Touching Wonder

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…

“If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…”  Thomas Merton, March 18, 1958

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
February 18, 2018

Touching Wonder

Mark 9:2  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
            9  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…

“If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…”  Thomas Merton, March 18, 1958.[1]

How should we label experiences like this when they happen in our time? How can we put them into our modern categories of thought? 

Transcendent. Mystical. Spiritual. Divine.
Metaphysical. Metaphorical. Psychological. Delusional.

One thing is clear. Most old-line Protestant churches have gone to great lengths to avoid dealing with “those kinds of experiences,” and we are paying a price for it.

Another story.

Once upon a time, on a radiant hilltop, a man had an experience of wonder.  An experience he labeled divine. So he built a shrine, and in that shrine he did his best to put words to that experience. Words could not do it justice, but others gathered just to experience a little of that reflected glory, to be inspired and enlivened.  After many years, though, the man grew old and frail, and he had to pass on the telling of wonder to others. 

Those others were kind and generous, and had in fact been running the shrine for years already.  But they only knew reflected glory.  They were not very inspiring.  They had a familiar ritual around the telling of the story of wonder. Some participants felt comfort from the ritual.  Some were comforted by the thought that the divine had been sighted at that very shrine at some time in the past. But to some the ritual began to feel dry. Attendance fell. The shrine-keepers got grumpy, and started making rules about attendance and shrine upkeep, rules which were never needed before. And you can imagine how well that went over.

Meanwhile, a former participant from the shrine was wandering, and hoping to renew the sense of wonder that didn’t seem to be at the shrine anymore. To her great surprise, at a very ordinary-looking bend in the river, she had a radiant, life-changing experience.  It was clearly an experience to be shared.  So she invited a few friends to come each week and sit at the riverbank while she told her story of wonder. And eventually they built a shrine. Also, there was a great tree on the plain…but that’s another shrine.

God is still speaking.  I love that slogan of the United Church of Christ. It says that there is no whole and final truth when it comes to our understanding of the sacred. More will be revealed. We can continue to touch wonder today, whether that experience happens in our logical left brain, through some transformative idea, or in our creative, relational, mysterious right brain, through some visionary or creative experience. And I don’t get to tell you that your experience is wrong, or that you are wrong for not having the right kind of experience. You all have some experiences of touching wonder, affirming meaning and value, even if you prefer not even to categorize that experience as spiritual.

These experiences can be hard to put into words. Maybe that’s why so many of us treasure the words of Michael’s prayers.  But these experiences are not really hard to have, if you make space for them. What works for one person may not work for another. I hope worship works for you in this way, at least now and then.

One ancient Christian practice that invites the sacred is guided meditation in the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. So let’s do it. Let’s do a guided meditation together.  If at any time you do not want to do this, just open your eyes.  Different things work for different people.

Please close your eyes now. Get settled and comfortable in your seat.  Take a deep slow breath, and release it.  Now in your mind’s eye, get ready to witness the scene of our bible reading in your imagination.  I will read the scripture, and you put yourself into the scene. Look for details. Let your imagination play the scene like a movie. Let your senses engage. What do you see, hear, feel, smell?

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 

And there appeared to them Elijah, the greatest prophet, with Moses the lawgiver, who were talking with Jesus. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three shrines, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 

Then a deep fog enshrouded them them, and from the fog there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 

Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

If you are still in the scene, your time is nearly over.  Perhaps you want to say one last thing, or listen to one last thing, or get a hug.


Now come back to the here and now.

Wiggle your fingers and toes, and when you’re ready, open your eyes. 

Now take a minute or two to reflect, and if you like, jot some notes.

In our Lenten journey toward Easter over these next six weeks, I invite you to take time and make space to touch wonder, in whatever way might work for you. If you’d like to try Ignatian-style exercises, there is a handout in the church entry just left of the doors that you can take.  And you may touch wonder in nature, prayer, music, special people, reading and conversation, meditations of different kinds, art and dance, and much more.

