Sermon May 22, 2011

Guest Pastor, Dick Sommer

Are You Talkin’ To Me? (5-22-11)

SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, He entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean
spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The demon speaks to Jesus, confronts Jesus, and challenges Jesus, and Jesus replies, “Shut up! Get out!”

The demon cannot even respond, “Are you talkin’ to ME?” With unnecessary theatrics, it convulses its host and departs. Would that casting out demons were so easy for the rest of us!

In understanding this Scripture lesson, the first hurdle we must get over is that, as twenty-first century readers, we are disinclined to believe in demons. The demons of the Bible can be explained—explained away—with modern medical substitutions. We would say today that the boy in Matthew 17 ”…has seizures … and often falls into the fire or into the water” has epilepsy. The man in this story might be diagnosed with schizophrenia. And notwithstanding our more sanitized terms to label these conditions, Jesus still healed them! Yes, we are too modern to believe in demons. They are the stuff of fairy tales, along with the monsters under our beds.

So you might be interested in reading Wilson van Dusen’s essay “The Presence of Spirits in Madness” (see van Dusen, The Presence of Other worlds, Chrysalis Books). While working in a California state mental hospital as a clinical psychologist, dealing with patients who were bothered by hallucinations, he decided to interview the hallucinations. He discovered two “orders” of voices. One category consists of frequently reported “lower-order” voices, which Van Dusen describes as “similar to drunken bums at a bar who like to tease and torment just for the fun of:; endlessly talkative, extremely limited in powers of reason and experience, and irreligious or antireligious. The other category consists of more rarely reported and “higher-order” voices, which seldom speak and are “symbolic, religious, supportive, and genuinely instructive”. He even found these latter voices to be “potentially … therapeutic”.

You might protest, “But these people were in a mental hospital. What has that got to do with us?” That sounds remarkably like the very thing the demon said to Jesus. “What do you want with us?” I’ll let Van Dusen answer the question.

“It appears that psychotics, alienated from their own feelings and inner processes, find these processes represented around them in a different form(than do the mentally healthy)…Over and over I had the impression that (hallucinations) represented unknown potentials in the patient. The hell side illustrated personal faults, blindness, and stupidity. The heaven side represented higher, unused gifts…They appear to be unrealized, unlived-out potentials, spilling out to confuse the environment…In a sense, these people seemed to have too much unused, unrecognized unconscious, which lived anyway and confused their environment….

“My guess is that Swedenborg systematically explored the same worlds that psychotic patients find themselves thrust into, and these worlds are heaven and hell, the worlds beyond this one, inside this one…Swedenborg said that we all have spirits with us, they are part of the foundation and energy of mental processes. (Van Dusen gives a brief description of what these processes would be like for the “normal” mind, hell being the experience of temptation and heaven the contemplation of higher qualities). Most mental experience is participated in by spirits who don’t know themselves as anything other than your own feelings. Honed down to this fine level, the only thing left that is really yours is the struggle to choose. Those who aren’t choosing are going the way the spiritual winds blow. So the pitiful picture of the hallucinated psychotic is really an exaggerated picture of everyone’s situation.

What has the demon in this story got to do with us? Everything Swedenborg does not just say we are “accompanied” by spirits, he assert6s that we have our very lives through their presence. People are recipient vessels of life. To the extent that we bend our affections toward self-serving greed and power, we receive a hellish life. To the extent that we bend our affections toward loves that leave the world a better place, we receive heavenly life. Swedenborg finds two salient characteristics in evil spirits, he calls them “insane” and “stupid”. Wen Jesus shouted “Shut up! Get out!” at the demon, he emptied the person of the insane and the stupid. He tipped over the cup and dumped out the contents so that the man could receive a better life.

Right there, in the synagogue, at the holy center at the core of our beliefs, yes, we too hold to some harebrained life doctrine that contributes to deranged behavior. How many times have you said, “I will never treat my kids that way” and then turned around and done exactly what you said you’d never do? How many times have you promised to hold your temper and then lost it? How many times have you promised that next year you will remember your anniversary and then forgotten it? How many opportunities have you missed because of some gnawing idea that says, “People will think you’re foolish if you do that”? How many friends have you missed making because somewhere inside you wear a label of unworthiness? What activities have you kept yourself from trying because you were afraid of failure? How many times have you said, “Oh, no! Not again!” Those are demons.

