Dealing With Demons

by Rev. Sarah Buteux

Epiphany 4b

Mark 1:21-39

After he calls his disciples, Jesus’ ministry in Mark begins with the healing of the sick and the casting out of demons; which would be great for me if my job were to read the scriptures each week and then write up scripts for a supernatural drama on the CW.

But it’s not. My job is to stand up here and help you make sense of our Holy Scriptures in fifteen minutes or less so that you too can go on to lead holy and useful lives, be kind, and recycle. Right Betty? Right.

Unfortunately for me, and maybe even for you, this week’s passage includes multiple cases of demon possession, public exorcisms, and miraculous healings; not the sort of thing I can really explain or would even expect you to take all that seriously; at least not at first.

After all, in this part of the country, at this time in our history, in nice, polite, non-charismatic churches such as this one, we don’t see a whole lot of this sort of thing. We tend to dismiss faith healers as charlatans, exorcisms as fodder for horror movies, and we’re not exactly comfortable with disruptions during our time of worship.

We read of Jesus casting out demons, and even if we can suspend our disbelief long enough to accept that the people he worked with were in fact healed by their encounter with him, we are still inclined to look back on the demon possessed in the Bible as individuals who must have been suffering from something like epilepsy or schizophrenia. We certainly don’t think of them as people possessed by spirits with actual names like Asmodeus or Beelzebub.

Stories about exorcisms strike most of us as improbable if not impossible. And in some ways, stories of miraculous healings are even harder to understand because they inevitably leave us asking why?: Why do these things come through for some people, but not others? Why did miracles happen a whole lot back then and now, not so much?

These aren’t easy things to talk about. Nor are these simple questions to answer. But, we’ll be reading from the Gospel of Mark for the next few weeks, and this man with an unclean Spirit, Peter’s mother-in-law, and all the folk who gather outside her door, are just the first in a long line of people who will encounter this Prince of Peace who has come, as Isaiah foretold it, with healing in his wings.

Jesus will banish many more demons before his time on earth is done. He will even go so far as to raise people from the dead.

So this seems as good a time as any to grapple with what ancient stories of exorcisms and miraculous healings have to do with us.

I mean, why should we read about such things? If these stories are included in the gospel narratives to prove to us that Jesus was divine, well then hey, I will be the first to admit that they don’t work all that well… at least not any more.

Miracle stories such as these are simply too easy to dismiss as the embellished gossip of pre-modern people, the fabrications of loyal followers, the propaganda of an early church.

But, if they’ve been passed down to us to remind us that nobody has it all together, that everyone needs healing on some level, that we all grapple with demons whether we realize it or not, then maybe they do still have something to offer.

That is to say, maybe we should hold on to these stories not so much for what they have to tell us about Jesus as for what they have to tell us about ourselves.

I may not always know what to make of them, but I appreciate these stories because they remind us that life is hard, the body fragile. And the body has nothing on the mind when it comes to its ability to sustain harm.

It never ceases to amaze me, how much damage we manage to do to ourselves and others in this life. As we bumble about in our relationships: learning what it is to be a friend, a lover, a partner, a parent, even a church, we get hurt a lot, and we usually manage along the way to give as good as we get.

Many of us walk through life with physical ailments, but I think all of us, no matter how hale and hearty we may appear on the outside, all of us walk through life suffering from some form of wounded spirit.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that there is not a one of us here today who hasn’t suffered loss, disappointment, anger, or pain. Not a one who couldn’t benefit from the weight of those holy hands upon our head, whose life would not be changed by hearing the words: “rise, get up, for your faith has made you well.”

I actually think these stories are very important because they remind us that we all need healing, and you know what? Call me crazy if you want, but a little exorcism might not be all that bad either.

I’m not saying I want to do that right now because in a nice, polite, non-charismatic church such as ours that would just be weird, but honestly, I think that we all carry demons around within us:

demons who wreck havoc in our lives, demons who slip into us at the slightest provocation, demons who wrap themselves around our hearts, who burrow deep down in our souls, and then do all in their power to make us believe that we are worth so much less than we really are or that we deserve so much more than we really do.

These demons really ought to be told to “shut up” as they are shown the door. Trouble is, it’s really hard to confront such things if you don’t believe they even exist.

But they do. At least, I believe they do. I’m not saying that our demons today bear names like Moloch or Abaddon, but I think that’s only because they are much too clever. They too have changed with the times and are in fact content now to sound less like demi-urges from the deep and something more like incident reports.

I think our demons today are more apt to carry names like:

“we tried that once and it didn’t work”
“I stopped talking to my sister years ago after she…”
“there’s no point because my teacher hates me … my boss is unfair the other party is in power”
“… my husband won’t even notice… my wife wouldn’t care”

And then of course there is the evil Trifecta most of us encountered back in school: “Everybody else is doing it…” “One more won’t hurt.” And “No one will ever know I got this paper off the internet.” Beware. Those three are an especially nasty piece of work.

