Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
28 February 2021
The exchange between Jesus and Peter in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark is one of the most shocking scenes in the Bible for me. Jesus calls one of his beloved disciples, someone in his inner circle, Peter no less, “Satan.” In the Gospel of Mark, Peter is the only person who is reprimanded by Jesus in such harsh terms. It doesn’t get any worse than being called “Satan.” Peter must have been utterly stunned, confused, and hurt. What could he have possibly done to provoke such a strong indictment? Is Peter possessed by the Devil? Or perhaps he’s the Devil in disguise? But we all know it’s not Peter who betrays Jesus; it’s Judas. On the surface, it seems that Peter is just looking out for Jesus. When Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die, Peter, out of his concern for the well-being of his master, naturally protests. He doesn’t want Jesus, his teacher and friend, to suffer and die.
Then, why does Jesus rebuke him? When we read on, Jesus explains that Peter is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. What does Jesus mean by this dichotomy between “divine things” and “human things”? To place this incident in context, the disciples have been riding high on Jesus’ successful ministry. Huge crowds have been following Jesus to hear his preaching and to be healed of all sorts of diseases. The disciples are basking in the light of their master’s fame and glory. And right before the incident with Peter, Jesus has revealed to his disciples that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus asks them who the people say he is, and they answer that some say Elijah and others, John the Baptist. And it is, in fact, Peter who makes the confession of faith: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30). But then far from being praised for his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, he is soon reprimanded. Peter is confused. So are the rest of the disciples. What is going on?
Jesus rebukes Peter because he and the other disciples have it all wrong about the nature of the Messiah. They envision Jesus as an earthly king, who will use his power and authority to drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and establish a new kingdom. And the disciples see themselves on the verge of obtaining honor and glory themselves. In the following chapters of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples will argue about who is the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-34), and a couple of them, James and John, will ask Jesus for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-37).
Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because this way of thinking, seeing the kingdom in terms of earthly power, honor, and glory, is precisely what Satan had used to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain for a view of all the kingdoms of the world in their glory, and he tells Jesus: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” To which, Jesus replies: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:8-10). When Jesus rebukes Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan,” he is drawing a direct parallel with this earlier incident, in which Jesus rebukes the Devil with the words, “Away with you, Satan.” So, unknowingly, Peter had become a tempter, like Satan, presenting Jesus with earthly glory and threatening to derail his divine mission.
Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the “human things” of personal glory, power, and honor. And then he calls the other disciples as well as the crowd to explain the “divine things.” He tells them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus paints a radically different picture of the Messiah than what the disciples had expected. The Messiah will suffer and die, and he expects his followers to do the same.
In spite of the initial confusion and resistance to this message, the disciples did ultimately take up their crosses and give up their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. And so have countless others in the two millennia of Christian history. One of the great benefits for me of the Daily Masses that we have here at St. Mary’s is the observance of the feast days for the various saints. It is an inspiration to learn about the lives of the faithful down through the ages. And when we look at these saints, the examples that we hold up for following Jesus, not all of them were martyrs. Some of them lived to a ripe old age, including one of the twelve apostles, Saint John. The saints show us that martyrdom is not the only way to give up our lives for the gospel. We can offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Think of the missionaries who gave up their lives of comfort, security, and privilege to venture out to distant and dangerous lands to proclaim the Gospel or the monks and nuns who gave up their lives of creature comforts and luxuries to dedicate themselves to prayer.
I find great inspiration in the life and witness of the saints. But these past few weeks, I have also found inspiration closer to home. As you have probably heard or seen on the news, the pandemic has greatly increased the number of the homeless as well as the food insecure. And several of our St. Mary’s staff and parishioners have taken up the challenge of providing food and other necessities. In case you’re not aware, we have a nice pantry downstairs in the basement. Check it out sometime if you have chance; we would be glad to give you a little tour. These past few weeks, we’ve had many volunteers who have brought food and other goods, made sandwiches and bags of food, or helped to clean up and organize the pantry. And one parishioner even loaded a truck full of food and took it to the doorsteps of those in need.
We have living saints in our midst today, faithful followers of the Lord Jesus who give up their time, energy, and resources to serve the poor and needy in our community. The work that we do in serving the needy is especially meaningful during this Holy Season of Lent. Almsgiving, or charitable work, is one of the three main disciplines or pillars of Lent; the other two are prayer and fasting.
Lent is a time of self-denial and reflection in preparation for the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We usually think of the self-denial in terms of giving up meat or chocolate or alcohol. But the self-denial is not just about food. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves in all aspects of our life. He calls us to transcend the worldly temptations of power, honor, and glory, and to lead lives of self-denial, humility, and service. Following the example of Jesus and of all the saints past and present, let us take up our cross and walk the path to Calvary.
 C. Clifton Black, “Commentary on Mark 8:31-38,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-4
 Ira Brent Driggers, “Commentary on Mark 8:31-38,” Working Preacher.
First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Back in my days as an evangelical, I used to look down on Christians that used written prayers in private prayer or in public worship. I viewed the use of written prayers – even the Lord’s Prayer – as a mindless repetition that indicated that those praying them couldn’t pray real prayers “from their heart”.
Fast forward to today. Most days, I pray the Lord’s Prayer at least three times – once at Morning Prayer, again at Mass, and later at Evening Prayer. After getting into this rhythm slowly over a number of years, I’d argue strongly that the use of prayers that have stood the test of time – perhaps especially the Lord’s Prayer – allows the words and their meaning to sink into my bones, providing a foundation for my prayer life that used to be like the chaff that the wind blows away.
That said, it’s always good to take a fresh look at the ancient prayers we use over and over again. A simple 85-page book by New Testament theologian N.T. Wright called “The Lord and His Prayer” helped me to dive deeper into the Lord’s Prayer, and in particular, revolutionized my understanding of the phrase “thy kingdom come.” What is this kingdom we’re praying for?
It's certainly not something purely heavenly, or outside of our physical world, for we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In his book, Bishop Wright says that heaven and earth are
“the two interlocking arenas of God’s good world. Heaven is God’s space, where God’s [word] runs and God’s future purposes are waiting in the wings. Earth is our world, our space. Think of the vision at the end of the book of Revelation. It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come.’”
The Hebrew people – God’s chosen people – end their 40-years’ long journey through the wilderness when they arrived at the land God had promised them. The geographical area called Palestine was the physical, tangible land God had designated for his people. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus rewrites this story and casts a new destiny for not only God’s people, but for all of humanity. In Mark’s brief telling of this story, Jesus is baptized and God’s spirit descends on him and says, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is then tempted in the wilderness for forty days, and he proclaims that the kingdom of God “has come near.”
Those who originally heard this story were Jews and knew all about their ancestors’ time in the wilderness. They were waiting to be liberated from their Roman oppressors, and they were specifically waiting on God to send a King – a Messiah. You and I have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. We know what will happen on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But Mark is making a point in the way he tells the story to illustrate that in Jesus, things are different now.
In proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, Jesus is beginning to rewrite the story of Israel by implying here that he himself is the long-awaited King, and later in Mark, he claims this much more forcefully and clearly.
But this proclamation that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near doesn’t happen until after Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. We, too, began our forty-day pilgrimage towards Easter on Ash Wednesday during which we will be tempted in extraordinary ways. During Lent, we are called to spiritually listen and watch for these temptations, and to resist. We are called to engage in spiritual battle against the forces that separate us from the kingdom of God. We’re also called to bring the values of the kingdom of God to this world. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In our Lenten journey, we will encounter temptations, and we’re also called to action, both in giving alms to the poor, and in fighting spiritual battles related to deeper, societal injustices such as systemic racism and extreme economic disparity. We are called to action that implements God’s heavenly principles here on earth.
While we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and offer ourselves to be instruments of its coming on earth as it is in heaven, in a sense, the kingdom of God is already here. The coming of God’s kingdom was foretold at the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God – the long-awaited Messiah who would set the Hebrew people free. When the Holy Child was born at Christmas, God’s kingdom broke into our reality when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This miraculous inbreaking of the kingdom of God continues to this day through the Sacraments of the Church, especially in each celebration of the Holy Eucharist when we obey the Lord’s command to continue a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice.
