Sunday 28 January 2024 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

One beautiful morning recently I looked up at the clear blue sky.  The only hint of cloud was a jet stream heading from South to North.  Perhaps a flight from Queenstown to Auckland I speculated.  Then I remembered the long diatribe I struggled to politely get away from as someone tried to explain that jet streams where in fact chemicals spread over us to make us comply with the wishes of a secret group plotting world domination.

That reminded me that I have recently attended a number of street corner meetings where people made similar wild accusations about government action.  Apart from simple untruths and perceived rampant crime there was the belief that Covid wasn’t real and vaccines were a means of injecting microchips into an unsuspecting population.

A lot of the fear and accusation sounded very like something from our reading from Mark’s Gospel.  

‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’ (Mark 1: 24)

There were certainly times when I wished I had Jesus’ authority to say, ‘Be quiet and come out of him!’ (Mark 1:25)

But the passage from Mark’s Gospel is not written as a formular for preforming an exorcism or even for politely ending an unhelpful conversation.

The understanding alluded to in our Deuteronomy reading is that God calls prophets and rabbis who have the divine authority to reinterpret scripture.  Mark has obviously included the man with the unclean spirit to inform his readers that Jesus has such authority. 

The word exorcism conjures up all sorts of images of things that go bump in the night.  However, in terms of understanding scripture for our time and place, we should consider a whole variety of mental stress, addictions, ideologies and conspiracy theories as unclean spirits.

We must also be aware that different people’s brains function differently and rather than be a hindrance such difference can be an advantage to both the person and their community. 

A few years back I heard a story from a woman who graduated as a psychologist and went to work for the education department.  She was soon sent to assess a schoolboy who was so disruptive that teachers simply locked him in a room by himself with a whole lot of maths problems to solve. 

The new graduate quickly diagnosed the boy as autistic, he hated being in crowded rooms and loved maths. Not being able to fully express himself he disrupted the class until he was locked away with problems to solve.  A plan was devised, and his schooling continued.

A whole host of great discoveries are made by people whose brains function slightly differently. The line between genius and demon possessed often depends on circumstances and community acceptance.

After taking fright as a new schoolteacher Janet Frame was institutionalised and prescribed a lobotomy.  Fortunately, a friend rescued her and allowed her to become ‘An Angel at My Table.’  A literary genius, always reclusive but always insightful,

The Covid epidemic has certainly opened our minds to the challenge of people who hold, as absolute truth, the wildest of conspiracy theories and unhelpful beliefs. 

But our assertion as Christians and the claim of Mark’s text is that a commitment to Christ can exorcise such demons and restore people to new beginnings. 

The downside of such an assertion is we have to carefully consider our own beliefs and not judge too harshly the opinions of others.

Our calling is not to make judgements, not to try and fit everybody into conforming boxes but to be the liberating and restoring Christ. 

We also need to be aware that miracles are achieved by quite rational means when the process is understood.  One of the suspicions of the Covid vaccine was that it was arrived at in a very short time compared with such discoveries in the past.  But it was research based on previous research and information was shared through modern communications rather than the isolated discoveries by past geniuses.

But some miraculous healings do happen by quite natural means.  The fact that Dr Siouxsie Wiles has pink hair didn’t stop her giving wise advice about the Covid epidemic.  It also won’t stop her discovering new antibiotics from New Zealand plants and sponges.

Some years ago I watched a program about curating a British Library exhibition called ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic.’ The exhibition included rare books, manuscripts and magical objects from the British Library’s collection that captured the traditions of folklore and magic from across the world.  Much of this was material that J.K. Rowling had accessed when she was researching the Harry Potter novels. 

It was this research that gave Rowling’s fiction an air of authenticity.  At a time when we were worried about the lack of reading in young people, that authenticity sent sales of Harry Potter books into the stratosphere. 

One Librarian carefully handling a hand-written synopsis of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone explained that Rowling wrote it to try and sell the book to a publisher. 

She then looked at the camera in a mixture of disbelief and adulation and said: ‘Who could believe that she had to sell Harry Potter?’

