Text: Mark 1:29-39
My great grandmother, Lela Mode Floyd (known to the locals as Ma Floyd), was a master storyteller. Born on October 31, 1899 she was 92 years old when she died on November 4, 1991. What she lacked in physical stature—she stood about four feet tall and, wet, weighed about ninety-five pounds—she more than made up in character and spunk. Growing up I spent a lot of time with my great grandmother as she lived less than two miles from my childhood home. Many of the stories that are still told of Ma Floyd I knew first hand. I was 28 years old when she died and was honored to speak at her funeral.
As I said, Ma Floyd was a master storyteller. Writer Abbie Anthony a columnist for the local paper, The Shelby Star, would often write about Ma Floyd in her columns. Abbie once wrote of my great grandmother, “Like most octogenarians, Ma Floyd can reach into her memory, grab hold of a thread, and pull out a yarn. Her remembrances are filled with humor, colloquialisms, and ‘Ma Floyd witticisms’. She has survived close to a century and remained virtually unchanged in spite of the turmoil about. She is a bit of history.”
One of my favorite stories that Abbie wrote about was titled, “Ma Floyd, The Flying Devil And The School Bus.” I knew the story of the Flying Devil long before it appeared in print in the local paper as I had sat at my great grandmother’s knee and heard her tell it—gestures and all. The story takes place when Ma was 8 years old and it goes like this.
There was a sawmill in operation over in the hollow below the house where she and her family lived. She and the other young’uns would sneak down to the sawmill and watch the sawdust flying way up high. Later when their daddy found out, he scolded them, ending with a warning, “Stay away from the sawmill ‘cause there’s a ‘flying devil’ loose down there and it’ll get ya!” After that they were scared and didn’t dare go back.
Then on an early spring day when Lela and Grancer (her brother) were home alone, a neighbor asked her if she’d look after her 2-year-old. Later, needing something to do, Lela thought that the strawberries might be turning so she decided to go to the patch and find the baby a ripe one to eat. So carrying the child on her back, Lela set out to look for berries. She set the baby down and searched, but couldn’t find any among the blossoms. Just as she had given up finding a ripe berry she looked up and saw something coming down the road. It was a little one-seated thing without a top on it. It was RED and it looked like a man was sitting in it and a bell was ringing. Fear grabbed her very being. It is the “Flying Devil” she shouted! Ma clutched that baby up piggyback and flew toward the house, running so hard she couldn’t catch her breath. Finally she reached the safety of the porch and collapsed on it, face down with the young’un lying on her back. Exhausted, she crawled inside the door. Grancer took one look and said, “What on earth is wrong, Lela?” “I seen the Flying Devil” she gasped. To which Grancer said, “That ain’t a flying devil. It is Bailey Mauney driving his new acquisition, the only automobile in the community, over to show it off to Walter Lattimore.
Ma would end that story saying, “And that is the day that I saw my very first car! Until she died, she would call cars, “the flying devils.”
We don’t talk about devils or demons much any more. And if you asked most of us sitting in this room if we believed in devils and demons the majority of us would probably say no—at least not in the kind of devils and demons Ma Floyd thought about. And yet, many of the stories of Jesus are filled with references to demons, and particularly stories of Jesus casting out demons from people who were believed to be possessed by them. So, what are we to make of this story in Mark’s gospel about Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons? What does it have to teach us in 2015 about a topic that most of us are quite uncomfortable talking about?
First, though, I want to say a word about Jesus’ teaching and story-telling. Amy-Jill Levine professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School writes:
Jesus told parables because they serve…as keys that can unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions: how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live the life that God wants us to live. They are Jesus’ way of teaching, and they are remembered to this day not simply because they are in the Christian canon, but because they continue to provoke, challenge, and inspire…Jesus knew that the best teaching comes from stories with memorable characters who are both familiar and strange, who play upon our stereotypes even as they confront them…Jesus knew that the best teachings come from stories that make us laugh even as they make us uncomfortable.
Our text this morning is not considered as one of Jesus’ parables but it is a story of memorable characters and actions that helps us ask a good question: How to live the life God want us to live? This story is captured in three of the four gospels—Matthew (Matthew 8:14ff), Mark (1:29ff), and Luke (Luke 4:38ff)—and it is a teaching story. In all three gospel-accounts the characters are the same: Jesus, some of the disciples, Simon’s mother-in-law, and all who were sick and possessed. In Luke and Mark, Jesus and his disciples had been in the synagogue teaching just prior to going to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house. In Matthew, however, he had just healed the centurion’s servant. In all three accounts, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law who is sick with a fever. In Matthew and Mark Jesus simply touches the woman and the fever leaves her. She immediately gets up and begins to serve Jesus. But in Luke’s account Jesus rebukes the fever and it leaves the woman. Luke also has the woman immediately getting up and serving Jesus. Also in all three tellings of this story, Jesus eventually retreats to a “deserted,” “quite,” “alone” place—away from the crowds who had gathered to either be healed, have a demon cast out, or—as I imagine I would have been doing—to curiously watch as these things took place. And finally, in all three accounts Jesus moves on to continue to “proclaim the good news in the synagogues and casting out demons.”
Remember how Amy-Jill Levine said that “Jesus knew that the best teaching comes from stories with memorable characters who are both familiar and strange, who play upon our stereotypes even as they confront them…stories that make us laugh even as they make us uncomfortable.” Well, what is more familiar and strange than a woman who is immediately healed from a very serious illness—without antibiotics a fever in ancient times could result in death—jumping up and serving her guests? To think of this woman, on her deathbed, immediately rising and serving Jesus tea and cucumber sandwiches is both laughable and uncomfortable for us. And yet, it is precisely why we remember this story; and why we love to get fixated on the woman’s response to being healed to the point of missing, maybe, what ultimately matters in this story: how God wants us to live.
And with that said, I want to take one minute to acknowledge how Mark 1:31 makes many of us bristle. Why is the healed woman’s first response to serve Jesus and his four disciples, especially, when we learn that “serve” translates diakoneo, and most likely indicates food service, and means she “waited on” them? It is easy to get fixated on the “why”…Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made the sandwiches for once?
I’m not sure it helps us to criticize Mark or the ancient gender roles that made this story sound normal or appropriate to its original audiences. Maybe the best thing for us to do is to acknowledge that, at least in our culture and in the audiences that are hearing this story today, gender roles have significantly changed and thus appropriate responses to being healed may look very different in our culture. Or maybe we should also acknowledge that in some places within our culture and in some audiences that are hearing this story today, women are still identifying with this woman and that there is something powerful and hopeful in this story for them that we can’t understand. Maybe we don’t have to overlook what ultimately matters in this story because part of it makes us uncomfortable.
What is significant about this story is that this woman is healed from her illness and freed not from something but for something. And that something is the freedom to be a follower of Jesus. She’s more than a cook, a waiter, and a dishwasher. She is also a follower, a disciple. She, most certainly, becomes one of the women who stayed at the cross with Jesus while the “twelve” disciples fled at his arrest and went into hiding. Jesus, in healing this woman, freed her for something and she knew it. Remember, Jesus knows that good stories hold the key to helping us ask the right questions like what ultimately matters. Possibly the question of what we need to be freed for rather than from is one of those questions that ultimately matters.
And so I come back to the topic of this sermon and ask, “What ultimately matters when it comes to facing our demons? And how does God want us to live in a world where we face certain demons daily—the demons of addiction, greed, complacency, neglect, apathy, ideology above humanity just to name a few?” With this story of healing and casting out demons, what is Jesus inviting us to consider?
Let me share another story. On Thursday I was sitting at my desk working when I sensed the presence of someone at my door. I was working at my computer so my back was to the door. Without turning around I said, “Yes, can I help you?” That is when a familiar voice said, “I don’t want to bother you. I just wanted to say hello.” I turned around and it was my good friend and Pullen member Betty Witman. I jumped up quickly from my chair and invited Betty come in and sit down. I’m always glad to catch up with Betty because she has such great life stories and she too is a great storyteller. Betty is a pediatrician who is currently the medical director for SAFEchild and also on the staff at WakeMed Hospital.
As we settled into our visit I asked Betty how her work was going. She began telling me story after story of the children she is working with—children who come to her because of expected abuse. Keeping confidentiality and protecting the children’s identity she works with, Betty told me story after story of the kinds of abuse children in Wake County are facing—demons that for most of us we could never even begin to imagine. At one point I looked at Betty and said, “How do you do it?” And because I had just been studying Mark 1 I asked: “How do you face the demons of child abuse every day?” Betty didn’t miss a beat. Her answer was direct, clear, and passionate, but without muddled emotion. She said, “There comes a point when you have to be the one to step into a situation and say ‘STOP! Enough is enough.’” I couldn’t help but hear in Betty’s words the words from Mark 1:34: “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak…” Do you hear the similarities? You have to be the one to step in and say “STOP! Enough is enough.” “As people who were sick and possessed came to him he cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak.” STOP!
It was one of those beautiful ah-ha moments for me. You see, I had been wondering all week how to make this story real and relevant for our lives today given that we don’t talk much about devils and demons, and certainly not “flying devils.” And then in walked Betty Witman who spends most of her days casting out demons—the demons of child abuse and neglect. She steps into unimaginably dark places in the lives of human beings who are dealing with their own demons and she says “STOP! Enough is enough.” What better example of what it means to cast out demons than that?
And what work is more important for us modern day disciples to be doing than to be stepping into the places in our lives and world where demons dwell and say “STOP! Enough is enough.” It’s not easy, this work. And I don’t mean to suggest that it is. Not in our personal lives, nor in our society. No one ever said that following Jesus would be easy. Nobody ever said that facing the destructive places in our lives and world that keep us from wholeness would be easy. If easy is the goal, then I’m not sure Jesus has much to say to us. But if what we are looking for is a life of purpose, of meaning, of wholeness then we have to be willing to face the destructive places in our lives and world that keep us from being free and whole people. And if we are serious about following Jesus we must see ourselves as continuing the ministry he began. And part of that ministry is facing the demons in our world and saying to them over and over again and again, “STOP! Enough is enough.”
And here is the beautiful truth of what happens when we face the demons. We are not just freed from something, we are freed for something much like Simon’s mother-in-law—for a life of purpose, with meaning, and wholeness. Whatever demons you are struggling with in your life, whatever demons you encounter in this world, however powerful these demons may be, and for however long you have been battling them this story in Mark teaches us that we must be willing to face the demons and then we must, like Jesus and like Betty Witman, be bold enough to step in and say “STOP! Enough is enough.” It may not make the demons immediately leave—as a matter of fact it probably won’t—but in doing so we let the demons know that we are present too! This we must be willing to do this over and over, again and again, daily, trusting that in doing so we are not alone, that God is with us, that we don’t face the demons in this world and in our lives by ourselves—there is someone and something much bigger than us that is offering light and hope.
And that is the good news of the gospel this day! Amen.