Saturday, February 20, 2016

“Demons” - February 21, 2016

Luke 9:37-43a

Two times in my life I have been asked in all seriousness to perform an exorcism.

The first time, somebody told me that she thought there was a poltergeist in their house, because at random times dishes would rattle and lights in their kitchen would flash on and off.  She had prayed for God’s protection and help, but it kept going.  I went over to the house one Sunday after church and sat down with her and her husband in the kitchen and, sure enough, while we were talking the things on the shelves started to move and the lights flickered.  What I noticed, though, that they didn’t, was that the El was going by a block away.  I pointed it out and we waited for the next train and it happened again.  They had lived there for years and were so used to the sound that they never had put the two events together.  No ghosts were involved.  We all laughed.

The other time, there was a man who was deeply troubled.  He was hearing voices, and they were saying terrible things and telling him to hurt himself.  His wife came and got me, and I met with them both together.  He was clearly in the depths of some form of mental illness but would not go to the hospital.  His take on things, though, was that the devil was speaking to him.  That helped, in a way, because his wife pointed out that if it was the devil speaking, then he definitely should not listen.  I had no reservations about praying for his protection and safety, and eventually his wife got him to see a doctor who could help with his medical needs.

In neither case was there anything involved that remotely resembled the script of a horror movie.

The incident that is recounted in Luke that we heard this morning is hard to hear from a twenty-first century viewpoint as an account of something like epilepsy. 

“Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.” [Luke 9:39]

In a lot of ancient cultures, extreme illness (and sometimes any illness at all) was identified with possession by evil spirits.

So when the Bible talks about Jesus casting out demons, is it just a pre-scientific way of explaining things?  I do think there is more to it.  The idea of a demon is that there are evils that   hold of human beings and harm them from the inside, and the gospels insist that Jesus confronts them in order to make people whole again.

The view that comes across in the movies and comic books is that such confrontation comes in the form of some sort of magical ceremony, using a cross as a talisman and speaking the right words as a spell and waving a Bible as a shield.  In fact, the confrontation of Jesus and the demons that really do take hold of people is far less simplistic.

The demons that seize people in our own day are the kind that are deeply embedded in the soul of our society.  We call them “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, and so forth – and we like to pretend that they are never found in ourselves, only other people, or dismiss them as “political correctness”.  Then sometimes something catches you.

            I remember an informal discussion many years ago, around a lunch table in North Carolina.  A bunch of us Northerners were hanging out and with us was one Southerner, an African-American from a rural, pretty much segregated, section of South Carolina.  One of the people at the table said something about a neighbor or a brother-in-law or somebody drinking way too much on a regular basis and then added, “But what do you expect?  He’s Irish.”  The African-American man got a look of shock and surprise on his face, and someone said, “What’s the matter?”  He answered, “I never knew y’all do that to each other.”

Stereotypes and assumptions about people go deep, and even when we know them for what they are, they can seem impossible to escape and the damage that they do can be pervasive.  George Orwell wrote about social inequality in England in the 1930’s:

“Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West – the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal.  It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood.  The words were: The lower classes smell.
That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell.  And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier.”[1]

Orwell, like many who look at such things, came to the conclusion that it was impossible for one group not to look down on another.

So very many people look at the evils that plague human life as inevitable.  Some people are just greedy and always will be.  Some people are self-centered and you’re wasting your time expecting them to look beyond themselves.  Some people are just mean-spirited and ugly.  Desmond Tutu put it this way:
“What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior.”[2]

In fact it has been a distinctive belief of the Methodist wing of the Jesus Movement that sin, no matter how deeply rooted in the human heart, can be not just dealt with and handled or contained but actually cast out, because Jesus came to confront and overcome exactly that.  We can control our actions but he can control our motivation and heal our hearts, where it all begins.

“Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” [Luke 9:41-43]

            Again, it’s the greatness of God that works such change.  But it also takes disciples who have faith in God’s ability and eagerness to do it.  I read a story about a communion service held in a South African prison in the days of apartheid.  Traditionally there the most important people drink from the cup last, but the clergyman who was presiding handed the cup first to a white man and last to one of the black prisoners.  Do you see the audacity in that?  It meant expecting the white man to go against all that he had been taught and all that the law told him was right.  It meant expecting that the demon had no place there and would have to leave.  Sure enough, at the end of the service they were all holding hands as they prayed.[3]

            Whether it’s the classism that Orwell saw in himself or the racism that we know every bit as well as the South Africans or any of the thousand-and-one other nasty twists that the human heart can develop and that all too often the culture around us can nurture, the greatness of God is stronger and when Jesus’ disciples rely on that greatness, good triumphs. 

            And, in the long run, it always will.

[1] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).  Full text can be found as part of Project Gutenberg Australia.  See .

[2] Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving cited at

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