The Rev. Rob Merola
Three weeksago a movie came out called “The Devil Inside Me”. Although I didn’t see it, Igather it was about a person possessed by a demon. Despite being criticallypanned, a lot of people still went to see it. Enough people, in fact, to makeit number one at the box office, beating such movies as Mission Impossible,Sherlock Holmes, and The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo. Since then, it’s goneon to make over 2.5 million dollars. It seems a reasonable conclusion that atleast on some level, there is a fair degree of interest in the subject.
So… what doyou think? Are there such things as demons? If there are, can they reallypossess people? Does this mean we are in danger? What if I told you Ibelieve the answer is yes?
But let’snot jump ahead to the answer quite yet. For the moment, let’s go back totoday’s Gospel, where we find a story about Jesus freeing a person from “anunclean spirit,” and consider our choices.
First, wecan take the story as sort of a scientific treatise on the human psyche. Takenthis way, the story tells us about immensely powerful spiritual beings that cantake over a person’s mind and make them do bad things.
Second, wemight take the story as a description of the human condition—what istechnically known as phenomenological language. In other words, if I say, “Isaw the sun rise today,” none of you say, “Liar!” Nor do you call me an“ignorant pre-scientific fool”. That’s because you recognize the truth of mywords in accurately capturing our shared experience even though on a purelyfactual basis, of course the sun doesn’t rise. It’s the earth that is movingaround the sun.
On thisview, then, what the Gospel is actually describing is this man’s experience—andeven more importantly, Jesus’ ability to do something about it. Whatever theunderlying reality is, this man experiences it as hostile force that wreakshavoc as it violently disrupts his life.
Personally,though I do actually believe in demons, I take this second view. Yes, I believein what the Bible calls “demons”, but I do not believe they are as prevalent assome people think. I also believe I am fully capable of doing evil on my own,and that most of the evil done in the world is done by people, plain andsimple. We don’t need devils to blame for it.
I also knowthat much of what the Bible refers to as “demon possession” we can now explainin other ways. As we learn more and more about the brain, we can explainmuch of the behavior that once was attributed to demons in terms of purelyhuman physiology.
But here’sthe thing, and this is what I think this story is getting at. When I say, “Ihave my demons”, you know exactly what I mean. Frankly, I do have my demons. So do you. And that’s what today’s Gospel really cares about—that however wedefine them, we own up to our demons and allow Jesus to free us from them.
What is more, freedom is the principle way the Bible definessalvation. So in telling us stories precisely like the one in today’s Gospel,the Bible wants us to ask questions like this: What does it mean to live freeof the demon of greed? And it goes on to assert that in studying theteachings of Jesus and emulating his life, we find ourselves on a path thatdelivers us from the power of greed and its presence in our lives.
Fifteen years ago in Boca Raton, FL, surrounded by greatwealth, I heard a man talk about just that kind of freedom. I thought he wasgoing to talk about money, and on the surface I suppose he did.
He had been a school teacher, and so comparatively, hadnever made much money. Of the money he had made, he’d given most of it away. But he had also lived simply, and so had been able to put his kids throughcollege, pay off the mortgage on his home, and save up enough money to retirebefore he was 60 years old. This in turn enabled him to launch out on a grandadventure that had always been one of his dreams: he was driving across thecountry in a little old, high mileage Corolla, teaching people Biblical wisdomabout money.
But the more he talked, the more I realized that he wasn’ttalking about money at all. He was talking about the FREEDOM available to usin Jesus. And it was this freedom that went right to my heart, which stirredan incredibly deep longing in me, and which made me think, “Oh man, I wantthat. I want what he has so bad. I want to be FREE.” More than I wanted thefancy cars I saw out in the parking lot (and I wanted some of them prettybadly!); more than I wanted a big or fancy church like the one hosting theconference; more than I even wanted to be well thought of and respected in myfield (which was why I was at that conference in the first place), I wanted tobe free.
For me, that day changed everything. I couldn’t wait to gethome and talk to Linda about what I’d heard. From that day forward, we beganasking God to free us from the powerful and pervasive demon of greed, and tohelp us live free. And so we began living to be free from debt in all itsforms, and from the stress, tension and anxiety debt produces. We began livingto be free from consumerism and the obligations inherent in it—obligations thatso often keep people from living in accord with their values and their deepestdreams. We began living to be free to give money lavishly and extravagantlyto any and all who need it. Most of all, we began living to be free tofollow God whenever, wherever, and however he leads—to be able to really dowhatever it is in our heart of hearts we know we should do, with nothingwhatsoever holding us back or weighting us down or chaining us to somethingless than our truest and best dreams.
And it has been so good, friends. I wouldn’t trade thefreedom we’ve found in following Jesus for anything in the whole wide world. No thing at all.
My dear and beloved friends: What demons do you strugglewith this morning? If you were to allow your heart to dream, what would yougive anything to be free from?
Maybe it’s anger. Maybe you think of all the grief andsorrow anger has caused in your life, and you think, “Oh, I’d give anything tobe free from that.”
Or maybeit’s alcohol, pornography, drugs, or other form of addiction. It may bebigotry, vindictiveness, impatience, or being judgmental. It may be perfectionism,the inability to really trust people and let them get close, always having tobe busy. It may be our job or the rat race or an image we feel we have to keepup. It may be any one of a hundred different things that eat us from theinside out even as we somehow find ourselves returning to them again and againand again, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise.
The good news this morning is that you can, in fact, befree. That’s the promise of this morning’s Gospel: God is stronger than any ofthe demons we face. He can and will set us free.
And that’s why we at St. Matthew’s take our mission of“knowing and sharing God’s love” so seriously. For us, those aren’t justnice words or some form of churchy undertaking. It is how we believe peoplecome to be free.
That’s why we believe worship is so important. In worship,people of disparate traditions, often from opposite ends of the spectrum, cometogether as one and so set the demons of divisiveness and attack to flight.
That’s why we believe outreach is so important; in going onmission trips, giving food to LINK, helping out with backpack buddies. Inhelping others, we put to flight the demons of selfishness and provincialismmanifested in being concerned only with our little world.
That’s why Spiritual Formation and Small Groups are soimportant. In helping us learn and put into practice how can be more likeJesus, they put to flight all those demons that work against love and whichseek to infect and destroy our relationships.
That’s why our community gatherings are so important; theyput to flight the demons of alienation, isolation, and loneliness.
That’s why our twelve step recovery programs are soimportant. In them, people find the help they could not find anywhere else. In them, God set the demons of addiction to flight.
Dear friends, the experience of Christians across the wholewide world, and down through time, is that no matter what demons we face, Godcan set us free. That is certainly my experience, and I hope it is yours aswell.
God made you to be free. Never, ever, ever settle foranything else.