January 29, 2012, The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

January 29, 2012
Year B, Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’”

Unclean spirits. Demons, even. That is what they mean by unclean spirits; demons. At times in the gospel record these kinds of spirits or demons accounted for mental illness; a supernatural explanation for a very natural occurrence. Jesus would miraculously drive the spirits out, saving the person in part by restoring them to ritual purity. Ritual purity was a big deal, because if you were not ritually pure, you could not go to temple to offer sacrifice; meaning that if you were not ritually pure your access to God was limited, or even non-existent. Mental illness made one impure, as did leprosy (which included skin maladies beyond actual leprosy, any kind of skin eruption, actually, like eczema or acne, hives). An even more common cause of ritual impurity was the pandemic of menstruation. Jesus said that this was ridiculous and did what he could to convince people that God loved them no matter what was going on with their bodies.

At other times, though, the demons of the Gospels represent a much broader problem in humanity: Sin. In many ways, the demons can be looked at as sin personified; that is sin that takes on some of the qualities of a person, a human. They take on personalities, have voices, some times. In our stories of the Evil One-the Accuser-Satan, sin is so profound that it takes on human or human-like form, such when Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted, “Turn these stones into bread…”

One of the greatest questions in religion and philosophy is how do we know what we know, or more specifically, how do we know that what we know is true or at least accurate. We take the world in through our senses and our imagination, and we process that through our analytical mind and our emotional, feeling self, and it can be really, really hard to know if what we think we see is really what we see, or means what we think it means. This is called Epistemology, the study of the nature of knowledge. As religious people, as people motivated by the life of the spirit, it is important that we understand how we come to understand. For those of us who want to follow the will of God, it is of critical importance that we recognize what is of God and what is not of God. So what does this have to do with demons? Whenever we find ourselves in the more complicated, sensitive corners of our lives, or when we are dealing with really, really important things, like what is right and wrong, like discerning the will of God, like, to be or not to be, demons flock like seagulls folowing a fishing boat.

There are three demons in particular that plague humanity, that really disrupt our ability to be the children of God that we are. They are in so many ways the lesser angels of our nature, and together, they conspire to distort our understanding, our ability to understand the true nature of things, of God, of the world, of ourselves. The first is known as Greed, the second Hatred, and third is goes by Delusion, who also is know as Ignorance. These three demons are formidable foes, but as we will see, we have a new teaching, a new teacher “– with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

Greed, variously known as Hunger, Craving, Thirst, Lust, Jealousy; this demon embodies the realm of consuming, grasping, clinging feelings. He is a ball of fear: fear of change, fear of not having enough, of lack. Avarice, gluttony… seeing the world through the eyes of Greed, we are deceived, and we attach too deep a meaning to things. The things we desire can appear to provide us with real satisfaction, and we can begin to desire things that we think will provide us with wholeness. And it is not just things, it is conditions that we attach to. We are never content with anything or anyone. Greed attaches profound importance to looking outside of ourselves for meaning and satisfaction; dangerous stuff with the fleeting, impermanent nature of things. It is craving, and craving is such a horrible feeling. No one behaves well is his grasp, because we feel like we are always grasping, clinging to the world outside of us. He leads us to believe there is no peace without holding onto that x.

Hatred is another demon we all face. Where Greed leads us to clutch onto the world, Hatred embodies the whole array of feelings that lead us push things away, to avoid, to not deal. This pernicious fellow is usually manifest as an aversion, avoidance of things unpleasant, uncomfortable. Of course we all want to avoid unpleasantness, but we fall under the spell of Hatred, of Aversion when we stop going into the garage because it is too cluttered, or we avoid certain subjects with our spouse because it is always just too much. He leads us to keep the world at distance, eschewing intimacy and honesty, always assuming the worst about others and their intentions, always assuming that a conflict is immanent, and then often complicating matters through pathological conflict avoidance. Hatred has us when we keep the world and ourselves, even, at arms length.

Lastly is Delusion. Delusion infects our ability to truly perceive the world and our place in it. When we do not see cause and effect, we seek happiness in things that cannot provide it and we grow bitter with disappointment and frustration when trying the same thing over and over again never produces different results. How scary, living in a world thinking it is one thing when really it is something else. Like believing that you are alone, that you are talentless or ugly or not worth anyone’s time or effort. That you deserve your lot. Especially when you are down, Delusion jumps up and down on your chest saying, “if you hadn’t been so lazy/stupid/gullible… if you weren’t such a bad person…” Delusion screams so loudly that sometimes we cannot tell what is what, or which way is up. You all know Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Delusion does its best to confound wisdom; in his grip you cannot know the difference.

Some things we cling to, some things we push away, some things we just do not rightly understand. Greed, Hatred, Delusion. These are the most common demons in our midst. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, he conflated these demonic forces under one label, Disordered Attachments. It is that self-world barrier, how things travel, communicate from me or you to you or me. From the outer to the inner, from the generative posture into the world to the receptive posture into yourself. Any time that barrier is traversed, there is the risk that we might have it wrong, that those demons might get a hand in the mix. The demons are opportunistic. When there is an opening, when we open oursleved to the world, as we must, they come. We must remain vigilant.

We must remain vigilant because the demons are wiley. They deceive us, they conceal themselves within us with great skill and tenacity and they become part of us. We spoke once about the committee in our heads, the voices we hear? These demons can really convince us that they are we. Dangerous. Thank God we are not alone. We haven’t been alone for a very long time. The people in the synagogue were astonished by the authority by which Jesus taught, but they did not recognize Him for who He was. The demon knew. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

You know the saying sunshine is the best disinfectant? Demons, particularly Greed, Hatred and Delusion, are immanently susceptible to sunlight. Mindfulness is the spiritual equivalent to sunlight. Mindfulness is holy noticing, holy paying attention. It is the sum total of some a process, a process grounded in meditation and prayer that allows us to take stock of our selves, to notice the subtle and not so subtle changes we all go through in the course of a lifetime, or a season of life, or for some of us, any given week. We spoke in Advent of Evelyn Underhill’s notion of prayer and _____? Mortification. Attending to God and dealing with ourselves. That is mindfulness. And how do we learn to do this? What resources do we have as Christians? Well, we have one who teaches with authority, the Holy one of God. We have His church and her traditions and scripture and community. We have each other.

How are we cultivating mindfulness? We have a new Bible study going on before church. We have an on going adult education program that needs more people. We have Sunday School. In Lent some of us will be closely reading a book of Evelyn Underhill’s. Morning prayer is up and running on Fridays. I am here to help with your prayer lives, not only corporately, like I am doing right now, but individually. Give me a call, let’s talk about prayer, about your prayer. We are going to be having monthly potlucks on the third Sunday. Demons hate potlucks. They hate strong community, too.

Demons… Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has power over them. Greed, Hatred, Delusion. These are just a few of them, the most common, the most persistent. If we are to be the servants of god that we need to be, to be the friends to each other we need to be, we need to get the demons off our collective backs. As Zechariah reminds us, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet in the way of peace.” AMEN