Bond Chapel Sermon: Casting Out Demons

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sermon preached by Stacy Alan at Bond Chapel, October 28, 2009

Texts:  Luke 9 and 11

I was intrigued to learn that these two texts, which I’ve rarely seen engaged together, are not read in the lectionary cycle.  Congregations who use the lectionary will not be confronted by these two statements in the same year:  one, which is nicely inclusive and universal, and the other, which seems to be of the exclusivist camp.  Even paying attention to the subtle differences between the two doesn’t seem to help.  It’s fabulous that Jesus says to his disciples, that those who are not against them are for them.  This forces the disciples to have a broader, more open view of their ministry.  Not only the properly trained and education, not only those officially sanctioned by official authority, but anyone doing the work is, well, doing the work.

But then Jesus, only two chapters later turns and says, that those who are not with him are against him.  This one makes me uncomfortable.  Soon after telling the disciples that doing the work is doing the work, Jesus then says either you’re on my side or you’re not.

There are some very rich layers in these two texts that would bear more study.  The first saying, for example, is in the context of a discussion about who is great in the Kingdom Jesus proclaims.  The second is in response to questions about the source of Jesus’ power.

I was struck, however, by the fact that both sayings are in the context of discussions about exorcising demons.  I don’t know much about exorcisms.  I’ve never seen the movie.  My diocese – and I’ve asked – does not have a diocesan exorcist, although we are instructed to inform the bishop should we believe an exorcism is warranted.  I don’t think I’ve known any people needing exorcising, although I’m convinced I’ve encountered places and organizations that could use a good casting out.

In the first text, Jesus seems to be saying, hey guys, the demons are being cast out.  Less work for you!  In the second, he seems more concerned about the power by which people understand he casts out demons.  The more I think about this, the more it seems to me that the struggle against demons casts light on questions we ask about diversity, particularly religious diversity.

It could be argued, I think, that an important element of nearly all religious traditions is the casting out or guarding against demons, that is the forces of evil or disease.  Christians, of course, battle sin and Satan.  Buddhists seek ways to overcome desire.  Santeros invoke the orishas to protect against curses, hexes and disease.  The law in Judaism sets up a strong sense of ethical expectations and corporate identity, keeping chaos and idolatry at bay.  Even atheists fight off the demons of superstition and dependence on supernatural powers.

In the ancient stories, it is often essential to know a demon’s name in order to cast it out.  It occurs to me that in the various religious traditions, human beings have developed have ways of naming and casting out demons that are unique and to which I would do well to pay attention, because just as my tradition has its gifts, it also has its blind spots.

Christians’ belief in resurrection and reconciliation has been a powerful gift.  But it also has made it difficult to know how to respond to relationships that need to be broken or end, relationships too fraught with abuse, too twisted by changing circumstances and people, built on unstable and unhealthy foundations.  The demon of codependence is a hard one for us Christians to cast out.

The Christian understanding of Christ’s return and the final judgment provides a sense of ethical urgency, but has also makes the demon of environmental destruction difficult for some Christians even to recognize.

It has been difficult for Christians (as it is for any of us) to be aware of, much less name, the blind spots in our tradition wherein demons might dwell.  I would assert that all human religious traditions will have such blind spots that can harbor the demonic (although it’s not my place to name them here).  I believe that one of the gifts of hearing diverse religious voices is that it can help me to see the demons in my own tradition.  It can give me hints of what resources might lie in my own realm that could aid in casting out those demons and give me comfort that, even when I can’t get the name quite right to cast it out, there is likely to be someone whose tradition knows that demon’s name, just like those other exorcists about which the disciples complain.

So that takes care of those who are not against you are for you.  What about Jesus’ more troublesome saying that those not with him are against him? As opposed to the relative nonchalance of the first saying, Jesus seems quite incensed that there are murmurings that he is casting out demons in a demon’s name.  What happened to focusing on doing the work?

Demons are serious business.  If we take evil seriously, then we need to understand that we’re not playing around.  When a teenage girl can be gang-raped with multiple witnesses and no one calls for help, I call that demonic.  Bombs calculated to kill innocents, especially to pursue religious ends, are demonic.  Demons are dangerous, sneaky, masters of disguise.  Casting them out requires spiritual discipline, the wisdom of elders, the energy and daring of the young, a community of support.

I believe that Jesus is telling us in this second saying that while there may be many ways to cast out demons, you need to choose one.   Our religious commitments are like languages, and while one can certainly be multilingual, to communicate one must choose one at a time.  A language requires the discipline of grammar, a certain vocabulary, a community of speech.  If we are to cast out the demons that our particular religious tradition has the gifts to name and banish, we must know our language well enough to name them properly (and to know when what we’ve assumed is a demon may actually be one of God’s own messenger angels).  As a Christian, I can best cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but if I’m going to do that, I had better make sure that I’m hanging out with other people who know Jesus, I need to watch Him at work and take notes, I need to practice on the minor demons I find in myself and in my community.

Last night I was part of a panel in conversation about humanism and atheism and what those forms of belief have to say about the ethical life.  I didn’t talk about demons there, but I did talk about courage.  The religious and ethical life is, in part, about facing down demons.  Every day.  Each tradition has its own form of courage, its own incantations, its own names for those demons.  Each tradition has its blind spots and special demons that dwell there.  Each tradition has its own clarity and its own gifts that the rest of us would do well to understand and appreciate.

Jesus says to me, as one of his followers, if they’re not against you, they’re for you.  Those guys over there may be fighting a demon whose name you don’t know, be glad they’re doing the work.

He also says to me, as one of his followers, if you’re not for me, you’re against me.  Be clear, he says, about what language you’re speaking and what demons you’re battling.  There are others who are depending on you to know their names.