Eleanor Oliphant is a thirty year old woman possessed with a demon. Oh, we would not likely call it that in a 21st century manner of speaking, but she is definitely possessed in the way of 1st century religious terms. She is possessed by her traumatic past and possessed by a horror that she could not admit even to herself, for to do so would be to recognize her fantasy of what a good and caring parent should be and do, and what she actually experienced. And so she, for thirty years, has carried around a palpable voice in her head—one that has helped her to survive, but a demonic voice nonetheless. It is an internal and external voice that carries echoes of the verbal and physical abuse she knew, but also a voice that provided her with the only love, warped though it was, that she would let herself know or even feel.
I will not give out too many details of Eleanor’s past or even her present, except to say that she is the protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s stunningly compelling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which is a tale finally of redemption, freedom, and how we can gradually heal from those things that possess us. How do we heal from those hidden hurts and past traumas that could make local headlines (if we were to share) but which, most of us, keep tucked neatly, or not so neatly away? Honeyman’s novel is a realistic tale of how our past can influence our present if we let it, and the slow, merciful way the soul can heal as it is embraced by community and positive connections with others.
The character grew, Honeyman explains, out of a newspaper article she read years earlier about the problem of loneliness. “At the time it was something that wasn’t discussed much and when it was, it was usually in the context of older people who are widowed or whose families have moved away.”
A reporter from The Guardian writes that the author was particularly struck by an interview with a woman in her 20s who confessed that after leaving work on a Friday night she often wouldn’t talk to anyone until she returned on Monday morning. “I started to think how could that be the case, and I realized there were lots of ways people could end up leading that sort of life through no fault of their own.”
So a question for you to quietly ponder: how many people in your life do you feel close enough to that you would share a personal problem with them?
In a TED talk, Dr. Emma Seppala, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, said that this question was asked in a 2004 national survey of hundreds of people across the United States. The mean number of close others for Americans was 2 people. And the mode, that is, the response that occurred most often, was “0,” meaning that more people said that they had no one with whom they could share a personal problem. Over 25% said “0.” That is 1 in 4. 
How many of you have been possessed, at one time or another, by loneliness in your life? It is a rhetorical question, as many of us, likely, have suffered from loneliness or isolation such as Honeyman saw with her 20 year-old muse. In Jesus’ day, isolation and loneliness could be unfortunately and mercilessly inflicted by the community too. Many of the healings in Mark’s gospel are examples in which the afflicted person is healed of demons that have kept him or her quite isolated in mind, body, and spirit from community, and particularly the religious community. An example comes to us today through our scripture passage—Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and once cured, she returns to serving others, which can either be seen as mirroring women’s social norms, or it can be seen as a confirmation that she has rejoined the community and the family.
Often when one was sick, one was isolated by that sickness…and I am not simply referring to the flu. Back then, illness or misfortune were often believed to be a sign that sin was at work in the individual and that close cultural connection between sin, illness, and misfortune could make one a pariah. The book of Job rejects this connection and notion, just as Jesus rejects sickness as punishment for sin. Thankfully, we have learned that many types of illness are caused by disease and germs, but we still tend to treat those who have mental disturbances or mental illness as outcasts and the differently abled in isolating ways.
So it is evening, and Jesus has been healing, beginning with Simon’s mother-in-law. Word spreads, as it does, and pretty soon all manner of sick and possessed are clamoring at the door. Mark exaggerates the number of people gathered outside—it seemed as if the whole city brought those who were sick or possessed by demons.
Now, we might struggle with the demon-possession, but it is an apt describer for those who feel as if something or someone has taken over their hearts, minds, or bodies. The question then for us, who hear this passage some two thousand plus years later, is what possesses us? What presently has a significant grip on our minds, so much that we spend most of our waking days considering it to our harm? What thought can we not shake from our minds as easily as the dust from our shoes when we reach the threshold of our home? What poisons our happiness or taints the enjoyment of our days? Is it worry? Is it an obsession with anger or a deep desire for revenge? And does this particular “demon” keep us from the fruits and benefits of community?
Perhaps what grips our hearts is the very thing that Eleanor Oliphant struggled with—a voice that says to us all the hurtful things that we could ever imagine or a voice that is persistently judging our every word and deed. Perhaps we are possessed by our possessions, Ye Ol’ Master Card or Visa, or our monthly bank statement. Perhaps we are possessed by our bottom line or the number on the bathroom scale. What thought would we love to be freed of, what thought or worry occupies far too much space in our head and causes far too little sleep?
In Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the gospels, is known for the way Jesus is portrayed as a healer of demons. In Mark, the demons wreak havoc in human beings until they meet Jesus. Jesus casts out the demons and controls their ability to do further harm. In our passage, Mark says, “and [Jesus] would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.”
And who actually knows your demons? Do you? Does God? Well, of course, we say. But, have we admitted our demons to God, or, put another way, can we be honest about what causes our soul—or our communities– unrest? Have you ever seen the power released when you are able to finally name a malady and see it for what it is? So many times we avoid naming our demons for fear that in the naming they, or the truth, will somehow destroy us, but actually, most times, the very opposite happens. Name some troubling thing and it begins to lose its power.
Secret things can grow in the dark. Hard though it may be, secret and shameful things wither when they are named and called into the light. When we name something, we are able to recognize the ill or the destructive tendency that has gripped us. We regain control—the hidden hurt is no longer some amorphous, free-floating anxiety that we can’t wrap our heads around—no, the malady has a name and naming is one of the first steps to healing. And so the recovering alcoholic must come to grip with his or her disease and addiction, naming it, as a step to recovery. Likewise, the one who suffers from loneliness comes to recognize the need for human companionship and community, naming the isolation that has become so painful. The community that can admit its racism can begin to understand how that institutionalized racism has hurt each member of the community in the particulars.
People in the United States are increasingly disconnected and suffering the effects of isolation. We, in the church, can help combat personal and communal isolation through our intentional desire to build and sustain connections, and our desire to welcome all people, with all manner of so called personal demon-difficulty.
Jacob Needleman has said, “People are starving for something that was meant to pass between them but is not presently passing. Call it a vibration if you like, or attention, or love.  The writer, Brené Brown, defines connection, “as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
For those of us who might seek connection and community, science is on our side. People with healthier social connections, that is, those who feel connected, have a 50% increased chance of longevity and are typically less violent than those who are isolated from others.
What might you do in your life to increase the connections that you experience with others? What might this church do to foster connection between and among members, friends, and the stranger who comes seeking God? As Jesus reached out to the outcast and the demon possessed, he welcomed those who had formerly been isolated back into the warmth of community. And that welcome changed the community and even the future. For Eleanor Oliphant, reaching out to an old man who stumbled and fell in the public street begins her return to community, along with a surprising friendship with a work colleague towards whom she was, at first, judgmental.
Sisters and brothers, as you consider your connections to others and your own personal “demons,” try to find ways this week to reach out to those whom you encounter in your daily life. The person sitting by themselves, the counter clerk who appears overwhelmed or bored, and the stranger standing in queue at the grocery store: how might you reach out to those with a friendly greeting that builds connection and well-being? How might you reach beyond your own loneliness or isolation? Perhaps the cumulative effect of those connections might someday, in some small but significant way, heal you from your demons and bring you a blessing unanticipated.
Claire Armitstead, “Gail Honeyman: ‘I didn’t want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim,’” The Guardian, Jan 12, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/12/gail-honeyman-didnt-want-eleanor-oliphant-portrayed-as-victim#img-1