I preached this sermon the week after the Orlando night club shootings, my first Sunday of 7 as a “bridge pastor” for the summer. It still seems painfully relevant. The Gospel was Luke 8: 26-39.
This is a strange story, especially for us, especially this week. We are tempted to dismiss it as having no relevance whatsoever to the year 2016 in the United States, because demons and casting them out (exorcisms) are not really part of our reality.
When my husband was in medical school he arranged an international rotation in Eastern Africa. We were married by then and the church where I was the associate pastor at the time gave me a mini-sabbatical to go with him, while learning for them and interpreting how well-meaning church people in the U.S. can do good or harm through various kinds of global mission. So it was I found myself after a while in a gathering for worship among the Maasai people, led by a U.S. missionary of 40 years. A woman stumbled around the outside of the circle of the people gathered, finally falling to the ground in what seemed like a seizure. Two of the local evangelists moved over to help her. Pastor Herb finished the Benediction, then calmly walked over to the woman, took something off from around her neck, which one of the evangelists then burned on the ground. He spoke so very calmly, but firmly. The evangelists were repeating what he said, and one of them getting kind of loud. Pastor Herb just held up his hand (and later told us what he said in Swahili): “There’s no need to shout. Just speak the name of Jesus, and the demon will leave.” Later he explained everything to me and a college student who was also traveling with us, and I relayed the incident to my church. Now, I’m a Lutheran from Ohio. Demon possession is only in horror films, as far as I know. But I get the deep truth to be found in symbolism. The woman, like many in her culture, had gone to a shaman for a talisman or charm for fertility issues. Pastor Herb explained, in the absence of birth control or much access to medicine, this was what women did when they couldn’t have children, or wanted to stop having children – either end of the spectrum. And such talismans came with some kind of obligation to keep going back to the shaman, paying him, to keep the power going. Women’s primary value in this culture is bearing and raising children, so if there’s a problem with that, there is a great brokenness. Can you feel, in your gut, how necessary it would be to have a very public event to break that pattern of “you’re an outcast/you don’t value me” burden held between this woman and her community? Works for me.
Demons are a way -even today, even here – of talking about evil that is so real it is almost a living being, but certainly something that takes on a life of its own, against what we want our lives to be. It feels different than illness, mental or physical, because demons are a threat not just to the person afflicted, but to those around them, to the social order, to the community. Demons don’t just cause one person to do evil things. They draw out of all of us vitriole, hateful responses we normally wouldn’t believe we had in us.
So, what have you to do with me, Gospel reading from Luke 8?
The people in this Gospel story are not afraid of the man possessed by demons. They are afraid once he is freed from them. Why are they so afraid of the demoniac man being in his right mind again? Why was this healing such a threat? They are afraid of having to acknowledge that he is just like them . I’m going to psychologize the crowd, instead of the possessed man for a moment, and suggest that perhaps it works for them – for us – to have demons contained in people “other” than me. They chain him up, complain about how he’s broken out again and he’s so crazy, but it’s always him with the problem. He and his demons are the threat to our public safety. He makes us suspicious, on edge, paranoid, even. But I’m OK. As long as I keep my actions under control, the evil will always be located outside of me and I don’t need to hold any responsibility for it. But once the scapegoat, the one who embodies the legion of demons is going to be back among us, blending in? I can’t sort him out by his actions or beliefs or lifestyle and say, “That is why he and I are different. He’s got the demons and I don’t!” And if we’re cut from the same cloth, and truly do belong in community together, then I have to look at myself, instead of just staring and pointing at the Other.
Jesus not only heals the man with a legion of demons, but sends him back into our neighborhood, and we’re supposed to relate to him, forgive him, and live with him in community. To do that we must confess and ask for forgiveness for how we’ve treated him as less than a human being deserving dignity. The healed man doesn’t want to go home. He wants to stay with Jesus. And maybe that is partially awe or gratitude, but gosh, it must also be at least some fear! How could he expect that anyone would love him, after he’s been shamed and dehumanized and well, demonized, for so long?
The society that experiences rape with minimal punishment, racial violence without accountability and the worst mass shooting yet in the already marginalized LGBTQ community, needs to sort through how we all own these demons and the havoc they reek. We must admit that we have been too comfortable thinking and acting as if all the demons are contained outside of ourselves and inside others. Our lives must be examined too, because this is our community. We need Jesus, because what he does scares us. He declares that every person is beloved by God and family together, regardless of the demons we are each harboring. Something we are doing, or NOT doing, is letting these demons run wild among us. And I bet it has to do with our pretending they are all ONLY harbored by “those people,” not ourselves. Our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote a public letter this week that gets directly to the heart of the matter. She wrote, on Monday, one day after the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub:
We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God’s image. All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract “others,” they are us. But somehow, in the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. This separation led to the death of 49 and the wounding of 54 of us.
We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization. Yesterday, we witnessed the tragic consequences of this.
There is another way. In Christ God has reconciled the world to God’s self. Jesus lived among us sharing our humanity. Jesus died for us to restore our humanity. God invites us into this reconciling work. This must be our witness as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The perpetrator of this hate crime did not come out of nowhere. He was shaped by our culture of division, which itself has been misshapen by the manipulation of our fears. That is not who we are. St. Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:17-20).
Our work begins now. We need to examine ourselves, individually and as a church, to acknowledge the ways we have divided and have been divided. We must stand with people who have been “othered”. We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God’s image.
So, two practical things, action items, if you will: We who have privilege due to race, gender, or sexual orientation, must use our privilege to speak up for those who have no such privilege. Whether it’s on behalf of our LGBTQ kindred, women and girls, black & brown brothers and sisters, any vulnerable group whose pain has been all over the media headlines, use your privilege effectively. It’s not about being kind or not rude when you’re around those who are different from yourself. (We excuse ourselves from that by saying, “Well, I don’t even know any of such-and-such people.”) Use your privilege of having a voice that your peers will hear, when you are among all heterosexual friends or all-white neighbors or all co-workers of the same social class, to call people out on “jokes” that are slurs, or interpretations of events that sow hatred instead of love or anything that implies that victims of violence in any way “had it coming”. Those are the demons speaking, trying to hurt our brothers and sisters. Cast them out. At the risk to yourself of being put on the spot or even offending friends, use your privilege to speak for those who have no voice in those places. Jesus speaks, and the demons are cast out, so that community can heal. We must at least be willing to speak, or the headlines will only escalate. A second super-practical action related directly to the Orlando shooting is: give blood. If you can, do. Because folks in the LGBTQ community are often banned from giving blood, and mass numbers of people were shot, and that may be something you can give of yourself, that literally gives new life. The symbolism there is pretty powerful too.
There’s one more healing story that this one reminds me of, and it is a man laying by the pool of Siloam for years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Instead of a resounding “Yes!” he responds with, “but I have no one to lift me into the waters when the healing properties are stirred up.” He has no community. Our whole society, not just those specifically affected, needs to want to be healed, to participate in getting in there and doing the work necessary to mend what evil forces have ripped apart: our belonging to one another. Healing doesn’t happen by locking away the person who forces us to confront the problem. It only comes through the painfully hard work of confession and self-examination, slogging through our own sin to ask for forgiveness, and vowing to live differently, then doing it, for all of our sake.