Luke 8 - The Gerosene Demoniac - read the text here!
Lately, I’ve been taking a lot of comfort in kids books and superhero stories. The fight against evil by underdogs with more heart than power. The unsurmountable odds finally surmounted. The good triumphing over evil, but not without a lot of suffering, not without a lot of loss and fear and struggle. These stories take you to the very edge of human existence, the precipice of what can be withstood, and you think they’re going to fall into the abyss, taking us along with them, and then, they don’t, we don't. Somehow, the good guy wins. The shire is saved. The mouse is triumphant. Lex Luthor is defeated and Luke’s dad gets to see him with his own eyes. And if you haven’t checked out Luke Cage on Netflix, well, you’re missing out - giant bulletproof black guy wears a hoodie and gets justice for his murdered friend and neighborhood peacemaker, Pop. All kinds of stereotypes brought into the light, and then torn apart. It. Is. Amazing.
With all the despair and division and clear, outright evil going on in our world today, it’s nice to immerse myself in hero stories. Maybe it’s to escape. But it’s also to hear the old stories again. The ones that may not be factual but are certainly true. The stories that live beyond ourselves and inspire us to act outside of ourselves. These fantastical stories show the full potential of the world’s evil. And the full potential of humanity’s goodness.
So Jonah and I have been reading Harry Potter every night, we’re currently on book three, The Prisoner of Azkaban. In this book, Harry has to fight off a giant glob of dementors - ghostlike figures whose sole existence is to suck out any and all the happiness in someone’s soul. And if given their ultimate punishment, the victim’s soul will be sucked out of him or her completely by a dementor's kiss. The victim doesn’t die, but rather, lives the rest of his or her life soulless, feeling nothing, experiencing nothing, a robot, a zombie, or those of us who get caught in the endless moebius strip of facebook, instagram, cat videos and snapchat.
I think about these dementors when I read about this demoniac. It’s like the poor guy’s very soul has been sucked out of him. He has no community other than the dead buried beneath his feet and the legion of demons swirling in his head, sucking out any goodness or happiness or soul-filled-ness from this poor guy.
He’s been thrown out of community. Shackled up. Castigated. Rendered physically and emotionally naked. Labelled unclean and sent to live in the most unclean of places, among the dead. And when he does break his bonds, he is thrown out into the wilderness. The place of destitution and desperation and complete disconnection from humanity. It’s out in the wilderness that Jesus meets the devil. It’s out in the wilderness that the Israelites encounter poisonous snakes and drought and famine and hopelessness for forty years.
I don’t know how I feel about demons. I mean, I don’t think I’d want to start a time-share with one or anything, but all these stories about demons and the devil and evil - as if it’s disconnected from us, disconnected from the powers and principalities that seem to embody this kind of evil, that I can’t really say in all honesty that I “believe” in them. Like there’s some red guy with a pitchfork somewhere, or some ghoulish troll with warts and twisted fingernails that enters into our brains through our nostrils. Yeah. I just can’t get there.
But describe to me what demons can do to us, I can get on board with that. Because I’ve been on board with that. Feeling tormented and crazy? check. Feeling absolute despair and overwhelming hopelessness? Yup. Feeling like something other than the person I identify as “me” is controlling my thoughts? I could write that horror film script. Feeling so isolated and alone - no matter how much folks want to tie me down and make me stay - that I tear away my bonds and run out into the wilderness? Well, you can just ask the folks closest to me about that one.
I think maybe a dementor’s as good an image of a demon as anything else I can think of. And every time Harry encounters one, it causes him to relive the most horrifying moment in his life, when his parents are killed by Voldemort. His encounters with them are so bad that he blacks out, collapses, gets sucked so deeply in to the horror and sadness that he loses all sense of himself. That sounds about right. Sounds a lot like this poor guy banished to the edge of town to live with the dead and cry out his fear into the dry wilderness air.
Maybe demons are a real thing. Maybe they just feel like they’re a real thing. I don’t know. But I know that demonic feelings might be the realest things I’ve ever encountered in my life. If you’re tormented by a demon, you can’t will it away. When it’s deep inside of you, you can’t wish or pray or shout it away. Sometimes something can distract you from it for a bit - alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, but as soon as it ends, you feel it, louder and harder than ever. Closer. Colder. Even more ready to suck out your soul with a kiss.
In my case, with good meds and good doctors and a VERY patient therapist and an awesome worshipping community and a supportive family, I’m able to lull that demon into an undetermined, uncertain length of sleep so I can tiptoe around it and get on with my life.
But what if all of our demons get together, throw some sort of collective black-lite rave, cranking the bass up so loud we can hardly hear ourselves think, let alone talk to each other?
