A Demon by any Other Name

A Demon by any other Name: A sermon preached by the Rev. Rob Lee

“They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spiritsbegged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”

Won’t you pray with me?

God, in whose name demons quake and are fearful, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. For you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This past April, I spent six days in the hospital just up the road from this beloved Divinity School. I fought against a demon of my mind, and I had to give voice to how I was feeling to get it under control. Today I confess that I struggle with, fight with, deal with bipolar disorder, a crippling mental illness that causes me to live in a topsy turvy reality where left seems right, up seems down, and wrong seems right. It is a scary disease that can strike at any moment, but it is one that I have found is nothing compared to what God has done and continues to do in my life.

Now I can see some of you hesitantly trying to figure out where I’m going with this. I think Mainline Protestantism from which I come has many problems, but one that sticks out to me is our inability to give voice to what is going on in our world and in our individual lives. Today we hear a story from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus challenges us to name the name that we all fear and let it leave us and be cast into the sea.

You see today in our lesson Jesus confronts a man who had an unclean spirit in him. He lived among the tombs and no one could restrain him. He had been restrained with shackles and with chains but to no avail, this man was without hope and cast out to be with those who are dead. I think the most interesting part of this text is when Jesus asks for the demon’s name. In ancient culture if you knew the name of the demon or evil spirit you had power over it, you could control it. Names are important and naming our demons are just as important.

I think it would be easy for us in our modern-day sensibilities to excuse demons as mythological creatures best left for the history books and Bible stories we hear ever so often in the lectionary. But this mainline Protestant is here to say that there are powers at work in your life that are nothing short of demonic. Whether it be alcoholism, that gambling or drug addiction, mental illness, or anything that comes to your mind right now, you know it’s true that there are things at work that keep you in isolation at the tombs. They are the chains and shackles that keep you dead. But I come today to proclaim a God who knows how to loosen shackles. I know a God who can bring us forth from the tombs and into the light of God’s dream for us.

Now of course I must say here that we have things that help us deal with our own demons and giving them names like Jesus did. We have medicine and psychology and other means at our disposal that I believe God has given us to give voice to that demon we face. I also want to be clear that unlike the demoniac in this story I will never be fully healed from my bipolar disorder, but I do know that God created me ultimately to be good, and though bipolar is a part of my story it has lost its power over me because it has a name.

But perhaps the most challenging part of this text is not the possession by a demon, but the command Jesus gives the demoniac after he has been set free of his demons. Jesus commands the unnamed man to go home to his friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, and what mercy he has shown him. Could it be that this man is unnamed for a reason, could it be that Jesus is speaking directly to us?

You see throughout the narrative arc of scripture we place ourselves within the story, we may identify with David when he is facing Goliath, Moses when we’re called to speak up or speak out, or Mary when faced with daunting circumstances. But here, in this text, does anyone want to identify with the demoniac? Does anyone want to be the one who lives among the tombs of dead people? I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d rather not be. We’d rather be the people who watch the swineherd go over the hill and into the sea. But today I’m pleading with you to let your demons have a name. I’m asking you to give voice to this unnamed man and proclaim that your issues are big but we serve a God who is bigger. A God who knows the terror of schizophrenia, or the horror of bipolar, a God who recognizes anxiety and depression and gives us tools to fight and to heal.

You see this unnamed man is more than just a storybook character. This unnamed man is me. And when I turn over the keys of my illness to the Lord of time and space I know that God can take a demon and make it a blessing. God can turn the demoniac into a proclaimer of the wondrous deeds God has accomplished in the lives of God’s beloved children.

Now you could easily stop me here and say I’m off base in calling mental illness a demonic possession, and I recognize the consequences a statement like that might make. But I also realize that this is not child’s play or something to shy away from. We cannot confront the power of mental illness until we give it a name and a face and say you do not have the power you think you have.

This could cost us everything. My uncle never did conquer the demon he faced and succumbed to suicide. But I know throughout it all the God I have come to know embraces and stands with us in our weakness. That is our greatest and highest hope.  We ultimately will not win against some demons on this side of the Jordan, but the God who has destroyed death will destroy even the most crippling mental illnesses we could ever face. The hope of the resurrection is that we will shed these illnesses, these demons and find our stories restored to their former glory of goodness.

When I was in the hospital for six days in April I knew that I could get through this setback because of my friends, my family, and those surrounding me in love and support. Since today I stand as an unnamed man in Mark’s Gospel I come to you today to proclaim that the Lord has done wondrous things, and shown me mercy that I didn’t deserve. That is now your commission and your mission as well. You can’t un-see what you have seen. This is now your time to leave the tombs and find Jesus ready to heal and to redeem your story. Take the shackles off and find anew that there is nothing, no height or depth or anything at all that can separate you from Christ Jesus.

There’s this prayer I’ve been praying for years when bipolar tries to get the best of me. So perhaps today as it closes you might join me in hearing the prayer of St. Francis de Sales, a saint who lived in the 1500’s but whose words still right true today.

Let us pray:

“Be at Peace, do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with full hope as they arise.  God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them. God has kept you thus far, and God will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in God’s arms. Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting God who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day. God will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination. Amen.”

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