Back in my days as an evangelical, just as I held that rote prayers were without faith and devotion, so too, I believed that regular celebrations of the Eucharist somehow made it less special – less appreciated – less meaningful. Fast forward to today when I find myself as rector of a parish that has a long tradition of celebrating the Eucharist every single day. Just as taking a fresh look at the words of the Lord’s Prayer has been helpful to me, so too is dusting off old, forgotten ways of celebrating the Eucharist. One of traditions is somewhat erroneously called the “silent canon.” For most of the history of the Church, the Eucharistic Prayer has been prayed by the priest in a quiet voice that is inaudible to everyone else present. At the time of the Reformation, most Protestants, including our forebears in England, forbade this practice and required each word spoken by the priest to be sung or spoken in a loud voice, ostensibly so that the faithful could more fully participate in the liturgy. During Lent, we are observing this practice at St. Mary’s on Saturday and Sunday. The words spoken by the priest are printed in the leaflet in case you wish to follow along, but I encourage to participate by meditating on the mystery of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom here on earth as Michael/the schola sings, and during the silence. For in the consecration of the bread and the wine, “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last.” At the moment of the consecration of the elements, the miracle that God worked in the Incarnation at Christmas is brought to us in this place and time, or better said, we, along with the bread and wine, are raised to heaven.
Friends, the kingdom of God is already here, and yet we spend time in the wilderness with Jesus preparing for His death and resurrection. We will be tempted to wander around aimlessly like the Israelites did in their sojourn in the wilderness. We will be tempted to forget what God has promised us. But unlike the first listeners of Mark’s story, you and I know how things are going to unfold. We know how Jesus recast the destiny of the people of God, and of all humanity. We know about Good Friday and Easter. During this “bright sadness of Lent,” we have the gift of a mini-Easter when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together. When we pray “thy kingdom come” in a moment, let us recognize the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in the bread and the wine, and as we receive it, be given the grace and strength we need to overcome all assaults of the enemy, and live out our Christian lives bringing heaven to earth every single day. Amen.
 Psalm 1:4.
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 13.
 Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.
February 17, 2021
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
“Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These words, which you’ll hear in a moment when you receive the ashes, remind us of our own mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Going to church on Ash Wednesday is a bit like going to one’s own funeral. And while that always seems like the right place to begin Lent most years, frankly, I have had enough death for one year. It feels cruel for the Church to call us to self-denial, repentance, and fasting during this time of pandemic, a time when we’ve all had to give up so much. It feels like we’ve been in a non-stop, continuous Lent since March of last year, and I’d really just rather skip right on ahead to the joys of Easter, thank you very much.
But who am I kidding? I need Lent more than ever this year. I need to be reminded that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness. I need to be shaken out of my spiritual complacency, now more than ever.
Off and on throughout the pandemic, I’ve found myself exhibiting these symptoms: fatigue, trouble concentrating, insomnia, irritability, restlessness, loss of interest in things once pleasurable, overeating, overdrinking, persistent sad thoughts. These are the classic symptoms of clinical depression. After talking with my doctor, I don’t think I’m actually clinically depressed. But I’ve definitely experienced the symptoms. I’m sharing my pandemic experience with you not because it’s any worse than anyone else’s, but being in contact with many of you, I know I’m not alone. From my perspective as your rector, we’re all dealing with this. Even those of you who are extremely introverted (as in you normally recharge your internal batteries by being alone) long for human interaction and touch.
Looking back on how I’ve coped with the harsh realities of the pandemic, it’s clear that I’ve medicated my pain with excess food, putting on 15 pounds since March 2020, and probably a few too many cocktails. My prayer life has been stagnant, with routine prayer practices that have always sustained me leaving me feeling as if something is lacking.
After a very dark winter, I need to hear, “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Lent is all about intentionally returning to the roots of the human condition: we are sinners, and in need of God’s grace. And on this first day of Lent, we are reminded from Matthew’s gospel of the need to practice the spiritual habits of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The Church’s call to pray is primarily a call to sit down and listen to God. It’s easy for me to pray the words of Morning and Evening Prayer – there are so many words to fill up the time with! Listening is much harder work. It is only by setting aside the distractions the mind produces and spending time alone with God in silence that we can begin to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is only in silence that we can begin to hear God say “I love you” in the innermost parts of our being.
Beyond the physical health benefits of fasting, denying our bodies food and drink that fill our bellies and gladden our hearts helps us to be awake to the spiritual happenings around us. Yes, we can give up potato chips or chocolate or whatever our favorite food is, and I’m sure that has some level of benefit. But fasting does the most good on the spiritual front when it hurts and is disruptive. Skipping a meal each day, or laying aside meat, or completely giving up alcohol – these are the types of fasting habits that help us see and hear and feel what’s going on around us spiritually.
