About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Exorcist

2015-02-01 Mark 1:21-28
The Exorcist

All my fancy seminary education and I’ve had not ONE class in exorcism. I probably should have told you that before now. The need for exorcism among Presbyterians just doesn’t come up as often as say, carpet. Didn’t have any classes in that, either.

There are lots of people and places for whom exorcism is very real. We might say their cultures are primitive. They might say we’re over-medicated.

I think the whole concept of exorcism is dangerous – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I don’t want to even think about it. But there are a lot of places where people have them, a lot of preachers who perform them. And one of those places is the Bible. And one of those preachers is Jesus. For me, that raises more questions than a barrel of demons.

So, what do you do – what do YOU do – when you come across one of these passages? What do you do when the Bible, when the actions of Jesus himself contradict what you believe? Do you ignore it? Do you wave it off as belonging to another place and time? Do you break out the hammers and crowbars and try to make it fit the here and now?

All that fancy seminary education and no one taught me how to do this, either. I think a lot of people are trying to figure this out. Maybe you. Pick your favorite controversial issue. People with Bibles will line up on the left and on the right and everywhere in between. And nothing ever gets solved.

What do you do when the Bible, or religious people, or even Jesus contradicts what you believe to be true?


I’ve watched TV preachers cast demons out by banging people on the forehead. Then it’s followed by convulsing and crying out. Mostly from me, yelling at the TV. What they do, though, isn’t all that different from today’s scripture, except for the lighting, the choirs, the microphones, the cameras, the expensive suits, and the hair gel. Call me skeptical, but I put this stuff on par with professional wrestling and the New England Patriots.

I felt uninformed. So, I did what any 21st century person with electricity and high-speed Internet does: I Googled it.

That was pretty disappointing. First, it turns out the book, Exorcism for Dummies is not a real thing.[1] Second, the go-to guys – according to movies – the Roman Catholic Church, only has about 10 official exorcists in all the United States. And I couldn’t find their phone numbers anywhere.[2]

But, I was able to find a number of websites with step-by-step home-exorcist instructions. Step One was always the same. “Examine your own qualifications,” they said. “Consult an expert.”[3] Almost like they were afraid of being sued. Even exorcists are afraid of lawyers.

My favorite was from the site askmen.com, which had a section called, “Dress for the Possessed.” It reads:

“Ensure that you look the part by renting a… purple stole from a local costume shop. If you’re to dispossess the possessed, you’ll need to convince the demon that you mean business, and that means looking like an authentic priest. Sling a couple of rosary beads around your neck for extra effect. Be sure to enter the room clutching a Bible, muttering mysteriously and acting erratic.”

Just like most preachers.

So I moved on to a number of very intense capital-C Christian sites about exorcism. Some were scary. But none were that helpful. I started to suspect people who use the Internet are more likely looking for the opposite of exorcism.

One thing a number of sites wanted to make clear is that exorcism is very different from faith healing, or just praying for health. Comparatively, faith healing is pretty boring. It’s mainly just praying, sometimes with laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Even Presbyterians do that. We have a liturgy called, “A Service for Healing and Wholeness.” If that makes me primitive and superstitious, fine.

But exorcism? Even the most hard-core Christian sites pretty much dismissed it.[4] And that brings me back to the source of my headaches.


Question: If a Church A reads a passage FROM THE BIBLE, and Church B reads the same passage FROM THE BIBLE, shouldn’t both Churches A and B read the same thing? It’s THE BIBLE, you know. The Word of God’s the Word of God. Truth is truth. How can WE read about exorcism and think it’s a sign of pre-scientific sorcery, and people from, say, Canada, read it and say, “Oh yeah. This is just like last Sunday”? Shouldn’t the same words mean the same thing?

If two people read the Bible different ways, shouldn’t one be right and the other wrong? If it’s in the Bible, shouldn’t it be right in all times and all places? Is the mere act of “interpreting” just bending scripture to what you already believe?

Some examples: The Bible has been used to oppose slavery, and to support it. The Bible has been used to oppose women clergy and to support them. The Bible says the wisest man in all history, King Solomon, had “among his wives,” 700 princesses and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). I imagine that’s been tried as a court defense at least once. “Your Honor, my client was simply trying to follow the Bible.” How do people look at the same book and get such wildly different information?

And another question: If you see something in the Bible, but your culture has “progressed” beyond it, shouldn’t you do everything you can to put the brakes on? I mean, shouldn’t we try to imitate Jesus? But clearly, we who poo-poo voodoo don’t do juju like he do, er, did. So do you simply dismiss it as outdated?

