The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 23, 2019
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. (Luke 8:35)
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I was younger, I had an aunt and uncle who lived in DC. My uncle had been to medical school at Georgetown, and sometimes when we would visit, if we were in Georgetown, he would point out the steep steps used for a scene in the 1973 horror film The Exorcist. At the time, I had never seen the movie, but later on I did, and I began to realize why for my uncle these steps, indeed any of the images from the movie itself, had become part of the imagery of our popular culture. My uncle could just assume that we’d know what the steps were. And I’ll bet that you have some images from that film in your own parlance, even if you’ve not seen it—demons that throw people down stairs, that make heads spin around, that lift bodies off the ground in spasms and fits—dramatic stuff that makes for very good shock value if nothing else. The Exorcist and movies like it captures our popular imagination—the sheer drama of the scenes arrest our attention and shock us, scare us, thrill us—take us out of our normal every day images of the world, if at least for just a moment, in a medium that is safe—up there, on the screen—unreal, imaginary, pretend—something we can stand outside of and observe.
But in reality, of course, exorcism is nothing like the event portrayed on the silver screen—it’s simply a prayer for the deliverance of evil. Remember when we ask baptismal candidates if they renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires that draw them from the love of God? This is an exorcism—a prayer for deliverance from evil, a turning towards God. Not nearly as dramatic as the scene in the movie—or even as the scene in our gospel lesson today--the story of a man possessed by demonic forces. Demons have him bound up, evil controls his life. He can’t keep his clothes on, he lives among the tombs; even when he is shackled with chains, he breaks them and runs off into the wild. Evil has had a real impact on his life—where and how he lives.
To be clear, in this story, there is no indication that the man himself is evil—rather, we learn that he is possessed by evil. We know that evil is something we can do--and it’s something that can be done to us--or happen to us.
And today we’d probably call what’s happening to the man schizophrenia, or psychosis. Perhaps a psychiatrist could help him with medication. Medical personnel might even carefully restrain him to keep him from harm--or to keep his actions from hurting others. We might describe his “possession” as a chemical imbalance, or a structural difference in his brain. While our understanding of possession might be different, we can still understand that he would feel the effects--recognize the thing that binds his life up, that makes his days feel as though he is possessed by demons.
We recognize in this story, in this man’s situation, the reality of evil--and in our own lives today. The impact of sin, of evil, of brokenness--whatever word and category fits for the situation--the impact is real. The thing itself is real. When the demonic spirits that bind the man leave him, we see them go. We see the impact of evil when the spirits they enter a herd of pigs, which then run into the lake and drown.
Evil is real, and it has real consequences. And while we may not suffer as this man suffered, we certainly know demons, sources and manifestations of evil, that possess us—things that bind us, that control us, that cause us and those around us harm: those things that bind us, that control us, that keep us running among the tombs, separated from one another, separated from God. Addiction, greed, lust, pride—even social conditions like racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia—these can be the chains of evil that bind our brothers and sisters, that bind ourselves, and separate us, hold us back, from the fullness that God intends for us in creation.
And we only have to look around to know the consequences of evil; our families, friends, neighbors—the entirety of society—are impacted in real ways by evil. The pigs really do run into the lake and drown. Someone loses a food source, a livelihood, when the spirits enter these pigs. And our relationships are really broken by personal and social ills that plague and bind us. People are hurt, and some die.
I was lamenting with a colleague last week that the things we preach about Christian community--the things we read about in scripture--the expectations that we have that we love one another as Christ has loved us--these things never quite get lived out the way we want them to be. We laughed as we named the thing that throws everything off course--the thing that keeps us from living in the fullness of the kingdom of God. It’s just sin. Plain and simple. Sin done to us, sin that we commit. Anything that separates us from God--from the vision of the kingdom of God--from living in the way that God created us to live--that thing is sin. And it’s real. And we know the consequences, the pain, the brokenness that follows in its wake.