In our story, the demon recognizes and speaks directly to Jesus. “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Every time we do one of those “oh, no!” things, it is the demon speaking up. And don’t we usually holler at ourselves? “Oh, what a stupid idiot I am for doing that again?” Consider Jesus holler instead. Next time a bad habit overtakes you (again), try shouting “Shut up! Get out!”

I realize this might be a little intimidating to implement. Let me try a variation on the theme. Years ago, I read a story in Guideposts about a woman who had some horrible thing happen to her, like a stroke or multiple sclerosis. The doctors were no encouraging, but rather than accept defeat or go on the warpath to defeat her condition, she accepted her blessings. She did not deny her disabled condition (as Jesus did not deny or avoid the demon in the man), but she made a choice (remember Van Dusen’s saying that choice is all we really have?) to look to Jesus. The part of her story I remember is this, she could not stand up very well, but she still wanted to keep her house. So she sat in a chair and mopped the floor, she said, “Thank you, Jesus, for mopping the floor with me.” She focused on welcoming the savior in her holy center, in her personal synagogue. She invited divinity to do everything with her. She fully recovered. She amazed doctors. She allowed her faith to shout, “Shut up! Get out!” at her demon by filling herself with the divine and the divine will to wholeness. If you can’t shout “Get out!” at your demons, at least try singing “Come in” to the divine healer.

The exorcism that Jesus performs on the man in the synagogue is bracketed this way. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority.” And then, after the demon departs, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!” The words, teaching, amazed, and authority surrounded this event.

What do we let ourselves learn? What life doctrine do we study? That the rich get richer and the poor; poorer: that might makes right, that nice guys finish last, that you can’t fight city hall; that women’s work is only worth 76 cents to a man’s dollar; that heaven is for later? What lessons are we learning and who is our teacher?

At Jesus’ teaching, the people were amazed. They were amazed at the exorcism, too. So what? Don’t settle for being amazed—be transformed. Marveling at divine authority is not as fruitful as living under it.

Divine authority is based in truth and order. Jesus’ authority was not like the scribes’, whose authority was based in quoting other scholars and forming conservative opinions. Jesus quotes divine intent. His authority is personal and radical. And I mean radical in both ways. He colors outside the lines, he is outrageous. The Christ is not about an order for our lives based on insane doctrines like “nice guys finish last” any more than it is about the “alienation from feelings and inner processes: that produces mental derangement. The non-
psychotic can happily label the psychotic mind as “disordered.” What about your own mind? How is its order? Could it use a radical overhaul? The Lord also calls us back to our roots. Our roots are divine, and the Lord invites us to reclaim the truth of our image and likeness of God rather than settle for stupid demons.

Demons exist at all levels. We have personal demons, but we also have societal, national, and global demons. And we have church demons. And we bear responsibility for shouting at any and all of them, “Shut up! Get out!” (And we will hear them respond, “You talkin’ to ME?”) The thing is, no one really likes to admit to having demons. We try to pretend those demons aren’t talking right out loud. We forget our divine teachings. We fail to claim our own authority to shout, “Shut up! Get out!” Or sometimes we mistake the demon for a person and shout, “Shut up! Get out!” at another human being, thinking the person is what is bothering us.

Whether you have ever shouted, “Shut up! Get out!” at another person or someone has shouted it at you, I’m sure you recall the yucky feelings that resulted. The only authority that casts out demons is the one that can distinguish the hellish spirit from the cherished, redeemable person. But it is an authority that we tap into, because the divine creator never leaves our holy center—along with those spirits we incline to; God’s presence is always in the life we receive. By allying ourselves with truth and order, we too can defeat evil and falsity.

But beware casting our demons is disruptive. “The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” It’s tempting to avoid being an exorcist because of the convulsions it will cause. And sometimes casting out demons has limited effect—some people will stand around being amazed at the show but will not get the message of the teaching. Nevertheless, when we look at the core of what comes out of amazing, authoritative teaching, someone stands to be freed of a demon.

Not everyone who shouts in your direction is shouting at you. It could be the Christ shouting in favor of you. The Holy One of God loves you enough to shout the demons right out of you—over and over.

Blessed be the Lord!

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