Luke 8:26-39–October 27, 2013
‘Jesus asked the man who had demons, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to command them to go to back into the abyss. 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.
Well, how appropriate is this, beloved? Right on the front porch of Halloween we are presented with one of the creepiest stories in the New Testament. St. Luke’s account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is a masterpiece of the macabre!
So why pay attention to it? Haven’t we, living in a skeptical and ridiculously materialistic world, gotten beyond all this mumbo-jumbo about demons and crazed pigs?
Well, we have, actually. But getting beyond the demonic hasn’t made our world an understandable and coherent place—quite the opposite. In the western world most educated people have ceased to regard evil as Real. That’s one of the many ways our mind-set has been altered during the last three hundred years. People don’t deny that bad things happen—it would be hard to deny that! But they tend to regard evil as a soft subjective reality rather than a hard objective one, as something that comes from inside our heads rather than something separate from us. And in the process evil—especially great evil—has become harder and harder for us to explain.
For thousands of years people didn’t have a problem explaining evil. Jesus and the gospel writers certainly didn’t. For them evil was something “out there,” something with a will of its own, something actively hostile to all that is good.
On that score we have changed our collective minds, and demons have been banished to the world of imagination. A “paradigm shift” has taken place—that’s the sexy term for it. Modern people—liberally-educated people like you and me who speak English and think and communicate using computers—tend to regard evil as the work of sick or badly socialized human beings rather than “demons”—individual or “legion.” And because evil lives only in our messed-up heads, modern people tend to regard it as something “fixable.”
Are you still with me?
So let’s take an example as fresh as newly spilled blood. Yesterday the New York Times reported that there has been yet another attack on Christians in Egypt. This time twelve people were seriously injured and four were killed when gunmen on a motorcycle sprayed a crowd leaving a church after a wedding. This is nothing new. Coptic Christians in Egypt have increasingly become scapegoats for the anger of the Muslim Brotherhood over the ouster of President Morsi. Two of the dead were sisters, eight years old and twelve. These two girls were certainly not responsible in any shape or form for the coup that overthrew the former president—but what difference did that make? They were Christians and they were there—that is what mattered. The gunmen were masked—not surprisingly—and no one has thus far claimed responsibility.
So who is responsible? Well, the gunmen are, of course, or rather their history and environment is to blame. That’s what we immediately assume. Their minds have been warped by poverty and lack of proper education, and overheated by fanatical religion. That would certainly be the answer of the New York Times, if it were to offer one. If they were nice, clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people like those who read the Times, they would not have done such a terrible thing. Education, economic development, more science and less religion would fix the problem.
But the truth is that clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people are often not at all nice, and they get up to some to get up to some pretty horrific things when the opportunity represents itself. They too can be seized and possessed by evil and by the illusion of their own absolute goodness. And all you need to offer as proof of that is the well-worn example of what clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people in Nazi Germany did—or let be done–to the Jews. That’s a good example, but numerous others abound.
Political radicalism and religious fundamentalism can certainly be the tools of evil, but they are not evil itself. Evil itself is bigger than that, and much tougher. Education is always better than ignorance. That’s why evil people oppose it. But learning does not make any of us better. By educating people you can improve their grammar, make them more interesting to talk to and better with computers. You can improve their material lives, but you cannot make them good. Our long march of process has not made us any better—or any worse, for that matter.
Human beings are what we are.
Looking back on my life, I have to admit that perhaps being a Lutheran pastor for thirty years didn’t teach me everything it might have, but it did drive home the truth that people who are nice, clean, well-educated people can also be very wicked. That, of course, won’t come as a great shock to any of you. But thirty years ago I did buy into the idea that all people needed was a chance to be good and they would be. I have changed my mind on that score.
I still believe that most people are responsible for their actions most of the time, but the mystery of evil goes well beyond what goes on in our little heads, beloved. There is something actually out there, beyond ourselves, something that is Objectively Evil, greater than the sum of our individual badness. It impinges on our everyday lives, and it is not “fixable” by human efforts alone. That does not remove responsibility to fight against it; it just forces us to understand that evil is bigger than we are and much, much more powerful.
Wise people in ancient times took that for granted. People outside our western corner of the world believe that. Whatever else they believe in, you can be sure that those Egyptian gunmen on their motorcycle undoubtedly believe that there is such a thing as Objective Evil. But that belief does not make them any worse—or better. They just are what we might all be, victims of the same evil powers that tormented that Gerasene demonic so long ago, were it not for what?
Education? A good job? A nice, “liberal” home environment? Those things would, of course, have done those gunmen no harm—but the source of what is good and evil in the world lies somewhere else, outside this visible world, more deeply embedded in reality itself.
So that takes us back around to the gospel story. The man that Jesus met that day in the country of the Gerasenes was a victim of forces outside himself. If the term “demons” seems too weird and mythological, we might call them “the powers of disorder and self-destruction.” But they were independent of the man himself and somehow they had “infected” him and taken him over. They gave him great physical strength so that he could break “chains and shackles,” but they also made him tragically vulnerable, figuratively as well as literally naked. They became his life and his family, and at the same time they killed him. They forced him to leave his home and his community and live with them “among the tombs.”
When Jesus appeared on the scene, those evil powers immediately recognized his authority and they knew he had come to destroy them. But they beseeched him not to send them “back into the abyss”—in Bible language, the chaos and confusion that preceded God’s creation. Presumably that is where they had come from and that is where they will eventually end up. Instead they begged the Lord not to send them back there just yet, and for some mysterious reason he doesn’t. Presumably it is for the same reason that God still allows evil to exercise its power in the world. Instead Jesus sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine, which promptly hurl themselves into the sea.
No one said this isn’t a mysterious story, especially to our modern way of thinking. The inquiring part of ourselves asks—How did those evil powers get such a hold of the man in the first place? Who can say? The evangelist doesn’t try. But when people leave windows open in their souls some very bad things can sneak in. Anger, substance abuse, permissive sex, distorted forms of religion are all openings through which the powers of evil can enter human lives. Even the nicest of us—and we know who we are, don’t we?—sometimes leave a window open a crack and in they creep. And when that happens, we do and say things that we later deeply regret. Afterwards we ask in dismay—What in the world possessed me?
There are much that is mysterious in this gospel story, but one thing remains clear. The man’s tormentors come from outside and so does his deliverance. Evil isn’t Real, in the usual sense of the word. God is the creator of everything, and all that he creates is good. But evil remains very potent in its chaotic unreality, stronger than we are in and of ourselves. The only thing that can overcome it is the power of the Holy Spirit.
That power that was eminently at work in Jesus of Nazareth, and it still is active in the world today, where his Spirit is still fighting gallantly against selfishness and cruelty, political radicalism and religious fundamentalism with the weapons of moderation, kindliness, forgiveness, and—dare I say it?—love. His power will ultimately triumph—but it hasn’t yet.
The existence of evil in the world is mysterious, but it is not inexplicable. It is out there. And in is in here, in ourselves. Both light and darkness are part of our selves. We are all creatures of both the day and the night—all of us. There is no point in denying it—indeed when we try to pretend to be perfect or even perfectible we get into deep trouble. If we deny the dark side of ourselves, beloved, we make ourselves hypocrites—and worse, we join forces of those who shoot at schoolgirls from motorcycles.
That is the reason I unapologetically defend Halloween against its many devout critics who want to banish it or—worse yet–turn it into a bland and boring “Harvest Festival.” As a child I loved Halloween and have by no means gotten over it. I am going to be a dead cowboy this year at the Friends of Honeymoon Island Halloween in the Park, and I have to leave you to put on my disguise, which is a masterpiece of the macabre, if I say so myself.
As we put on our disguises and put out our jack-o-lanterns, Halloween reminds us who and what we really are—fallen humanity. It calls out to something in ourselves. That is the reason it still has such endurance and growing appeal in a society that has tried to banish objective evil to the psychiatrist’s couch.
In our heart of hearts we know that evil is “out there” and “in here.” When we deny it, we embrace it. That is the paradox we live with. When we recognize evil at work in ourselves, in our churches, and in the world, we can claim the power of the Holy Spirit to fight it, and the Spirit will. But it is battle you and I are not going to win, not in this life. As long as we live we will always be a mixture of light and darkness. We are people of the dawn.
You have been so attentive up to now that I will tell you a Halloween story—a true one. Years ago, when we were living in Bradenton, Florida, we always had lots of trick-or-treaters. Hundreds, in fact. One particular Halloween I did what I always do; I armed myself with scads of Milky Way Bars, which are my personal favorite, and waited for motley crowd to come. I just love seeing the kids in their costumes—bandits and princesses and vampires and ghosts. In Bradenton there were lots of migrant kids from the fields in the eastern part of the county too, dressed up in scraps of cast-off costumes, some barefoot in the chilly night. But all of them were filled with excitement and joy of Halloween. Who would deny any child that?
By eleven o’clock, however, they had stopped coming. Penny had finally gotten our own sugar-drunken kids to bed, and I was alone with my feet up in front of the fire eating Milky Way bars and enjoying the sweet afterglow of the Halloween.
Then suddenly there was a loud knocking at the door. I checked my watch. It was nearly midnight. Too late for trick-or-treaters. But taking my bowl of chocolate with me I answered the summons nevertheless. But there, on our front porch were not children, but two grown men, dressed convincingly as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and they were armed. I grew up around guns. Back on the ranch my father kept a Peacemaker in his desk drawn for shooting what he called “varmits.” Guns have their own smell, especially if they have been recently fired. And these guns were really real and they were pointed right at my belly. I raised my one free hand slowly into the air.
“All right, now, mister,” snarled one of the strangers, “your candy or your life.”
“Easy choice,” I replied and dumped the rest of my Milky Way bars into the sack they held out. Then the bandits laughed, uproariously, as if this had been the best joke ever made, and disappeared into the night.
I know some of you may doubt that this really happened. Some of you will say that it was a purely subjective event, a product of my overheated imagination, fueled by too much chocolate. And I’m not surprised by your disbelief. We live in a skeptical and ridiculously materialistic world.
But it did happen. It did—really, really. I can’t prove it, but I know it. And it only goes to prove that the life we share, beloved, is very strange indeed, dangerous and the same time wonderful. As Shakespeare says through the mouth of Hamlet—“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is room in such a universe for both angels and demons and much else, and the mysterious still breaks into our nice, well-educated, skeptical lives whether we like it or not. To some people it might be a scary thought, but to me it is thrilling. God would not have made a boring universe, and in this one, anything can happen.