This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 5 (Proper 7, Year C): 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalms 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; and Luke 8:26-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
At the beginning of the sermon, following the reading of Gospel lesson, five readers scattered among the congregation, rose and loudly read the following five passages simultaneously:
Voice One: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Voice Two: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Voice Three: “You can’t do anything right and never will be able to. Everyone hates you. You have no friends. You are the most useless, worthless human being on the planet. You know this is true, and you are powerless to change it. You should just end it right now. There’s no reason for you to keep living.”
Voice Four: “In a large bowl, beat together eggs, oil, white sugar and two teaspoons vanilla. Mix in flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Stir in carrots. Fold in pecans. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.”
Voice Five “Mr. Dursley, a well-off Englishman, notices strange happenings on his way to work one day. That night, Albus Dumbledore, the head of a wizardry academy called Hogwarts, meets Professor McGonagall, who also teaches at Hogwarts, and a giant named Hagrid outside the Dursley home. Dumbledore tells McGonagall that someone named Voldemort has killed a Mr. and Mrs. Potter and tried unsuccessfully to kill their baby son, Harry.”
One of the many ways in which modern scholars try to make sense of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac is the suggestion that he was, in fact, schizophrenic. For example, the Dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral in England, Jeffrey John, writes:
Anyone presenting the symptoms of the Gerasene demoniac today would be rapidly committed for treatment of multiple schizophrenia – and quite rightly. It would be very foolish to do otherwise, or to discount the huge, God-given progress that has been made in our understanding and treatment of mental illness since biblical times. (The Meaning in the Miracles, p. 91, Eerdmans:2004)
A Roman Catholic writer who identifies himself only as “John” tells of accompanying a priest making his Eucharistic ministry rounds at a psychiatric hospital. He describes what happened when they arrived at the ward where the most seriously disturbed patients were housed:
My friend began to say the prayers and all was relatively calm until he raised the Eucharist. This very motion acted like a trigger for one of the patients who began to shout expletives, spit and hiss. This set off most of the others; he had to be restrained while we administered the Eucharist to those who wanted it and lined up to receive it. Amidst the cacophony I heard one thing that he shouted which remains with me to this day; he shouted “why are you coming in here tormenting us?” (John’s Ramblings)
He then comments, “It wasn’t until some time later that when meditating on the Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac . . . that I shuddered to a halt and recalled that event in the psychiatric hospital.”
Schizophrenics hear voices. This is the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. The voices may talk to the person about his or her behavior; they may order the person to do things; they may speak warnings of danger. Sometimes the voices talk to each other; sometimes they talk over one another, several voices speaking at once. What we experienced as these five people read these differing texts was a crude demonstration of what some schizophrenics experience, or what the Gerasene Demoniac seems to have suffered.
The great English author, C. S. Lewis, once wrote that we human beings are a “myriad of impulses, a cauldron of evil desires.” The Gerasene Demoniac certainly was. When Jesus asked him (or the demon within him) his name, the answer was, “We are legion.”
That is a very scary answer! That word, legion, is a Roman military term. In the Roman army, a legion consisted of six thousand men. We heard only five voices in our little demonstration. Can you imagine what it must have been like to hear thousands upon thousands of demonic voices? No wonder he would break his chains and shackles and run into the wilds to live in the cemetery among the tombs!
John, the Roman Catholic blogger, suggests that “all disorder, all conflict whether we call it civil, political, doctrinal, psychiatric, psychological, social or personal disorder, . . . anything that creates or contributes to disorder or conflict is the presence of evil at work in the world.” I believe he is correct, the message of the Prophets is that that disorder, that chaos is not, and never will be, the last word.
As dramatic counterpoint to the Gospel story today, we have another story of the Prophet Elijah. The Lectionary, as you remember, has had us bouncing around in the First Book of Kings reading stories of Elijah, but not in the order they are presented in that book. Instead, we have been getting the texts from First Kings as they may relate to the stories from Luke’s Gospel; today’s pairing seems to be a good example. What we see here is the stark difference between the chaotic disorder of evil, represented by demon possession (or schizophrenia), and the order of holiness, represented by the “sheer silence” in which Elijah encounters God.
You recall the story. Elijah has just killed the 450 prophets of Ba’al, which has royally angered the wicked Queen Jezebel. She has sent word to Elijah saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” In other words, “Look out, Dude! I’m gonna kill you!” So Elijah, in fear, flees into the desert and in a fit of depression prays that God will take his life. However, an angel appears and tells him that’s not going to happen. He is instructed to eat something and then travel to “Horeb, the mount of God.” This is understood to be the very same place where Moses received the Tablets of the Law. When he gets there, God asks what his problem is: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers that all the prophets of Yahweh have been killed (by Queen Jezebel and her army) and only he is left. So God tells him to stand at the mouth of his cave because God will pass by.
He does so and there is a storm, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. All of these things represent that disordered chaos which the Demoniac in the Gospel experiences, and God is in none of them. Instead, God is in the “sheer silence,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates the Hebrew. A literal translation of the Hebrew would be “the sound of gentle blowing,” and the King James Version translated this by that wonderful turn of phrase “a still small voice.”
So we have this wonderful juxtaposition of an image of loud, confusing, demonic chaos — the Gerasene Demoniac, a person in a situation which is overwhelmingly evil, permeated with and being buffeted by a legion of devils, thousands of incoherent voices, pulling him in every direction, ruining his life — with an image of calm, peaceful, gentleness — the still small voice of God present in sound of sheer silence, the sound of gentle blowing.
We, I hope, are not possessed of demons, nor suffering from schizophrenia or some other form of delusional mental illness. But we all inhabit a world of many, many voices, all talking to us, all telling us what to think, or do, or say. No matter how old we are, we will always have the voices of parents and grandparents playing in our heads; we have the voices of politicians, news reporters, bosses, spouses, our own children, their teachers, doctors, lawyers, tax advisers . . . and occasionally preachers . . . all telling us what to do. There are times when all of that noise can get us down, when we can all relate personally to the lament in today’s gradual psalm: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?”
Several years ago, there was a job opening on a cruise ship; a new communications officer was need. There were several applicants seeking the position and all were told to come to a particular office at the same time on the same day. They arrived and were shown in to a waiting room. While they waited to be interviewed, the conversed with one another and soon the room was filled with the sounds of conversation. After quite a long wait, another applicant who was late came in and sat down; everyone else was busy talking, so she just quietly waited for a few minutes, but then suddenly, she jumped up and walked through a door marked “Private.” A few minutes the personnel manager walked out of that door and announced that the position had been filled; the late-arriving applicant had been hired. The other applicants were extremely angry, “We were here first! How could she go ahead of us and get the job?” To which the personnel manager replied, “Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message on the intercom.” “What message?” “All the time you were talking the intercom was broadcasting in Morse Code, ‘A ship’s communications officer must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'”
I believe that God’s still small voice is like that coded message. It’s there if we will but take a few moments of silence and listen for it. And if it seems like we do not have the power to do so on our own, if we are unable to still the storms, the earthquakes, the fires, the voices . . . the story of the Gerasene Demoniac reminds us that Jesus can, because personal exorcism is not what this story is really about. “Rather,” as Jeffrey John reminds us, “it is about the promise . . . of God’s ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict both individuals and communities.”
Life can sometimes, indeed, life can often be permeated with great evil that is almost beyond human comprehension and beyond our ability to handle. In those moments, we may be tempted to just give up and give in to the intensity of evil around us. Like the Psalmist we may cry out, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?” Like Elijah we may be tempted to just sit down in the desert and say, “Let me die.” But God does not give up; Jesus does not give up. Jesus faces the demons with his healing and his peace. There is no situation so bad that Jesus cannot or will not bring his healing power.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.