Exorcising the demon.
Jesus pulls up to the country of the Gerasenes on a boat. It isn’t far from where he grew up, but it might have been unfamiliar territory. Jesus didn’t go alone—his disciples were with him. I wonder what they expected when showing up in a new place. There’s probably no welcoming committee standing there by the lakeshore. Were there signs, a city map perhaps so they could find their way around? The only thing I know for sure is that Jesus did not have an app for this.
But I’ll bet it was still a bit of a surprise being greeted by a naked man with a demon—a man whose demon could readily name Jesus, Son of the Most High God, before they were even properly introduced, before the man can say, “Pleased to meet you, I hope you guess my name.” Jesus, on the other hand, does not already know but has to ask the demon’s name—Legion, which means six thousand Roman soldiers. That’s a lot of demons.
What’s weird is that Jesus apparently will negotiate with demons, allowing the demons to leave the body of the man and then the demons enter the bodies of a bunch of pigs on a hillside—Jesus granted permission for this. Then the demons make their mischief by entering the pigs and forcing the pigs to run down the hillside into the lake where they drowned.
And because I don’t know a lot about demons, I don’t know where the demons went after the pigs were dead. What do demons have against pigs? Do the demons end up in the same abyss they begged to avoid, and traveling through pigs is just a more fun way to get there? I don’t know.
But I’m even more curious about the people of the Gerasenes. What made them chain up this demon-possessed man? What made them assign a guard to watch over that man and make sure he didn’t hurt himself or anyone else? Did they try other strategies to bring this man into the community? Were they afraid of the man, or afraid of the demons? Did the man become the scapegoat for everything that went wrong? Did he get blamed for the broken fence or the missing tools or the goat that disappeared? And here’s what I really want to know: were they somehow comfortable with this whole arrangement?
I want to be sympathetic, because it can’t be easy to deal with demons. And whether this man was truly afflicted by demons—and I don’t rule out demons as a possibility—or if it was mental illness or some other type of neurodivergent condition; we probably can’t know for sure what was going on in this man. What we do know is that, for whatever reason, he didn’t fit into the society constructed around him, so he was cast out.
This kind of thing is painful. People face this in so many ways, people who are cast out because they don’t fit in. Behaviors fitting in the autism spectrum make it hard for people to socialize. People whose gender identity may not match their physical gender expression get othered or left out or worse: asked to prove what gender they belong to. Differing skin colors or language groups can make people want to separate themselves, assuming they can’t possibly have anything in common.
And we point to the differences and call those things a barrier, but what happens when that barrier is removed? What happens when there’s nothing to separate you anymore? What happened when Jesus healed the man of his demon possession, and suddenly the man is sitting there in front of the people of his town, “clothed and in his right mind?” Did they rush to embrace him, a long-lost brother? Did they restore him to the community, invite him into their homes, help him set up a support system that did not include chains and shackles? And did they recognize Jesus as the healer and thank him profusely?
NOPE. They sent Jesus away. What kind of people reject healing? What kind of people reject restoration and reconciliation?
The kind of people who don’t actually desire healing or restoration. The kind of people who remain unrepentant. The kind of people who like the boundaries where they are, thank you very much, and who have no intention of seeking the good of all human beings. These are people who have lost their humanity. And they don’t even want it back. Now who’s behaving like they’re possessed by a demon?
So they ask Jesus to leave. Take your healing, take your power, take your creative force and go. And friends: Jesus is divine but he didn’t come to be a babysitter or to police the actions of the utterly unrepentant. You ask him to leave, and he might just go.
But don’t for a minute think that means you’re done with Jesus, who will come again to judge the living and the dead. There will be judgment for the unrepentant, for the ones who reject reconciliation, for the ones who reject and deny healing.
I’m talking here about us. Right here, right now, in this society in which we live, is plenty of evidence to indict us for the way we treat people lacking material wealth, telling them they should work harder. To indict us for the way we treat people with illness, telling them in obvious or even in subtle ways that their illness is somehow their own fault. To indict us for the way we treat people who speak other languages than we do, avoiding them entirely or refusing to learn any of their language. To indict us for the way we reinforce white supremacy, telling ourselves “I didn’t enslave anybody so I can’t be responsible for what happened” and neglecting to learn our history or to notice where we can situate ourselves in our own history.
These behaviors of ours are a smoke in God’s nostrils, as the prophet Isaiah put it: a fire that burns all day long. These are the behaviors that separate us from building up a beloved community, recognizing in one another the humanity that unites us as beings made in the image of God.
And these oppressive forces that separate humans, these are our society’s collective demons. And the demons don’t want to be cast out—they want to stay and make us miserable and keep us separated from each other.
But even demons know—as the demon Legion confessed—they must submit to the power of God. And it’s no easy thing to cast out a demon. Sometimes demons will shriek as they depart—witness the complaints about the movement toward Black equality, witness the appeals to an “objective fairness” (which doesn’t exist when our institutions were set up to privilege white people who own property). If you can hear the shrieking, somewhere there’s an exorcism in process!
So if you came to worship this morning wondering why we’re lamenting racism, why we’re commemorating the nine people who died during a Bible study in their church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, who will be named in the prayers of intercession in the petition reserved for naming the saints—if you’re wondering why we’re doing all this, it’s because we are collectively working to exorcise the demon of white supremacy from among us.
To exorcise the demon of white supremacy, we’re going to lament the wrongs that have been perpetrated against people of color, and we’re going to engage in continual self-examination to consider how our attitudes impact our behavior and how does that behavior serve white supremacy even if that wasn’t our goal, and we’re going to engage in works of reconciliation and restoration.
Today is a holiday: Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the freedom of people of African descent who had been enslaved in the territory of the United States. I grew up in Texas where apparently Juneteenth has been a state holiday since 1980, which is the same year I was born, and yet I don’t remember ever celebrating Juneteenth or even hearing about commemorations of Juneteenth until fairly recently. Somewhere I got the idea that Juneteenth is a holiday for Black people and I’m not Black so it doesn’t concern me.
But that’s incorrect. It’s true I’m not Black, but Juneteenth is about telling the story of our country, facing our actual history, lamenting the pain and celebrating the powerful stories of resistance—that’s part of who we are as a people. Black people do not need the permission of white people to celebrate and honor their heritage of resistance to being dehumanized.
But as a white person, I can also resist my own dehumanization by joining the celebration: I want to listen and I want to learn and I want to give credit where it’s due and I also do not want to empower the demon that would try to convince me that things in our society are just okay the way they are.
I want to show up differently this time. I don’t want to send Jesus away. I want to welcome healing and restoration and reconciliation. It’s not going to be easy, and I fully anticipate there will be shrieking as the demon goes out. But do I believe God has the power to bring about this healing? Yes, friends, I do believe God has this power.
And what about you? Where are you in this story? Are you standing among the people of the town, complaining that things were better when the man had a demon? Are you standing with the disciples, who remain silent through this episode? Are you sending Jesus away? Are you seeking ways to reconcile your community? Are you making space for the demon or are you casting the demon out?
Or are you the one who has been healed, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus has done for you?
Last week, as we celebrated the sacrament of baptism for our new brother in Christ, Finn, we spoke together the profession of faith, which begins with the things we renounce, which is a fancy way of saying the things we reject. Before we welcome the Holy Spirit, we renounce all the other unholy spirits, so I’ll ask you again:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? If so, say, “I renounce them.”
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them.
The sacrament of Holy Baptism continues with saying what we DO believe, using the words of Apostles’ Creed—we’ll say that together in a few minutes. Make space for the Holy Spirit to work as we continue casting out the demons among us. Wherever there is restoration, reconciliation, healing and growth—that’s how we know it’s the Holy Spirit at work. Where can you participate in the Holy Spirit’s work? How can you celebrate and honor Juneteenth? Whatever, you do, keep declaring how much God has done for you.
 Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”