And lastly, the spiritual discipline of almsgiving – of providing material goods to the poor – is about those we’re helping, of course, but it’s also about developing the habit of being aware of the needs of others. Almsgiving helps us to get outside of our ourselves and think about others.
Lent is all about intentionally returning to the roots of the human condition: we are sinners, and in need of God’s grace. It is a time for us to think about how we might store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth. Too often, we behave practically as though our faith in Christ only affects the here and now. We seem to think that if we just follow the right steps, we will achieve health, happiness, fame, and fortune. When sickness, suffering and death show up, as they always do, we are left confused since what we believed was our faith cannot make sense of these realities for us. In particular, in our repeated sins, we continually look to the passing realities of this world for a sense of fulfillment and meaning they can never provide. The reminder that we are dust and unto dust we shall return force our attention to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that alone, which can give meaning and hope to what would otherwise be the final futility of death. This faith assures us that death isn’t an end of our existence but a passage from one age of life to another. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus allows us truly to enjoy the good things of this created world as they were meant to be enjoyed, without placing on them a weight of meaning and fulfillment they can never provide.
I think the Church is right, despite the terrible pandemic, to remind us of our mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If going to church on Ash Wednesday is a bit like going to our own funeral, let us bury the horrible lie that our faith in Christ is only about the here and now, and let us place all our hope in Christ whose resurrection from the dead destroyed death and brings the promise that we, too, will be raised at the last day. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let us open our hearts and minds and bodies to the spiritual world around us and begin this long journey toward the joy of Easter. Amen.
 Much of this paragraph is from the Ash Wednesday letter of Abbot Placid Solari, OSB, to the student body of Belmont Abbey College.
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
February 14, 2021
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany which means Lent is just around the corner. Can you believe it? Easter is early this year, which means that Ash Wednesday is early. Just before the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus when we heard God the Father say to Him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The story we heard today from Mark’s begins immediately after Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, to which the disciples do not respond well. Peter, for example, tries to rebuke Jesus for saying such a thing! But then, Jesus immediately leads Peter, James, and John to a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured, and his clothes became dazzling white. Elijah and Moses, deeply important figures from Israel’s past, appeared to them and proceeded to have a conversation with Jesus. Peter, for some reason, suggests that they make three dwelling places there on the mountain: one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. Then, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Oh, what it must have been like to be one of these three disciples. What raw emotion they must have felt when they saw Jesus transfigured before them! To see Moses and Elijah in the flesh! It must have been such an emotionally raw experience.
Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters hold that the transfigured Jesus in this story represents the transfiguration, or metamorphosis, that each Christian is called to undergo. They hold that this story is an icon of a process called “deification,” which means to become divine. We read in the book of Ephesians that we are called to grow into the measure of the full stature of Christ (4:13). St. Athanasius in the 4th century says it this way: “God became a human person by nature so that human persons could become divine by grace.” This is deification: the partaking of and sharing in divine nature by invitation, by adoption, by gift (2 Pet. 1:4). Eastern Orthodox priest and author Fr. George Gray says this about deification: “Human beings are called to be transformed and transfigured (meta-morphed) from a fallen nature to their original nature to pursue our original God-given vocation” which is perfect union with God.
On the top of this mountain, faced with this dramatic scene, Peter recognizes that this is a significant moment. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” He then suggests that he build “dwelling places” or “tents”, presumably “to capture the moment, or to preserve it for safekeeping…One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like a [school boy] who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not really understand the question.”
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve experienced several moments in my life in which I encountered the divine in a similar way that Peter did. No, I didn’t physically see Jesus or Moses or Elijah, but God’s Spirit spoke to me in such a deep and moving way that I was amazed and even astonished. My encounter with Jesus Christ in these moments was so moving – so strong – that one might describe it as “spiritual high.” Beyond some indescribable moments in the mountains of Colorado, I can recall a true moment of spiritual high even during the isolation and loneliness of this pandemic. A week or so after the initial shutdown, when I was celebrating Mass at home on the buffet that normally serves as our bar, the simplicity of God making himself present under the auspices of bread and wine moved me to tears. Which leads me to the many spiritual highs I’ve received when I’m praying here, by myself, in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance. Looking upon Christ in the Blessed Sacrament often leaves me feeling overwhelmed with a sense of assurance and comfort knowing that Jesus does in fact share himself with us at each and every Eucharist, giving me his unconditional love, helping me to overcome every doubt, every tinge of regret, every feeling of guilt.
