"Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
May I speak to you in the name of one God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
CS Lewis tells us "the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There's not one of them which won't make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide."
I'm opening with a CS Lewis quote because I'm trying to soften you all up. CS Lewis is great, and he's popular! Also because I'm stalling before I tell you what my first sermon at St. Mark's is really about...
Agents of the dark one. Warriors in the rebellion. Creatures that plague, and vex, and tempt us. Creatures that possess and violate our being, separating us from God.
Demons are not a comfortable topic for anyone. In our post-enlightenment age where science and reason reign we tend to fall into one of two major categories: we either tremble in fear as we get together and burn Harry Potter books, or we dismiss the idea that there are real forces of darkness as a quaint relic of a lost age when the sun moved around the earth, illness was caused by the vapors, we threw women into ponds weighted down to see if they could get out, because if they could, they were a witch and we could burn them.
I mean, It's a joke, right? We know that fires are caused by lightning, or by candles left burning, not by messengers of Satan dancing across the thatch. We know that wall collapses are caused by structural defects or poor engineering, not some ethereal supernatural wrecking ball. We know illness is caused by bacteria or viruses, not by a spritely poltergeist aiming to steal away a person's soul. We know eclipses are what happens when a celestial body passes through the umbral shadow of another. We know these things because we have a better understanding of our world and of science than our poor, unenlightened ancestors did.
And yet... Here it is, staring us in the face. It's all over the Gospels, in Mark especially. The words demon or demons are used 11 times in just Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, and that isn't counting the mentions of "unclean spirits." So can we really so easily dismiss the idea of demons, when these creatures played such an important role in the ministry of Jesus Christ? We by-and-large believe in angels and we acknowledge the spiritual realm, so why does our modern society scoff at the existence of demons? You really can't have one without the other.
This bit of Mark, already starting to make us uncomfortable with Jesus and John talking about demons and speaking of outsiders deeds of power just keeps on rolling right off the tracks. The next thing we know, we're being asked to pull an Aaron Ralston, the climber who found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, and had to cut off his own hand with a pocket knife in order to survive. And we are told not just to remove our hands, but our feet, our eyes. We're told if we don't it would be better for us to have a millstone hung around our neck and then be thrown into the sea.
No, this is not an easy passage for us to go through. I am starting to see why I wound up with this Sunday on the preaching rotation.
But wait... there's more! We still haven't run out of sticky wickets in this passage. The unquenchable fire of hell is mentioned, not once, not twice, but three times. Three times St. Mark talks about being thrown into hell, where neither the worm nor the fire ever dies.
While many do believe in a literal or spiritual lake of fire, there is a significant segment within Christianity that believes hell is less about actual unquenchable fire and more about the distance that we can place between God and ourselves. This apartness from God is awful. No, Sartre was wrong hell is not other people. Hell is nothing. And by that I do not mean it does not exist. I mean that hell is quite literally nothing. It is the destruction and pulling apart of God's creation so that it no longer recognizes the Divine. Hell is the distance we have between our own being and the the holiness of God when we reject God's call to us or we are pulled away by those forces of darkness, by demons. It is that separation from God that causes our souls to burn with anguish, that causes us to freeze in the vacuum of nothingness that destroys God's creation.
So how does this apply to us? We are here. It is Sunday morning and we are in church, the good people of St. Mark's gathered together for prayer and worship. We have certainly not cast ourselves out into the fire, away from God. Why does it matter?
It matters because the spiritual and the physical world run parallel to one another. They reflect one another, and they brush together occasionally. We get glimpses of this when we find ourselves in the thin places between Heaven and Earth, when a sunrise moves us to tears, when we go to Shrinemont and cherish the joyful fellowship, when we stand in the National Cathedral overwhelmed by an awe inspiring structure that cries out to God, when we come together at this table to break bread, when we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and when we lift our hearts to the Lord's heavenly realm, partaking for a brief time in the worship that is continually offered at the foot of the throne, when we find ourselves saying with our whole being those words... Holy Holy Holy.
When we do this, when we find these places that foreshadow our heavenly reward, we get a taste of what is to come and we mirror it here on earth. Those moments when we are overwhelmed by beauty and love are but shadows of the joys we are to receive, and we should cherish them immensely.
