Evil doesn’t always present itself with a flag, hood or uniform. As individuals and as a society, how do we face our own demons and (re)start the path to healing?
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Though I’ve lived in California for more than 20 years, I hadn’t made the relatively short pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park until last Thursday. With one son starting senior year of high school, another beginning middle school, and the state of the world—oh, the world—I decided not to let another summer pass without at least a quick trip to the world famous space. We had a wonderful time rediscovering the meaning of awesome as we explored Yosemite Valley. Though I knew the park would be crowded, I wanted to get away from some of the noise of the world and enjoy the sanctuary of the woods.
As first timers, we booked the Yosemite Valley Floor tour in an open-air tram narrated by Anton, our park ranger. I expected him to tell us about beauty of the scenery and share a few fun facts. It soon became clear that Anton had more of an agenda. He pointed at buildings along the way, challenging us to consider whether they “deserved” to be there. He didn’t seem to care that floods had wiped out roads, parking lots and buildings that had been built in very clear flood plains. Anton sided with nature!
He went on to talk about how our ancestors of European descent had stolen the land from First Nations or Native Americans. Anton explained that even the name Yosemite is not some Miwok word meaning, “beautiful country in which all may take selfies with iPhones.” The name Yosemite is derived from the Miwok peoples and literally means, “those who kill.” The Yosemite were an actual tribe who called themselves Ah-wah-ne-chee, named after the appearance of a large mouth shape of the valley walls. Since they were composed of renegades from other tribes that were more violent than the peaceful Miwok, the Miwok called them Yosemite. In 1851, L.H. Bunnell of the Mariposa Battalion stated “That we give the valley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was suggestive, euphonious, and certainly American; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indians which we met leaving their homes in this valley, perhaps never to return, would be perpetuated.” Anton then asked whether we should consider changing the name of the park.
Anton failed to respect that I was seeking sanctuary in the woods.
He was preachy.
Can you imagine someone preaching at you when you’re just trying to seek refuge from all the noise in the world? Wasn’t Charlottesville last week? Haven’t we covered social justice enough for this year?
Please know that when any of the preachers here at Calvary speak of matters of justice in the world, we do acknowledge that there is suffering among individuals in this community. We care about your medical, financial and life challenges. We also know that scientific studies have shown that humans are happier and healthier when individuals aren’t too inwardly focused. It’s a balance we are always trying to seek, and it applies to churches as it does to individuals.
Before continuing in this sermon, I invite you into a moment of meditation. Whether you’re here in the Sanctuary, listening online, or reading a printed copy, please pause. Close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing. Clear your mind.
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That was nice.
Now it’s time to talk about demons.
In today’s Scripture lesson, Jesus encounters two people who were possessed by demons. They lived in tombs and terrified neighbors so much that neighbors actively avoided the area.
Jesus did not avoid the demon-possessed people. He faced them head on.
The “demoniacs” acknowledge Jesus as Son of God, asking if he has come to torment them. Instead, Jesus honors their request to be cast out. Though there were only two “possessed” humans, there were apparently a gaggle of demons (not sure what the correct term is for a bunch of demons) in there who then transfer to a herd of pigs.
Numerous scholars through the years have written about demonic possession in the Bible as something that we would label with various mental illness terms such as paranoid-schizophrenic, bi-polar, narcissistic personality disorder, etc. Think of the various neighbors we encounter in this city, screaming and shouting, frightening us because we don’t really know what to expect. Think of our neighbors in positions of world leadership, screaming and shouting AND TYPING IN ALL CAPS, frightening us because we don’t really know what to expect.
Jesus enters this uncertainty. He bears it with us.
In the biblical story, remember how the demoniacs were so scary that other people had to avoid them? It would naturally follow that the townspeople would then come out to thank Jesus for ridding them of the demons, right? Think again.
“Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.” (Matt. 8:34) The people didn’t want trouble. Perhaps more importantly, Jesus had cost them money by transferring the demons onto the pigs that were part of their livelihood.
Faced with being free of the terrifying demons or sacrificing financial gain, the people begged Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
Longtime Duke Divinity School Professor Stanley Hauerwas writes that, “If we have to choose between a life we know, even a life possessed by demons and ruled by death, and a life of uncertainty to which Jesus calls us, a life that may well expose us to dangers in Jesus’ name, we too may ask Jesus to leave our neighborhood.”
People of God, what demons are we facing and how will we respond?
When our now 11-year-old son was in nursery school, his teachers had to bring something to our attention. They had posted sheets on the bulletin board with each of the kids responding to various questions designed to elicit cute responses:
Nazis? Zach wasn’t even four-years-old. It turns out he had been watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on a loop with Grandma and Grandpa and witnessed Indiana Jones fighting Nazis. We told him not to worry, that a whole World War had helped protect us from them. Yet, here we are in the United States in 2017 with real reason to fear Nazis and other white power groups.
