Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 8
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now 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. 33Then 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. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

This past April marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most memorable nights in the history of rock ‘n roll. Four lads from Liverpool, recently arrived in London, dropped in to hear a local group perform. It seems they shared a common love for American sounds such as rhythm and blues, as well as sharing an ambition to become truly famous bands.

What began as a long night talking and spinning records, became the kernel of a friendly rivalry that lasts down to this day. Deciding between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is almost like a personality test, or for some, a choice between good and evil.

And this was no accident. Just a year after the lads met in a rundown apartment in Chelsea, the Stone’s were featured in the weekly Melody Maker in an article called “Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Stone?” Eight thousand kids showed up at their next gig.* The die was cast, and producers and publicists would cultivate this bad boy image—in contrast to the other lads—and make millions.

You have probably figured out by now that I’m going to talk about “Sympathy for the Devil,” written early in 1968, mostly by Sir Mick with some help from Keith. Mick says he was inspired by the writing of Baudelaire and a newly released Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov called “The Master and Margarita.”

In the novel, the devil visits the Soviet Union and has various encounters with bureaucrats and authors, including an author trying to get a book published on Pontius Pilate and the trial of Jesus.

And suddenly the song “Sympathy for the Devil” starts to makes sense. Sir Mick takes us on musical first-person journey through time, beginning with Pilate, then the European wars of religion, then the Russian Revolution, then World War Two, and finally the death of the Kennedy’s. It is sad to note that when he wrote the song only JFK had been killed—he had to rewrite the last vers after the death of Bobby.

And it’s the last verse that demonstrates a theological sophistication generally not known among rock musicians: “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedy’s?’ When after all it was you and me.” The basis for every good Good Friday sermon is the assumption that we killed Jesus, you and me, and not the Romans or the Jews.

So the devil can speak, and construct a good argument, and the proof is in Luke’s Gospel. We see this first in chapter four, when Jesus is tempted in the desert. “If you are the Son of Man,” the devil says, “turn this bread to stone.” He already knows that Jesus is the Son of Man, and he likely already knew he was not to be tempted, but I guess the questions had to be asked anyway.

Next it’s the demons, first in the synagogue in Capernaum, saying “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Later on the same day Jesus is in Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, healing a crowd of people. One-by-one, people receive a healing touch, and one-by-one the demons depart from them and say “You are the son of God!” These are talkative devils, and insightful too.

It’s not until chapter five that Jesus heals someone who is not demon-possessed, and the group of little devils seem to have retreated from view until we come upon them again in chapter eight. This time they’ve formed a kind-of demon co-op, and adopted a name, and this time they seem to have a plan.

First they speak through the poor fellow: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Jesus demands to know their name: it’s Legion, no doubt owning to the fact that there are suddenly so many. They beg Jesus to spare them from the abyss—presumably that’s where retired demons go—and make a play for the pigs instead. They get their wish and we discover pigs can’t swim.

This might be the moment in our sermon to take a United Church sponsored break and ask the very mainline Protestant question “surely, you don’t actually believe in demons?” And my answer, just after I say ‘don’t call me Shirley’ is I don’t know. I guess I do and I don’t. ‘Is there evil in the world?’ Of course, look at Bashar al-Assed, who laughed as he explained to Barbara Walters that he doesn’t control the Syrian Army. ‘Is evil organized?’ Well, 93,000 killed in Syria so far, so that the laughing dictator can keep his job. ‘Yes, but does that mean there is a devil?’ And I would say ‘watch the interview.’ Since the world began, it has given us comfort to believe that evil is really just a collection of really bad mistakes: when a quick glance of human history suggests something else. Everyone has to decide for themselves.

So back to our extremely chatty demons on the hillside. What have we learned from the devil in the wilderness, and the demon in the synagogue, and the demons in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, and demons who long only to live as pigs?

First, they have no doubt whatsoever about the the identity of Jesus. In fact, the demons figure it out long before most people. They are quick to proclaim Jesus son-of-the-Most-High, not as a confession of faith, but as a means of self-protection. They know precisely who they’re dealing with, and what’s at stake for them, and they even know that the abyss awaits if they fail to thwart the Son of Man.

Next, they seem to be in a constant negotiation with Jesus, and not just in the wilderness as bread and power and safety are debated. He engages with them: they make an argument for a certain course of action, and they even seem to flatter Jesus in the hope of better treatment. All of this would indicate that Jesus lives with angels and demons on a full-time basis, engaging other realms of existence that we can only wonder at.

Finally, Jesus has sympathy for the devil, something Luke understood long before Keith and Sir Mick. When Jesus meets demons they often beg, they make a case for mercy, they develop plans (even if they seem half-baked and never kosher) and Jesus relents. Jesus has mercy on the demons who seem caught up somehow in the evil they perpetuate, and want only to be released to somewhere other than that purposely undefined abyss.

I generally hesitate to give the moral of the story, wanting instead to have you chew over the sermon through lunch an come to your own conclusions. And so at the risk of short circuiting that process, I will give you one conclusion. If Jesus can feel sympathy and extend mercy to even the demons, how much more mercy will he have for you and me? If Jesus can act tenderly toward a tormenting legion, how much more mercy will he have for the mistakes we make in our shortsighted collective known as humanity?

May we engage our demons, the chatty ones and the ones who silently live with us, and may we experience God’s mercy and extend that mercy to others, now and always, Amen.



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