You may have had a similar experience or two in your life when you were so overwhelmed with God’s presence that you wanted to stay there forever.
People don’t generally live on mountaintops. Peter’s suggestion to build dwelling places on this mountain must have sounded ridiculous to his friends. We climb mountains, we spend a bit of time there, but we come back down, and most of our lives are spent in the valley. It is no accident that this reading is prescribed before Lent begins. We are about to enter the desert with Jesus as he is tempted in every way, and ultimately prepare for the sorrow and suffering that is to come on Good Friday. During Lent, you and I will be tempted. We will pray. We will try to resist sin, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We might even go to private confession. We will sin. We will humbly confess our sins to God and be forgiven. But ultimately, none of this makes any sense without first starting with God’s grace, grace being God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
And that brings us back to deification. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God in order to restore our original likeness. This process starts by spiritually watching and listening – being open to seeing God’s grace in our day-to-day lives. And then when we see it, we accept it. Remember that grace strengthens our wills. The next time we’re faced with temptation and sin, God has already given us the grace we need to choose to say no. And so, it goes. We are tempted, we pray, we try to resist sin, we sin, we repent, and are forgiven. This cycle is part of being human – no one can escape it. But if we cooperate with God’s grace during the cycle, we are being restored – little by little – to our original likeness. God’s grace transforms us into His image as revealed in Jesus. In the transfigured Jesus, we are given a glimpse of what we are to become.
If you’re watching and listening, you will experience God’s grace – his unearned and undeserved favor – in the doldrums of your life, even in the midst of a pandemic. You’ll experience it inside – in your interior or spiritual life. But thanks be to God, we have been given outward and visible signs of this inward and spiritual grace in the Sacraments of the Church. Cooperating in God’s grace, for us, also involves choosing to accept the love he offers us in the Sacraments. When you receive communion, no matter how you may or may not feel emotionally, God forgives your sins, enlightens your mind, stirs your heart, and strengthens your will.
Lent begins on Wednesday, and we know we’ll be in the valley for the next 40 days and 40 nights. Let us ask God to give us a strong memory of those mountaintop experiences we’ve had – those spiritual highs, so that when we are tempted to sin, we intentionally remember the closeness and intimacy we felt with God in those moments and resist temptation. And let us ask God for the courage to watch and listen for his grace at home, at work, and at church; and to say yes and accept his unconditional love each and every time we encounter it.
 George Gray, "The Transfiguration of Christ and the Deification of Mankind," St. Nicolas Orthodox Church (blog), December 1, 2007, accessed February 10, 2018, https://stnicholasportland.org/transfiguration-deification/.
 "Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9 by Audrey West," Matthew 17:1-9 Commentary by Audrey West - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL), February 3, 2008, accessed February 10, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27.
 The Book of Common Prayer: And Administrations of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 858.
 Paul Nuechterlein, "Transfiguration B," Girardian Lectionary, February 9, 2018, accessed February 10, 2018, http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/transfigb/.
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
31 January 2021
One of my favorite films of all time is “The Exorcist.” When it first came out in 1973, I was too young to see it in the theaters. But I did see a hilarious parody of it on the “Carol Burnett Show,” which made me want to see it even more. I was finally able to see it a few years later. The film exceeded all expectations. It’s a classic. I’ve seen it several times, and I’ve also seen the sequels. Not only am I a huge fan of horror movies; I find the religious dimension of “The Exorcist” fascinating – the Roman Catholic priests driving out the demon, all the mysterious rituals associated with it, the dramatic struggle between good and evil.
In today’s Gospel, we read about the origins of the Christian tradition of exorcism. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he encounters “a man with an unclean spirit.” The man cries 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.” Jesus then confronts the spirit and drives it out of the man (Mark 1:23-25).