We can see it easily in the image projected on the screen--the dramatic movie character with a head that spins around. We can envision the ravages of pathology when we hear a brother or sister wailing in the streets of New Haven, calling out to voices that aren’t really there. We can name it when there’s a DSM category we can assign. But evil lurks quietly in our own lives as well.
In the face of evil that prowls around us, we have hope in our Lord Jesus: Jesus, who frees the man possessed by demons. Though they are many, Jesus speaks their name and takes power over them and casts them out. The possessed man knows the weight of the evil that binds him, and he goes to Jesus—just when Jesus steps from the boat onto dry land, there the man is, seeking him out. And we can, too—we can ask for and receive the freedom that Jesus gives from bondage to sin and evil and death. We can expect that sort of restoration and healing as real and work for it even now, even if it is to come more fully in the life to come.
If we but reach out, Jesus is there, with the power to forgive, to heal, to free from evil, from sin, from death. That is the hope of the resurrection, friends, the story that Luke is pointing us towards in these stories—that Jesus has the authority, the power, to heal and to save. And I don’t mean a magical power; healing and restoration isn’t just flipping a switch, is it? The healing of the sort of societal ills that lead to gun violence, to incarceration of those who have not committed crimes on our southern border, the racism and oppression of people of color in our society, the political divisions that tear friendships and families and cities and our nation—those are things worth taking on, worth seeking healing and wholeness. Friends in recovery from addiction tell me that it’s a day to day process for them—one day at a time--and they are really honest about their need for God in those daily decisions to stay sober, safe, and clean—they are honest that Jesus is there, unbinding them, unbinding us, from the evil that enslaves us. One day at a time, in Jesus, it is possible. We can work for it. For the kingdom of God has come near. It has come near, and is coming.
Each month in the parish vestry meeting the whole vestry reads and reflects on a passage from scripture as part of our time together. This month we read this particular passage. As we shared in the room what images, words, and ideas captured our imagination, several people highlighted the reaction of the community when the man was healed. We were surprised by the reaction. You’d expect that people would be glad, happy even, that the man was free of the torments that had held him for so many years. But instead, scripture tells us, “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.” (Luke 8:35). And again, they “asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” (37)
A member of their community was healed. And they were afraid.
If you’re a fan of family systems theory, the typology developed by psychologist Murray Bowen, you’ll recall that systems--groups of people, organized and behaving in particular ways--systems are hard to change. They default to what they have known. Change can even be frightening, anxiety provoking. In the system that is this community in our gospel reading, the people know how to deal with the man who is possessed by demons. They’ve chained him up, they’ve figured out how they can best handle him. They’ve gotten used to his ranting and his tearing around town with no clothes on. But when he is actually healed, sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind, they become afraid.
What is it that’s frightening to us about change? What is it that stops us from believing that things can actually change? What stops us from knowing, as the man who was possessed comes to know, that the kingdom of God has come near?
I suspect that if the townspeople really believed what they had seen they might have tried out a different world view. Rather than expecting that it was normal for the possessed man to be tormented, they might have expected hope and healing.
What would our world look like if we believed that the kingdom of God has come near?
What would it look like if we believed that God in Christ Jesus is healing and restoring all things to himself?
What would it look like if we were to live differently?
We know that there is a cost to evil; that doesn’t magically go away. Some pigs may still run over the cliff. Our lives may be inconvenienced. We may have to get involved, to risk disappointment, pain, fear, or even loss.
But there on the shore, friends, we meet Jesus--the one who can cast out all demons, who restores all things to wholeness. The one who brings hope, healing, and new life.
Where do you need Jesus’s healing in your life today? What do you need to be freed from? What evil is impacting us, what sin is tearing our world apart? Name it, acknowledge it, and know that the kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus is about the work of freeing us. Meet him at the boat, feel his loving embrace, and run to tell the whole world about who you’ve met there on the shore.