May the still-speaking God embrace you and guide you and inspire you on your journey in Lent.  Amen.



[1] From Confessions of a Guilty Bystander

Healing Relationships



In the gospels it is clear that Jesus expects his followers to do some healing too. That would be us. It can be a very human reaction to turn away from other peoples’ suffering.  Especially when we can’t fix it, or we fear the attempt will demand of us more than we’re up for. And when we turn away, we leave a suffering person even more miserable.  But with God’s leading, we do not have to fix anything.  We just share the love and power we’ve been given.  Loving relationships are healing to mind and spirit, and a healed mind and spirit can set the stage for bodily healing.  That love is contagious, and its Source is infinite.

Art: a quilt from the 2017 Sacred Threads exhibit.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
February 4, 2018
Rev. Dr. Terry LePage
Healing Relationships

Mark 1:29   As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
            32   That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.  34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
            35   In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
            40   A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

We are back in the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus has called a few ordinary people to follow him. Now buckle up, because a lot happens in these few verses. 

The new recruits were all going to go to Peter’s house to relax, have a meal… but Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed. I love it that Peter had a mother-in-law, but that’s another story. And Jesus heals her. This woman is now well enough to take her rightful place as the host of the party. Jesus heals. Which, we should note, is the same in the original Greek as saying, “Jesus saves.”

How infuriating it would have been to Mom to be stuck in bed, listening to these young men clashing around her kitchen trying to make their own dinner, and not being able to see for herself the wild preacher who has captured Peter’s imagination.  In her encounter with Jesus, Mom was not only saved from her fever, but restored to her rightful relationship to her son-in-law, and with this wacky group of friends he brought home to dinner. 

So Jesus healed, and people found out about it. By sundown, the whole town was lined up at the door with their sick family members. And we see a touch of Jesus’ humanity in Mark’s gospel that the later gospels don’t bother showing: physical healing was a wonderful gift, but Jesus got overwhelmed sometimes by the level of need he faced.  He really was human.

And Jesus, being human as Mark so clearly shows us…at this point, Jesus runs away and hides.  What the scripture says is, In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him. Jesus needed a break.  He needed to regroup and pray and figure out how to deal with his newfound popularity. And these eager new followers can’t bear to be parted from him, so they hunt him down.  So much for a break. Back into the fray.  At the end of the reading, they all go hide together.

In the worldview of Mark, events are always happening on two levels.  There is ordinary reality that everyone witnesses with their own senses; and intertwined with it, there is a non-ordinary reality. This reality is not visible to the naked eye, but it’s clearly perceived by Jesus, and revealed to us readers, at least in part, by Mark.  Mark understands this unseen reality to be as powerful and real as the physical world, if somewhat mysterious. It is the stage on which the Kingdom of God is growing, like a seed sprouting, not yet seen above ground.  This hidden reality is where unclean spirits are unmasked and sent packing from the innocent people they are oppressing.  It is where those same spirits clearly recognize Jesus as their adversary, and know him as “the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:23)

Jesus keeps saying, “Shh… don’t tell people what I’m up to.” Jesus doesn’t want to call attention to his mission, so that the Roman occupiers or the religious watchdogs don’t come down on him before he’s even had a chance to spread his message. 

What is hidden from ordinary reality is already unfolding in non-ordinary reality. The demons already know and fear him. Meanwhile, back in ordinary reality, tethered to a human body, Jesus hits his physical limits repeatedly, and has to hide because he cannot keep up with the requests for healing that he receives.

Mark and the demons tell us: Jesus is the Holy One of God.  His mission is to proclaim, and to launch, the upside-down Kingdom of God, where human value no longer depends on status, or wealth, or good fortune, or political power.  He is taking non-ordinary reality, that system of beliefs and values that orders peoples’ lives, and turning it on its head. The Roman overlords and their Jewish collaborators are to Mark physical manifestation of the Powers of the Domination system, but the system of imperial conquest, oppression and debt and religious legalism are the spiritual counterparts of those physical Powers that are binding the people.  And Jesus saves.  Jesus heals.  When those Powers perceive the threat that Jesus is to their domination, they will seek to crush him. That will happen, but Jesus will decide the time and place, and make it work to his purpose. This drama was playing out behind the scenes, but Mark has let us in on the secret. 

