Possessed

Passage: Mark 1:21-28
Date: January 28, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

During most weeks, I often find myself at the corner of 15th and Broadway, getting a cup of coffee, having lunch, or running some errand. For the past month or two, while in that area, I have seen an older woman sleeping under a blue tarp, shopping cart right by her head, in front of the Footwise store.

Once when Gregg and I were coming back from lunch we passed her, and she was awake and standing up. It was cold and pouring down rain, and we invited her to come to the church to warm up and get dry. She told us she had to get a cup of coffee first, and then she would come over. She didn’t.

It was in the course of that conversation that I realized that she was not a young woman – the color of her hair and the lines on her face told me that she was probably in her late 50s or early 60s. I also realized that she most likely lived with some sort of mental illness. In December, when we had that cold snap, I kept seeing her there, asleep under her tarp in front of Footwise. I called Janet Youel, who connected me with a social worker who said someone from their agency would come out and talk with her and offer her shelter. I know that the agency did that; I do not know if the woman took them up on her offer.

Because I am often at the corner of 15th and Broadway, I look for her now. Most of the time if she is there she is asleep, and I don’t want to bother her. If she were awake, I might ask her her name, or buy her lunch, or try to start some kind of relationship with her. Because I think that she, and the people like her, are a reminder of the effects of sin – the sins of apathy and greed that result in poverty and disease and isolation.

Back in the day, in the day of Jesus, someone would see a person like this woman and say that she was possessed by a demon. In that place and time people understood that their world had two dimensions – the physical world and a spiritual world that was filled creatures such as demons that would overtake a person. There was a hierarchy to the beings in these worlds. God was at the top, followed by other gods or the Son of God. Below them were angels, spirits and demons, then human beings, and at the bottom, creatures lower than humankind. Beings at a higher level had power over those on a lower level. That’s why a demon could possess a person, and why Jesus could command the demon to leave the person.

We don’t really think in terms of demonic possession these days. We have rational minds that study things like science, and human behavior, and brain chemistry. We understand that mental illness is real and sometimes treatable. Still there is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness, and people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any number of other mental illnesses are treated as less-than, inferior, and broken.

We can do better. I would wager a guess that there is no one in the sanctuary this morning who does not have a family member or a close friend who lives with mental illness. All of us in this room know the heartbreak and hope of mental illness. All of us can be a part of healing the rifts that accompany this stigma.

One of the living saints of the congregation often says that Westminster is a place where people find healing. Some would agree with that, and some would wonder at that, but that is a good thing to aspire to – that the church, that our church, is a place where people find healing. Those who are involved with the monthly Taizé service of healing and wholeness will tell you that healing is different than cure. A person can be cured but not healed, or healed and not cured. For the purposes of this sermon – and maybe beyond these few minutes – let’s think of healing as that which brings wholeness, and let’s think of wholeness as a harmony of body, mind, and spirit.

How does what we are about here at Westminster bring wholeness to the lives of those who are part of our community and to the larger community? How are our ministries and efforts encouraging the harmony of body, mind, and spirit?

It’s hard to live well if you don’t have enough to eat, and in 2017 Westminster folks gave over 4,600 pounds – over two tons – of food to Northeast Emergency Food Program and Mainspring, enabling some of our fellow Portlanders to have enough to eat. We have also enjoyed breaking bread with each other at our 125th anniversary celebration, at the monthly Connections service, at coffee hours, and at memorial receptions. Let us always keep the wisdom of the book of Proverbs in mind: Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (15:17)

How is Westminster bringing wholeness to the lives of our community? In this past year, the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, co-chaired by Westminster members Carol Turner and David Groff, has become a strong voice of advocacy and education regarding issues of poverty in northeast Portland. Through the alliance’s work, renters have been able to stay in their apartments, legislation that supports the poor has been passed, and thirteen religious congregations have come together to learn deeply about the issues of poverty, race, and prejudice in our city.

How is Westminster bringing wholeness to the community? By traveling away from the community and learning from others. Last February, 13 members of our community traveled together to Guatemala to spend time with our mission coworkers Sandi and Brian Thompson-Royer and to learn from the Guatemalan Presbyterian women with whom they work. Our group learned about the differences between the indigenous people of Mayan descent and those who descend from the Spanish colonizers; they learned about the realities of a macho culture and its effect on domestic violence. They also learned about how women of faith find their power in small industries such as coffee or weaving co-ops, and they learned about the devastating aftereffects of the civil war there which has impacted the refugees coming to the U.S. from Central America.

Because of what this small group of people learned in Guatemala, Westminster has looked at what it means to provide sanctuary – safety and basic necessities – to those who are threatened with being deported to places where they may face the real possibility of death.

I could go on with the many ways that Westminster is a community of healing. We provide opportunities for social engagement which combat the isolation so prevalent in this age of social media. We offer worship that admits the truth of our messy lives and the love and power of God who enters into our mess; we hope that our children and youth find a place of welcome and delight here; we act on our sense of responsibility to ensure that our facilities are welcoming and accessible for the church and the community; we learn together, through classes, retreats, and small groups, what it means to live out our faith.

In one small way, I might measure our “success” (and I use that word advisedly) as a community of healing by how we respond to someone like the woman who sleeps under a blue tarp in front of Footwise.

At the very least, I hope our community would notice her, would notice that there is a human being lying there, sleeping in the safe hours of the day near a busy intersection. I hope our community would be curious – who is this person? Why is she here? What resources are available for her? Is she sick? Does she need medicine, or food, or a friend?

I hope that our community would consider those resources that could help her and that we would support them, perhaps by buying her a sandwich or supporting any number of agencies that work with the homeless and mentally ill. I hope our community would look at her when she is awake, and say hello, and be deeply troubled that a mentally ill woman in her 50s or 60s is living on the streets.

As I said earlier, once upon a time people would have said this woman was possessed by a demon. We don’t say that now, but I think it is fair to say she may be possessed by mental illness or something else. I wonder what you and I might be possessed by, what forces are at play in our lives that hinder our wholeness, that hinder our desire for the healing and wholeness of others. Some here do live with mental illness, some with addiction to substances or to things; some live with righteous indignation, and some with judgment. But there is also this: some of us live with compassion, or with kindness, or with grace.

In the end what may matter most is the hope that we are possessed by the love of God, a love which enables us to see the way God sees, a love which enables us to respond to the call to be healers. We are possessed by the love of God, but we are not to possess that love and keep it for ourselves. We are to share it, to be kind, to notice, and to act.

May we know that we are enfolded by God’s love this day. Amen.