Sermon preached by the Rev’d Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 5, 2012
In seminary, I had a professor who absolutely loved to talk about demons. Every time they were mentioned in class, his face would light right up. I admit that my friends and I would bring them up from time to time just to see the look on his face, and it was in his honor that my housemates and I named our cat Demon.
Demons certainly play a prominent role in today’s gospel reading, and in many other stories from Jesus’ life, but what are they? The scripture is largely silent on the matter. Popular culture sometimes imagines them as physical beings, like a miniature devil; in the Renaissance they were depicted in art as squat little things in a rainbow of colors, serving as minions of Satan. In television and movies in current times, they are often shown as either almost identical to humans, save for small little horns that sometimes poke out from their hair, or as spiritual beings who can possess people.
This latter depiction seems to be more of what we encounter in these stories from the Gospels, but in reality, the scripture never really goes into these details that have occupied so much of our imagination through the millennia. The Gospels never claim that these demons are agents of Satan, that they have little horns that stick out of their heads, that they are squat or tall, or colorful or drab. The only things that the writers of the Gospels deemed important enough to put down for posterity is that the demons recognized Jesus for who he was—something that not even his disciples fully recognized—and that they always showed up where Jesus or the disciples were “proclaiming the message,” like flies to a picnic feast.
Towards the end of today’s story, Jesus—perhaps irritated over the amount of time spent casting out these demons—tells his disciples that it is time to move on to other towns so that he can proclaim the message, “for this is what I came to do,” he says. The author of Mark adds a closing footnote for the reader, noting that they did in fact go out and proclaim the message elsewhere, but also continued to cast out demons. Indeed, wherever the message was being proclaimed, the demons seemed to congregate.
It seems that if we are to understand these demons that continue to appear in the gospel narratives, we must first understand what this “message” is that Jesus is proclaiming throughout the towns and villages. I grew up in Virginia, right on the edge of the Bible Belt, and so from an early age I was taught over and over again, from members of my church, from tv personalities & politicians, from ads on the radio and billboards, and from pamphlets in the bathrooms of rest stops along the side of the road, that the Good News, the message of the Gospel, was that Jesus Christ died for our sins. Even to this day, when I am confronted with that question, this is the answer that first springs to mind, even though I take issue with it.
However, this is a very narrow understanding of what Jesus was all about. In reality, the life, the teachings, and the ministry of Jesus were much bigger than the moment of his death. This was certainly not the message that Jesus was proclaiming throughout the countryside, even the gospel narrative agrees with this; it wasn’t until later in the storyline that Jesus began to cryptically foretell his death to his bewildered disciples. It is notable that when he shared that particular message, it did not attract the demons like the message we read about in today’s story.
We are not told what this message was that Jesus was so eager to proclaim in today’s gospel. However, based on his teachings and sayings collected elsewhere in the Gospels, we can be fairly confidant that the message Jesus was proclaiming was about the coming of God’s kingdom, that it was about justice for all people, most especially the poor and the oppressed, that it was about God’s vision for creation, and that the message Jesus proclaimed was that the present shape of this world was changing, and was coming to an end. This is the message that drew out the demons in droves; this is the message by which they recognized Jesus as God incarnate.
The demons, then, are not the evil agents of Satan, colored like the rainbow with little horns sprouting from their heads. They are the things in the world that are in opposition to the message proclaimed by Jesus, they are the things threatened by the good news that God would share with all of God’s creation. The demons are the things that would distract us from God’s message being proclaimed in the world, that make excuses as to why that message is just simply impractical or too difficult to follow at this time.
Where do we see demons gathering in today’s world? There are many good examples, but one that is very pertinent to us in Connecticut is around the repeal of the death penalty. The Episcopal Church as a body is strongly opposed to the death penalty and our own bishops here in Connecticut have worked with our state and church leaders over the years to get it repealed. We feel that the death penalty is in direct opposition to the justice and mercy practiced and taught to us in the life of Christ, and we believe that is the antithesis of God’s vision for creation and hope for humanity. Yet the death penalty persists in Connecticut; we just can’t seem to move ourselves to get rid of it. The demons gather and whisper and shout that now just isn’t the politically expedient time to deal with the issue. No, of course we don’t like the idea of the death penalty, but let’s not deal with it until after the Cheshire murder trial is all settled.
Yes, it is easy to find examples of where we see demons gathering in the world, but the demons are also those things within our selves that distract us, that hold us back from responding to Jesus’ message, that create excuses as to why we can’t do it. Jesus’ message lives within each of us, the Spirit beckons to all of us, and the demons that are a part of each of us hear that message and feel that call. They create distractions, “now’s just not a good time, I’m trying really hard for a promotion.” They create doubt and shame within us, “I’m not smart enough to do that, I don’t have the right talents, there is no way that I could succeed, I’m just no good.” They create excuses, “I have a mortgage to pay, it’s my money to spend as I like, after all, I earned it, I just don’t have the time.”
We hear Jesus’ message, but it goes unheeded as we distract ourselves and convince ourselves that God certainly didn’t mean me, after all it is all just too impractical, too difficult.
So why am I talking about demons this morning? To shame and chastise? Certainly not! Remember, the only two things that the authors of the Gospels deemed important enough to write down about demons was that they always recognized Jesus, that God was walking in their midst, and that they were always attracted to the message proclaimed by Christ. I speak about demons today not to chastise, but to encourage you to pay attention to them, for wherever Demons are congregating in the world and within yourself, the Good News is likely being proclaimed.
I say this to you out of personal experience. In my life, the things and the paths to which I have been most resistant were without fail the things and paths to which God was calling me most strongly. Where do you feel such struggles within yourself? What things, what paths keep coming back up to you in your life, where do you feel that uncertainty, that doubt? It is not a guarantee, but it is often a good start to understanding where God is at work in your life.
Last night, we gathered for our 275th annual parish meeting, and we started talking as a community about where God is working, where God is calling us to work, within our own church community and within the larger community in which we are located. Father Nicholas invited us as a community to dream about what our next “big thing” at St. Paul’s might be. One way that we can discern that next big thing for our parish is by listening and watching for where the demons are congregating in the world around us, saying that something can’t be done, shouldn’t be done, or would be the unpopular thing to do. Dreaming big can be audacious and scary. That incredulity and that fear is often a sign that the demons within our selves have recognized God at work, have heard Jesus’ message being proclaimed.
Pay attention to where the demons are gathering, and then listen carefully for Jesus’ message. And do not fear, my sisters and my brothers, for the demons have never been able to silence that message.