Sermon Texts: Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8: 26-39
In a recent sermon I described the Spirit of God as dancing out ahead of us to inspire sacred work for justice and compassion, a spiritual activity usually happening on the margins of society. As a former pastor described it, the Holy Spirit is more likely to be found making waves out on forgotten streets of our cities than inside church buildings. It’s easy for us to see where the Spirit has been—in the Civil Rights movement, for instance—and to recognize where the church has belatedly joined in that work. It’s harder to anticipate what edge of need the Spirit is moving toward. In that sermon I then challenged you to name a movement that might be next on the Spirit’s agenda. Linda suggested that the mentally ill might be the next marginalized group the Spirit will visit with focused advocacy, care, and might. May her words prove prophetic. Today the Bible speaks to us about Jesus’ healing ways for minds and spirits.
Although I certainly affirm psychological and medical support for our mental health, I’m extracting from our Gospel story a prescription for spiritual and mental health modeled loosely on the man from Gerasa whom Jesus exorcized. What was eventually said about that man is what I would like said about me: that I, too, “sat at Jesus’ feet, clothed, and in [my] right mind” (Luke 8:35). I don’t mean to make light of serious mental health challenges faced by 1 in 17 Americans. I mean to say that we all find ourselves somewhere along a continuum of mental illness and mental wellness. This story in no way oversimplifies the causes and sufferings of mental illness, but it does offer a simple metaphor to guide me in tending to everyday spiritual challenges. Like the man from Gerasa, you, too, may wish to be clothed and in your right mind. And to take some time to sit at the feet of Jesus.
I’ll unpack what that means to me in a moment. Let me first acknowledge the elephant—or the demons—in the room, demons named “Legion.” Just as the Bible names a creative, lively, loving energy as the Spirit of God, so the Bible also names deeply destructive forces in our world as demonic spirits. Of course, 21st century Westerners don’t talk about demons. Yet we can easily relate to at least one way 1st century Jews and Christians understood demons. The oppressive Roman Empire was “a demonic spirituality . . . they called Satan (the “Dragon” of Revelation 12).”[i] They experienced what St. Paul called “the powers and principalities” in “the actual institutional forms of Roman life: legions, governors, crucifixions, payment of tribute, Roman sacred emblems and standards.” But their prescientific worldview caused them to “project that harmful spiritual force, in visionary form, as spiritual beings” (Wink 25-26).
Today some Christians still retain a prescientific worldview and believe demonic beings in the air are responsible for evil. Secularists, of course, deny there’s any spiritual dimension to this world. But others today operate empirically while affirming spirituality. Walter Wink argues we can discern the “inner spirit of things” and think of demons today as “the actual spirituality of systems,” still a very biblical idea. A demonic spirit can capture an entire “network of Powers” that “becomes integrated around idolatrous systems” of violence, exploitation, oppression (27).
In other words, groups of people and systems of thought can be conduits for good or evil that is greater than the sum of its parts. Mob violence exemplifies how a group can fuel a destructiveness with an intensity that could not exist outside the group. Afterward, the individuals can wonder what “possessed” them to behave in ways they would not have behaved on their own (28). So, too, the power of love is intensified and perpetuated through human networks. We at Open Table appreciate this phenomenon when we make our major decisions through group discernment founded on the premise that we can learn to tune in to a spirit of wisdom and compassion and tune out a spirit of fear or anger that can otherwise creep into groups and take over.
Systems might seem morally neutral. In our culture we believe strongly in the power of the individual. But Jesus’s communal culture may have been wiser than ours in recognizing each of us is deeply imbedded in family, political, economic systems, and that “only by confronting the spirituality of an institution can a social system be transformed” (31). God’s redemption of individuals cannot “take place apart from the redemption of our social structures” (35). Individuals shouldn’t relinquish their own moral responsibility, but in some sense we are enmeshed and complicit in systems, some of which are demonic. And some mental illness—today and in Jesus’ day—might be a sign of a demonic, systemic force at work in our world. To give but one example, the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among troups returning from combat indicts our nation and its military complex as, in some sense, demonic.
Just so, some biblical scholars speculate that Roman military occupation explains why the ostracized, tomb-dwelling, naked, tormented man in today’s Gospel lesson is not, when we first meet him, in his “right mind.” The name his demons give—“Legion”—reveals the cause of his mental illness. A “legion” was a Roman battalion of several thousand soldiers used to occupy and subdue colonies for the Empire. It’s theorized that the suffering the ancient Romans visited upon the Jewish people during their military occupation was so pervasive and brutal that it created mass psychoses. Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon studied the terrible psychological effects of the French occupation of Algeria in the 1950s. He noticed patterns in mental disorders that had physical symptoms. For example, many cases of hysterical blindness and lameness became more intense as French repression intensified. The physical and psychological illnesses Fanon described among that group of oppressed people are consistent with the illnesses Jesus healed in his day. The wide-spread trauma the Roman occupiers caused surely took its toll on the collective psyche of the Jews in Jesus’ day. So in today’s Gospel story, the term the demons used for themselves suggests the possessed man may indeed represent what had possessed all of the people—a literal Roman legion, which had taken possession of their land. This man may also represent what can happen to any of us when we are, in effect, possessed by dehumanizing systems of oppression.“Legion” teaches us to recognize that we can get trapped into systems, seeing only a combative reality constructed by the system. But sharing the mystical “mind of Christ” reveals another reality of connection and compassion. We can learn to question and thus help transform entire systems. The man from Gerasa named and, in doing so, indicted “the powers that be.” Revealed as unholy “pigs,” the demonic powers self-destructed. And the tormented man could think in right ways.
