how Jesus exorcizes a demon in the synagogue. Malcolm X talked about how the minds of his people were colonized. It was bad enough that his people were taken as slaves from Africa. Even worse was how they began to hate themselves because they were black. African-Americans came to believe that whiteness was the color of beauty. Here’s a line from an interview with Malcolm X (“Malcolm and James Farmer Separation and Integration Dialogue,” May 1962),
“The black [person] in America has been colonized mentally, his mind has been destroyed. And today, even though he goes to college, he comes out and…is ashamed of what he is because his culture has been destroyed; he has been made to hate his skin; he has been made to hate the texture of his hair; he has been made to hate the features God has given him.”
That’s what Malcolm X meant by the colonization of the mind. Black people internalized their hatred; they internalized the voice of the oppressor. They began to hate and despise themselves. American culture told them that they were inadequate human beings—that they were barely human. And soon enough they believed it. They heard those voices in their heads. Their minds were colonized, invaded, possessed. And Malcolm came to tell them the truth, to decolonize their minds, to exorcize the demons, to silence the voices of death so that they might have life.
I wonder if this is a helpful way into our story from Mark’s Gospel. It is the Sabbath. Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum. He preaches the good news; the people are impressed. Jesus outdoes their usual teachers, the scribes. All of a sudden, an unclean spirit takes possession of a man in the synagogue and speaks through him. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus commands the demon to be quiet and come out of the man. The spirit convulsed the man and came out.
What a strange story! I admit that it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m not entirely sure how to talk about demon possession, other than that it happens. I’ve heard stories. But, at least the way this Gospel story goes, Jesus doesn’t go looking for demons. He just shows up at the synagogue and proclaims the truth. What is interesting to me about the story is the fact that possession happens. Apparently sometimes we are possessed with foreign forces that speak and do things through us. I know this sounds strange, but I think Malcolm X can help us think through what it means to be possessed.
Before we turn back to him, let me make a two observations about our passage:
The first thing to notice is probably the scariest part of the story. Demons are at church! That should make us worry. Jesus goes to the synagogue and is confronted by a demon. That’s the last place in the world I would expect a demon to show up. Shouldn’t a worship service be safe from the influence of Satan? Demons belong to that strange world of the occult, where people summon spirits and give themselves over to their influence. But at the synagogue? At our church? We all should be a little on edge at this point.
The second thing to notice is that the unclean spirit makes itself known after Jesus teaches with authority. The congregation hears the word. Jesus proclaims good news. And the demon takes Jesus’ ministry as a provocation, maybe even a declaration of war. Jesus seems to pick a fight. His message lures the enemy from his hiding place. When Jesus comes among us, the demonic is exposed, unmasked, made public—light shines in the darkness and sets us free.
Ok, what does this mean for us? One truth is clear. Jesus comes to set us free. Jesus means freedom. Jesus declares war on demons, on those powers that seem to imprison us. Jesus comes to free us from the spirits that defile us—an unclean spirit, the text says. Jesus is here to free us from all the things that convince us that we are unclean, that we aren’t worth much, that we have no choice but to continue in the same old rut. Jesus has come to stir up trouble in the old order of this world that makes it seem like everything has to stay the same. When Jesus comes to town, there is no more business as usual.
That’s why I think Malcolm X is helpful. He told his people that they were under the influence of the demonic. Their minds were colonized. The voices of oppression that told them they were less than human, that they were second-class citizens—those voices invaded their heads and took over. The colonization of the mind. The voices in their heads told them that Jesus was white, and black was the color of evil. Their skin was dark and so they belonged in the dark corners of this world—that’s what the voices in their heads told them. And they thought those voices spoke the truth about themselves. They thought those voices, the dialogues in their heads, were their own voices. No, Malcolm X said. Those voices aren’t you; you don’t have to listen to them anymore; they are the voices of Satan; your minds have been colonized, invaded, taken over, possessed.
Take a look at the front of your bulletin; I included a quote. I think the theologian Stanley Hauerwas is saying something similar about sin. He sounds a lot like Malcolm X on this point—sin is the colonization of our minds. Let me read Hauerwas’ quote; it’s from an interview in 1998:
“We are all captured by sin in various ways. But we’re captive to a power. Sin is something that I’m captured by and I don’t even recognize it as captivity.”
Sin is a force, a power, a spirit, that captures us, that holds us captive, that convinces us that we have no choice but to follow its lead, no choice but to give into the voice of sin in our heads. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—or maybe I’m just crazy. Don’t you every talk to yourself? Thinking is simply the way we talk to ourselves and come to a decision. We process the choices we make in our heads, through our internal dialogue. At some point you listen to one of those voices more than the others, you pick that one out as the true you, the voice that makes the most sense of your circumstances and what you need to do next.
Now, what if Malcolm X is right: Our heads are colonized by all sorts of voices, voices that enslave us? And what if Hauerwas is right: Sin is a power that holds us captive, that convinces us of lies about ourselves and the world? Then we need exorcisms; we need Christ to set us free. Now, I don’t think every exorcism needs to be as spectacular as the one we see in the story from Mark’s Gospel. It could; but it doesn’t have to be. It may look more like a long series of little conversions, of living into the freedom that Christ brings, a freedom to decide against the voices, a freedom to ignore the lies that tell us that we are not loved—the lies that tell us that we shouldn’t love certain people, that we should be afraid of some people, that we should stay away from some kinds of people.
This kind of exorcism isn’t easy. The lying voices have become so internal to us, so intimate with us, that we have no idea where we begin and they end. Our minds are thoroughly invaded, occupied, and colonized. Like the man in our passage who undergoes the exorcism, we may also convulse and cry out as we are being set free. It may feel like our end. But it is really the beginning, the beginning new life.
And where do we go to be set free? Well, in this story the exorcism happens at church. Worship is a kind of detox; the Holy Spirit cleanses us from our unclean spirits. But church goes with us through the week, because all of life is our worship. I am reminded of this when Katie and I stop at Trader Joe’s after church on our way home. We usually see Chris, Rachel, Miriam and Jonah and Marcus. And when Jonah sees me, he asks me if we’re having church at Trader Joe’s. He’s a smart kid. Church happens all over the place, when we let each other into our lives—when we get close enough to begin to expose the lies that seem to rule our lives. Friendships become a chance for exorcisim, a chance to fight against our captivity, a chance to decolonize our minds, a chance to embrace the freedom of Christ.
In this sermon I am drawing heavily from Sebastian Moore, Let This Mind Be In You (Winston Press, 1985). Here’s one important passage among many: “Sin…starts in the mind. It starts as a mentality…. [S]in is a mentality which is too deeply ingrained for us to feel responsible for it–until we undergo what Scripture calls conversion” (pp. 84-85).