Healing our demons

Last week, when I was walking through downtown at about 5 pm, a woman and I attempted to cross a street simultaneously, but from opposite directions. Heading directly toward one another, she angled slightly to her left and I concurrently angled to my right; then we did the reverse, she moving right and I left. We repeated our dance several times as we each politely sought to avoid colliding. When we were only a couple of feet from each other, she looked up; I chuckled bemusedly, realizing that our politeness had unintentionally created an impasse; she, after a moment, changed her expression from wary concern to a smile, and we passed pleasantly.

The incident was memorable because she obviously expected some type of negative confrontation. The incident, in a small way, symbolizes the widespread polarizations of contemporary life. When somebody is different than we are, we too frequently stigmatize the person and treat them as an outcast. This happens, from both perspectives, between Democrats and Republicans, Trump supporters and opponents, self-identified pro-choice and pro-life people in the debate over abortion, those for or against the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and so forth.

This morning’s gospel reading describes a demoniac ostracized by his local community because he has harmed property but also, implicitly, the psychic well-being of others.[1] The Gerasenes – Gentiles – had banished the man from their midst, chained him, and forced him to live as an animal. Jesus found the man living naked in a cemetery, having broken free of his shackles.

Biblical scholars offer two different diagnoses of the demoniac’s condition. First, the man may have suffered from mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depression. Before the late nineteenth century, people lacked the scientific knowledge and vocabulary to diagnose mental illness or even neuroses. Today, we remain far from completely understanding mental illness; regrettably, we and our society continue too often stigmatize and even ostracize the mentally ill.

Second, biblical scholars suggest that the demon possession in today’s reading may point to an obsession that has become a metaphorical demon. Evil is real. We may personify evil as a horned devil or fallen angel with a legion of followers dubbed demons, but, in fact, evil is a spiritual force in individuals and groups. Remember a time when a wicked thought took root in your mind, luring you with a fascination to think and do what you knew was wrong, enticing you one-step at a time, until you discovered you had acted or spoken in ways that you regretted even as you did it. Remember a time when a group of children, teens, or adults emboldened by the misdeeds of one, lost control, and committed acts that none would have dreamt possible. The actions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust are the most horrendous, frightening, and extreme example of this dynamic. More commonly, I've seen nice children and teens suddenly form a little mob, turning against one of their number who is overweight, unpopular, or wearing an out of style piece of clothing. We adults are no better. I've seen work groups and small religious groups turn vicious, smiling as they verbally cut and stab one another. Evil is real and the metaphor of demon possession points to that reality.

Jesus, a practicing Jew, crossed boundaries and reached out to the Gentile Gerasene demoniac. He saw a human, not an animal. Jesus, most appropriately from a Jewish perspective, sends the demons, who beg him not to condemn them to the abyss (connoting the place of death), into a herd of ritually unclean swine; the swine then rush into the watery deeps, an English phrase translating another Greek word for abyss. Demons clearly belong in the abyss. Then Jesus welcomes the man to his team, instructing him to tell everyone about being healed. Jesus lived a welcoming, inclusive, genuine hospitality.

This morning’s epistle reading reminds us that in Holy Baptism we are “clothed with Christ.”[2] Being clothed with Christ is another way of saying that our character, that is our values and habitual patterns of behavior, should imitate those of Jesus. Set within the context of today’s gospel reading, being clothed with Christ has two meanings.

First, we are to have compassion and strive to heal the mentally ill. Illustratively, Holy Nativity reenacted Jesus’ healing the demoniac through both its generous Easter gift to the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i – truly a gift to help raise the metaphorically dead to new life – and through its ongoing concern for housing the homeless, many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness, including addiction.

Second, we are to bridge divides that polarize and separate. The preeminent sixteenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker commented that our affirmation the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation does not mean that all things the Bible contains are necessary for salvation.[3] These latter topics he labelled adiaphora, the non-essentials.

Sadly, this congregation, like our larger society, has a history of bitter disputes. Like each of you, I see through a glass darkly and have no claim to infallibility. God's people here, and everywhere, inevitably disagree over issues that seem important yet are not essential for salvation. When those disagreements occur, remember the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus recognized him as a human, saw in him the light of God's image, no matter how tarnished, restored him to the community, embracing him as a disciple.

Disagree. But then metaphorically, cross the aisle. Smile at one another. Embrace one another as brothers and sisters, clothed in Christ.

May our symbols of God's grace – water, light, bread, wine, word, and touch – exorcise your demons and fill you with new life. And when the service is ended, go, and tell others what wondrous things God is doing in this place. Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 8:26-39.
[2] Galatians 3:23-29.
[3] John Barton, “Richard Hooker and Puritans: Of sundry things, in the light of reason,” Church Times, 14 June 2019.


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