Demons

The Slanderer had already put it into the heart of Judas

A homily for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.

The literal translation of the word “the devil” in that sentence is “the slanderer.” That is, one who distorts the truth to hurt someone else. It is understood as the power of evil, a demon—maybe the king of all demons. But we should remember that evil is not something that existed before the world. It is not an equal power competing with God. Evil is not something that was created by God. Evil is something that people do.

So what is this “devil,” this demon, this—perhaps—prince of demons? The best way that I can understand the demonic is that it is human evil that no human being is taking responsibility for. I have talked about racism in this context.  But it happens a lot and in many human ways—it goes back to the Garden of Eden when the first people hid from God because they knew that they had disobeyed…when he was caught, the man immediately started blaming the woman. Human beings ever since have been like that—trying to make themselves more comfortable, or safe—often at the expense of others.

When people do that in a direct way—like the way Judas planned to betray Jesus—they are seen as bad people. Some even revel in that role! But most don’t want to be the bad person. So they find ways to rationalize when they are trying to take advantage of others. They tell themselves: This is OK. I am not hurting him or her directly—I am just taking care of myself. I have to protect my job from those immigrants. I need to protect my neighborhood from people whose looks or culture make me suspicious or uncomfortable. Over time, this kind of evil becomes disassociated from specific acts and develops a volition of its own. It becomes powerful enough that it’s demonic and we are witnessing its presence among us even in modern times.

Jesus entered Jerusalem and he preached the truth. It was that simple—the truth. But that aroused fear among the people, particularly their leaders, and particularly the religious leaders were fearful because they had much to lose. Shortly after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphus the high priest said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” That fear, itself, was the power of death, it was the power of the Slanderer, the Devil.  And that Devil had entered Judas, and Jesus knew it. But Jesus was not afraid, rather it was the time to teach his disciples about the resurrection from death.

He wrapped a towel around himself and he took on the role of the least respected servant, the one who washed the guests’ feet.  No Peter, it’s not about a new baptism, a liturgical thing, or giving of honors—it’s about being the humblest of servants. Servants are among those who typically catch the brunt of the actions of the Slanderer—if those who have the power to push away discomfort, anger, nastiness, fear and guilt manage to avoid it, where does it end up? With people who don’t have any real-world power.

So Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He took on himself all the disrespect that servants get.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

The work of the Devil, the work of the Slanderer, breaks down the respect between people. And it leads to death. We see how disrespect has multiplied in our national political and cultural life over the past three years… and how it leads to more suffering and death. The resurrection from the dead is the breaking of this power of death, and it builds respect among those who have been alienated by this death. Yet the manipulations of the Slanderer can only be undone by giving up fear, ceasing to cling to comfort and privilege, and becoming a servant.    The Lord’s Supper, our great feast of Thanksgiving (to translate that word, Eucharist) is living in this resurrection, in the servanthood of Christ. Our Gospel today says this: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” And then: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The suffering of Christ during Holy Week is very real; suffering in this world is very real, today at least as much as at any time. The devil that entered the heart of Judas is abroad in this world. The love that we are commanded to is not the power of nice people being nice and everything being OK. The resurrection is only by the power of God, the love of God, in the servanthood of Jesus Christ. The powers of the world do have power. But in Him, God is glorified.

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Casting out Demons

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.

I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy …  he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!”  Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team. There was this man they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.”  But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society.  Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.

So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist.  John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.

We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals.  But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.

Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week—it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.

There was a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The woman who testified, spoke clearly and courageously. She answered all questions forthrightly, even when her answers didn’t conveniently make her look to be the hero or to have all the information perfectly worked out and under her control. She described, and was questioned in great detail about the most traumatic event in her life. She was courageous and truthful. After her testimony, no one said that she was not credible or was not telling the truth. She opened her testimony by saying that she was terrified. She was terrified because she knew what would happen to a woman who spoke up about being sexually abused by a powerful and privileged man. She knew about the demons that would be unleashed … and they were. Christine Blasey Ford spoke up for the sake of casting out demons and the healing of herself and all of us. But those demons find a way to come out in full force—the rage, self-pity and turning blame back onto the victim or anyone who supported her are what she feared and what happened.  This sort of demon emerges when truth is told about a subject that power wants and expects to remain silent. I’ve experienced it in the church, and it’s not limited to any one political party. Indeed, it is not so much the individuals but the nexus of power itself—the demons if you will—that controls them. Sexual violence against women is an aspect of keeping some who are powerful empowered and disempowering those who are vulnerable. Dr. Ford was courageously vulnerable in her testimony, and by it many are freed and healed, the ranting of the demons notwithstanding. Casting out demons and being healed takes tremendous courage, and its cost is real. And like the disciples learned from Jesus, the power to cast out demons does not always come from the sources we expect, or those who support us.

We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.