Good morning, friends. Today’s gospel is part two of the story of Jesus casting out demons. Last week you heard Kevin’s lovely homily. So, I pick up here where he left off. And this homily purposely has the provocative title “The Exorcist”.
Exorcism. What an embarrassing word. What an overheated, overwrought, embarrassing word. Exorcism is not a topic you hear very often in polite Episcopal conversation. Exorcism conjures up images of the macabre, haunted houses and shlocky horror films. Visions of Linda Blair’s head spinning around. Priests from central casting posturing with a crucifix sprinkling holy water. Exorcism makes for great theater but not necessarily sound theology.
(Disclaimer: Before I go any further, I do confess that I do love a schlocky horror movie that features an exorcism central to the plot.😊)
Theologically for centuries, exorcism has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition. Over the forty days of Lent, in the early church, candidates for Holy Baptism underwent daily exorcisms — beseeching Christ to cast out their demons. What remains of this ancient ritual is the single renunciation of Satan and his sinful powers of darkness in the rite of Baptism.
But the storied liturgy of exorcism does indeed survive almost forgotten bound in red in the Book of Occasional Services on page 174. Take note of the word occasional.😊 So careful is the church about the practice of exorcism that it does not even include the actual service in the book but only directions on how to contact one’s Bishop for permission.(Call 1-800-Diocese!)
I confess to you I have never had to call!
Between history and the here and now, Christians have either believed way too much or way too little in the reality of demons. While most of us would agree that the single baptismal renunciation is sufficient to keep the devil away. There are corners of the faith where people still fear finding the devil under every stone and around every corner. In fact in some evangelical circles there has been a revival of sorts to actively cultivate the practice of exorcism. There are “deliverance” workshops and conferences. A DIY approach to discerning and casting out demons from family and friends. Practicing exorcism in the comfort of your living room. I know of a church which shall remain nameless that has on its website an icon you can click on to “find out if you have a demon.” (I did not click – a bit afraid of the answer!) Who knows – maybe there is even an iPhone App for that!
Most of us, however, when we say that someone is in desperate need of exorcism what we really mean is to say that they are in desperate need of psychiatric care. Most clergy, myself included, refer such cases to a professional and compassionate therapist. Not only have I been the referring pastor — being bipolar — I have also gratefully been on the receiving end of such care. Thank God for the miracle of modern medicine’s treatment of shattered brains — what our first century ancestors called possession. We don’t need to resort to mystical incantations and magical mumbo jumbo, right?
But I do not believe that is the whole story. Possession cannot always be so easily and tidily explained away as psychosis or neurosis. All of the demons that haunt us are not necessarily to be found in DSM5 – the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual, Version 5 — the Bible of the mental health profession.
“Evil is real,” says Kathleen Norris, ”not just theoretical. Scratch the surface of any congregation and you will find people struggling with demons.” Have you never known someone or perhaps even yourself so consumed by pain, so focused on revenge, so eaten up with anger, that it overpowers you, that it becomes you? It can happen so slowly, so incrementally, we barely notice that we are possessed.
That’s what happened to Hank. Hank is a character in the movie “A Simple Plan” directed by Sam Raimi, Hank is an ordinary guy of simple means who has it all: a wife he loves, a baby on the way, friends and neighbors who respect him. His wife, Sarah, works at the library. Hank keeps the books down at the local feed and grain store.
On a winter’s day, Hank heads out with Jacob his out-of-work brother, along with his drinking buddy, to lay flowers on their mother’s snow covered grave. They stop along the way home to drink a beer in the woods and there they discover the wreckage of a plane hidden in a bank of snow. And inside the plane they find a gym bag filled with cash. Filled with more money than the three of them will ever see in their lifetimes combined.
So, what do they do? They come up with a simple plan. They will keep the money until spring and wait to see if anyone comes forward to claim it. And if not, they will keep it, and divide it three ways. They will get out of their little dirt water town. No one else will know. No one will get hurt and they will get rich. A simple plan.
But no sooner do they step away from the wreckage then their simple plan begins to unravel. The local sheriff unexpectedly pulls up beside them on a country road. They struggle to explain the cargo in the back of their truck. Then a farmer surprises them while they try to cover their tracks.
And once home, none of them can keep this incredible secret to themselves. Each confesses to a loved one with whom in turn they connive how to keep the money. Bills have to be paid and mortgages are overdue. What would it hurt to spend just a little before spring — just a little to help them get by. The burden of the money eats away at them. Consumes their every thought. Redirects all their energy and turns them against one another.
These seemingly good and ordinary folk end up doing unspeakable things no one would ever thought them capable of. People get hurt, lives get wasted, and souls are lost. At one point Jacob turns to his brother and asks him ”Do you ever feel evil, Hank? I do – I feel evil”.
And who of us here in our own lives has ever experienced something like this?
Today in the first chapter of Mark – enters Jesus — the exemplary exorcist. In fact, the messiah’s first public act in Mark is to exorcise a demon at a synagogue in Capernaum. Then after at Simon’s house — aka Peter’s house — Jesus cures his mother-in-law — while a distressed crowd of the sick and possessed flock to the door. So, again and again, Jesus binds the “strong man” – and casts their demons out.
Exhausted Jesus retreats but the crowd hunts him down. So, he continued throughout the neighboring towns proclaiming the gospel and exorcising spirits. We don’t know all the details — only that the crowd was bedazzled. So much so that Jesus in another gospel – the gospel of Luke — he is called Beelzebul, the devil himself. But it is only by the finger of God that such glorious work is done.
Demons, friends, the scriptures tell us are real. Not so much the theatrical kind of goblins in little red suits. But more often the spiritual kind that lurk from within — insidious and silent. Demons are part and parcel of being human. When we are beholden to hatred, gripped by greed, consumed with envy. Possession becomes possible.
But soul cleansing is too. An honest examination of conscience. A thoughtful review of just how am I doing keeping those Ten Commandments? A true confession on our knees before our Lord and Maker is the beginning of freedom. It’s called good old fashioned repentance. Laying out our personal demons before the Lord.
And Lent is just a couple of weeks away. Our Sunday service will begin with hearing The Great Commandment asking God to help us to “incline our hearts to keep this law.” Lent gives us forty days to turn our attention away from the dark and towards the light, to seek honestly in prayer the One strong enough to cast out our demons, Jesus the Exorcist, the Holy One of God. Amen.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog