Thanks to Vatican II most Christian denominations now use some version of the common lectionary from 1969—a set series of scripture readings designated for each Sunday repeated over a three-year cycle conforming to the liturgical calendar. The three years in the cycle are called Year A, Year B and—yes, wait for it—Year C. And because it is a “common” lectionary Catholics and most Protestants frequently find themselves on the same biblical page on the same Sunday (or only a Sunday or two apart) reading the same passage as everyone else from one of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
I can never remember what year it is; I let the parish administrator tell me. She hands me the scripture insert for our bulletin on the Monday before and tells me go to it. Since I never know what year we are in with the lectionary, seeing the readings for next Sunday is always a surprise, and sometimes a disappointment. Some readings are just better than others. But I am told smart pastors thumb far ahead in the lectionary to see what gospel readings are coming up, so they can start homiletically mulling things over or planning their vacation absence around it if the reading is, um, weird.
I thought I’d try that. The first place my thumbing stopped was in a Capernaum synagogue where Jesus encountered a man “possessed by an unclean spirit.” This turns out to be Mark 1:21–28, Year B, fourth Sunday after Epiphany, called Ordinary Time in Roman parlance. It will show up for use on Sunday, January 29, 2012. That’s eleven months and some days before the Mayan calendar runs out on December 21 that year. Unless the world ends sooner, or I can get out of town, looks like I’m stuck with it.
The short of it is the “unclean spirit” shrieks at Jesus right there in the synagogue. And here you probably thought a crying baby was a problem. Jesus tells the “unclean spirit” to be quiet and then commands the wicked thing to leave the guy alone, which it does. Everyone is dumbfounded at the “authority” Jesus commands; why “even the unclean spirits submit [to him].” Along with submission, “unclean spirits” also tend to call him “the Holy One of God” as they do here, but nobody in Capernaum is ready to go that far.
Honest, I don’t ever remember this being in the lectionary. I don’t ever remember having preached on it. With umpteen years of ordination behind me I should have said something about it on 10.333 occasions by my count. I dipped into my dead sermon file and no, I have never preached on it. When that passage arrived apparently I always opted for the second reading, something in First Corinthians about poor deluded fools worried over eating meat first sacrificed to idols, or the first reading from Deuteronomy promising a prophet like Moses. And I know why. I think these accounts of demons and unclean spirits are just too un-modern for contemporary Christians.
Who could listen with a straight face, or preach with one? I am bothered saying it, but my reaction, I know, is a hangover from my atheist rationalist period. But still even now as a believer, well, possession, really?
Nor by the way am I the only Lutheran pastor in history who has had trouble with demons. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Lutheran Pennsylvania pastor through the mid to late 1700s tells in his diary of being visited by a man who thought he was possessed of a demon. Muhlenberg calmly explained to him he couldn’t possibly be possessed. That happened in Bible times, sure, but it wasn’t happening anymore. He sent the fellow on with a prayer. Today, pastors probably would default into a Rogerian chant to help the “victim” sort out “an internal source of evaluation.” Either that or ask about his medications.
I find it more than amusing that in the history of the Scottish church the Great Litany once intoned “From ghosties and goulies and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night” with the congregation going right along to “deliver us good Lord,” and they meant it.
It’s not in the Litany anymore. It would be an embarrassment. If someone does believe in ghosties, goulies, or beasties of any kind all they want to do is chase them in a dark basement with a camcorder for Ghost Hunters or sample their DNA for Monster Quest. Someday, just betcha, one of those ghosts or monsters or legged things will wise up and file a protective order.
Of course there is interest in the occult, but saying that doesn’t say any of it is real. Books are written and read about it, Ouija boards are sold at Amazon, newspapers carry astrology guides (I’m gonna have a great week, by the way, so don’t none of you mess it up in the comments section). I know a guy who is a practicing warlock in a Brooklyn coven, and I once met a then thirteen-year-old girl who practiced witchy spells hoping she could bend the universe to her will. I don’t take any of it with any seriousness.
Yet, strangest thing, I remember back to a pastoral session with a guy who had done something he regarded as unusually egregious. He ended his story with a common enough phrase, “I just don’t know what possessed me.”
Which sort of brings me back to the Capernaum synagogue. Real possession, oh, gee, I can hardly credit that. My head just isn’t built that way.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Not really. I mean, it doesn’t matter from St. Mark’s perspective. Because the story’s not really about the “unclean spirit” anyway; it’s about Jesus and what he has to do with us. The man believed he was possessed by an “unclean spirit.” The people there believed he was possessed. Everyone believed it was possible to be possessed. Jesus did not dispute it, quibble about it, remark on it, or shy away from it. He took authority and with that authority announced deliverance and the man was delivered because the Holy One of God—I think I have this right—took possession of him.
“I just don’t know what possessed me,” the man told me. After hearing the story there were a couple notions I could have offered him, but uncharacteristically I managed to hold my tongue and I wonder now, what possessed me when my words soothed or brought laughter, and did not sting? Or when my hand caressed and did not strike? When my greedy soul wrote a generous check? When I enthrone within my palm the host that has become the Holy One of God? In whose possession am I then?
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg