Text: Luke 8:26-39
When I was in sixth grade my grandfather bought a baby pig. It only took about five minutes for me to bond with this baby pig as my new pet and playmate. On the days that I would stay with my grandparents after school I would spend all afternoon playing with and talking to Arnold. That’s what I named him. I know, not very creative. But, after all, Green Acres was one of my favorite childhood shows and one of the main characters was a pig named Arnold. Well, you know the rest of the story. Arnold wasn’t bought to be my playmate. And one day when I was in the eighth grade I came home from school to find Arnold gone. As I would later learn what happened to Arnold, my heart broke.
For animals lovers like myself, who tend to humanize all animals, stories like this one in Luke are tough. It is easy to get focused on the pigs and the fate that befell them. Why did something bad have to happen to the pigs for something good to happen to the man who was possessed? Why do our sacred stories tell of saving one living creature at the expense of another, even if they are just stories and metaphors?
I don’t know the answer to that but what I do know is that in some sense, for some of us, it is easier to focus on what happened to the pigs than to wrestle with the idea and questions and reality of demons. But today, I am afraid that we don’t have the luxury to get sidetracked with the pigs in Luke’s story. There is something much more urgent in this text that demands our attention: that of speaking to the demons of our day.
DEMONS. As strange a word as it is, it is a familiar one to us. All of our lives we have read about mythical demons and scary creatures in literature—both in children’s literature and adult literature. Think about those really scary mythical dementors from Harry Potter and all the little details about them that make them feel petrifyingly real—the way they feed on emotions, their blindness, their delightful habit of forcing people to re-live their worst memories. (For those who haven’t read Harry Potter, a Dementor is a non-being and Dark creature, considered one of the foulest to inhabit the world. They feed upon human happiness and cause despair to anyone near them.) In some sense, I imagine, these dementors are what have made the Harry Potter series so popular. We recognize them as being a part of our lives; maybe not in the same way but in a profoundly relatable way. We know demons and dementors exist in real life.
Literature and movies and TV shows like the popular Zombie show and the Walking Dead remind us that demons/dementors are not just “out there” somewhere. They are within us—those internal and personal demons that we all possess and fight every day: alcoholism, food addiction, gambling, sex addiction, drug addiction, greed, the voice that tells us we are not enough, the list is endless. Some would identify anxiety, depression, psychosis, and other mental illnesses as demons they fight. For certain I have read many sermons on mental illness based on this story from Luke about the man who was possessed with many demons.
The truth is we don’t know what this man’s demons were. All we know is that there was a man who lived in the city who had demons. We are told that for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. We know that at times he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wild. And we know that when Jesus asked him his name, he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. One theologian reflecting on this text writes:
“The heartbreaking moment in the story…is when Jesus asks the man his name and one of the horde answers, ‘Legion, for we are many.’ I find it devastating that he has no name, no identity left, except for what he is captive to. It’s not Elijah, or Isaac, or John, or Frank, or Jo-Jo; it’s Legion. He has been completely defined by what assails him, by what robs him of joy and health, by what hinders him and keeps him bound, by all those things that keep him from experiencing life…” (David Lose)
Indeed, it is heartbreaking when our only identity becomes the demons that hold us captive. For it is then that we allow the demons to control us.
But what struck me about this story is the interaction between Jesus and the demons. It would appear from the way Luke tells the story that Jesus actually spoke directly to the demons. We read in verse 32 and 33, “Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.” Jesus speaking to the demons marks a significant turning point in the story. And that is what prompted me to think about our need to speak to the demons of our day.
Yesterday, I had a columnist from The Washington Post and USA Today reach out to me wanting a comment for a column he is writing. His email read: “I think members of our communities have seen many instances of hate this past week, not only from the shooter, but on social media, from pols, etc. My question is this: From your perspective, how do we fight hate? Might you have something to say about that?”
My response: To fight hate we must first be willing to call it out and name it. What happened in Pulse Nightclub on June 12 was HATE directed at the LGBTQ community, and specifically people of color in the LGBTQ community. We also have to name the cultural systems that perpetuate such hate. And call out and name those systems and institutions, especially our religious institutions. To fight hate we also have to work and advocate for laws and policies that protect the most vulnerable who are often the targets of hate. This means communities organizing locally to stand up for the rights and protections of all people. But ultimately, the only way to fight the kind of hate we are seeing in our world is through building relationships with those who are different from us—those we have a tendency to demonize. We can’t fight hate by drawing sword to sword. Only a transforming love that has the power to change hearts and minds can end the hate and violence in our world.
And so I also say: To fight the demons we are facing in our world, one of which is hate, we must first be willing to call them out and name them one by one: individual and systemic homophobia; racism; sexism; misuse of power, especially political power and religious power; Islamophobia; gun violence and the lack of common sense gun legislation. We need to name and call out the demon named greed—the demon that inhabits the richest country in the world and sees hundreds of thousands of people go hungry and homeless every day. We need to name and call out the demon named apathy—the demon that lives inside us individually and systemically that tells us we can’t change…that we have to accept that we can’t make healthcare affordable to all, that we can’t stand up to the gun lobbyist, that we can’t shut down the hate speech of Donald Trump, that women’s rights and gay’s rights and the rights of seniors and children and immigrants are simply hot political topics to debate and divide us. We must speak, and speak loudly to these demons and say to them: these are not just issues to be debated. These are people—people whom God created and people whom we love. We have to speak to the demons and give them permission, no we must insist, that they leave us. We have to name and call out the demon of religious intolerance and religious hate and bills like HB2 that institutionalize intolerance, discrimination and hate. We have no choice but to speak to these demons and demand they cease to live inside us and in our institutions.
And specifically, to the LGBTQ community we have to name and call out the demon of our own internalized homophobia. We are not less than. There is not something wrong with us. We do not have to settle for less than what are our God given and constitutional rights—equal blessing as a part of God’s creation and love; and equal protection under the laws of our constitutional rights. We must stand up for ourselves and give witness to our own blessedness by God. It is great to have allies. We need allies. And we need to take a more active role in speaking to the demons that keep us silent and fearful and say no more. We are not less than—that is a lie that society tells us. God does not hate us—that is a lie that the church tells us. And we must say no more lies. No more demons.
But for all of us, naming the demons and calling them out will not be enough. We have to work and advocate for laws and policies that shut down and shut out the demons when they raise their ugly heads. We have to come together as people of all races and genders and religions and political camps to march and protest and pray and to speak to these demons saying “no more.” No more. No more stealing our identity, our lives, our communities, our happiness. No more holding us captive. No more keeping us bound in shackles or living in tombs. No more!
And ultimately we must speak to the demons of our day by building relationships with those who are different from us. We must say to the legions of demons that are currently embodied in our systems and institutions and sometimes in us that we will not allow you to harden our hearts in ways that ultimately have us demonizing one another. Instead, we will put our faith and trust and hope in a transforming LOVE that breaks opens our hearts and minds and sings the song:
Light dawns on a weary world, when eyes began to see all people’s dignity. Light dawns on a weary world, the promised day of justice comes.
Our brother, Jesus, has shown us the way. We must not fear speaking to the demons of our day and say to them: no more, no more!