Confronting the demons

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 30 June 2021. Here it is for you again:

My father was born in 1902 and lived until he was 82. In his later years he had a colour television and a telephone, and a transistor radio that did not need to be plugged in. That was the grand total of the electronic equipment in the house. He probably had a vague idea what a computer was but had never seen one. The internet hadn’t been invented.

So imagine trying to explain to him that your phone has no wires, and you can use it to watch television, that we can find out almost anything with a few minutes of typing, and that on Twitter thousands of people instantly get the same message. I can imagine that after hours of explanation, we would find ourselves back at the beginning.

To understand today’s gospel reading we have to try to imagine what first century Palestine was like. Lives were usually short. Risk was everywhere: childbirth, illness or accident. There were no pain killers, no paracetamol for fever, no anaesthetic. It was a life with far more pain and suffering than we ever see in the UK. Death was a part of everyday life, and so heaven and hell were a lot closer to the experience in Palestine. Demons inhabited the imagination – malevolent personal forces that would corrupt and destroy anything that stands in their way. The two men possessed by demons were in a living hell. Their whole personality and being, their will, their speech, everything about them were out of their control. It is as though hell has broken through into this life.

But Jesus is the one who has come from heaven, and who we say in the creed, descended into hell before he finally ascended to heaven. He can bridge the two, and by doing so he had the power to resist the demons, and to show that ultimately, we have no need to fear death or the terrors that threaten us in this life.

Jesus, seeing the torment of the two men, expelled the demons, but allowed them to inhabit the pigs, which then in their terror rushed down the slope into the lake and drowned. The demons now had no home and could no longer torment the living. For the town, the price of healing was too great. A herd of pigs had been sacrificed for the lives of two men. Jesus was asked to leave.

We have 150 years of modern psychology now to inform us and we see things differently. We understand that there are tormented souls who do not choose evil, but who are in the grip of delusions or compulsions they cannot control. Abuse, trauma, chemical imbalance in the brain, genetics and substance misuse can all individually or in combination rob a person of the ability to control their own behaviour. And the demons of drink, drugs, gambling or other addictions can so take over the will of a person that they lie and steal and behave in ways that they in their hearts deplore. Past betrayals, neglect and abuse can so twist the minds of the victim that they can no longer see clearly or act freely.

It is estimated that 90% of the prison population have mental health need, but only 10% are treated. That does not mean that perpetrators should have no responsibility for their crimes, but often responsibility lies elsewhere, too. Ultimately a portion belongs to us all, as the circumstances of their lives that predictably lead to offending, the poor housing and education, the inadequate support for parents or the lack of stability in local authority care. We must, as Jesus commanded us, leave the judging to him and do what we can to defeat the demons that have kept them in chains. This is not a popular view, for, as the villagers in the reading found, it is costly.

The first century account is couched in term of demons and possession that we find hard to identify with, but with imagination we can begin to understand the call is the same today as it was then – to face up to the costliness of overturning all that corrupts the human soul, and to trust Christ in the struggle to allow each one of us to become free from all that binds us.

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