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The Advent Breakfast is postponed to Sunday, Dec 8.

What Needs Exorcizing Today?: June 23, 2019

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Lord,
you step upon on our guarded shore
and confront our chaos:
may we who are divided and overwhelmed by the forces of death
learn from you to speak our own name
and proclaim your works of life;
through Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God. Amen.
[Prayers for an Inclusive Church (2009) alt.]

Forty-eight years ago this month saw the release of a novel from the comedic screenwriter who had written the Pink Panther sequel A Shot in the Dark. The writer was named William Peter Blatty, and the book — which you know about, even if you haven’t read it — was called The Exorcist. (He would name its sequel Legion.)

The reason we all have at least some familiarity with The Exorcist is that the director of the hit The French Connection went on to make a film based on the book. Gene Siskel called it one of the best films of the year, and to this day, my favourite film critic, a guy with a radio show on BBC 5, maintains that it’s the greatest film ever made. And it’s done well, having been made with 12 million dollars, but selling tickets into the 440 million dollar range. [Making back 36 times what it cost!]

Not everyone was so enthusiastic, though. Apparently some cinemas provided baggies like the air sickness sacks you find tucked into the seats of airplanes. There were reports of people passing out. And Billy Graham famously said that “There is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself.” Meaning that there was something satanic in the actual reels of Kodak film. Now, as critical thinkers we might ask if he ever bothered to see the movie. And whether or not he did, how exactly did he find or figure that out? (Or were grand statements like that just how he expressed his disapproval of things he didn’t like?)

On one hand stories of exorcism from Jesus’s ministry can seem quite removed from our experiences. But that wasn’t always the case. I recall a retired English teacher I know speak about how Shakespeare’s Macbeth would have been terrifying for its original audiences, because of the witches — something that seemed as real to them as the theme of ambition and treachery. And even in our own time, exorcism and evil spirits might well be part of the way that certain cultures interpret and treat the ills of the world around them.

Though it does strike me as curious how exorcism is one of the characteristic activities of Jesus. But look back at the Old Testament, and you won’t really find much similar. Roughly in the same ballpark, but still pretty different, is how God hardens the heart of Pharaoh in the Moses story. Or King Saul fell into dark moods. Or also with King Saul, there’s a brief story of how he has an ecstatic experience and rips his clothes off. And that’s partly how Luke describes the man afflicted by the demons in the gospel story: as someone who for a long time had worn no clothes.

Just on Thursday of this past week I attended part of a church history conference, where one presenter shared about his experiences, in the 1960s at an Anglican church in downtown Toronto, where the rector came under the influence of the growing charismatic movement. Grew more extreme in his views and practices following the death of one of his children. And when one of his group’s teenage members started complaining of an ear infection, he turned to prayer, but eventually to alienating that young person, suspecting that she was “off,” which was their term for someone influenced by an evil spirit. And so she was left alone in her room, other than when she was sometimes violently slapped by other members of the community. And there, denied medical treatment, she died, of what turned out to be meningitis. (The group would then try to revive her at the morgue.) And this terrible event impacted how the Diocese of Toronto handled its clergy, and how it approached the ministry of prayers for healing. (It now deals more cautiously and intentionally with both.)

And so this tragic story might show us how evocative exorcism stories like today’s can be. But also that we need to approach them with care, perhaps recalling that it’s often the religious experts of the day that Jesus criticized most fiercely. We can’t and shouldn’t deny that exorcisms, along with the stories where Jesus has power over the created world, and the healing miracles, all of these work together as part of his message to the world, that the Kingdom of God is coming. That the world doesn’t belong to the Devil, or to the Emperor, or to the religious holier-than-thous, but to God. (“For kingship belongs to the Lord,” we prayed in our psalm.) And it’s Luke who has Jesus, right at the beginning, quoting from Isaiah, summarizing his mission this way:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Can you hear that in today’s gospel story? I think it’s there, quite plainly, in how Jesus brings good news, or healing, or salvation to the man afflicted with the demons in Gerasa. A man, we’re told, who was naked, and homeless, and cut off from the rest of the community. All of a sudden the story doesn’t sound quite so distant to our experience. Because we all come into contact with folks who are lacking clothing, and shelter. And the man was living not in the city, but in the outskirts, in the wilderness. The wilderness, Jesus learned after his baptism, is a place of temptation. And many of the folks in our own city who lack clothing and shelter, we know also struggle with severe addiction — temptation, of a sort — that further works to isolate them from their families and community.

And I wonder if the committee putting together our lectionary heard echoes the clothing to the exorcised man in our gospel, in Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Church in Galatia: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” It’s our baptism that calls us to hold up our experience of God that we have in Jesus, and live it in our lives, and model it for others.

To the characters in the gospel story who put up walls of division between Jew and Gentile (those who raise and eat pork, and those who don’t), and those who are well-enough to live in society, and those who are relegated to the tombs; and to the modern day characters in that terrible story from Toronto who saw the world as those who were “in” and those who were “out” of their community, and those who were “on,” and those who were “off” (and troubled by some devil) Paul calls us to challenge that tendency toward judgement and divisiveness: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the Good News that Jesus embodies in today’s gospel story that, at first glance, might seem strange to many of us. But it’s Good News that is needed in our world, even if the details of the characters and storyline might be different today. And it’s the Good News that here at St. Andrew’s on Pentecost Sunday, just a few weeks ago, we committed to living out, when we ended the service using materials from The Church of England, and we answered “we will” to the following questions:

Will you dare to embrace each other and grow together in love?
Will you dare to share what you have, and minister to those in need?
Will you dare to pray for each other until your hearts beat with the longings of God?
Will you dare to carry the light of Christ into the world’s dark places?

This, it seems, is what Paul calls for in his letter, and what Jesus does in that seemingly strange story from the Gospel of Luke.

Let us pray:

God, our refuge and hope,
when race, status or gender divide us,
when despair afflicts us,
and community lies shattered,
comfort us with the stillness of your presence,
so that we may confess all you have done;
through Christ, to whom we belong
and in whom we are one. Amen.
[Revised Common Lectionary Prayers (2002) alt.]

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter