Back in 2009 the British Ministry of Defense shut down its hotline designated for the reporting of UFOs, saying that it served no purpose, since decades of reported sightings had produced not a single shred of credible evidence that a UFO was actually the vehicle of a visitor from another galaxy.
To my knowledge, there is no government agency in the US that collects such reports. However, you will find non-governmental organizations ready to take your report. When I looked, I found instructions about how to report such a sighting; they begin with this sensible advice: “Remain calm.”
On NPR recently a panelist in a discussion about UFOs pointed out that there is actually widespread suspicion, even hope, in the scientific community that there could be life beyond our galaxy. To this way of thinking, the question isn’t whether there is life to be found elsewhere in the universe, the question is whether those life-forms are here, visiting us.
It does not seem far-fetched, outlandish or crazy to believe that there is more life beyond our planet, our solar system. It does not require a hallucination or a suspension of disbelief to suspect that life – in one form or another – has been created in a galaxy far, far away. It does not require a measure of lunacy or paranoia to imagine that God has done the intricate and awesome work of life-giving in regions too far from us to see. But neither does allowing for such a possibility lead to the readiness to believe in little green men, or flying saucers, or a host of other supposed phenomena associated with the idea that there is life elsewhere in the universe and it is looking for us.
Today the Gospel reading introduces us to demons. And many people might put demons and demonic spirits into the same category as UFOs – loopy, far-fetched, superstitious thinking. We Episcopalians are prone to be at least as skeptical about demons as we are about UFOs – maybe even more so. And we have no codified method of dealing with demonic possession, no official office where you should file a report. The Roman Catholic church has somewhat clearer rules about all this, which are pretty restrictive, and begin with the supposition that demonic possession is an exceedingly rare thing.
So why assign this reading from Luke’s Gospel that tells us all about a man possessed by a demon, and Jesus’ exorcism of that demon, and the plight of an innocent herd of pigs? Why keep reading such a story in a day and an age when we know better? After all, can’t we explain these demons away? Isn’t that what we sophisticated western people do? Can’t we just assume that this is a case of epilepsy, or schizophrenia, or some other mental illness? Can’t we all agree that the man with a demon didn’t so much need Jesus as he needed to be on his meds? Just like UFOs, don’t we know better than this?
It seems to me that there are good reasons not to merely try to explain these demons away, at least two that leap to mind:
The first reason not to dismiss the demons quite so easily is that the power of darkness still moves among mightily among us, even in modern American society. There is a force that draws too many of us toward malice, hatred, cruelty, destruction, warfare, selfishness, perversion, abuse, wastefulness, and fear. You don’t need me to begin a catalog the way this dark force is at work in the world – you can read about it in the papers, and you know about it from the darker episodes of your own life, and the lives of those you love. This dark force is not only a plot device for modern cinema, it exists, and it drives us to our knees with weakness, faithlessness, and despair.
The second reason not to dismiss the demons of Gerasene quite so easily is because it is only Jesus who has the power to free the man of their possession, and banish them to the depths of the sea.
And may I suggest that the question for us today isn’t so much whether or not there is a dark power at work in the world – I take it as plainly evident that there is – and that we should not get caught up in whether or not we call that power demonic. The question really is whether or not Jesus still has the power to free us and the whole world from the grip of that dark power, and banish it from our lives?
Listen again to the prophet Isaiah:
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me to my face continually….”
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.
We are not being asked today to assert our allegiance to the far-fetched idea that there are demons in the world that might possess you or me without any warning, and provide fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster. We are being asked to consider whether or not a dark force still holds sway in the world, whether we can see it among the tombs: ranting and raving in the habitations of death.
We are being asked to consider whether the malice, hatred, cruelty, destruction, warfare, selfishness, perversion, abuse, wastefulness, and fear that we see all around us are not just by-products of the atmosphere, and therefore conditions that we have to learn to live with, - like illnesses for which we have no cure as of yet - but actually the signs of the working of another force: contrary to the will of the God who made us and fitted out a Paradise for us.
Why do we allow for this possibility in our movies and television, our literature and art, but no longer in our religion? Is it so hard to believe not only that Jesus can heal, but also that he can vanquish? Not only that he can teach, but also that he can conquer?
And so we provoke God continually, we follow our own devices, we walk in a way that is not good, we are a rebellious people, and we generally refuse to call upon his name… while God keeps calling to us: “Here I am, here I am!”
Let’s assume that demonic possession – if there even is such a thing – is exceedingly rare. In fact, let’s assume that its days, like the days of the dinosaurs, are over. We need not still assume that the power that brought us demons has been drowned forever in the Sea of Galilee. There is far too much evidence, to my mind, that the same dark force that made itself known in the demons of Gerasene is still at work in the world, to dismiss it so easily. And unlike the UFOs, that dark force is deeply interested in visiting us in the here and now, wreaking havoc and destruction in its path, and creating again a habitation of death where it can feel at home in its nakedness. I feel no need to name it: not demons, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub, or the devil, or any other name, for its name is legion, and it resists precise identification.
But the power to prevail, the power to vanquish, the power to conquer the powers of darkness has only one name, and its name is Jesus!
And the point of telling this old-fashioned story about a man who has demons, and the point of not just explaining the demons away…
… is that the darkness is still too close at hand for us to be so cavalier about it.
… and the point is that the Lord keeps calling to us, “Here I am, here I am…”
… and the point is to identify the real question, which is this:
Are we finally ready to embrace the Lord who calls out to us in our darkness, and to call him by name: he who is the name of our Salvation: Jesus, the Christ, our Lord, and our Savior, who vanquishes the power of darkness from our lives, and bids us live in realms of light!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
23 June 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia