Sunday, June 19, 2016

An Army of Demons (Proper 7C)

Gerasene Demon, by Toonfed (Frederico Blee)

“An Army of Demons”
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)
8 a.m.said and 10:00 sung Eucharist 19 June 2016
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland
The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, Rector

God, take away our hearts of stone
 and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.

Most healing stories in the gospels are pretty simple:  There’s an afflicted person, and Jesus fixes them.  Here, Jesus confronts what seems to be a primal force of nature, uncontrollable and uncontrolled. “For a long time [the afflicted man] had worn no clothes… Many times [the demon] had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven into the wilds.”  This guy has been through the wringer—multiple possessions, getting worse until he ends up raving, naked, and bleeding in a graveyard.  Here is something deeper and darker than normal illness, something intractable and overwhelming.

Jesus starts to cast the demon out; it argues with him, “Why am I any of your business?   Don’t hurt me!”   Jesus asks the demon its name, a prelude to exorcism in that day and age. It replies, “We are legion.”  Not very helpful: more a taunt than a name.  “Legion” was a 6,000 soldier-strong battalion in the Roman Army.   “My name?  I am so numerous as to be almost chaotic, as strong as the Roman imperium, and as violent as an army.  My name? Legion.”     

These demons are violent and expect the same of Jesus.  They call him Son of God but think this just means someone more violent and powerful than they are: “Don’t torment us, or cast us into the pit!”  But instead, without using violence, he drives them out of the poor man.  He even gives them their wish, to go into a herd of swine.  But alas, the violence of the demons is just too overpowering: the pigs panic and run headlong into the sea, drowning.  This terrifies everyone there. They beg Jesus to leave, just as afraid of violence from him as the demons. 

This story is about healing a mental illness, since people then blamed demons for madness. But “demons” also had another meaning.  They often are the personification not just of personal interior conflicts, but also of the unseen movers behind the world we see, the drivers we cannot see or explain.  When Paul talks about “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers” (Col. 1:16) in God’s creation, he is thinking of spiritual beings, whether angelic or demonic, at work in the world around us.    We identify these same forces more abstractly, and less personally. We call them institutions, cultures, governments, corporations, power structures, ideologies, and value systems.

That’s why the great social conscience theologian of our age, Walter Wink, entitled his books Naming…, Unmasking…, and, Engaging the Powers.   He saw with clear vision these dark forces in the world around us that fight against God’s good intention for creation: abundance, peace, and justice.

We saw dark forces at work in the world this last week: last Sunday morning’s news of murder of 49 people at a gay and lesbian nightclub in Orlando, most of them Latino or Latina.    It shocked, but did not surprise anyone: another case of assault weapons in the hands of an angry male run amok, a problem that our society doesn’t want to deal with.   Orlando’s mass murder, driven by hatred of gays, occurred one year to the week after the mass murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, driven by racism.   The killer made reference to his faith (he was from a Muslim family) and an allegiance to Da'esh in a phone call to the police during the shooting, but little evidence has been uncovered linking him to terrorist planning networks.  At the very least, we can say the act was a hate-crime against gay people.     

The demons, primal and intractable, that possess us as a people are seen in this.  These demons are not named Azazel or Beelzebub.  They have different names, and Jesus has something to say to each: 

Violence:  It seems that the violence that plagues us is uncontrollable, just like Legion.   We glorify violence in our arts, have movies that tell stories of the good guys blowing the bad guys away, use armed force as a major component of our foreign policy, proclaim it in our political memes, and think that capital punishment is the ultimate solution to horrible crime.  Guns are an important part of this culture of violence.  
Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America says that our culture embraces the idea that there is no problem so severe that it wouldn’t improve if we could just shoot someone.  Walter Wink called this the false “myth of redemptive violence.”   To this, Jesus says, “those who live by the sword will die by it,” and “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” 
Fear:  Closely tied to this fascination with violence, is fear.  Most people who buy guns and who argue for no restrictions on gun ownership appeal to “self-defense” as their motivation.  They buy guns and want others to buy guns because of fear.   Fear makes us hunger at a banquet, be stingy with abundance, and externalize all our problems.  To this, Jesus says, “be not afraid, I am with you.”   

Rejection of the Stranger: Blaming our problems on someone else, we scapegoat.  We  make them bear the blame, and take it outside the wall.  If you don’t have a wall, build one.  And make the stranger pay for it.   To this Jesus says, “welcome and care for the alien and foreigner, for you too were once aliens,” and “the only thing that will matter on the last day will be whether you cared for the most vulnerable and least able to care for themselves.” 

Disgust at the Strange:  Blaming our problems on other people might seem a bit too unfair. So we say “love the sinner hate the sin.”  We objectify evil and bad and identify it with anything that is different than we are, anything with which we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable.  Disgust is the most common emotion we experience as we do this, and we often link the object of our disgust with the impure, the unclean, the corrupt.  Disgust is an instinctual emotion that tries to keep us safe by keeping us from eating or touching poisonous or contaminated things.  But when it becomes part of a system of exclusion, oppression, or power relationship, it is a demon of great power.  Using any reason—different sex, language, cultural practices, sexual orientation, skin color or hair texture—any reason to take away in our minds the image of God that God left in creating a person and replace it with a cartoon caricature that disgusts us is evil.  That is what the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and stories about Jesus spending his time with sinners, drunkards, and whores are all about.   Disgust must never get in the way of generosity and welcome.  Let me be clear:  Homophobia is a sin.  Sexism is a sin.  Racism is a sin.  Xenophobia and nativist political ideology are a sin.  It’s that simple.   Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first last,” and “follow me” when he spent most of his life with the very people his religion told him were unclean and unworthy.  And this was not simply so he could fix them and make them less disgusting.    Remember the story of him and the Canaanite woman?  He learned from her faith to accept what he previously found beyond the pale.

Of course, the demons of Power, Control, and Wealth are all here too. The gun lobby draws its strength from the money of gun manufacturers and sellers and the greed of politicians eager for it.   To all these, Jesus says “You need to lose your life in order to save it,” “not as I will, but as you will,” and “You cannot serve both God and money.”  

Bigotry seems always abetted by religious hierarchies seeking to preserve their privilege.  They shame and condemn those they see as unclean and unworthy of God’s blessing.  Some say the problem is a lack of godliness in our society, mainly in the groups they do not like.  “We are only trying to follow God’s commands,” they say.  The curious thing is that some of these are talking about the Bible, and others are talking about the Koran.   Christian and Muslim fundamentalist fanatics have many of the same habits and arguments.   Jesus says “love your enemy,” and, “sinners will go into the kingdom of heaven long before the religious and righteous who oppress them,”  and, “judge not, lest you be judged as well.”   

Unhappily, the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all contain a few passages that incite violence against the ungodly and the impure.   These do not represent the heart of God.  The unstable and the unscrupulous can exploit them to stir up horror in the name of God.   These same Scriptures also all dream of a world from which murderous violence has been finally exorcised.  The prophets sing of a world where swords have become farming tools and where natural enemies dwell in peace together.   All three faiths teach that God’s most basic nature is steadfast loving kindness. 

Facing Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Charleston, Sandyhook and Columbine, we as a people are flummoxed.  We cannot even agree on the names of what is at work here. And we all tend to demonize those who disagree with us: violence and scapegoating are part of who we are.   

One definition of insanity is always trying the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.   In America, guns and our obsession with power and privilege have made us crazy.  Our original sin is racism and all the other “isms” of bigotry that mimic it.  This demon is both a mental illness and the powers at work in society.

Those songs of the prophets tell of a world no longer haunted by war, horror, or hunger.  This should should give us hope.  This is what God wants for us.  In the end, God will win.  Love will win. 

 Exorcism, tapestry, Andrei Madekin

Legion, breaking all the chains and bonds, bursts forth to terrorize us. Legion brings us to the grave mourning again and again.  Orlando, I fear, is the latest, not the last of his appearances.  We wait in the graveyard, head bloodied and body aching, for deliverance.  This legion of demons has us in his thrall.  So we wait, we pray, and we keep on trying to drive the demon out.   Gay people, straight people, trans people, whites, blacks, old Americans and newcomers, citizens and aliens, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and everyone else—we wait and we hope. We, not them and us.  And we pray that those songs of freedom and peace open all our hearts and that we work together to drive away the army of demons.   To do otherwise is to accept the fate of the Gadarene swine. 

Jesus in today’s story assures us one day we will sit together, clothed and in our right minds.  
Thanks be to God.  


  1. Tony, you name the unspeakable; a service to the Church and our society.

  2. This is a very fine and thorough and clear exposition and diagnosis. Calling the demons by name and identifying them as what they are is essential, and this sermon does that for us very effectively. Thank you!

  3. Nice connection between the parable and our current crisis with gun violence, Tony. I wonder, taking it a step further, what we can do to alleviate an individual's self-hatred and torment? There is a danger to demonize the killers and offenders, it just sends the infection deeper into the darkness....