When we recognize this non-ordinary reality in Mark’s stories, we see that more is going on in his healings than the mending of physical bodies.  Healing is also rescue, salvation: restoring peoples’ freedom and power this spiritual level of reality. Mark often describes this as driving out demons, which sounds improbable and disturbing to our modern ears.

But what if we rename the demons of illness as the kinds of thinking that promote suffering? Despair. Isolation and loneliness. Shame at being different. Guilt at not being able to keep one’s obligations at work and at home. Believing you’re a failure. Loss of identity. Guilt at the expense and bother of your care. Fear of the future. Weariness at the struggle to do what is simple for the able-bodied and well.  Guilt in imagining that if you had just done something differently, you wouldn’t be ill. Have you had enough yet? That’s oppressive. All that suffering, before you even get to the physical. And it can spin like a vortex, dragging you down.

I want to take Mark seriously when he tells us Jesus is an awesome healer.  I do believe that miraculous physical recoveries can sometimes happen, though seldom on our schedule.  And Jesus has the power to free people from the spiritual oppression that binds them, from that downward spiral of harmful thinking that begets ever more suffering.  He has the power to restore people in mind and spirit, and restore them to right relationship with their family and community whatever their physical condition.  This in turn creates the best environment for whatever physical healing is possible.  And that’s before you even get to things like physiological entrainment and the placebo effect, which are very real and very useful factors in healing touch.

Among the countless healings Jesus did in this brief time that elapsed in our reading, that leper’s healing in verse 41 is told because it became so publicized. Leprosy, or whatever dreaded skin disease it was, required the sick man to be outcast, unable to live with his family, to touch or be touched by anyone but another leper.  So this man’s healing is a huge restoration of relationship: after he has the proper approval, this man can reclaim his place in his family and community. 

Watch how this works. Everybody thought you should not touch this person, because you would catch the illness that he had. Illness is contagious. Jesus turned that around.  The man caught the healing that Jesus had. The Holy Spirit is contagious. This doesn’t work with the flu. But it does work with the Gospel. God’s love and power are contagious. Loving kindness is contagious. Hope is contagious.

In the gospels it is clear that Jesus expects his followers to do some healing too. That would be us. It can be a very human reaction to turn away from other peoples’ suffering.  Especially when we can’t fix it, or we fear the attempt will demand of us more than we’re up for. And when we turn away, we leave a suffering person even more miserable.  But with God’s leading, we do not have to fix anything.  We just share the love and power we’ve been given.  Loving relationships are healing to mind and spirit, and a healed mind and spirit can set the stage for bodily healing.  That love is contagious, and its Source is infinite.

In the early centuries of the church, the call for Christians to heal was taken seriously.  They did so by the laying on of hands, prayer, anointing with oil (which is a reminder that we are children of God), and inviting repentance and transformation.  They also healed by building hospitals and by caring for sick people who did not have families or resources.  Some Christians even tended plague victims, because their love of God and humanity freed them from fear for their own lives.

We can follow Jesus in a ministry of healing, and we don’t have to go to extremes.  We can pray with compassion, and trust that whatever happens in ordinary reality, non-ordinary reality is shifted by prayer.  We can even lay on hands with some simple training, and this makes our love concrete by physiological entrainment.

More conventionally, we can nurture healing relationships by visiting and calling and sending notes to those who are suffering, especially if their condition prevents them from getting out and doing the usual relationship things. We can advocate for affordable healthcare for all, as something all God’s children need, and deserve. And some of you have medicine as your vocation; we can advocate to preserve your jobs from being squeezed by profit-making bosses into their own kind of suffering.

When I lived in Virginia for the last two years, I volunteered with hospice. Ironically, despite being for the dying, hospice really is physically healing.  Studies have shown that people who accept hospice as soon as they’re eligible live on average a couple of months longer than people who opt out of hospice. But that is not the point.  The purpose if hospice is to give people comfort and choice and dignity near the end of life. 

I visited people in hospice care and their families, sometimes in the role of a minister and sometimes with Reiki healing touch. The medical staff worked hard to keep these people comfortable. And I did whatever I thought might help for them and their loved ones.  Sang a song, prayed a prayer, held a hand. I think what I was really doing was sharing with them what God gives me: a Presence that does not fear death or suffering, that honors the sacredness of life, so that they could relax into God’s love.

In Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom, God’s love is contagious, and it conquers fear.  God’s healing power is contagious, and it drives out oppression. Whatever our physical situation, we can claim these things. They never run out, and as we share them, they even multiply.  This is not ordinary reality. This is God’s reality, made known to us through Jesus.  May you experience that healing relationship.  Amen.

Question Authority


Question authority.  A lot of people don’t want you to hear that, especially people in authority. Do we raise our children and grandchildren to question authority? I taught my son to question authority. And that wasn’t always easy on me. I would have been a stunning hypocrite if I hadn’t. If we expect of our children unquestioning obedience, we set them up for abuse. They must be taught to question, and their questions must be taken seriously. And no authority should be above question. Yes, I’m thinking about Larry Nassar here, and all the people who enabled him. The right to question authority makes leadership more challenging, but it makes us all a lot safer.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 28, 2018

Question Authority

Mark 1:21   They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,  24 and he cried out, “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.”  25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


Almost sixty years ago, Brea Congregational Church joined the newly formed United Church of Christ. This church did not want to give up the name “Congregational,” and that is why we now have the awkwardly long name of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ.

What is so special about being Congregational?  It means the local congregation, you who are members of the church, have the authority and the responsibility for the running of the church; you do not answer to a regional authority like a bishop or a presbytery. We will see this in action today right after our worship. Members will be asked to vote for a slate of officers who do much of the work of running the church.  You also vote on a budget in June, and you occasionally vote on other weighty matters.  I believe you voted as a congregation to become “Open and Affirming,” and to approve that powerful mission statement that’s on the back of our bulletin.  Before too long you may be approving the Pastor Search Committee’s choice for your next settled minister.

I’m told congregational meetings have been pretty peaceful here.  That’s a good thing.  In a healthy Congregational church, the authority of leaders is mostly trusted, and the leaders have acted responsibly by doing the footwork before the congregational meeting to address any obvious concerns. The congregational meeting serves as a check and balance, and a chance to inform the congregation of what their leaders are doing.

At several of the churches I have served, there have been one or two people who question the leaders’ recommendations at congregational meetings, and sometimes they vote against the proposals.  I call them “the loyal opposition.”  They don’t need to control the outcome, but they do like their voices to be heard. The “loyal opposition” help remind us that it’s OK to question authority. We can respect authority, and still test it a little.  That’s the Congregational way. 

Question authority.  A lot of people don’t want you to hear that, especially people in authority. Do we raise our children and grandchildren to question authority? I taught my son to question authority. And that wasn’t always easy on me. I would have been a stunning hypocrite if I hadn’t. If we expect of our children unquestioning obedience, we set them up for abuse. They must be taught to question, and their questions must be taken seriously. And no authority should be above question. Yes, I’m thinking about Larry Nassar here, and all the people who enabled him. The right to question authority makes leadership more challenging, but it makes us all a lot safer.

Who is the ultimate authority at a Congregational church? I hope God is. No one person has a special line to sacred wisdom. Any of us has the freedom to speak to the church about how we believe God is calling our church to act.  And all of us have the responsibility to set aside our personal agendas, to think and pray and discuss how we in this church can best serve God and our neighbors. That's a lot of freedom. That's a lot of responsibility. When I get that kind of responsibility, I do my best to listen for the guidance of God before I act. I ask you to do the same.