I came into contact with a demon very early on in my life named, “women can’t be ministers.” I’m sure there’s a whole genus of demons in the “women can’t do this or that” category, but my little fellow is definitely named “women can’t be ministers,” and that foul creature has dogged me all my life.

Most of the time, thanks be to God, it has no power over me. But there have been days – those early days when I tried to preach before I found my voice, the days during pregnancy when I was so sick I could care for no one but myself, those days when the kids are on vacation and I’m not – you know -those days when the demands of life and motherhood conflict with the demands of ministry so much so that I don’t think I can do it all.

On those days, that little bugger puffs up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon and goes parading across my heart until I recognize it for what it is and in the name of Jesus tell it to be gone.

I’m sure if I opened this up and asked you to name your own demons we’d learn of at least 50 more:

“There’s something wrong with you because you’re gay,”
“It’s ok to write that because E-mail is confidential.”
“Sure you can text and drive…nobody else should because that would be insane. But you…it’s ok for you.”

My point is this: our demons may have found new names, but they continue to whisper the same old lies. They are, they always have been, those things in our lives: past hurts, old wounds, internalized shame, bitter hatreds, powerful addictions, lame excuses, all those things that keep us down and hold us back individually and collectively.

They are all those things that defy us to reconcile relationships, all those memories that caution us against trying again lest we get hurt; all those fears that prevent us from rebuilding and redeeming what has been lost or broken.

They are the rationalizations that help us justify the damage we do to ourselves and others, the shades who feed our sense of entitlement and blind us to our privilege. And there is nothing they love more then when we blame everything wrong in life on “those people” rather than take responsibility for what has been or what could yet be.

Demons delight when we talk about the communities we belong to in the third person and say things like: “They took all or jobs away,” or “They are making us do this,” or “They won’t let us do that,” because they love division and over simplification. They thrive on labels and stereotypes because

-in case you hadn’t figured it out by now-

demons are all about demonizing rather than humanizing. So the next time you hear yourself talking about “them,” maybe take a step back and see if you don’t smell a little sulfur wafting round your soul.

And finally, I also believe that demons come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

I believe there are little demons adept at cataloging all the minor indignities we suffer and justifying all the petty wounds we inflict as individuals. And I believe there are larger demons, grown swollen with the history of humanity’s injustice who prey upon whole peoples. I’m thinking of demons with names like:

“Not in my backyard.”
“I was only following orders”
“My Country First.”
“Build the Wall.”

I don’t know if these are big demons or legions of small ones.

All I know is that large or small, what they all have in common, the big ones and the little ones, the ancient vendettas and the shiny new wrongs, is their desire to break us up and keep us at odds with one another, their craving to keep us down and hold us back from being good to ourselves and one another, the ones who tell us it’s ok to cast out, turn our backs on, or actively harm…the…other.

Which is why – gospel alert- it is good to know that we are not alone in this battle. Friends, that’s why we keep reading these stories. We read to remember that it is never just us left to our pain or our sin or our fear.

It is never just us against the demons. For we serve a living God and a risen savior. The same savior who time after time reached out his hands and called people to, “rise up and walk,” back then, is calling to us, even now, through these stories.

Softly and tenderly calling us to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to believe in the power of God to overcome any obstacle, heal any wound, and cast out any evil.
Jesus is calling us to rise and risk loving over and over again no matter the cost… to keep loving all the wrong people even after we’ve been warned time and again to stop.

And so I think we ought to read the Gospel stories, especially these strange accounts of exorcisms and miraculous healings, so that we too can hear the voice of Jesus casting out the demons who haunt us, so that we too can hear the voice of Jesus calling us to rise up, for your faith has made you well.”

My friends, the demons exist to break us up and tear us down and turn us against one another. That is what they live for. That is what they feed on.

Our job is to hang together, to pull together, to hold things together even when it hurts and tell the demons to be gone in the name of Jesus when they come round trying to break up our families, our friendships, our churches, our communities. Amen?

Our job is to show up for one another, speak up for one another, and give till it hurts for the sake of one another when those demons come round telling us that the suffering of others has nothing to do with us.

Our job is to see the best in one another rather than fear the worst, to reach across the lines that divide us when they come around whispering that those people over there are too evil or ignorant to be trusted. And our job is to pray and ask God to help us in the midst of it all.

Because when we do our job, the demons shudder, just as they did that day in Capernaum. When we do our part they cry out with rage and frustration.

When we make any move toward healing and wholeness, their hold on us is compromised, their influence upon our lives is weakened, their power to wreak havoc diminished.

That is the good news at the heart of these strange old stories, the gift Jesus holds out to us, even now, if we are willing to receive it.

So let us pray together, pray for the grace to be set free:

O God, you and you alone can heal us of the hurts that haunt us, the wounds that pain us, the prejudices and habits that drag us down. You alone, O God, can break the hold our demons have over our lives and the damage they do to our relationships with one another. Come then Holy One and set us free that we might serve you. Come and set us free that we might serve others in your name. Come and bind us together in love. Amen.