I’m pretty sure we’re not going to resolve all of this in one sermon. At least not one of mine.

Does today’s scripture guide us in any way?


Let’s look.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when the man with the unclean spirit stood up to confront him. Scripture tells us that. But I find it puzzling that scripture doesn’t say a word about what Jesus was teaching. Enquiring minds want to know. Instead, it tells us about the exorcism. That’s what the gospel writers remembered. That’s what makes Jesus famous. Not his words as much as his works.[5] Hmm.

For us, exorcisms are pretty rare, often creepy. But people back then thought of getting your demons cleaned out the same way we think of going to the doctor. So why does Jesus get so much press for doing the same thing lots of other practitioners did?

Well, for one thing, Jesus did it for free. He was cutting into the income of the professional exorcists and priests.[6] Practicing without a license is unethical. Second, he healed on the Sabbath. The Bible says ANY work on the Sabbath is illegal under penalty of death.[7] Third, that he would even allow an unclean person to enter synagogue isn’t just illegal, it’s also immoral, because an unclean person infected the entire community.[8] Nobody wants to sit next to someone unclean. Maybe that’s why we call them, “pews.”

We don’t know what Jesus said in his sermon. But we do know his actions were considered unethical, illegal, and immoral. People will talk about that. Some good. Some bad. There will be buzz. What Jesus taught that day, we’ll never know. But what he did, well, that’s in the Bible.

Look at the man with the unclean spirit. Look at what he says. What kind of filth would you expect a demon to spew? The ones in the movies say nasty words. What does this one say?

“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.” 

The guy nails it. He knows who Jesus is. Knows where he’s from. Knows that he’s the Savior for whom his people have been praying for centuries. He knows all about Jesus, and he says so.

OK. Hold that thought. Think about this. Jesus gets famous not for what he SAYS but for what he DOES. The man with the unclean spirit is recorded in the Bible for all posterity NOT for what he DOES, but for… for what? For what he… says.

Jesus rebukes him and casts the uncleanliness out. He doesn’t do any fancy incantations. He doesn’t bang him on the head. What does it say?

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent….”

Be silent. Shut up. Stop talking.

“Be silent, and come out of him!”

What do you make of that?


A few days ago, on Facebook, one of the former Moderators of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), posted something I just loved. So, I re-posted, as have a lot of people. It’s way better than a lot of other things going viral these days, like measles. It’s a quote that says:

“Let us feed the hungry,
House the homeless,
Stop the killing,
And provide medicine for the sick.
When we have accomplished that,
We can sit around and argue about religion.”

When I read that, along with today’s scripture, it makes me think about the one who was known for what he did and the one who was known for what he said. Jesus was known for what he did. The unclean spirit guy was known for what he said.

Jesus fed the hungry. Jesus cared for the homeless, the outcasts. Jesus was the Prince of Peace. Jesus healed the sick.

The demon? Well, it talked a lot.

Both of them were remembered.

How do you want to be remembered? For winning arguments? Or for what you did for people the Bible calls, “the least of these”? Maybe both. I wonder if that’s possible.


One of the greatest Christian thinkers, St. Francis of Assisi, is reputed to have said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”[9]

We will never, once and for all, resolve our human arguments. We will never completely agree on the Bible, or politics, or football. But I’m not sure agreeing’s all that important. Anyone can surround himself or herself with people who agree with them. That’s easy. Anyone can talk and agree and pat like people on the back for being so witty and insightful and so unlike unclean people. Anybody can do that.

Jesus was always with unlike people. He never shied away from lively debates. Some he started, some he got pulled into. Some were civil. Some were not. Sometimes people agreed with him, but more often not. A lot of those discussions went unresolved, as if the Bible-writers wanted us to exercise our God-given brains to exorcise our else-obtained demons.

But for Jesus, who spoke so many divinely important words, what was done was always more important than what was said. To Jesus, people were always more important than the talk about them. It’s in today’s scripture: He casts out the unclean spirit, not the man possessed. Jesus was a good exorcist. Too often, people are bad exorcists. We cast out the people along with the spirits.


All that’s what I get from today’s scripture. You might not agree. And ten years from now, God willing, I might not agree with me. I kind of hope I don’t. Because that’ll mean I’ve learned something in between. Maybe by then Jesus will have cast out a few of my demons.

Before you go casting out unclean spirits in someone else, make sure you’re finished casting out your own. And then, once we get this world all fixed, we can sit around and have some awesome arguments about religion.

Let’s pray. And let’s pray silently. For one whole minute let’s be like the just-cleaned unclean man, and hear what we learn by being quiet.