31 Jan, 2021

Exorcising Our Demons

31 Jan, 2021

Exorcising Our Demons

by Louise Westfall

There are demons among us.

Spirits of discord, destruction, and division. Evil displayed in hatred, solidified in structures and systems, manifest in profound human suffering.

And if the first image that popped into your mind was of another person, look more closely. There are demons among us. There are demons in us.

The morning scripture text is a story about Jesus healing a person possessed of these “unclean spirits.”   And I admit to you, such stories have always made me squirm a little. First, because demon possession has been caricatured in film and literature in ways that are over-the-top and completely outside my experience. Second, because in ancient times–before science and medical knowledge–all kinds of physical and mental illnesses were attributed to demon possession. Victims of such miseries were often judged harshly as demonic themselves and frequently removed from society. Yet the New Testament is full of these stories and in every single one Jesus recognizes their reality and acts to cast them out and restore their host to wholeness. A central part of Jesus’ identity is “healer” and much of his ministry was healing afflicted individuals. As we read the text today, I invite us to consider the conditions, perspectives, memories and regrets, fearsome rage, cold passivity, divided loyalties, and soul sickness in our very selves–a lot of the stuff we keep hidden that keeps us from the health and well-being God intends for us. Let us also consider the ways this evil emerges in human community, in church and society. Where is the power to confront and exorcise these destructive spirits?  How can we, individually and collectively, be healed? A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the first chapter, verses 21-28. Hear God’s Word to the demons among us.

Jesus was a different kind of teacher right from the start. His preaching had an urgency and promise that captured people’s hearts and imagination. He didn’t just talk, either, his very words carried power and agency; he practiced what he preached.

The scene in the synagogue is remarkable. We might wonder, first of all, about the appearance of the man with the unclean spirit–how did he get in, since such persons were excluded from holy worship?    Then there’s the irony that the unclean spirits recognized Jesus before anyone else, and knew that he was a threat to them. Jesus’ speaks with strong disapproval, vehemently calling them out. Healing comes by way of his powerful Word.

These details provide an arc, I believe, for the exorcism of the demonic in its myriad forms and expressions. Throughout his ministry, Jesus collapsed the hard division between “holy” and “unclean.”   Where else but the sanctuary of the God who so loved the world are the hated and the hateful welcomed equally?   The Church in Jesus’ name should be a hospital for the ailing, oppressed and oppressor alike. God’s intention for humanity–for all the beloved creation–is salvation. Saving us not simply from sin, but for goodness, freedom and joy.

But to realize that Divine intention means naming the truth of our broken world and our lives within that brokenness. Evil exists and is hell-bent on thwarting God’s good and loving purposes. How often do we hesitate to call it out for what it is for the sake of “peace and quiet?”  Don’t rock the boat, because you might be the one to fall overboard. I think it’s significant that the gospel writer says Jesus “rebuked” the unclean spirits–he spoke decisively and with passion against what they were and what they represented. Jesus’ anger is leveled at the power of evil to imprison and terrorize human beings; he could not remain silent and passive in the face of such monstrous wrong.

And neither should the community called by his name. Look, a person suffering from the disease of alcohol use disorder begins to heal with the admission of reality. So does the exorcism of our demons, be they personal or collective. They control us until we acknowledge them. One of the reasons our worship includes a prayer of confession is to avail ourselves of this practice of release, of naming what’s not right, recognizing our need for healing, and then receiving what God continually offers us:  grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let me say it explicitly: prayer does not preclude the need for other tools, like counseling, medical intervention, and therapeutic drugs. In fact, prayer may amplify the effectiveness of these treatments, and become a channel for greater self-awareness and growth.

For there is no power greater than the power of God. Friends, there is nothing–no pain, no hurt, no guilt, no history, no paralysis–that can separate us from God’s healing touch and transforming love.

It’s worth reminding us that Jesus’ anger was directed towards evil. He never stopped loving the evil-doers of his day, choosing to befriend them, socialize with them, and loving the hell right out of them. In fact, some of Jesus’ most contentious interactions were with the religious leaders of his day, offended by his mercy to sinners. Like our spiritual forebears, we too easily can blur the struggle against evil with disdain and even hatred for those who engage in it. But our work is first of all to love. And that means seeking the liberation and thriving of flawed humans bound up by fear and possessed by lies.

For there is no power greater than the power of God. Friends, there is nothing--no pain, no hurt, no guilt, no history, no paralysis--that can separate us from God’s healing touch and transforming love.

In the difficult discussions our nation and city, our church, and this congregation have had over racial injustice, I heard an amazing exorcism story. Ann Atwater was a Black resident of 1970s Durham, North Carolina, and she was angry about inequities in the public schools her children attended. Despite some integration attempts prompted by federal civil rights legislation, the school system remained segregated for the most part and wracked with racial tension, spilling over into student fights and angry school board meetings. To implement the court-mandated integration, the City Council initiated a community conversation with participants from all sectors of Durham. Ann Atwater was invited to co-lead the conversation, along with C.P. Ellis, Exalted Grand Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan.  Both of them balked at the prospect of working with the “enemy.” Ms. Atwater agreed first because she said she wanted her children to attend good schools free of violence; Ellis says that her agreement had been the turning point for him because he realized they had a common goal.

I can only imagine those conversations and how hard they must have been. I’m sure they weren’t all sweetness and light with everyone singing Kum Ba Yah. But what did happen through these year-long conversations was that together Atwater and Ellis led the way to integrated, high quality schools throughout the city, a more representative school board, expanded curriculum, truth-telling in history. But perhaps even more amazing was the journey the two antagonists made toward friendship. Through the process, the two grew to understand similarities in their stories; shared fears and hopes and meals in each other’s homes. In the end, Ellis resigned his membership in the Klan.

Nobody pretends the exorcism of evil is easy or will be swift. But we can follow the example of Jesus, who stood up to suffering and injustice. He didn’t sit around and theologize about it. He spoke the word and walked the talk. And my friends, the Word of God, translated by love into action, will always result in healing. Always.

Today we celebrate the ordination of leaders for our congregation, men and women who will help us speak God’s word with authority, confront evil, and orient our ministries toward others to mend and repair and forgive. Among the many vows they take is this one:  Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world? 

They said yes.

May it be so for you and me as well. Thanks be to God.

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