Seems like there’s a a big one going on right now — complete with a laser light show and all the ecstasy of Facebook fights and political division and the basement roaches of Naziism and Xenophobia and racism crawling out of the woodwork. The demons in our country have crawled out into the light.
I’ve heard a lot of folks, including our current president, say that this isn’t the apocalypse. And I get what they mean. It’s not the end of the world…at least not until the envelope of nuclear codes is placed right next to a twitter account. But I think this is an apocalypse.
I think we all go through little apocalypses throughout our lives. They knock us to our knees. They shock us and terrify us and we don’t think there will be a day after today. We cannot believe that life will go on.
And then, it does.
We keep waking up. We keep showing up. We carry the pain and horror of our experiences with us as we just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
See, “apocalypse” literally means, “a revealing,” and “unveiling.” Things that weren’t seen are now seen. There’s a death that is brought to light. And in our biblical tradition, these revelations shine a spotlight on the horror, and then takes us on a journey to new birth.
Laboring to birth a baby for twenty hours. That’s an apocalypse. You think you’re going to die. You’ve never felt so much pain. And then by some miracle, it ends and there’s this prune-y, purple squished up crying baby that is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
I think our country, the Christian church, our communities, are all experiencing some labor pains. We’ve been carrying the hurt and pain of all of our demons alone as we try to struggle to keep up with all the others whom we assume don’t have those demons, we’ve been choked and bound and made raw and naked by our demons, and we’ve been doing it all alone. As if the only thing that can hear us are the bones of the dead, so why cry out any more? Why not just join them. We go it alone, we’re cast out into the tombs, and so, naturally, we start to believe what the demons are telling us. Because in isolation, we can’t hear anything else. And then the division, the separation between ourselves and our demons starts to blur. Until we cannot see a difference any more. We are the demons.
Somehow, we believed the narrative that we were the exception to love. We’ve all got impostor syndrome, we ate the jello and drank the kool-aid and accepted the narrative. Someone, somewhere, sometimes even our own brains, banished us to the tombs, shackled us there, broken and vulnerable until we couldn’t tell where we end and the demons began. And we lash out. We attack. We start to protect our demons because that’s all we have left to know of ourselves.
Ok. I admit. I might be known to have a bit of a flare for the dramatic. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve never had the fear of being lost or alone or the exception. But I’m willing to wager that any of you who have made it past the age of fifteen know at least a little bit of what I’m talking about. We get so scared and insecure about our own selves that we lash out at others - we become our own demons, supposedly for our own self-protection.
So. Here they are. The Legion. Here we are. The Legion. So. What’s Jesus gonna do about all this?
Jesus walks up to the demoniac. He talks to him. He asks their name. He casts them out. He gives proof that they’re gone. He returns us to community.
Jesus encounters us where we are, as we are.
Jesus wants to hear our stories in our own words.
Then the demons are named. Power is gained over them, because suddenly they are other. THey’re NOT us. They’re a tumor that needs to be cut out. A virus that needs to be killed. Once named, we are no longer tied to them. Because we’ve just found out that they were never us in the first place. Like velcro ripping apart, what once was one now has two separate identities.
And because we will never fully trust our sense of self again, we need to see it. We need proof that the demons are really gone, outside of us, cast into the abyss. Jesus throws them into a herd of pigs. And off they go over a cliff. It’s tangible proof to this guy that they’re gone. And they can't come back.
The othering of the demon from ourselves is painful. It’s terrifying. Because who will we be without our demons? Who will we be without our demons? Maybe the recreation of the self, separate from this legion, is the hardest, most difficult process of this whole apocalypse. The magnetic poles want to go back together. The velcro was made to stick. The loops need the hooks, and the hooks think they need the loops. But this is a revealing. An unveiling. A continuous cycle of revealing and unveiling. Of the sun going dark and the moon turning to blood and all the stars falling out of the sky, until the day of the Lord begins with a pink sunrise and giggling kids and political reconciliation and who knows what else. That’s the struggle of labor; you’re never really sure what you’re going to get.
I believe Jesus really had no idea what he was doing on that cross. He just labored until what was birthed was the curtain torn in two, demons pulled from our psyches, legions thrown into herds of pigs so that we can be in our right minds again. Until we could return back to community. Find out about our belovedness. Freed us from our shackles and pulls us from our graves
It’s an apocalypse. A naming and separating from the thing that we think is really us but is just eating us alive and tearing us from each other. It’s a birthing of a new thing. We don’t know what we’re going to get. But trust. Trust it’ll be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
Easier said than done, I know. But in case you’re worried, Harry learns a spell that summons a patron. “Expecto Patronum!” he calls out. Which literally means “I await a patron.” And one comes. And it chases the dementors away.
Thanks be to God.