The other day I was having lunch over at Asiana, and I just happened to be seated within earshot of a large group.
They looked like they were having a good time. Most of them had arrived some time before, and they hadn’t even opened their menus yet.
Two of them realized they had been reading the same book and were talking about that with such delight that a third kept trying to interrupt to find out the title of the book.
After a couple of minutes, another woman arrived and they all greeted her happily. She hadn’t even sat down before they were peppering her with questions about how Christmas had been with all the grandchildren, and if she had caught up on her rest, and was she sorry to be back in the cold.
The side conversations were flourishing. It seemed great.
The wait staff was busy bringing over pots and pots of green tea.
And then, Doris arrived.
Actually, she didn’t so much arrive as make an entrance because she was a presence — a woman with a large hat and a metal cane.
As she approached, she spoke over all the conversations I’d been enjoying at the table.
“I’ve been here for half an hour,” she announced. “There was no place to park.”
“Oh really?” said one of the other women, “there seemed to be spaces when I got here…”
“Well, you parked in back,” Doris snapped. “I don’t do that.”
The table fell silent.
Doris sat down with a long sigh.
“Now is there anything in this restaurant I can actually eat?” she said.
“Maybe we should all look at the menus,” said someone kindly, trying to shift the energy back.
Doris was having none of it.
She called over one of the wait staff.
“I see this has scallops in it,” she said, pointing to a particular dish. “How many scallops does it actually have?”
The waiter wasn’t sure.
Doris repeated herself, slowly and loudly, as if she was speaking to someone very hard of hearing.
“I could ask the chef,” said the waiter.
Doris sighed loudly. All conversation around the table had stopped.
“Do you eat in this restaurant?” she asked one of her companions. “How many scallops do they put in this?” She pointed to something on her menu.
Well, you get the idea.
There is, of course, more I could tell you and nothing else you need to hear, because the rest of the lunch went along pretty much the same way.
There was a lot more dramatic, impatient sighing.
You had to feel bad for everyone concerned.
And I know we’ve all had experiences like that. We’ve all had lunches with someone like Doris. We’ve all probably had lunches where we were a little bit like Doris, ourselves.
Of course, who knows what the real story was?
I’d love to know. But the moment has stayed with me for another reason.
Because I think we’ve all had the experience of how dramatically the energy in a room can shift.
When Doris arrived, the warm and joyful energy of her companions shifted.
And I’ve certainly been in places where that’s happened.
Sometimes it can be utterly wordless–not an imperious person speaking negatively and loudly, but just a presence.
Call it “the vibe” or the spirit of the occasion, something shifts.
This helps me think about accounts in Scripture like the account we’ve heard this morning.
It’s the kind of story that preachers often find it hard to preach on, at least in a scientific age.
Because as you’ve heard, the story describes the first healing Jesus does in Mark’s gospel.
It is a story about a man who is possessed by a demon, and Jesus steps forward to command that demon to leave.
The demon does leave, but not before speaking directly with Jesus, because the demon understands who Jesus really is in a way that the rest of the world did not.
The demon asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and then “Have you come to destroy us?”
Now, to be honest, when we read this kind of story in church, a lot of people just tune out.
“This is a story about a person who suffers from some kind of mental illness. They didn’t have the language for that back then, so they talked about demons. Jesus sees the man’s humanity and so it’s pretty much a story about the power of compassion, yada yada yada.”
And it’s here that I think of Doris, the imperious woman last week at the restaurant.
Because we would not be likely to say that she was possessed by a demon. Nor should we.
Yet there is a spirit, or energy, that surrounds people and places and things. There is something more than the physical person or the words we say. There is more than that.
Some of you will have had the experience of visiting someone who is nearing the end of life, someone whose body is slowing down, but whose vitality…spirit…burns as brightly as ever.
So, too, there are people who are physically intact and yet spiritually broken.
So when Scripture talks about where our humanity really dwells, it’s not talking about our physical existence all by itself.
It’s trying to grapple with this deeper dimension. This dimension that is embodied not simply in our lives, but in the world that we build. In the places that we gather. In the institutions we establish. In the art we create and the stories we tell.
This is what it is to try to talk about the soul.
We can’t eat lunch with Doris every day and think that we’re immune from any danger of getting deflated.
We can’t just bop along in a broken world without slowly, quietly cracking, ourselves. Sinful structures foster morally misshapen people.
We’re spiritual beings–we receive. Whether or not we want to. Whether we are fully aware of it or not. We receive.
And yet Jesus’ point is that we also give.
In receiving what God gives, we become givers…we become bearers of a very different kind of energy.
In receiving what God gives, a different kind of spirit flows through us.
We come to be filled with a spirit that heals.
It’s the spirit of God, and the healing power of God’s love.
In so many different ways, we learn how thin a line it can be between “We thank God for bringing you here today,” and “We thank you for bringing God here today.”
We thank you for helping the energy to shift, for helping us repair some of what has cracked in our hearts today.
To me, that’s what our Scripture points to this morning.
It’s a call to recognize the spiritual dimension of our lives and our world, and to engage them.
Now, as it happens, I eat at Asiana quite often.
I eat there often enough that it is entirely possible that I will encounter Doris once again.
Maybe next time she will bring a very different kind of energy into the room.
But what if she doesn’t?
What if the spirit that surrounds her is the very same spirit I saw last week — that spirit of imperious, attention-seeking irritation with everything and everyone?
I do not know what truly ails her.
But in the goodness and the joy and the kindness of her friends, I know I saw signs of the spirit of what will heal her.
And I pray that next time, they will find a way to bring that healing more directly and to banish some of their poor friend’s darkness.
God bless them.
And may the spirit that hovers over you and me be a blessing to us, and to all those we encounter.