We are all possessed.
We all have demons.
We just don’t call them demons anymore. Where the authors of the gospels, in first-century Palestine, would apply the description of “demons” to someone with an illness they didn’t understand, we might say that someone has epilepsy, or multiple sclerosis.
Or we have different ways to talk about our demons. We say we’re in a toxic relationship. We say that we have depression, that we need a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. We ruefully acknowledge the quick temper, the habit of turning everything into a joke, the tendency to procrastinate. We all have our own demons. Hence the popularity of the saying: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian, says this: “The line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.” We all have demons that rise up and take over in us, demons that stir us to do and say things we come to regret deeply. So today’s Gospel reading is not so far removed from our own experiences.
As we sit with this passage, as we prayerfully reflect on it and invite its application into our own daily living, the question becomes how we, in this day and time, deal with the process of casting out demons. What does that look like to us, here, today?
Kathleen Norris is a poet and theologian living in South Dakota. She writes:
When I think of the demons I need to cast out, I look inward, to my heart and soul. Anger is my best demon, most useful when I need to go into warrior woman mode. My husband, who has a much sweeter nature than I, told me that my mean streak grieved him not just because of the pain it caused him but because it was doing me harm. That felt like an exorcism. Not that my temptation to anger was magically gone, but I was called to pay closer attention to something that badly needed attention and that was hurting our marriage.
This is what casting out demons looks like. It takes someone who loves us dearly, deeply, intimately to name the thing that has possession of us and to bring it to our attention, to make sure that we notice the tendency, so that when it begins to rouse itself and seek control over us, we are equipped with all that we need to cast it away from us.
You see, there’s a slight problem with the whole demon thing. Even when we acknowledge that this quaint biblical language applies to us, even when we find that we all have demons of different kinds that sometimes take possession of us, so that we say and do things we later regret, we cannot cast out our own demons.
Nowhere in the gospels do we see anyone who does that.
The way to go about taming these forces within us always, always requires another person. To have our demons cast out means that we must be in relationship. And that’s what is at the center of Jesus’ words and actions in today’s Gospel reading.
What do we do when we encounter someone who is in the grip of demons? Most of us, frankly, will back away slowly. Or maybe back away quickly. Jesus doesn’t back away at all. He moves toward the demon. And the reason he moves toward the demon is that he moves toward the man who is in the grip of the demon. His only thought is to heal, to restore the man back to himself. His only motivation is compassion. And so he moves toward the danger even as every human instinct is to move away.
Poet Kathleen Norris knew that she was possessed of the anger that sometimes rose up and took control of her words and actions. I’m sure that she had wrestled with it often and over the course of many years. But it took her loving husband not only to name the demon for her but also to point her toward a truth: that when the demon of anger was active in her, she damaged others – and she damaged herself. He moved toward her, toward the person he knew and loved, and the truth that he spoke to her in love acted as a casting out of the demon. What does she say? “Not that my temptation to anger was magically gone, but I was called to pay closer attention to something that badly needed attention and that was hurting our marriage.”
This brief episode at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry resonates with a truth for all of us here today. The truth is this: we all are possessed of demons that could use some casting out. After the example of Jesus, we can move toward people we see in the grip of their own demons. We can see the person, the child of God in need of love and compassion, and we can meet them where they are, treating them as a beloved brother or sister of God. When we do that – when we see and respond to the person – it is possible that we have helped cast out a demon.
We might not see it leave. We might not be aware of the change that makes in the other person’s life. But when we treat one another with kindness, we are following the example of Jesus. And even as we go about our daily lives in such a fashion, God continues to put people in our lives for whom we might cast out demons — and God continues to put people in our lives who might help cast out our demons. Every person we encounter, every relationship in which we invest our selves, our time, and our energy, is an opportunity for casting out demons. Sometimes in this story we are Jesus, empowered with compassion in a relationship, drawing out the forces that destroy. And sometimes in this story we are the one in the grip of our demons, needing others to see us and to move toward us with compassion.
Come to think of it, calling it “casting out demons” doesn’t really work for this behavior. What might be a better name for it? What can we call it when, moved by God in our lives, we look at someone with issues, challenges, unpleasant behaviors – someone with demons – and, like Jesus did, see the person and move toward the person? Not once but over and over again, refusing to give up, refusing to let the demons win?
We call it love. Amen.
Preached at Saint Michael Lutheran Church, High Point, NC, by The Rev. Beth Woodard on January 28, 2018.