I was 12 years old when I had my first argument with a minister. No one else heard the argument, least of all the minister, because it all took place in my head during worship, during the time of prayer. Our pastor was leading the congregation in a prayer of confession which was an unusual occurrence in the first place. My family attended a fairly progressive church and at that time our church ministry staff was especially “hip.” In youth group classes, for example, we studied not scripture but the principles of transactional analysis working to discover our inner child (something not at all difficult for teenagers nor unfortunately for our 45-year-old youth pastor who probably should have been working on discovering his inner adult.) This was the “I’m OK, you’re OK” era when suggesting that we might occasionally not be OK was heresy enough let alone confessing it out loud in prayer. But we were this day in worship surprisingly being led to confess our sins and I was in full adolescent rebellion, at least in my head.
“Merciful Lord,” the minister prayed, “we confess that this week we have turned away from those in need.”
“Not true, God,” I rebutted in my head. “I helped out my friends several times this week.”
“We confess that we have been overly concerned with wealth and material possessions.”
“Not me, God,” I protested. “My entire allowance is still in my bank and I haven’t even given it a thought.”
“We admit that we have not loved you as we should and have been selfish with our devotion.”
“Don’t listen to him, God,” I continued to press my case. “I love you perfectly well and he has no right to suggest that I don’t.”
And so it went on with the minister listing our sins and me refuting every one in my own prayer to the heavens.
And the reality is that I probably wasn’t guilty of any of the sins that my minister was cataloging that day – I was, after all, only 12. At age 12, my meager allowance didn’t provide many temptations to a materialistic life. My responsibilities were few and easily fulfilled – do my homework, help around the house when asked, try to be nice to my siblings. While I certainly felt at times that the charge to be kind to my brother and sisters was a burden beyond bearing, the reality is that most weeks I managed to accomplish it, as they did in return and so my opportunities for sin in that area were not plentiful. The protected environment of my childhood allowed me to flourish like a hot house rose and my growth toward personal and spiritual excellence reached its fulfillment around age 18 when I finally achieved perfection. By that time, my older brother had moved out of the house leaving me top of the pecking order and I was a most benevolent ruler over my younger sisters, tolerating their myriad of faults with uncommon patience. I had successfully navigated high school and been accepted at college and now I knew more than my parents knew or had ever known in their lives. I understood the great mysteries of life and was willing to share them with anyone who asked and my faith, though certainly not orthodox, was based on an infallibly constructed theological system unsurpassed in the history of philosophy. Moreover, I was, of course, the paragon of modesty.
The certainty of my sinlessness that manifested itself that day in church when I was 12 continued to increase in power until its peek at age 18, the height of my perfection.
It’s been all downhill from there.
Jesus’ first active ministry in the Gospel of Mark is the expulsion of a demon from a man possessed. As Jesus is preaching in the synagogue, the demon inhabiting the man recognizes who Jesus is and in the demon’s shout, we hear the foreshadowing of everything that is to come from the ministry of this man Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” And in the answer to that fearful question, Jesus silences the demon and drives it out of the man. Before the synagogue full of worshipers, before his newly chosen disciples, Jesus proclaims his intentions – “I am here to drive out demons.”
We have difficulty with the stories of demon possession in the Bible because in our growing knowledge of medicine and psychology, we don’t share the view of the ancient world that physical and mental illness is caused by an evil being inhabiting our body, yet it does these stories an injustice to assume that they are simply describing an outmoded way of viewing medicine and therefore have nothing to do with us. While people in the first century may have viewed illness differently than we do, their descriptions of demon possession weren’t intended only as medical diagnoses. Their worldview was more complex than that: they saw the world as a tapestry woven of metaphor and theology and an understanding of human behavior as well as symptoms of physical illness. It isn’t a coincidence that Mark sets the story of exorcism at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry nor is it a coincidence that it occurs in the synagogue because Mark recognizes that Jesus’ power was the power to drive out all that possesses the human heart and mind and that pervades and perverts even our human institutions. The stories of demon possession are not medical case studies — they are stories about the destruction and enslaving power of human sin and the demons Jesus challenged were the demons of greed, arrogance, envy, selfishness, judgment, and cruelty that eat away at the human heart and that create institutions which isolate us one from the other. Jesus’ first active ministry was to confront our demons face-to-face to reveal them, uncloak them, and name them, and in so doing to drive them out.
