Sermon preached by Frank Tuchols, Pastoral Associate
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 15, 2012
I made sure to wear my sandals today! In today’s gospel Jesus is expressing a sense of urgency as well as wanting his disciples to travel lightly. Matthew’s account of these directions to his disciples says to not even wear sandals. Nothing should weigh us down and he wanted the work to begin ASAP. NOW!
What’s interesting to me is that Jesus gives his disciples their work orders during these summer days when our minds are turning toward more relaxing and vacationing thoughts rather than urgent tasks. We always read the synoptic versions of these disciple directives usually at this time of the year when we’d rather kick off our sandals to jump in the pool or just put our heads back and relax.
But the social worker in me draws my attention to Jesus’ giving his disciples authority over unclean spirits and having them cast out demons. That’s how the Gospel puts it; he sent them two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits and they cast out many demons. Donahue and Harrington in their book on the Gospel of Mark tell us that authority over unclean spirits and casting out demons were, to use their word, equivalent.
Gaining authority and casting out the demons were the same thing for Jesus in Mark’s account. So what were the unclean spirits and demons for the people of Jesus time? The list I discovered included any physical or spiritual suffering:
• Disease: a physical illness or a spiritual disease that may result in physical symptoms.
• Disability: physical as well as sensory, e.g., the inability to hear or see.
• Mental illness: a wide area of suffering with many kinds of symptoms.
• Anti-social behavior: the gamut of relationship issues and problems with others.
What’s important to note is that all these struggles are with us today and helpers who work with those suffering in these areas, believers and unbelievers alike, help people of all ages find ways of gaining authority over their sufferings and ridding themselves of their demons. For some with physical disease and disability, it’s helping them accept and live with these spirits and demons. Others relate to past trauma. The trauma could have been recent or in the distant past. But trauma that continues to haunt and make daily life difficult to live.
We’ve all struggled with our demons: let me just name a few.
The demon of feeling inadequate. “I can’t do it,” “I’ll never be able to do it,” or “I’ll never do it right.” This is often accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame.
The demon of addiction. Not just of substances but anything that takes control of our lives, most significantly today the need to accumulate. This is the demon that fills storage garages to the brim.
The demon of fear that accompanies attraction to members of the same sex. “I’m afraid to come out.” “I’m afraid to be who I am.”
Chris Glaser, a theologian, actually sees coming out for gay and lesbian people as a sacrament, a holy happening. It’s God who is love, dissolving boundaries built by fear and isolation.
Isn’t it interesting that as same-sex relationships take their open place in our society, as Frank Bruni noted in this last Tuesday’s NY Times, there is admission that conversion therapy (i.e., therapy to change one sexual orientation), just does not work and never has. Suffering is being diminished and these demons of fear are being cast out.
I’m sure we could share numerous struggles with the unclean spirits and demons of our lives. But more importantly we need to acknowledge our work that supports gaining authority and casting out.
You’ll be happy to know that the use of incense has been common in this work of the church. It is believed that breathing in incense actually would rid people of demons and unclean spirits. Needless to say, the community here at St Paul’s has a great start in this regard. Try it as part of your celebration here.
Another means that I came across that caught my attention is known as the Milanese rite of exsulfflation This is where the suffering person’s face was breathed upon by another in the sign of the cross relieving them of their suffering. I’d like to recommend a more contemporary variation of this by having us be able to share our anxious breath about our sufferings at the hands of unclean spirits and demons and consequently moving the suffering into a more open area of our existence that allows others to offer their breath of support, encouragement and healing.
Certainly the radical welcoming and the breathing life of this community of St Paul’s follows in the disciples’ footsteps. The healing and anointing with oil available here at our celebration along with the open table is certainly another contributor assisting us in our work of gaining authority and casting out demons. May we as Jesus’ 21st century disciples continue in urgency even in these summer days and with our breath continue the work of overcoming those impure and demonic spirits of our daily existence.