Calling out demons

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A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, and Luke 8:26-39.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you may know G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” character from literature or from the BBC series.  Father Brown is a parish priest who is good at solving murders.  Sometimes he seems to see into people’s souls so deeply that they wonder, (like people wondered about Jesus) how Father Brown can possibly know such dark thoughts and impulses. In one very revealing situation, the priest reads the soul of a man so clearly that the man blurts out, “How do you know all this? … Are you a devil?” Father Brown responds, “I am a man,” … “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”  (G.K. Chesterton, “The Hammer of God” in The Innocence of Father Brown.)

Whenever there is a horrible event like the killings in the Orlando nightclub last Sunday morning, there’s a temptation to explain it away too quickly by suggesting that it must be the work of evil.  The person who kills so easily and so many must surely be possessed or must have been taken over by a demon.  When we say such things, at some level, of course, we’re simply trying to find an explanation for something that makes no sense.  But when we attribute people and events too quickly to “evil” or the “demonic,” we ignore aspects of our own community and culture that are complicit.  And we misunderstand the work of demons.

If you’ve read my newsletter article this week, you know that I can’t help but feel like the Orlando killings are at some level an extension of words and feelings already flying around our culture.  Note that the killer did not shoot up a military institution or a post office. He didn’t go to a retirement home or a school.  Instead, he went to gay club and he went on Latino night.  Even though the laws of our land have gradually protected LGBT people more and more, the violence and backlash and culturally-encouraged self-hatred continue.  Latinos (whether refugees, new immigrants, or judges) have been especially attacked by politicians, the media, and in the streets.  And while the easy access to high-powered firearms makes all these killings more possible than not, I think it’s crucial for us to notice how the violence acts or reacts to larger themes.  Sticks and stones break bones, but words hurt, too.  If there was a demon that led the killer into that nightclub, then let’s at least be honest about how that demon was very well-fed and strengthened (not so much by ISIS) but by cultural forces here, in our country.

Jesus teaches us about facing down demons when he goes into the wilderness for 40 days.  He shows us exactly how demons work: they tempt us to gluttony, they tempt us to self-sufficiency, and they tempt us to power.  Many of you will recall the story from the first Sunday in Lent.  The devil suggests Jesus turn stones to bread, symbolizing the getting and gathering of all that might bring temporary fulfilment.  But Jesus doesn’t go for it.  Next the devil suggests that Jesus jump off the pinnacle of the temple and trust God to pick him up, but Jesus again knows that God will look after him and he has no need to test.  Finally, the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world.  But again, Jesus is committed to God’s kingdom—which includes everyone, not just a chosen few.

In today’s Gospel we meet up with demons in a sad story.  There is a man who is not in his right mind. He can’t keep clothes on.  He can’t keep up a household.  He’s homeless, living near the tombs, probably in caves.  People must have passed him by whenever they went that way, but they didn’t dare go close.  He was possessed by demons, after all.

Though we don’t know his name.  We sort of know him.  This man must have seemed to the Gerasenes like so many people appear to us today—those who live not in natural caves, but the caves made by overpasses, abandoned buildings, and alleys. Their problems seem overwhelming.  Often, we do what we can.  We say a prayer. We give an occasional dollar or two.  We might buy a sandwich, but we wonder, “What’s to be done?”  Is it a matter of public funding?  Is it a matter of physical or mental healthcare?  Is it a family problem?

A demon would have us assume it’s the work only of that demon, and either blame the person, or blame the demon and go on our way.  But the reality is much larger and more complex.  Walter Wink is a theologian who thinks and writes about the way demons enter not only individuals, but also institutions and structures.  Wink points out that one way the demonic works is by rigidly classifying those who are “in” and those who are “out.”