Likewise, when we find ourselves in those less comfortable thin places, when we approach the veil between earth and hell, we begin to see the brokenness and divisiveness of evil bleeding through into our lives... When we find ourselves angry at someone getting promoted ahead of us, for example, when we stew over someone who scammed us that we thought was a friend, and my personal favorite, when we seethe with rage at that incompetent driver who is ruining everything... When we do that we are also foreshadowing and reflecting the spiritual realm. When we dwell in those broken relationships we prefigure the brokenness and separation that becomes our hell.
And when we demonize whole groups of people, we mirror the damage that is caused in both the physical and the spiritual realm, by those evil agents of the darkness.
The easiest way for demons to win is for us to destroy ourselves from within; for them to convince us to allow ourselves to be consumed by hatred and division and separation and destruction. A house divided against itself cannot stand. (Mark 3:25)
Christ tells us "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.".
This was his response to the Apostles when they tell him they tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus' name. They didn't do it because they thought the person didn't believe in the power of Jesus. They didn't do it because they thought the person was evil. They did it because he wasn't following them. Not because he wasn't following Jesus, but because he was not following them.
Demons are evil and destructive and malevolent. Their goal is to lead us astray, to try and drag us off of the narrow path that God calls us to walk in, to destroy that which should belong to God . And though they are out there, and we do encounter them, perhaps we don't see them as often in our times as we did in the time of Christ. But perhaps that is because we do their work for them. The great irony is that we even use their name while we inflict their damage upon ourselves.
We demonize conservatives when we claim that they are nothing but bigots out to oppress people with same gender attraction or people who want to teach evolution. We demonize liberals when we say they are anti-biblical relativists seeking to overthrow the traditions of the church. We frequently struggle to see the good in the other side, or, perhaps more frequently, we... I... sometimes don't even try.
But my stepmom's conservative Christian Church has been on more missions than I can count in the last couple of years; around our home in eastern North Carolina; in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; in Texas, and around the world. Their small church does more good and helps more people than you would ever guess at first glance. Whatever their thoughts on the hot button issue of the day, they are doing the work of Christ. They are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. And my friend's parish -- the one that makes me squirm with their reluctance to say the creeds or accept the resurrection of Christ) -- they feed hundreds of people a week and protect the homeless, the most disadvantaged in society from the dangers of the street and from the elements, and they treat them with more dignity than many churches offer prospective new members.
"Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward."
When we demonize those with whom we disagree because they are not following us, it may be time to take a second look and see how they are following Christ. It may be time to realize that while we are not walking perfectly in step, we are both moving towards the same end. It is at the times when we are tempted to demonize that we most need to recognize the Christ in our neighbor and the Christ in our supposed enemy.
Because in the end, our breaking of relationship with someone harms us far more than it harms them. Our decision to break our communion with fellow followers of Christ hurts us because it impairs our relationship with the fullness of the body of Christ, and so with God. Our decision to demonize does to us the same thing a demon would: it pulls us away from the path we are called to walk in. In demonizing others, we are really demonizing ourselves.
I believe in Satan, and I believe in demons. But because of God's faithfulness to us, I believe they have no power over us without our acceptance. If we stand firm in our faith and if we seek the Christ in one another, we make the game harder for them.
Our calling as Christians is a call to fellowship and community. We live in hope that we all may be one. And with the threats to our very existence the dark one from time to time poses, with the presence of evil prowling around, seeking someone to pull away, to tear apart, to drag into the nothingness, with a danger like that lurking, there is no need for us to offer the satan any aid or quarter.
We see over and over again a Christ that cast out demons, participating in the spiritual warfare that is being fought over his creation. If we can move past our division, if we can listen and believe that whoever is not against us is for us, then we can vanquish the demons of our own creation, just as Christ vanquishes the demons that have invaded his creation.
Like Lewis said, the most dangerous thing we can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.". When we follow ourselves and our standards, and cast out those who don't adhere to our doctrine and our ideas, we ignore the possibility that they are also following Christ. And when we set our own wills above his, there is not one of those ideas that will not make us into devils if we set it as our absolute guide, there is not one that will not break apart our relationship with God and with each other, there is not one that will not lead us straight into our hell.
While there are very real spiritual forces of evil out there working tirelessly to destroy creation, we must recognize that they are not the only ones who help the darkness bleed into the physical realm. We must also recognize the evil in ourselves, and the damage that we do, and we must continually turn ourselves back to Christ, for he casts out evil, he shines out in the darkness and is not overcome, and it is in his name powerful works are done. It is Christ drawing all things to himself, and it is Christ leading us into a perfectly restored creation, and it is in Christ that we will be reconciled to one another and to God.