While I have been a Priest for about ten years I have been preaching sermons for about fifteen years. This is because during my time of discernment and my years of study at VST I of course gave sermons on a fairly regular basis. I only mention this because in all that time I have never preached on the specific act of Jesus exorcising a demonic spirit out of an individual. This is unusual in that the Gospels mention numerous stories of Jesus confronting and casting out demons or evil spirits. In fact, and someone did indeed count, there are twenty-one such incidents in the four Gospels; that is quite a few.
So it is perhaps odd that I have never dealt with this particular kind of miracle and up until this point and to be candid I consider it a blessing in that I find the subject of exorcism to be somewhat uncomfortable for a variety of theological reasons. However, with Jesus healing the woman’s daughter who was “tormented by a daemon”, the subject is clearly at hand and my comfort level perhaps needs to be stretched to include an incident of exorcism that, as mentioned, happens twenty other times in the Gospels of Christ.
Before I give you my thoughts on today’s reading I thought I would relate two stories on the subject. When I started the process of becoming an ordained minister in the church I was helped along in my discernment by an older priest who has now been retired for some time and who has become quite a good friend. During this period we of course discussed many matters and issues relating to ministry and one day the subject of exorcism came up. I should tell you that this particular priest was like myself in that he came to ministry later in life, but his past was - should we say - a rather tough one. He was at one time a fisherman off the east coast and then a miner in Northern Ontario. Both jobs are not for the faint of heart and while he is in his way one of the most caring and compassionate priests I have ever met, you can also sense in him a hard edge that has seen and experienced the crusty extremities of a rugged working life.
He mentioned to me that while he was serving as a priest in Saskatchewan quite a number of years ago he was invited to participate in an exorcism. It was his first such invitation and he was intrigued and so he accepted. He told me that as a participant priest his job was just to stand aside and pray as the lead priest led the liturgy. He didn’t go into detail as to what happened because he rightly felt it to be a personal and private mater. He did say though that it was the most unsettling and distressing experience he had ever had. And this man who had seen and encountered many difficult episodes in his life told me he would never, ever participate in such an event again.
The second story is a personal one and took place soon after my ordination. Myself and a few other recently ordained Priests and Deacons were invited to a meeting with Bishop Michael where he went over the cannons and policies of the church. At one point someone ask Bishop Michael whether or not we performed the rite of exorcism in the Diocese. It was a somewhat humorous moment in the sense that until that instant the room had a jovial and chipper atmosphere, but as soon as the question was asked all our heads, seemingly in unison, turned toward the Bishop and waited for his response – you could have heard a pin drop. Bishop Michael’s answer was clear and immediate. He said, “We do not perform exorcisms in the Diocese of New Westminster”. Period. And he then went on to the next subject.
It is a controversial subject in the worldwide church and is still debated to this day. However, for me what is important and relevant and what I would like to focus on today are two crucial questions that come out of our Gospel reading. The first question is this: is there real evil in the world today, that is to say is there a force that compels some to acts of evil and destruction? The second question is - if the first question is true - what do we as Christians do about it, what are we as Christians taught by Jesus to do about it? For me the answer to the first question is unfortunately very easy to answer; yes, there is evil in the world today. Evil marched and acted in Charlottesville and Barcelona this past week. While I would also say that the news media rightly exposes us to acts of atrocious and heinous behaviour, at the same time I would contend they under-report the overwhelming reality of hope and good and fellowship in our world. However, the fact is that evil persists in our real and lived experience. Evil is a reality.
As I mentioned the question then becomes what do we as Christians do in the face of this reality, what does Christ teach us to do? In another Gospel story Jesus commands the evil spirit to come out and the daemon says, "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." Now to be sure this passage, which comes early on in the Gospel of Mark, has more than one function. This passage most assuredly introduces Jesus as ‘The Holy One of God”, and in fact it is the unclean spirit itself that recognizes this fact. This is obviously important in the narrative of all four Gospels and the author here underlines not only the divinity of Jesus, but also the singular divinity of Jesus; he is the Holy One of God.
Additionally, we also have in this passage, I believe, a revelation of some importance. After the unclean spirit comes out of the man on the command of Jesus the witnesses to the event say in part, “What is this? A new teaching”? Now when I read this I said to myself why are they saying ‘a new teaching’? It seemed to me that Jesus here was not so much teaching anything as he was casting out evil and proving himself to be what the unclean spirit claimed him to be – the Holy One of God. So, when in doubt check the biblical commentaries and see what they have to say and I did just that. What more than one said about this ‘teaching moment’ was that it was likely a problem in the translation of the story from when the Gospels were strictly in the oral tradition and then transcribed into text by the author of the Gospel.
That is of course a possibility, but when I reflected some more on the subject I wondered if Mark got it exactly right and that is precisely what was said, “What is this? A new teaching”? If this is the case, and I now believe it to be, what was Jesus teaching us in that moment, what was Jesus saying to us about how we should confront evil when evil crosses our path? It is the revelation that when we are faced with evil we squarely confront it and in a nonviolent way tell it to stop and get out. I believe this to be the teaching moment the witnesses were talking about. In this moment Jesus did not pull out his mighty swift sword and smote the spirit, he didn’t grab the man and shake the evil out of him, he didn’t match the man’s convulsions with the wrath of God so clearly at his disposal, Jesus simply said, "Be silent, and come out of him!" When faced with evil Jesus squarely confronted it and in a nonviolent way told it to stop and get out. That I believe is the revelation, that is the teaching Jesus gives to us. Squarely confront it, nonviolently tell it to stop and get out and have faith in God that this is the way and that love and light of God will have the final word in reality. That is quite a revelation. Just when you might have thought being called to be a Christian is easy we receive this teaching from Jesus.
One of the most indelible and potent images of the twentieth century for me is that of the young man with armed with nothing more than two shopping bags in each hand standing in front of a column of tanks on their way to Tiananmen Square to do their evil against the student protestors. That young man stood in front of that column of tanks and stopped them. We don’t know eventually what happened to that young man and we do know that he didn’t stop the massacre, but for one moment he risked his life and stood in front of evil and told it to get out. And for one moment at least evil was delayed. One of the most unlikely turn of events in the twentieth century occurred after the assassination of Benigno Aquino who was to lead a new Government in the Philippines and replace the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. After Benigno’s death that was ordered by Marcos, Benigno’s wife, Corey Aquino (who described herself as a simple housewife) asked the people of the Philippines to peacefully protest. Marcos ordered the tanks in to the streets and the people sat down in the streets and dared the tanks to roll over them. The military returned to their bases and the people courageously and nonviolently overthrew an evil regime. And for one moment at least evil was thrown out. One of the most courageous acts of nonviolent resistance to evil took place in 1965 when civil rights protestors marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama and were met with State Troopers who under orders from Governor Wallace wanted to turn them back and turn the clock back on racial equality. The peaceful marchers were attacked with dogs and water canons and tear gas and Billy clubs. Many were injured badly, but the images made the international news and the goal of justice and equality was move forward that day. For one moment at least evil was exposed and the truth marched in.
They said, “What new teaching is this”? Mahatma Gandhi got the teaching, Corey Aquino got the teaching, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got the teaching, the vast majority of the people of Charlottesville and Barcelona in their peaceful candle light vigils got the teaching and so many more. To be sure, there are times when evil must be met with force and aggressive action in order to safeguard what is just and right, and to defeat what is clearly wrong. The storming of the beaches of Normandy had to be done; that evil was not going to go away without a fight. But Jesus says in instances both large and small there is an alternative we should consider.
The love and the light of God will have the final say in reality and we can trust on that. Jesus says to us have faith and have courage because when we stand up to evil in a nonviolent way and tell it to get out, God is with us. It does not mean this action is without danger or that we will prevail in the first instance. But it does mean that God is with us and when we are united in the knowledge that love and light will in due course see us through we can meet evil squarely and say to it, “Be silent and get out”. The power of peaceful moral action cannot and should not be underestimated. Evil looked at it right in the eye and bowed down and said, “You are the Holy One of God” and left. May this teaching of Jesus continue to enlighten and free our world today and forevermore. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney