Year B, Epiphany 4 February 1, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice came out of him.”
I get asked about unclean spirits, about demons more than you might imagine. I’ll tell you, this is one topic that puts most of us good Anglicans right off our crumpets. It does.
There’s no mystery to that. In the modern, post-Enlightenment world, we don’t like to look “beyond the range of elementary immediate experience,” as one theologian puts it. We like to see what we can see. If it is not verifiable or empirically measurable, if its not recordable or reproducible or able to have metrics assigned to it, not only will you not get that research grant or that federal funding for your school district, but you are not going to have anyone listening to you let alone take you seriously.
However, if there is one thing that we as Christians have to face, have to encounter, have to embrace, it is that the realm of Jesus Christ encompasses a universe that ranges beyond the borders of elementary immediate experience. Jesus reveals to us realties beyond those that the conscious parts of our being can fully understand. Great is the mystery of faith! Right? Because there is a lot more to the world than meets the eye, there is a lot more to the world than we see on its surface. Enter the demons.
Now, we are ranging into the world beyond our immediate experience (or comfort levels), but we’re not going too far. Take images from The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby or Ghostbusters or Harry Potter, take them right out of your mind. Those are not at all representative of what Jesus encountered there in the synagogue in Capernaum, or anywhere else in the scriptural record (well, except the holy holy, holy moment in Isaiah, that’s pretty fantastic). On the other end of the spectrum, when we speak of demons we ought not just apply a modern, clinical eye to the situation, either. The man in the synagogue in Capernaum is not going through a psychotic break; “unclean spirits” or “possessions” are not just pre-modern renderings of mental illness. No, this is something else.
Demons, as understood religiously, are incorporeal, meaning they do not have bodies yet they are in relationship with the material world as “principalities and powers.” They are conscious, created, finite beings which arise when, as the great Karl Rahner writes, “when worship of them is rejected or when the Christian is reminded of their superiority to all ‘principalities and powers.’” Demons arise when we fail to worship them, or when we are reminded that we are superior, we, Christians, conscious people are impervious to all “principalities and powers” (or can be). Stamping a foot: this is important! Demons arise when we resist, when we reject the powers of this world, when we see the world for what it is (a gift from God) and not what the principalities and powers would have us believe (that it is the possession and dominion of the powerful). Demons are very real.
Demons are forces that arise when worldly powers, powers unwelcome in the Kingdom of God are encountered and resisted. These forces erupt when we turn away from darkness, when we reject the lies and temptations, the oppression and domination of the principalities and powers of the world, when we reject them and turn towards God. And when we do that the demons do everything they can to bring us back into their fold, to make us worship them again, or to believe that they are more powerful than we are. Sounds pretty outlandish. Sounds pretty much like The Exorcist, right? The demon struggles and writhes as the priests first approached, but then, the closer they got to casting it out the tighter the demon held on, the louder it screamed, the more dire the situation became, all that split-pea soup flying around. Let’s take this back to St. Mark.
“What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” cried the man in the synagogue with a demon. So remember the setting. Jesus went into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The heavens open and God’s voice rings out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then he was driven to the wilderness where he fasted and was waited upon by angles. Then, after John’s arrest, Jesus made His way along the Sea of Galilee proclaiming that kingdom of God had come near as He called and gathered the first of His disciples. Then, as the Sabbath approached, they came to a town, went to the synagogue and taught with authority, resulting in a demon confronting him.
OK, let’s tell this story in another way… So here is this guy, Jesus, who goes to the wacko encampment with John, you know, locusts and loin cloths, right? Then, He goes off on a punishing 40 day fast, (what would you think about someone who religiously fasted that hard for 40 days)? Then He returns, preaching a radical message of forgiveness while scooping up followers from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. Fishermen were landless, and though at least the sons of Zebedee enjoyed family ownership of a boat and nets (they were better off then the hired men they left with dad), these were still poor, structurally powerless peasant men. So Jesus has been out on the fringes and with the unwashed masses, and yet He arrives for the Sabbath to the largest town around, entered the Synagogue and taught and, “they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority…” Amazing! Coming into town after baptism and extreme fasting, preaching radical repentance because “The Kingdom of God is near,” bringing with Him poor folks from the margins and then smoothly taking a position of authority in the synagogue, the most entrenched, invested principality and power in Israel besides the Roman occupiers? Just then… “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Enter the demon. Here is someone outside the fold bringing the light and life of God and justice to a hegemonic center of that age’s dominant paradigm and the dominant paradigm, it’s power contested, reacts in the form of a demon.
