6/20/2010 sermon: Dealing with Demons

Location:  Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads
Text: Luke 8:26-39

Dealing with Demons

In our Gospel lesson today we hear the story of Jesus healing a man who was possessed by a legion of demons. I don’t know just how many demons there are in a legion, but it’s safe to say that there were a lot of them. We do not know all of the demons which were holding this man captive. However, we can name a few: he was naked, he was homeless, and he was isolated from others—so cut off from his family and community that he lived alone in the caves that served as tombs for his city. How much more dead can someone be who is still breathing?

We also do not know this man’s name. Instead, he was so swallowed up by demons that he is only able to identify himself by his condition. When Jesus asks him his name the man said only “Legion.” Think of it: he is no longer a person to the people whom he knows, but simply someone to be shunned and feared. Think of it: this man is no longer a person to himself, but he accepts this image that others project onto him.

Now demon possession is just not a diagnosis that we hear these days. Instead we might say that there was an organic disease or illness that had caused his problems. For example, psychologists would say that this man is a psychopath or sociopath, someone who has no concern or empathy for other people. Most of us would recognize that the harm that people with such conditions cause to other people is evil.

My example poses something of a problem, though. First, I don’t want to equate mental illness or other human disease with demon possession because no condition that befalls us is itself evil. Instead, it is what we do with the conditions that confront us that have moral weight. Then, too, because most of us are not psychopaths or sociopaths and (I hope!) have not encountered them, we might think that we have never encountered evil in our lives.

Perhaps evil’s biggest success is that by disguising itself amidst human disease and illness it has managed to convince us that it doesn’t exist. However, we have all entertained evil. My earliest recollection of an encounter with it is when, as a seven-year-old, someone told me that God hated me. I give this demon a home for a long time. What the experience taught me is that evil’s goal is to undo creation; it thrives on stealing our joy, our hope, and the thanks and praise that we owe to God.

There are some cultures—most notably in Africa and the Caribbean—that believe in demon possession. What they can teach us is how to avoid blaming God for the evil that wreaks havoc in our lives. We simply must blame evil that evil exists. We simply must thank God for the goodness of life itself.

I will not even try to explain evil. Being in seminary, I have heard many theories about it—you probably have heard them, too. If this is something that you would like to talk about, I would love to know your thoughts on the subject. However, it may not be possible to truly understand evil. Instead, we have two tasks when we see it. First, it seems more important to recognize evil’s presence and its intent—the annihilation of our hope and joy. Second, we need to know what to do about evil when we recognize it.

I think that the most useful thing that we can do about evil is to accept that we need help to deal with it. We simply cannot deal with evil all by ourselves. As Christians we know that the first one to whom we can turn for help is Jesus, the One whose victory over evil we proclaim in his death and Resurrection. Like the man possessed of a legion of demons in today’s Gospel lesson, we throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet and—as best as we are able—ask him to help us. Jesus’ response is that he heals us. It’s both an instantaneous event and a life-long process, one that begins with naming our demons and admitting our powerlessness over them. I think that we need doctors and therapists, too. We need all the help that we can get to overcome evil. We help each other overcome demons when we share our love, our hope, and our joy.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we see that the man with many demons had truly been healed. He was fully clothed and in his right mind. Jesus gave him a mission, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Last month Father John Thomas celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordained ministry here in this very room. I was struck by comparing how John’s view of spiritual health and how the Gospel lesson for today ends. John said, “People find their spiritual dimension, their purpose, wholeness, and hope for the future… by reaching beyond their own selves and needs… to engage with other people, the world, and the Holy…” That’s exactly what happened in today’s Gospel lesson: Jesus healed a man of many demons, and the man found his purpose, his wholeness, and his hope for the future. He was able once again to engage with other people to tell them of what God had done for him.

I pray that God will give us the courage to recognize the demons which assail us, to find healing at Jesus’ feet, and to tell others what God has done for us.

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