In our reading today, everyone was surprised that Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. That astounded them. And here we are over two thousand years later, still learning from Jesus and honoring his authority. That is pretty astounding. 

We can guess what Mark means by authority in verse 22. Jesus doesn’t pick and choose and proof-text from his community’s scriptures to justify his own teaching.  He doesn’t debate fine points of interpretation.  Jesus just comes out and says, “ I’m telling you something new.  Here’s what God gives you.  Here’s how faith works. And here’s what God asks of you.” Nobody else claimed that kind of authority.

But there’s more.  Mark reports that Jesus drove out an “unclean spirit”– and they were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.

Let’s just set aside for a minute what we think of unclean spirits. Driving out a spirit, exorcism: how is that “a new teaching with authority?” The authority is to heal people who are possessed by unclean spirits; we would call it mental illness. But what is the teaching?

Maybe Jesus is teaching that healing is even possible, that what people have regarded as a hopeless condition is not. Maybe he is teaching that the ill person is worthy of being helped, despite this “uncleanness”– this transgression that seems to threaten their moral order.  Maybe Jesus is standing up to a force that has filled this community with fear and loathing, teaching them that they need not dread or shun people with mental illness. 

I’m not really sure what Jesus was teaching.  But I do know this.  Jesus was teaching by example.  He was not just talking about ethics or morality or healing and telling other people what to do.  He was putting the Good News of God’s love and liberation into practice. He was walking the talk.

Walking the talk… a tall order for any follower of Jesus, especially for those of us who would claim authority from God to help guide a Congregational church.  So remember what I said last week: let’s agree we can and will follow Jesus badly.  And let’s be teachable. And if you are not happy with your efforts to walk the talk of the Good News of Jesus Christ, please remember it goes two directions.  We are invited to love and to serve and celebrate.  We are are also invited to receive the love and healing and forgiveness and transforming power that God has for us, so that we can be of service to others. And if we all pitch in, we will do well enough.

But what about these unclean spirits?  Superstition from bygone days and we’re over it now? I wondered, until I read the works of Walter Wink, a biblical theologian and peace activist who opened my eyes to the language of spiritual power in the bible. And I witnessed the authority of spiritual power in action, exercised by a man named George McClain.

Rev. George McClain was for many years the director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a social justice group within the United Methodist church.  I met him in the early 1990’s when I too was a Methodist.  We were both working for gay rights in that church.  It is easier for us in the UCC to address gay rights than for Methodists.  The General Synod of the UCC, the national decision-making body, speaks to the churches, but not for the churches.  It cannot force local congregations to do much of anything, since we are congregational.  Over 1400 UCC churches have become Open and Affirming, but many still are not.  The United Methodist Church can force local congregations to take certain actions for or against, and those churches that don’t like how the national votes come out can threaten to leave. That’s not fun. Twenty-two years after I joined the UCC, United Methodists are still fighting over the issue of gay clergy; those clergy can still be brought to a church trial and have their credentials removed; though this doesn’t happen in California. It’s our gain; some of the UCC’s most talented clergy are refugees from the United Methodist Church.  But what a loss for the gospel: endless committee meetings, church trials for God’s sake, all that dissention instead of walking the talk.  

Anyway, Rev. George McClain taught me how to do a proper progressive Christian exorcism, and I have found that tool remarkably useful.  Here is what he did. He would go to the room where a church trial was going to being held the next day to possibly strip a person of their clergy credentials for marrying a gay couple, or loving someone of the same gender.  George would don his stole, and say his prayers, and then stride from corner to corner of the room on his long legs, proclaiming in a loud voice something like this:

            In the name of Jesus Christ, who has authority over all Powers, we declare:
Spirit of bigotry, be gone from us, from this place, and from all who will enter here.
Spirit of fear, be gone from this place.
Spirit of domination, be gone from this place.
Spirit of legalism, be gone from this place.
            and so on.  Then:
Spirit of love, fill us, fill this place, and fill all who will enter here.
Spirit of understanding, fill this place.
Spirit of reconciliation, fill this place.
Spirit of transformation, fill this place.
Spirit of Jesus Christ, we claim this place in your name.  Let your power and your love prevail here, for the sake of your Gospel and the coming of your kingdom.  And make us your servants in this work of love and justice.  Amen.

Did that ritual change the outcome of any church trials?  I don’t know.  But it changed me.  It gave me courage, and hope.  It helped me remember that narrow-minded people were not the problem. Their thinking was problem. Their thinking was riddled with these “unclean spirits” of fear, bigotry, legalism… and lacking in the spirits of love, reconciliation, and transformation. And so was was my own, much of the time. When I do not call out my own fear, it controls me. When I go through such a ritual, I remember who I am, and whose I am, and who I want to be.  My fear fades, and I am ready to face those malicious spirits, trusting that the power of God will sustain me.  

Any unclean spirits bothering you or someone you care about?  Can you think of some exorcisms you’d like to try? I am not mapping “unclean spirits” just to the unhelpful thinking of individuals. These spirits are contagious. They work so much more effectively when they can infect a whole organization or group. When one person stands up loud and proud and demeans a whole group of people, bigotry grows in other hearts; it has permission to rule with impunity.  Alternatively, when one person is filled with a spirit of courage to act for justice at great personal risk, as some Dreamers did this past Tuesday at the rally up the street, the witnesses catch that courage.  It’s contagious. That is why political activists must question authority others, and their own; must choose their methods carefully, or their spirits will be hardly distinguishable from those they struggle against.

These are some of the powers and principalities that Mark saw Jesus wrestling with. People get swept up in them; enslaved by them.  And Mark tells us that Jesus has a new teaching, with authority: authority over these powers. Interesting.

What would it mean if we took Jesus’ authority seriously in our own lives?  Mental illness is real. It has a neurological and biochemical basis.  Yet depression and anxiety are made worse by some nasty spirits that are so endemic to our culture that we give them authority without even realizing it: the spirit of materialism that equates identity with income and status, and so makes unemployment or poverty soul-crushing; the spirit of tribalism, that makes my leader right and yours wrong regardless of the facts; the spirit of individualism that tricks us into seeking freedom from the relationships and support that we need to sustain us.

Tragedies happen, but that spirit that whispers that if you were good enough, smart enough, faithful enough, hard working enough, they wouldn’t happen to you, that spirit is lying. What if we could see these lying spirits for what they were, and not be bound by them?  What if we were truly immersed in the spirit of the gospel, filled to overflowing with love and hope and courage and wisdom, no matter what the external circumstances?  That could dispel a few nasty spirits.  Jesus saves, says traditional Christianity.  What Mark wants to show us is in this passage is that Jesus saves us here and now, from suffering under the oppression of destructive spirits. His authority gives us life and hope.

Painful emotions like fear and anxiety come and go.  That’s normal. When they don’t go, they become destructive. Resentment and hatred and despair are always destructive. We all will get swept up into destructive spirits at times.  Mark is telling us that following Jesus means we can claim the authority to dispel these life-denying spirits.  We may be successful or not, but just by naming them, they lose some of their control over us. We can challenge one another to grasp the spirit and power of Jesus.  We can ask the questions that help us see destructive spirits for what they are, and we can choose the Way that leads to abundant life.


This is not an easy time to be the church, especially a church that has the inclusive message we have. We cannot get away with being a social club or a community center. And that’s OK.  We have to claim the authority to be something more: an experiment in putting Jesus’ spirit into practice in our time and place, the Way that overcomes destructive thinking and destructive ideologies, the Way that leads to life no matter what we face. We have the authority, if we choose to claim it.  What an adventure!  Amen.