Then there’s the one about the guy who says to the bartender, “My doctor told me I only have six months to live.” The bartender says, “That’s terrible! What are you going to do?” The guy says, “I’m going to move in with my mother in law.” The bartender says, “Why?” The guy says, “Living with her for six months will seem like forever!”
Yes, I looked up mother in law jokes for this sermon starter. I found a whole raft of them! It seems as if many people don’t have good relationships with their mothers in law. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though, with Peter whose own mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Peter, along with the other disciples, asked Jesus to come to her bedside. Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. When he did so, the fever left her.
Word got out. By evening the whole city had brought the sick and disabled to Jesus for healing. Then, after an evening’s rest and a time of prayer Jesus once again answered to call to go into neighboring towns to cast out bad demons and diseases while bringing the good news of a new kingdom.
This entire year our gospel readings are mostly taken from the book of Mark and, in Mark, the very first action of Jesus is to cast out demons … or unclean spirits. In those days illnesses such as fever or epilepsy were thought of as unclean spirits – demonic. But it was more than that. Anything which kept a person from living an abundant life, anything which kept a person from loving God, anything which kept a person from serving neighbor was considered an unclean spirit. Anything which kept a person from being the person God created them to be was demonic.
This is what Jesus set them free from. For Peter’s mother-in-law Jesus freed her from the fever. But Jesus did more than just freeing her from a bad thing. He freed her TO a good thing. When the fever left her, Mark tells us, she began to serve them.
So, when we come across stories like Jesus’ healing the mother-in-law we need to see them as more than stories of Jesus as magician, or even Jesus as physician. It is more than making people physically better. It is freeing them from all that keeps them from being fully functioning members of the kingdom of God and it is restoring them to all that God empowered them to be at their baptism.
And when we come across a gospel account like this, we can see it as more than just something which happened long ago. We can see it as emblematic of what God does for us now, today. What is it that God frees us from? Sin, of course. But not sin in the sense of bad things we do. But sin in the sense of things which keep us from being who God made us to be. What is it that holds us back? Fear? Well, that’s a big one. Fear is an illness very much like the fever Peter’s mother-in-law suffered. What holds us back? Grief? Depression? Loss? These things can be as debilitating as any disease. These are demonic things. Unclean spirits. What holds us back? Insecurity? Insecurity is like the flu which is so rampant now. It weakens us and keeps us indoors. These are the things which Jesus has freed us from.
But here’s the thing: Now that we have been freed, we can free others. It’s like the thriller movies where the bad guys ties up the good guys in the back room. One good guy wiggles free of his ropes and then goes around the room freeing the others. We, now, are the ones who have the opportunity to untie, or free, others – to banish unclean spirits, to cast the demons into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What are the unclean spirits we have the opportunity to cast out? Jesus knew the demons by name. We do, too. And they all seem to be members of the ism family.
Racism is the name of one demon. I am as aghast as you are that, in recent years, our nation has seemed to go backward in race relations. I’m coming to believe that the racism never truly went away, but just went undercover. When national leaders, then, act and speak in racist ways it gives permission to others to let loose their inner demons. These are the ones we need to cast out … and not just in others, but in ourselves, also.
Nationalism is the name of another demon. Nationalism is different from patriotism. It is a good thing to be patriotic to your country … to support it and defend it … especially to support those who defend it. But a nationalism which is founded on the “me first” principle is one which rejects the community to which Christ has called us. Also, a nationalism which devolves into concepts such as “American exceptionalism” implies that this nation has somehow been ordained by God to have things at the expense of other nations who do not have much, those nations who have been referred to as “s-hole nations.” That is an unclean spirit. It is a filthy spirit.
Another demon’s name is sexism. The “Me Too” movement is attempting to cast out this unclean spirit … not just in terms of those who violate women physically, but in terms of injustices such as unequal pay. This demon operates in subtle ways we need to be aware of, such as when a man needs to explain something a woman just said or when a woman’s idea falls flat on the table … until that very same idea is adopted some minutes later after a man has proposed it.
There are two other demons in the ism family we don’t talk about as much, but need to be named: One is classism in which we go around with the notion that one class of people – usually our own – is better than another class of people – usually those of a “lower” class. Even the use of the term “lower” class is, itself, an example of classism. The other is a word which is very rarely used, but is noteworthy. It is “ableism” or a preference for those who can over and against those who can’t, or those who have disabilities. I’m suspicious that the proposed merit-based approach to immigration is an example of ableism. The Statue of Liberty has always held her beacon to those who wanted to come to the United States to be able to do those things they were not able to do in their home country.
Jesus has set us free from many things. Having been freed, it is now our opportunity to free others from the unclean spirits which give them fever. The last verse in today’s gospel tells us that Jesus “…went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Can we, too, go about the communities in which we live and serve proclaiming the message and casting out demons? I think we can. I think we do.
Text: Mark 1:29-39