Today I hope that we can all at least agree that we oppose Nazis and all their cousins. When I check in with black and brown people, however, I’m not hearing a primary concern for people wearing hoods, flags, and uniforms. Theologian and award winning singer-songwriter Andre Henry posted, “Until this country finds covert, cultural, and structural forms of racism outrageous, condemning white nationalists is just an argument about technique.” In another post, he expresses concern, “That more white people will continue to focus on the tiki-torch bearers, but not on the housing deniers, police officers, car salesmen, and other power holders that reinforce a culture and structures that oppress non-white people.”
It can be all too easy for us to say, that’s not me. “I hate Nazis of all varieties. I didn’t vote for that guy. I have friends of all colors and religions. I serve as a tutor and mentor. I am not an oppressor like them!”
I cannot pick at the speck in your eye without examining the log in mine. I tried to make the San Francisco Unified School District work for my own children. On the day I registered them, I could see a black woman and hear her crying and pleading, “Please reassign my son. He has been beaten up walking to school. Please!,” to which the counselor replied, “I’m sorry ma’am, we’ve done everything we can.”
While there are many excellent public schools in San Francisco and officials including SF Board of Education Member and Stevon Cook are working tirelessly to improve them, we have a lot of work to do. When things didn’t work the way I wanted them to, I used my privilege and moved my family back to the East Bay.
As long as I have a path to excellent schools, housing, and jobs, it is easy to look the other way. I can leave the demons outside of my walls, lurking in the tomb.
As long as I am not getting pulled over for driving while black or getting shot while wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles, I can leave the demons outside of my walls, lurking in the tomb.
As long as I get the lower interest rate, never have to use a payday loan shark, get access to a good attorney . . .
As long as I mind my own business . . .
We want to bury the demons in the background of our story to preserve our comfort level. We want to worship the cuddly baby or friendly fair-skinned Jesus in the stained glass windows, but not acknowledge the one who drove out the demons that infect our lives and society.
In the story today, the demon-possessed people were in tombs. Jesus looked into the darkness—the same darkness he would face after being crucified on the cross—and brought about liberation. It wasn’t a sweet moment followed by a receiving line in which the townspeople wanted to thank Jesus for sending the demons away. They ran him out of town. When the real Jesus shows up, we should not plan to sit in a lounge chair.
The original title of this sermon was, “Let the Healing Begin.” Especially as I enter my final few weeks here at Calvary, I wanted to share something everyone could embrace. We all go through challenging times, face demons of various sorts, and can turn to Jesus for healing and liberation. As is too often the case for Christian leaders, my planned take was more individualistic and than societal. Healing cannot begin until the condition has been named—often repeatedly—to take away its power. Jesus’ encounter with the demoniacs required him to face the darkness. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Last November, Rev. Dr. William Barber II said that, “The reactionary wave that swept across America with the election of Donald Trump is not an anomaly in our history. It is an all-too-familiar pattern in the long struggle for American reconstruction. The story of our struggle for freedom is not linear: Every advance toward a more perfect union has been met with a backlash of resistance.” Barber went on to point out the violent backlash after the First Reconstruction, when African-Americans became full citizens of the United States, followed by ugliness after civil rights victories in what some call a Second Reconstruction. He then argues that Trump’s election would not have been possible without Obama’s election, launched by his challenging Obama’s citizenship. Barber advocates for a Third Reconstruction of America, concluding that “. . . Our foreparents were up against more with less. And they taught us that a dying mule always kicks the hardest.”
Dr. Barber is now leading Repairers of the Breach, an organization that is unapologetically progressive and works to influence policy.
It is tempting to try to just be polite and wait until the latest storm blows over. Sometimes sheet-caking or general stress eating provides relief, but it doesn’t last.
I know that many are tired and come to church looking for refuge. Just outside these walls—and sometimes within—you can hear the voices of need in local and global neighborhoods.
Will we join Jesus in shining light in the darkness, or . . . ?
 Information from Anton the Park Ranger on 8/18/2017 and verified on line in a post by Daniel E. Anderson, http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/origin_of_word_yosemite.html
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary On the Bible), Reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 98, Kindle Edition.
 Andre Henry, Aug. 18, 2017 post on Facebook
 Andre Henry, Aug. 17, 2017 post on Facebook
 Rev. Dr. William Barber II, “A Dying Mule Always Kicks the Hardest.” www.billmoyers.com, Nov. 17, 2016.