Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
23 June 2019 + Lectionary 12C
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
The Exorcist was maybe not the best choice of movie for a 10-year-old boy… but what can I say? I loved scary movies — emphasis on the past tense loved— and my family was foolish enough to indulge me. Where pre-teen and high school Josh couldn’t get enough of horror films, the twenty-very-soon-to-be-thirty-something Josh can’t stay far enough away.
What is it with our cultural obsession with scary movies? A cultural anthropologist could probably answer that a lot better than I could, but you don’t have to be a cultural anthropologist to google “exorcist movies” and find yourself scrolling through endless, horrifying, sometimes baffling results. From films to folklore to visual art, across cultures, our preconceived notions of demons, devils, and evil spirits run wild.
And so, from a preacher’s perspective, there’s a certain challenge to preaching on “demon” texts — those stories from the gospels where Jesus is casting out demons. But there’s also an opportunity here to ask: What are “demons,” really?
All week long, as I’ve been thinking about that question, it’s also been VBS week here at Unity. Raise your hand if you were a part of VBS this year, either as a crew member or leader or other helper. Keep your hands up. And now raise your hand if you’ve been a part of VBS at Unity in some way in the past. So all of you know that VBS at Unity is what we call “playful with a purpose” VBS: it’s fun (duh!), but it’s also purposeful. And this year, in addition to games and crafts and science projects, we’ve been learning all about malaria and how it’s still a pretty big problem in many parts of the world. And we’ve also been learning about the ways we can help get rid of it. (VBS kids, remember the new word we learned? Eradicate!) Because we know that malaria is a harmful disease that prevents people who have it from being able to do the things they want or need to do in order to live healthy, meaningful lives.
There’s no Bible story about malaria, but it’s not difficult to imagine malaria as its own kind of “demon.” Demons, whatever you believe or don’t believe about them, are usually synonymous with evil — and evil is anything that is contrary to God’s vision for humankind and for all of creation, anything that prevents God’s people from flourishing and living in community with one another and living into the fullness of what God created all of us to be.
I think that’s a pretty good working definition, and it certainly makes it a lot easier to see the things in our world today that are “demons” or “demonic”:
Malaria for one.
But also more sinister evils, like racism and sexism and homophobia, that are “demonic” when our own fears and prejudices cause us to judge or degrade other people simply for they are. And the demons of gun violence and mass shootings and acts of terror that all-too-regularly dominate headlines and possess our world. I even saw on Facebook not too long ago a picture someone had posted of backpack, marketed as being “bulletproof.” That’s not a thing that should have to exist. But a stark reminder of the evil that shows up in acts of violence.
And there are the more subtle demons, too. Many biblical scholars have been quick to liken the demon-possessed man to someone who is living with mental illness or addiction. Certainly such things existed two thousand years ago, but they didn’t have medical terminology for it and so it was more natural to call it all “demon possession.” It’s not that these things are necessarily “demons” themselves, but I think it’s the way we treat them, with our own stigmas and fears and judgments, that only further demonize those who live with these conditions. Look at the man in today’s gospel: He has no house, no clothes. He lives in the tombs, probably on the very literal outskirts of town. And he’s kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles. Alone. Isolated.
And then there are our own everyday “demons”: the fear of not being good enough, or saying or doing the wrong thing; the insecurity of being perceived as “less than” or falling short of the expectations placed on us by ourselves or others; even the limitations of our bodies when we get sick or as we grow older, when we can’t do all the things we once could do so easily.
I think all of us, in some way or another, experience “demons,” whether they are societal or personal.
So what’s the good news here? Jesus casts out demons.
This week, our VBS kids learned that where malaria says stop, Jesus says yes – yes to life, yes to healing, yes to thriving, yes to being all God wants us to be. Where “isms” and phobias divide us from one another, where mental health and addictions weigh on us and seem to suffocate us, where violence seems to dominate news headlines, Jesus offers another way: the way of life and liberation and healing and wholeness.
…which is all well and good in theory. But what do we say or do when the demons just won’t go away? When another act of hate or violence is “breaking news,” or when depression or anxiety flares up (again), or when we can’t shake the feelings of guilt that we messed up (again).
One of the interesting things about our gospel story today is that we don’t know where the demons wind up next. We just assume that they drowned with the pigs in the lake. But Luke doesn’t actually tell us that. And we need look no further than our own lived experience to know that these “demons,” in whatever forms they present themselves, still exist. That’s the reality of living in a world broken by sin.
But I see hope. I see hope in our VBS kids who raised nearly $1000 this week for mosquito netting to help eradicate the demon of malaria. I see hope in the way this congregation partners with recovery centers to help eradicate the demon of stigma that surrounds our siblings who struggle with addiction. I see hope in the ways all of you come together Sunday after Sunday and small group after small group, showing up for each other, and supporting each other, to help eradicate those everyday demons of our own individual limitations by being church together.
Eradicating demons isn’t easy, but we have each other in this community of faith. Even the little things: a friendly smile or an extra measure of patience and kindness. Ask our VBS kids what they learned this week: They know that little things can make a big difference.
In the midst of and even in spite of this world’s demons, we can also sing of the One with the power to eradicate them and the One who gives us strength when we most need it: I heard the voice of Jesus say, come unto me and rest!