This sermon was first written for an online service of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida on January 31, 2021.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Buckle up everybody because today we are talking about demons.
Reading stories in scripture about unclean spirits or demons can make some of us a little uncomfortable. As people rooted in the 21st century some of us look back at our ancestors in these stories with an air of superiority. We like to think that we have a more rational view of how the world works, something rooted in logic, something that can be proven by the scientific method and verified in peer reviewed journals. When we come across these stories of demons in scripture, we tend to try to explain them away. We say that people in our scripture possessed by unclean spirits must really have something else going on. They couldn’t really be dealing with the demonic. They must be suffering from mental health issues, or epilepsy, or an overly active imagination.
But that is not how everyone has read these stories. It is not how these stories were told in the past. It is not even how everyone reads these stories today. In fact, the urge to deconstruct and de-mythologize these stories is a very white, Western point of view. Today, the heart of Christianity now resides in the Global South, where the church is experiencing exponential growth. And many people in the Global South do not try to explain stories of spirits away. They don’t have to. Because these stories resonate with their own experiences.
My children are from Sierra Leone, in West Africa. And the Christians there speak plainly about the ways that unseen forces of good or evil intertwine with our daily, material life on this fleshy, physical plane. Their history and culture has always recognized the reality of the spirit world.
In our own country, indigenous people also have language to describe their experiences with the supernatural. And mystics all around the world, all throughout the church’s history, have written about the moments where the veil between this realm and the spirit realm felt thin and permeable.
Perhaps, for those of us who are white westerners, instead of assuming that we have the corner on understanding Truth and how the world works, instead of assuming our own spiritual experiences are universal, we could open our minds to learn from some of our siblings about their own experiences.
Prioritizing, normalizing, and universalizing white, western ideas about spirituality is a form of white supremacy.
This is not at all to discount the way that science works. Especially in the age of COVID-19, I am very, very grateful for the scientific method and peer reviewed journals. Science is one important way to answer the questions of life. And… depending on the questions… what science has to offer can sometimes leave us unsatisfied.
As Christians we believe that the universal, spiritual, cosmic God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. But when God became flesh, God wasn’t just some vague, generic human being. God became incarnate in a particular time and a particular place. God entered into a specific socio-political reality with a specific identity. Jesus wasn’t born here on earth, generally. Jesus – a brown skinned, Jewish person of questionable birth history – was born in Palestine under the terror of the reign of an occupying force, the Roman Empire. And these realities shaped how God showed up and how God was treated. The universal, cosmic God became most real to us as a vulnerable, tiny baby.
God came to us in context. God still reveals Themselves in context. God works certain ways in certain places.
I wonder, maybe, if this is true about demons as well. I wonder if the way that evil incarnates itself here on earth is subject to the realities of the culture it is a part of. Maybe the demonic works certain ways in certain places, too.
So maybe, then, in some of the places in the Global South where people are not so firmly shut off to the spirit realm, the demonic comes more literally. Maybe demons show up as demons because they can be recognized instead of constantly deconstructed and demythologized.
And maybe here, in our own context, evil is incarnate differently. Our own Unholy Trinity, the demons of white supremacy, the cis-hetero patriarchy, and capitalism are alive and well, feeding on our souls, possessing our institutions. In our hyper-individualistic culture, demons thrive by working at the systemic level because dismantling systemic evil requires something we often fail at – communal liberation. And so demons slither all around us, sometimes undetected, because we zoom in with a hyper-focus on the individual, chiding them for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps while demons are working zoomed out, in the bigger picture, to deny whole classes of people “boots” in the first place.
The demon of white supremacy is a slippery thing. In the United States it began its possession with colonialism and genocide against indigenous people who lived on this land, and with the kidnapping of Africans who were coerced into forced labor here under slavery. And even though some prophetic voices moved us to begin to exorcise this demon, white supremacy is a shape-shifter. Slavery became sharecropping and lynching. Sharecropping became segregation. Segregation became the mass incarceration that we see today. And it is not just in our criminal justice system. It’s true of housing justice, food access, medical care, education, and more. It is not just happening in secular institutions. Our white churches are breeding grounds for legions of demons, as we have seen clearly in the past few weeks, many of its most obvious agents clothe themselves in Christian language to justify their death-dealing violence. From the KKK burning crosses to the signs overlayed on American flags during an attempted coup attempt that said things like,”Make America Godly Again,” the demon of white supremacy has yet to be fully cast out. And sometimes we ARE those agents. When we choose our sense of order or safety over our neighbors liberation. When we treat people like burdens or their needs like laziness, we are acting as demonic agents of these dehumanizing systems.
We can learn a lot from Mark’s Gospel about how to deal with our own demons, in whatever form they appear to us. This story has many lessons for us, even if our demons typically incarnate differently than they might in this story.
If you re-read the story again, you might notice this that it was after Jesus was teaching in the synagogue that the demon-possessed man arrived. Scripture tells us that the people were being transformed by his teaching. They were amazed at Jesus’ authority. That’s when the unclean spirit showed up.
The demonic targets leaders and prophets that tell us the truth. It is in the midst of our own conversions and transformations that we are most vulnerable. This is true on the micro and macro level. Historically, I think of a young leader in my city, Chicago named Fred Hampton. Fred Hampton was such a powerful, charismatic leader that he was able to build alliances across race and class. He even brokered peace agreements between rival gangs in the city. He was able to do this because he spoke clearly and with authority. He told people the truth: that their enemies were not other working class people. They shared an enemy; the white elite who exploited them. But demons thrive on keeping us divided. Building power across identities is threatening to the status quo. And so the demons of white supremacy possessed the FBI and the Chicago Police Department to kill Fred Hampton in his sleep 51 years ago while his partner – 8 months pregnant with his baby – slept beside him.
Sound teaching from voices of authority is a target for unclean spirits. So it is up to us to band together and protect each other. When someone courageously speaks out against oppression, we have to surround them with spiritual and material shields because doing so makes someone a lightning rod for evil.
You might also notice in Mark’s story that the unclean spirit recognized Jesus. When the man who was possessed wandered into this place of worship, the demon 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.”
Even the demons believe in Jesus, and tremble. Although the threat of evil in our society is very, very real, there is something even more powerful. We should take on evils like white supremacy seriously and courageously, knowing that God is with us.
Jesus silenced the demon before casting it out. In many cases, we have to de-platform hateful and violent white supremacist rhetoric. We have to silence the demon of white supremacy by refusing to give it an audience, whether that is at our dinner table, at the school board meeting, or at the office.
Jesus cast the demon out of the man in Capernaum. But it was not easy. It was not only difficult, I’m sure, for the demon being cast out. But it was also traumatic for the man who was possessed. The author of Mark says the man convulsed and cried out as the demon was cast out.
The road to liberation is not pretty. It is messy and even painful at times.
Beloveds, we are in the midst of the death-throes of our own demon possession. White supremacy will be defeated, but it will not go down without a fight. As we have seen, this demon will thrash and kick and claw at us on its way out. But we cannot give up. We can’t relent. We have to make sure this exorcism sticks, once and for all, so that this slippery demon doesn’t just shape-shift once more and take hold of the next generation.
This can seem like an impossible task, but we do not go at it alone. In my tradition during our baptismal liturgy we are asked to renounce the devil and all of his empty promises, to resist the powers of this world that rebel against God, and to reject the sin that draws us from God. But we do not make these promises alone. We make them surrounded by community who also makes promises with us to renounce the devil and his minions, a community who promises to support us and equip us against evil with scripture. We make these promises fortified with a community that gathers regularly to read the freedom stories of our ancestors, to sing songs of liberation, to feed us with Holy Communion, to remind us when we have forgotten.
We make these promises surrounded by the protection of a great many saints who came before us, who prayed that we would be up to the task. Flawed, beautiful saints who knew the struggle long before we did, who fought and failed and were forgiven to start fighting again.
And most importantly, when we are asked to renounce the devil and the forces that defy God, forces like white supremacy or capitalism or the cis-hetero patriarchy, we do not renounce them with our own power. We are empowered by God. So when we are asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” we say,
I ask God to help me.”
And so I ask you, dear ones.
Will you renounce the devil and all of his empty promises? Will you silence white supremacy when you find it? Will you cast out racism in you and your community? Will you align yourselves with people of color and indigenous people, with all of the marginalized? Will you open your minds and your hearts and your wallets to a new way of being?
If so, you can say, “I will. And I ask God to help me.”