Sermon on Luke 8: The Gerascene Demoniac

So I’m going to tell you a secret about us preachers today, but don’t get your hopes up, it’s nothing very juicy. Whenever we open up the lessons and find out that we have to preach about demons, it is, as we used to say in the 60s, a “bummer.” It’s very hard to talk about demons today, for the simple reason that we don’t experience demons in the same way as they apparently did in ancient times. We don’t have a contemporary point of reference. All we see is what we remember from the film, THE EXORCIST: Linda Blair’s head spinning around and the projectile vomit and the priest throwing himself out of the window … it’s all movies and magic and superstition. Now audiences are obsessed with zombies; I understand that THE WALKING DEAD is one of the most popular shows in the history of television. It’s fantasy, entertainment; literally, a horror show. Get the popcorn. So it’s very hard to talk seriously about stories like our gospel lesson today: Jesus’ encounter with a man known as the Gerascene Demoniac.

Yet while we don’t experience demons in the ways described in our ancient scriptures, the truth is that we are as much afflicted with demons now as ever before. We need look no further than the events of early last Sunday morning in Orlando to see our demons at work, with horrifying clarity. This is real horror, not a horror movie.

The first reports said that there were fifty dead at the scene; this number was quickly reduced to forty-nine; it became 49 victims and the shooter. The man, who called himself Omar Mateen, is being omitted from count. This is wrong: Omar was the first victim, the victim most victimized. Omar had much in common with the Gerascene Demoniac … isolated, violent, angry … but the first thing to recognize is that they were both victims. . He was a human being and a child of God as much as any of us; he became possessed by evil and was used by evil to work evil. This is by definition demonic. He was not himself a demon, any more than the young man in our gospel lesson. He was possessed by a demon, an evil spirit (perhaps it would be better to say, a spirit of evil), but the difference between Omar and any one of us is a difference of degree and not of kind. Evil is at work in every human life. Evil is at work in your life and in mine. As our Sunday confession used to say so well before they changed the words, “we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

This is so important for us to understand, if we want to know ourselves as God’s children, made in God’s image and likeness: evil is not any part of who we are. Evil is a lie, a matrix of lies. A lie, by definition is nothing; it has only the power that we donate to it. We donate power to evil by believing the lie and acting out that belief. Lies can accrue tremendous power: in the 20th century, the lie that Jews were sub-human killed six million and poisoned the minds and hearts of the millions who believed the lie and shared in working the evil. There are so many examples of how lies work evil through those who believe them.

Omar and every single one of those who are in the thrall of the Islamic State are in bondage to their belief in demonic, satanic lies. Just as it is with any one of us in our own struggles with sin and falsehood, they cannot free themselves. They need what we need, what Jesus promises, the truth that makes us free. At the root of the satanic firestorm that has possessed so much of the world, is a hideous lie about God.

We could go on and on trying to find the door by which the demon-lies entered Omar, or that pathetic kid Dylann who did the Charleston shootings last summer, As a pastor with some experience of human character, I expect that we do get inside them, we will discover that they were being strangled by self-loathing. That’s my guess.

But there is one lie that I call the “assault-rifle-lie” without which these shootings couldn’t happen, the one lie that cues the murder. That is the lie that takes the real differences among human beings, differences of race or color or nationality or religion or gender or sexual orientation, and twists these differences into conflicts. The assault-rifle-lie manufactures enemies. A heart already poisoned by anger and self-loathing turns demonic when it is possessed by this lie.

Now the reason I am preaching to you about this is not because I think there are potential mass murderers among you (though the Charleston shooter was at least nominally a Lutheran and Omar was born in Queens). It is important for us to talk about this because lies are insidious, dangerous things, Insidious means stealthy, treacherous, deceitful. In biblical terms: demonic, satanic. As St. Peter admonishes us in his first epistle (1 Peter 5:8) “ … be sober, be on guard: your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” This is not theoretical: there is, for instance, a roaring lion on our national stage today, shouting the assault-rifle-lie at the top of his voice: making enemies of Muslims and Mexicans just as Dylann did with Black people and Omar did with gay people. Just like Dylann and Omar, Donald is not, himself, evil. But for whatever reason he has believed a lie and promotes that lie. It is an evil lie that is already working evil among us.

So here I stand to try to take this apart, at least for the precious few of us in the room this morning: If there is one feature of our Christian faith that sets us apart from every other major world religion, it is that, among us, all the human differences among us – race, nation, tribe, language, gender, wealth, sexual orientation and all the rest of it – have no meaning. God does not see them. God sees only his own precious children and God loves us all. As St Paul proclaims (Galations 3:28) “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” That is the holy and life-giving truth that sets us free from the demonic lies that empower the murderers and demagogues among us.

All I know to do about these lies is to believe and teach and preach and confess the truth that Jesus came among us to open. I am not Jesus, and if I had been at that dance club last Saturday night, I might well have been gunned down along with the others.

But: if Jesus had been there, I believe that the demon in Omar would have recognized him and laid his assault rifle aside. Evil cannot stand against Christ. No power can withstand Divine Love.

St. Paul writes (Romans 1:16): “… for I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” That is true of every one of us here today. By God’s almighty power it is true of Omar and Dylann and all the rest of the believers in lies. The power to heal our world of the evil that seems to be all around us is the power that God pours into our hearts by his word, read, spoken and eaten. That power is here, it is ours in Christ, and the world needs it now. The world needs us now. The best thing we can do for our world is to repent of the lies we have swallowed, to believe the Gospel and live into the truth.

May God make it so. Let us pray.

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