Interestingly when Rowling wanted to write a detective novel she did so under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.  But it seems that her business minded publisher outed her on the back cover. 

With seven novels a number of which are televised, she is undoubtedly a multi-level storyteller.   I just wish her two detectives could simultaneously admit they are madly in love with each other and stop being so politically correct about their business partnership.

But to return to the documentary of the British Library’s exhibition there was an ancient book of herbal remedies using common British plants.  We know about various indigenous people that use forest and jungle plants as medicine.  M?ori have a whole list of native plants with medicinal properties. 

My dad always put flax jelly on an open wound because he had learned about that from the M?ori who worked on his family’s sheep station.  The antibiotic prosperities of manuka honey are now scientifically proved and the subject of patent disputes. 

What intrigued me about the British book of herbal remedies was that it was originally only published in Latin.  When it was translated into English the Royal College of Surgeons tried to block its publication because that was where they got their medical recipes from.  They didn’t want their fee-paying patients wandering out to the hedgerows and mixing up their own medicine.  They probably wouldn’t want my dad nipping down to the creek to cut a bit of flax to put the jelly on my frequent wounds either.

There is certainly tension in our world about multi-national drug companies, and indeed honey producers, locking up their recipes in international intellectual property treaties.

What the documentary also showed was that people have always looked for easy answers to the unknown forces that seem to control our world and people seek power by seeming to control such forces. 

But although some of the supposed magic rightly belongs in works of fiction there are real compounds in the natural world that can cure sickness and disease.  There is also an evil streak in human nature that wants to monopolise healing knowledge for individual or corporate gain. 

It is easy to classify mental illness as demon possession and addictions of various sorts can be seen as possession by an unclean spirit.   Even a simple non-malignant habit can grip us in ways that make it difficult for us to change and grow.  I think there are probably times in most of our lives when we would like to wave Harry Potter’s wand and make everything better.

‘Be silent, and come out of him’ (Mark 1:25) sounds a very convenient magic charm, like something that Harry Potter might use.  But the reality is that Mark’s Gospel is not an ancient book of spells.  

All the gospel narratives were written to encourage people to live in the way that Jesus modelled.  The gospels are stories that encourage people to form communities of caring.  Jesus’ call to be part of the kingdom of God was a call for each person to behave in a godly way to other people. 

The key message in today’s reading is, that when we are interrupted by someone with an unclean spirit, we react to them with empathy, love and compassion. 

That sounds great but it is actually hard.  

People with unclean spirits tend to interrupt life at the most inappropriate times.  They can disrupt a class of children when a harassed teacher it simply trying to do the best for all the children.  Or a teacher can appear insane when they simply don’t have the mindset to stand in front of a class of noisy children. 

Jesus was teaching at the Synagogue and the people were appreciating what he was telling them.

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

Then suddenly the service is interrupted by this nutter who 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.’

Mark simply tells us that Jesus addressed the unclean spirit and it came out of the man.  That power at a street meeting in the pouring rain would be great but it simply does not work that way.

In fact, if we consider all the demons that possess people in our society the cures require even more loving care and patience.  Furthermore, the chemical cures available often cause new problems.

When encouraging people to give up an addiction or even just an unhelpful habit we must expect to fail time and time again. 

I still remember telling someone trying to rebuild their life that they had got rid of all their addictions except their addiction to useless men.  Now as a lawyer in her own practice that person seeks the court’s help to alleviate that issue for other couples.  Furthermore, I am on a promise to conduct her wedding when she sorts out her partner’s divorce.

Our task in the ministry of caring is certainly to encourage people to change. But we must not be discouraged when people fail.  Our task as Christ filled carers is to stay with them and encourage them along the way

Our task as Christ filled carers is also to remember that people do not need to conform.  The fact that they think and behave differently might seem like a curse. 

But it may be a blessing to the world we are all moving into.

Christ calls us all to walk beside the unloved and unlovable, and the result of such caring is what demonstrates Christ’s authority and the true magic of the Gospel.