There is a story of a politician who went to a bishop for some advice. The bishop told the man that if you went outside and lifted his face to the sky, he would receive a revelation from God. The politician hesitated – it was pouring rain outside – but the Bishop waved him on and so the man went out and stood with his face to the sky for 15 minutes.
Finally he came back into the church and said, “I stood there for 15 minutes but I didn’t get any revelation. I just got wet and felt like a fool.”
The bishop said, “Well, don’t you think that’s enough revelation for the first time?”
I assume that I am not the only one in the sanctuary who has had a long fall from your 18-year-old pinnacle of perfection. As our responsibilities increase in adulthood, so do our opportunities for failing in those responsibilities. We confront more and more difficult choices and the file drawer marked, “Oops, bad choice” gets stuffed full, maybe even requiring a second or third drawer for the more obtuse among us. The more words we speak in our lifetime, the more chances there are that we will speak careless or thoughtless words that hurt others. We discover to our dismay that the the bruising of the heart is slower to heal then the injuries of any stone or arrow. As parents, the wisdom we possessed when we were younger ebbs away like water through our fingers, and as we try to cope with the intricacies of child rearing, we feel as if our stupidity is increasing exponentially with our children’s age. And demons we didn’t even know existed when we were young rise up and wrestle us to the ground – the demons of envy, bigotry, addictions, despair. We may be uncomfortable calling our imperfections and failings demons but all it takes is a quick look at human history to see what damage human imperfection and failings can cause when institutionalized into the very structures of our society. We have seen how bigotry has justified oppression, how fear has provoked war, how gluttony breeds corporate corruption, how greed ravages the lifeblood of the earth. We have seen how our human failings can become demonic over the weak of our world when our fears and failings are written into our institutions and laws.
Jesus, who came to save the lost, the weak, the forgotten, and oppressed, the sick, and the least among us said, “I will name the demons that enslave you.”
And you’d think that we would welcome his healing word, and the freedom he offers, but too often we resist.
“It’s too shameful to admit the presence of such sinfulness,” we cry out. We resist confession and the gospel that commands us to acknowledge that “I’m not always OK; you’re not always OK.” Yet Jesus persists. Jesus pushes. Jesus stares us down demanding our attention.
“I will name them,” he says, because he knows that until we name them — until we confess them — he can’t drive them out, and until we allow him to drive them out, there will be no room for him in our hearts.
One of the problems many of us have with confession is the sense that confession makes everything too easy, that it is nothing like driving out demons at all but more like a robocall that we put in to God once a week.
Rev. Douglas F. Fortner, a priest at a parochial school said, “Because the younger children at our parochial school often forgot their sins when they entered my confessional, I suggested that teachers have the students make lists. The next week when one child came to confession, I could hear him unfolding paper. The youngster began, ‘I lied to my parents. I disobeyed my mom. I fought with my brothers and…’ then there was a long pause. Suddenly, a small angry voice said, ‘Hey, this isn’t my list!’”
If confession is just reciting a generic list, receiving forgiveness, and then coming back the next week to recite the same list, then it doesn’t change much in our lives. There is little self-reflection, and no determination to live a different kind of life. The gospel, however, uses the metaphor of demon possession to remind us that confession is not about reciting lists but is about deciding who will possess your heart. In fact, the apostle Paul talks about sin in the singular, arguing that a person is either in sin or in Christ, and if you are in Christ, you will no longer be in sin because Christ will be in possession of your heart. When we fill ourselves with the love of Christ, there is not room for sin — for fear, for hatred, for envy, for greed, or for any of those mean-spirited behaviors that hurt ourselves and others.
And so we as people who have faith in the commands of Christ confess our sins. Not because we are a masochistic people who like to wallow in our wrongdoing but because we need to clear out the space they are taking up to make room for Jesus.
And so we as people who have faith in the commands of Christ admit our wrongdoing. Not because we are hopeful that God will except our confession as a plea bargain and reduce sums future sentence, but because we need to clear out the space they are taking up to make room for Jesus.
And so we as people who have faith in the commands of Christ and are the body of Christ broken for the world, name our own brokenness so that we will not be so full of ourselves that there is no room in our hearts for Jesus.
We name our demons, we confess our failings as individuals and as a society, so that we can cast out our fears and fill ourselves fully with the love of Jesus, and in his name, show that love to a broken world.