The demon arose precisely along the lines that Rahner described. Jesus failed to honor, to kowtow to, to worship something that did not merit worship. Jesus recognized that He was superior to the principalities and powers of the world, that His, that Jesus’ authority was greater than the forces He challenged. And what happened? Push back. The principalities and powers of the world don’t take kindly to being rejected, to Truth derailing their plans, and the anger of rejection that such principalities express when their power is subverted, or worse, denied… that is the breeding ground of demons. Do you follow?
So it is 1517, Wittenburg, Saxony, and a monk nails a list of 95 ways the Magisterium of the Church has gone astray… Martin Luther rejected worshiping that which was not God and demons awoke and Europe was plunged into chaos, sometimes devastatingly violent chaos for over 130 years. So it was in 1970 when 2000 students gathered on the Commons of Kent State to protest the expansion of our war in Viet Nam to Cambodia. After a couple of days of chaos, when it was clear that the power of the state had no power over the protestors, when the protestors realized that they were the ones with the power, the demons arose and four were dead, nine were wounded, and shame was brought upon the nation. The dogs and clubs on the Samuel Pettis Bride in ’65; the ’69 Stonewall riots; or last year’s sentencing of an 82 year old nun to three years in prison for trespassing in protest at the nuclear weapons lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (her 57 and 63 year old partners in protest each got five years). Demons. When the principalities and powers of the world are rejected, when their power is questioned, when their primacy is contradicted, when we realize that we are more powerful then they are, when we definitively say “Ya Basta! Enough! That is not how the world is supposed to be!” That is when they arise.
Demons are the collection of feelings, fears and angers and worse-case-scenarios and lowest common denominators that engulf or “possess” the agents of the principalities and powers. They become real in Sgt. Pryor of the Ohio National Guard firing the first shots at Kent. They became real in ordering the use of clubs and Tasers and boots to bludgeoned Rodney King, or in the firing of stakes upon which too many were burnt in Reformation Europe, or the pounding in of the nails held by the Roman Centurions on Golgotha. Those are demons. The same demons that confronted Jesus at his first public encounter with the principalities and powers in the synagogue in Capernaum.
But those demons also arise within those who resist the evil to begin with. Thoughts that resistance is in fact futile, that the dirty rotten system is too big to take on, that there is no reversing climate change so why bother trying? That your life is too far gone down the road of addiction or degradation or greed that its not worth changing or even trying to change. Or that maybe you did deserve x (to be paid less, treated poorly, disrespected, homeless, arrested, hit). Or much more subtle (and common) demons… “I’m not smart enough.” “I’ll always be this way.” “I’m not loveable.” Demons are the doubts that you do deserve what you get and not what God in Christ has promised. And what is really promised? That you are loved by the fabric of existence, important beyond our understanding. You the beloved of God, a pearl of great price.
But how many messages a day do we get telling us that this is just the way it is? The disparity of wealth is unfortunate, but what unavoidable in a free market? Well, no, there were not actually any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and? Campus rape… boys will be boys; football players will be football players, you girls should just avoid the fraternities.
Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior teaches with authority. He did long ago in Capernaum and He teaches us to this day. When we love God with all of our heart and with everything that we have as we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we do that, we will cease to treat as God that which is not God. It will be revealed that we are in fact superior to all of the principalities and powers that try to lord themselves over us and we will see the lies and deceptions that that block the coming of the kingdom and keep us trapped in this sin-filled world. When we take refuge in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will look out into the world and see it filled with uncountable numbers of beloved neighbors, human and otherwise deserving of respect and dignity, food, shelter and peace AND we will have the strength to transcend our difficulties and annoyances, the petty and the monumental because Jesus’ authority clears a path for us ourselves to do God’s will, to be and do what we know God needs of us. The authority of Jesus Christ tells us in no uncertain terms that right will always prevail, that the Commonwealth of God will be revealed when we have the courage to forgive the unforgivable, when we have the patience to love the unlovable, to resist the irresistible in turning the other cheek and walking further than even they could ask. There is a lot more to the world than we can see. And those demons didn’t have a chance against Jesus, and they won’t have a chance against you when we all follow Him together. AMEN.