By Rev. Scott Summerville
A friend of mine was on a business trip last year. She was driving on a freeway near Dallas. She had to cut across four lanes of traffic in a short distance to make a left-hand turn off the freeway. As she tried to squeeze into the traffic another driver seemed to be intentionally trying to keep her from changing lanes. Gestures were exchanged. Words were exchanged. (“Hi, how are you?” “How is your mother?” …that sort of thing.)
Before she could think through what was going on, she was in a full rage, and she and the other driver pulled off to the side of the road and got out of their cars. She said, “When I remember this it feels like it was a dream; I can’t believe that I actually did this. I actually got out of my car, and this guy twice my size got out of his car, and we continued our discussion, until he threatened me with bodily harm. It was not until he threatened to hit me that a light went on in my brain, and I realized there was not going to be a good outcome of this conversation. I said to him, “You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?” and I jumped back in my car and drove away.
She said that whenever she recalls the incident, she can=t even remember how she came to be stopped alongside the highway or getting out of her car to confront that raging stranger. My friend is a very feisty person, as you may gather from this anecdote, but she is also a very intelligent person. In fact, she has a PhD! But for a certain period of time along that highway she didn’t even have a high school equivalency certificate – she was possessed by rage.
In ancient times, people had a simple explanation for behavior like this. They would say that these people were possessed by evil spirits. Perhaps you have encountered this particular evil spirit on the Thruway or the Bronx River Parkway. Maybe you have encountered one of these road rage demons inside your own head. AWho said those words that just came out of my mouth? I certainly don’t talk that way.
For our ancestors demons, invisible spirits, were everywhere, constantly looking for places to inhabit. Our ancestors gave constant attention to the spirits around them and inside them. They believed that what we would call mental illness or physical illness were both largely the result of spirits finding their way into people=s minds and bodies.
When we read the Gospels, we bump into demons in every chapter. They are the cause of disease. They are the cause of mental anguish. They lead people to do self-destructive things. Jesus has a fascinating relationship with these demons; he has authority over them; they recognize this authority and they fear him. They talk to him and he to them.
The Gospel of Mark tells us of one of the very first incidents in Jesus’ ministry where he encounters a man who was possessed by demons in the synagogue at Capernaum. The demons are terrified by Jesus; they cry out, “Have you come to destroy us Jesus of Nazareth; we know you are, the holy one of God! This is so interesting – because it suggests that these demons had feelings -human feelings.
And here’s another interesting thing: Jesus never destroys a demon – he simply asks the demons to move, to leave. The demons are powerful until they are confronted, and then they are pathetic – “Don’t hurt us!”
It is hard to talk about this part of Jesus= ministry in our times, because it is so foreign to our way of thinking. If you went to your doctor with a headache, and your doctor suggested you might have a demon, you would look for another doctor. We do not see the world the way the ancients did, as a place filled with demons, but we still contend with forces that we do not understand and that can wreck our lives.
If you have experienced addiction or if you have been close to someone who is addicted, you know what it is like to be with someone who seems to be possessed. It is as though they are two different people. It is scary and disorienting to be with someone, when you do not know which person they will be on any given day.
Talking with someone who is high on drugs and who is feeling so good about being high even as they=re telling you all the things that they are doing to ruin their lives makes for very strange conversation. You feel as if you are talking to a person, but you are not really talking to the person you know. You can understand how the ancients believed that human beings can be possessed, such that it is the same body and form of the person, but it has been overtaken from the inside by an alien spirit.
It is dangerous to take the Bible literally when it speaks of demons. But it is also dangerous to ignore the Scriptures when they speak of demons, because this part of the scripture’s message carries a deep truth, even though it is different from our scientific view of things.
The truth is that human beings can indeed be possessed by destructive forces. Those forces may come from deep in the mysteries of our own minds and souls, or they may arise from chemicals we put into our bodies.
Sometimes demons are poured into our ears as children -demons like racism and prejudice. The child trusts and believes what the child is told. In recent years as our congregation was developing its Welcoming Statement, some of us shared stories with one another about where our prejudices came from. I have heard some powerful stories as people have reflected on their prejudices toward gay people. Some white people recalled the way they were brought up – they way they were taught as white people to see people of color as alien, different, and dangerous. Some people made a connection between the way racial prejudice infected their souls and the prejudices they learned about people of different sexual orientations.
We can absorb prejudices, particularly as a child, as easily as we pick up a glass of water. It all seems so innocent and natural, until we are confronted with the fact that those prejudices have hurt and even destroyed other people. When things get planted in us as a child by those we trust the most, it takes a kind of exorcism to get it out. It takes courage to face these things, especially to acknowledge that prejudices we learned have caused harm to other people.
For our nation to elect an African American as president is more than just a sign of new attitudes; it is more than a turning point in our national history – it is in some sense an exorcism. Something has been driven out – I feel that. I feel it at the club where I go to swim, where the men mingle in the locker room, speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Polish, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, and other languages I could not identify – where men of every shade of skin color ever invented come together and exchange glances or chatter – something is different – it is hard to describe but it is there – there is an unspoken understanding: “An African American is president of the USA, and we are all on the same level now – in some small way we have made a step closer to the ideal of human solidarity.”
It is easy enough to say that we are scientific now and we know how to explain all the phenomenon of the world and the human mind – this demon business has nothing to do with us. But there is a great deal we do not know and do not understand, even about ourselves.
We do not think of demons the way that our ancestors did. But we all have our inner demons to wrestle with B fears, obsessions, addictions, persistent resentments, buried anger, and inability to receive forgiveness or to offer it.
In our worship, in the hearing of the Word of God, and in the sacrament we are offered the opportunity to hold these very things before God and to invite them to depart.
It is an awesome thing to face one’s demons. But, where else, if not here before God, surrounded by sisters and brothers in Christ, hearing the word and receiving the gifts of God B where else, if not here, will we let the word of truth and love penetrate to the very depths of our being and set us free.
Grace and peace to you.