Demons, Racism, and Peace: V Pentecost (Proper 7C)
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
We gather today on strange Sunday. And my sermon covers some challenging material, so I want to situate it in our context before diving in.
There are many things worthy of a joyful celebration:
Father’s Day is time of thanksgiving and honor for many families as we celebrate the positive influence dads have had on some of us.
Today is also June 19, affectionately called Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the news of abolition reaching slaves in the state of Texas. It is oldest known celebration remembering the end of slavery in the United States - thanks be to God!
But simultaneously, there is a lot to be somber about this morning:
For one, not everyone enjoys Father’s Day. As difficult as it might be to admit, not all of us admire our dads, and this annual celebration can be more painful than pleasant.
One week ago, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, an American-born terrorist murdered 49 people and injured dozens more in a popular gay nightclub in Orlando.
On Friday, we commemorated the first anniversary of another terrorist attack on American soil. A young white man walked into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a midweek Bible study and killed nine black people as they sought solace in the Words of the Bible.
These things can and should weigh heavy on our hearts. We come to church today carrying our reactions to each and every one of these events. It is okay to have mixed feelings.
We all know that St. Matthew’s is a place for rejoicing and celebrating with family and friends, and this church will always offer that to its people.
But it is equally important for the church to work at becoming a safer space for mourning and healing than the rest of the world. This parish is and will be a sanctuary and a refuge for the hurting. We embrace and comfort those who mourn because the Christ meets us in our death, fear, and despair, just as he meets us in our life, hope, and resurrection.
Let us keep these in mind as we walk through the Gospel passage.
Jesus crosses the sea into a foreign land - Gentile, not Jewish
The demon-possessed man is naked, dangerous and exiled from town
Chained up and enslaved by his peers
Jesus drives legion of demons into nearby pigs
Pigs run off cliff into water.
Cost farmers tens of thousands of dollars in today’s economy
The townspeople come and find formerly possessed man clothed and in right mind
They are afraid and ask Jesus to leave them
Restoring the demoniac to wholeness and acceptance in the community costs them a lot
Price of all those pigs
Transformation of attitude from slave to equal → Difficult work
The United States of America is still struggling to do the work of restoring African-Americans to the rest of society over 150 years after the abolition of slavery. The literal chains may be gone, but the metaphorical ones are often as strong as ever.
Reception of a new teaching (Jesus)
They reject him too
What is a demon?
Evil spirits in the world are real. They have real power to influence people’s minds, bodies, and souls.
Modern psychology and psychiatry also point us toward truth about the human condition. People wrestle with mental and physical illnesses that alter brain chemistry and affect the way people think, feel, and act.
We don't have to make it cut and dried, either / or. Both can be true and influence the ways people live.
What do I mean?
It's easy to look back on the ancient world and either accept their view of demons wholesale as the only explanation for evil - that's superstition. Or to say it was all fantasy, that modern medicine has all the answers and we can explain it all that way - that's pride and delusion.
Instead we have to accept the mystery that we can't understand how everything works. When people commit heinous acts of evil and destruction, demonic forces are likely at work, but that doesn't eliminate people’s illnesses or free choices.
The demons might be working solely in an individual, but I think most of the time, demons manifest themselves in systems and societies.
I think the devil’s power is on display when we see large groups of people work together to create or ignore a grave injustice.
The key thing to remember is that demons don't always act when people experience mental illness and people don't always seem mentally ill when they are influenced by demons.
What we can say confidently is the words of the Psalmist: “our sins are stronger than we are” (Ps 65:3)
Like I said earlier, I couldn’t write this sermon without the Charleston Nine and the Orlando 49 on my mind. Now, I can’t help but see the connection between the persistent problem of demon possession in the Gospels and the repeated atrocities we face in the world today.
In both of these cases, men possessed by hatred, sick in their souls and minds, lashed out against unsuspecting and undeserving victims.
Black Americans and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Americans. People who have already been beaten, mocked, and killed by people who serve the demon of white supremacy.
On June 17, 2015 and on June 12, 2016, oppressed peoples were oppressed once more.
As we mourn the loss of life and as we pray for the dead, there are other questions that we must ask as Christians.
If there are demons in the world that encourage terrorism, hate crimes, and murder, what can we do differently? Not just should we repent, but how can we repent? Where are we complicit in the murders of these innocents? What is it in our society that encourages the mentally unstable to slaughter black people and gay people?
First off, we must remember that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has the power to defeat and cast out demons. Jesus was freed people from demonic powers throughout his earthly ministry. And of course he won the greatest victory over the Devil on Easter. Dying, Christ destroyed our death and rising he restored our life.
Yet the troubles we face in this life are so powerful and strong. We don’t seem to have power to resist either the temptation to sin, or the disastrous effects of other people’s sins. Even if we left the USA, where can we go to escape violent and death? ... Nowhere in this life.
But God does not leave us without hope. The Church has an alternative to the violent ways of the world. The society around us is polarized and polticized. Whites and browns and blacks segment themselves off into silos for fear of the aggression and pain we face when we try to come together. LGBTQ people run and hide from straight society for fear of violent punishment on their bodies.
But in the Church, our central act of worship is not violence and segmentation, but Peace and Communion. We gather together to hear the Word of God, confess our sins, pass signs of peace, and share a holy meal.
Bp. Curry’s father joining TEC b/c of common cup b/t whites and blacks.
The Gospel has the power to save us from our violent destruction, from our tendency to dominate and domineer. But it will costs all of us something. Perfect love will cast out fear and hatred and division. Perfect love will cleanse us of our prejudices and pride. Perfect love may be uncomfortable; it may bring us into contact with the ones we wrote off as irredeemable, as demon-possessed. But God’s perfect love will bring us into that perfect communion, little by little, step by step, with new mercies every morning.