A commentator on Wink, Jeffery John (dean of St. Albans Cathedral, England) uses this idea as he points out, “The profundity of this miracle story [of the man with the demon] is shown in the fact that Jesus goes out to heal the very one…who is the symbol of the alien oppression…Jesus steps outside the territory of Israel into ‘unclean’ territory, heals the most untouchable of the untouchables, and makes him in effect his first apostle to the other Gentiles.” [The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p. 84-97]

A part of the healing is Jesus’s daring to go where others say it’s useless.  Jesus is unwilling to be captive to the demons of prejudice, rumor, gossip, assumptions, or conventions.  Jesus heals people throughout scripture in the same way, transgressing societal, cultural, or gender norms in order to bring a human touch, which is also the touch of God.

Demons are not always what they seem.  Reading the scriptures closely, in some places it is clear to a modern health profession that a person in the Bible who was thought to be “demon possessed,” was epileptic.  Leprosy was not caused by demons, but is what we now call Hansen’s disease, an infection caused by bacteria and curable through medication. Melancholia was thought to be from a demon. Homosexuality was (and sadly is still thought by some) thought to be caused by demons.

The real demonic is, and always has been, in the way that people are separated, kept in ignorance, and never allowed to question received information.

Sometimes the demons are buried deep in the details—in history and in the history of faith as we know it in scripture.

The first scripture reading we heard this morning brought us a story of Elijah, seemingly of his loss of resolve and faith. He questions his calling and God comes to him in a surprising way—not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. Countless sermons are in that small section of scriptures, but notice the context.

Notice the very first line in the reading: “[King] Ahab told [his wife] Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life.” (I Kings 1-3a).

Back in chapter 18 is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  It’s a story many of us illustrated in Sunday school as children.  We drew and colored how Elijah and the prophets of Baal had a holy showdown, but Elijah proved to be able to bring down the first of God and the other prophets could not.  But spiritual victory was not enough for Elijah.  The story ends with the ominous words, “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”

If we really listen, it’s the sort of reading that it’s hard to reply, “thanks be to God.” But when we read scripture, it’s important to read all of it.  A friend of mine likes to say that the trouble with fundamentalists is not that they read Scripture.  The trouble is that they don’t read ENOUGH scripture. If we really love scripture, then we owe it to God to read as much as we can and allow God to exercise the demons.  Faith helps us rely on God to show us where people of faith were wrong in the past, and to show us where we have been wrong.  A demonic faith would use Elijah’s story to justify killing people who don’t agree with us, but a demonic faith would also overlook the violence and pretend it wasn’t there.

Whenever we elevate scripture above Christ, we make it into an idol.  When we elevate tradition or reason or law or custom above the ongoing revelation of Christ, we worship idols.  And when we worship idols, we are dealing with demons.

Demons make us overlook the details and only see the broad strokes.
Demons thrive on prejudice, ignorance, and scapegoating.
Demons love a fictional view of the past and refuse to take into consideration the reality of the present.
Demons lead us follow a dead god,
while the way of Christ leads us to a Living God who continues to reveal.

Like Chesterton’s Father Brown, if we’re honest with ourselves we can begin to see the demons that are living within us and ask God to free us.  We can ask God to exercise the demons that still live in our churches and institutions. Together, we can expose the demons that want us to live in fear and helplessness. We can face down the demons that blame particular ethnicities, or groups of people.  And we can call out the demons that get lodged in our laws and our lawmakers.

In the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Paul reminds us that faith frees us to be children in Christ,

As many of [us] as [have been] baptized into Christ have clothed [ourselves] with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus. And if [we] belong to Christ, then [we] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Let us notice that last phrase, “Abraham’s offspring,” which means we are brothers and sisters with Muslims and Jews as well as Christians, whether we are of one mind, or have many issues to talk about—we are one family of faith, and God loves us all.

On this day, we offer the Holy Eucharist for the repose of the souls of the victims of the Orlando shootings. Que las almas de las difuntos, por la Misericordia de Dios, descansen en paz.  But also, let us offer ourselves anew as followers of Christ, who defeats all demons, and empowers us to live in love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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