Jesus is the original exorcist. In the Gospel of Mark, it is an exorcism that launches Jesus’ public ministry. Moreover, the exorcism establishes Jesus’ identity and authority. The demon calls Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus with power over the forces of nature. He can calm the stormy waves. Here, we see him with power over the supernatural world, the realm of spirits. Jesus is lord of all. There are numerous exorcisms that Jesus performs throughout the Gospels. And he empowers his disciples to do the same. For two thousand years, Christians have been carrying out exorcisms in all parts of the world, and they have played a significant role in spreading the faith.
You may not have noticed, but there is exorcism incorporated into many of our rituals, for instance, in the prayers for blessing Holy Water or blessing a new house. And the big one is baptism. The candidates for baptism are asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “to renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” In the Book of Occasional Services, which is a companion to the Book of Common Prayer and contains various rituals not in the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a section on exorcism. It begins with this statement: “The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship.” It goes on to say that if a person is “in need of” the rite of exorcism that he or she can inform the priest, who then consults the bishop. So if any of you are in need of an exorcism in the future, please contact Fr. Charles – but not me. By the way, I found out from Fr. Charles yesterday that in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Church of England, there is usually an official exorcist in each diocese appointed by the bishop.
I don’t know about you, but in spite of the fact that exorcism is in the Gospels and is also a part of our liturgy, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I love seeing movies about exorcism. But I’ve never seen an exorcism in person, and I doubt that I will ever see one. Spirit possession and exorcism are not part of my experience or worldview.
Among Christians today, there are different views of this phenomenon. Most biblical scholars view demonic possession as a form of mental illness. Ancient people didn’t have modern psychology so they turned to supernatural explanations.
But the belief in demonic possession has not gone away in modern times. In fact, it’s thriving in Christianity today. Although Christianity is declining in Europe and the United States, it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. And the form of Christianity that the new converts are embracing is one that is rooted in the world of the supernatural. Unlike us, they have no difficulty with the exorcism stories in the Gospels, and, in fact, they’re also casting out demons and performing acts of miraculous healing. What is interesting is that in many cases, Christian exorcism draws on indigenous beliefs about the spirit world. In Korea, for instance, the exorcist will diagnose the possessing spirit not as a demon but as the spirit of a discontented dead relative, an angry ghost. So be nice to your mother-in-law.
Exorcism is alive and well in Asia and Africa. And we have it in this country as well, though we may not hear about it as much. Pentecostals and charismatics take the exorcisms in scripture literally, seeing them as gifts of the Spirit, and some practice exorcism. And, to go back to the film “The Exorcist,” it deals with an exorcism that takes place in the context of modern Roman Catholicism in the United States. Many Romans today believe in the reality of demon possession and exorcism. So it looks like those of us mainline Protestants who have a rational, scientific view of the phenomenon are actually in the minority in Christianity.
Yet, whatever differences we may have in our views of exorcism, what is undeniable is the fact that it is a form of healing. The unclean spirits cause mental and physical pain and suffering. Exorcism frees the person from the illness and brings healing and wholeness.
Whether we believe in demons or not, we cannot deny that there are forces of evil that seem to grip us at times and cause destructive tendencies. Indeed, we contend with unclean spirits in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s an addiction – alcohol, drugs. Or perhaps it’s a personal vice – gossip, backbiting, road rage. We try to stop the bad behavior, but it’s almost as if an outside force is controlling us. And then there are the demons that possess us collectively as a society – racism, homophobia, corporate greed, and, recently, domestic terrorism. The forces of evil are real, and they abound within and around us.
Yet, as people of faith, we have hope in Jesus, the Holy One of God. Just as he drove out the demon from the possessed man in the synagogue, he will drive out the demons that possess us today and grant us healing and wholeness. He will make us pure and holy, even as he is pure and holy.
I would like to conclude with a prayer that is part of what are called the secret prayers, which the celebrant prays in preparation for Holy Eucharist. You may have been wondering what Fr. Charles and I say under our breaths at the altar. Well, this is one of them. This particular prayer is said during the washing of the hands as a sign of purification. But I think this prayer is appropriate to pray together as we purge ourselves of the unclean spirits in our personal lives and in the society around us. So as we seek healing and wholeness in the Name of Jesus, we pray:
Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and sustain a right spirit within me. Amen.
 Paul S. Berge, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-4
 Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 302.
 The Book of Occasional Services (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1991), 170.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!