Which brings me to this important point: systemic transformation happens in tandem with individual transformation. We now consider what it means for individuals to sit at the feet of Jesus and be clothed and in our right minds. A broader interpretation of the name “Legion” suggests the way multiple, conflicting voices can divide a personality and fracture one’s sense of self. You and I have felt, in milder ways, the tension within us when we hear multiple voices urging us in different directions. Not audible voices. But sometimes we feel our allegiances are in conflict. For instance, parenting responsibilities may, at times, feel in tension with professional responsibilities. Which voice should we heed? A young Christian dedicated to being an instrument of God’s peace can also be called upon to serve as an instrument of war. It can be maddening, quite literally, to hear contrary voices as equally compelling and never give priority to one over the others. To give equal weight to all voices that claim authority in our lives can produce a “fractured, warring soul,” to use a phrase from the last hymn we sang. The ancient formula of naming Jesus as Lord is a way to describe how an individual achieves a united, integrated self. To align our lives with the aims of Jesus is a spiritual practice that promotes a healing identity. To “sit at the feet of Jesus” is a way of saying that we become a disciple of his compassionate Way.
To be “clothed with Christ,” as Paul describes it in today’s lesson from Galatians, is another way of describing a spiritually healthy recognition of our “oneness in Christ.” We are “in our right mind” when we share the mind (the intentions, the concerted purpose, the uniting aims) of Christ. We are truly sane only when gain this altered consciousness, God’s reality, and know deeply that we are all God’s children. We are in our right minds when we dress ourselves in Christ’s ways and think with his mind. Spiritual maturation requires us to shift from dualistic and egoist thinking to a new consciousness of reality’s fundamental connectedness. In the words we read from Galatians today, we are “clothed in Christ” when we no longer think in terms of “Jew or Greek,” oppressor or oppressed.
Look at our mission statement, printed on your worship bulletin. The second phrase reflects a theology implicit in every sermon I preach. Our mission, Christ’s mission, engages us in spiritual AND social transformation, which are mutual and recursive processes. Jesus’ stories resonate with implications for healing of both society and individual. Our Gospel story today shows how exorcising demonic spirits in individuals can heal systems and how exorcising demonic spirits in systems can heal individuals. You and I are working on both those levels at the same time: exposing and dismissing demonic spirits within us—the spirits of addiction or shame or fear or despair, for instance—even as we work together to recognize and name demonic systems in place that many people take for granted. Both depend on a new way, a mystical way of thinking that unites and liberates us from our own ego and from enslaving systems.
Two stories in the news this weekend illustrate sick systems of thought and practice. I do not want to demonize two public figures who have for the last few days been publicly apologizing, one for racist and the other for homophobic comments and actions, one a TV chef, another the founder of a “cure the gays” “ministry.” On the surface, the apologies seem to reflect, at best, a shallow understanding of the harm done, and a pervasive ignorance about subtler, intransigent prejudices. But it’s hard to know the complexities of the controversies and the sincerity of celebrities through the “mind of the media.” Instead, I want to name systemic demons. The demonic spirits of racism and heterosexism still have power today, especially in their subtler forms, and the church’s job is twofold: to minister to and with those who’ve been damaged by this destructive spirit—both perpetrators of hatred and victims—and to eradicate those systems so that there is a completely new mindset that unites and liberates. To be about this social and spiritual transformation we need contemplative practices.And we need a faith community. The exorcised man from Gerasa wanted to follow Jesus back across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus surprisingly refused this request. Jesus instead encouraged him to reconnect with his community and bear witness to all God had done for him. Jesus’s way is always compassionate—but it’s never easy. After we sit at Jesus’ feet, clothed again in him, in our right minds by knowing his, we are told to “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Most people try to escape when the voices in their troubled minds become unbearable—through anesthetizing entertainment, vapid consumerism, recreational drugs, binge eating, irresponsible relationships, sometimes even through suicide. Jesus’ way is not that of escape. It’s sitting at Jesus’ feet AND returning to our community, declaring what God has done.
May this time together be ever a means for us to sit at Jesus’ feet, feel clothed with God’s love, regain our right minds, and walk out declaring what God has done.
Christ Jesus, I just want to be clothed and in my right mind. Amen