Sermon for Sunday, September 12, 2021 || Proper 19A || Mark 8:27-38
I’m sure we’ve all watched this scene unfold in a film, a Western, perhaps starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper. The sheriff checks the rounds in his six-shooter, puts on his Stetson and shiny, star-shaped badge, and walks bowlegged out of his tin-roofed station. His spurs clink as he walks, and his boots kick up the dust of the main street running through town. At the same time, the batwing doors of the saloon swing outward, and the gun-slinging outlaw swaggers down the steps into the street. The outlaw wears a red bandanna and dark leather chaps and keeps his Colt .45 slung low on his hip, the better to draw quickly. They face each other at high noon out on the street. They are alone, though the whole town is watching from windows and roofs. A tumbleweed skitters across the road between them. There are no shadows. And the sheriff says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
(Sermon for Sunday, June 23, 2013 || Proper 7C || Luke 8:26-39)
This sermon is about demons. I want you to know that before I get going because for a while it might not seem like I’m talking about demons at all. But I will be. If our real demons looked like the caricatured little red devils with horns, they’d be really easy to avoid. But real demons are much more subtle. So remember: this sermon is about demons.
Around this time three years ago, I was sitting at Panera Bread working on some project or other. It was the most ordinary day imaginable – a little bit of rain pattering on the bushes outside, the normal bustle of Panera happening in the periphery of my headphoned consciousness. You’d think what happened next would have long since vanished from my memory because of its seeming insignificance. But as I was contemplating this sermon, the memory of that day at Panera started playing like a film in my head.
I was just sitting there drinking green tea, working on my computer, and listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Then something pulled my attention. A young woman, whom I had idly noticed when I sat down and then promptly forgotten, was talking on her cell phone. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the young woman’s brow crease. Her free hand went to her mouth. My internal pastoral alarm bells started blaring. The woman began to collapse inward. Here it comes, I thought.
“How long will it take me to get to the hospital from the airport?” Her voiced trembled as she asked the question, panic mixing with at least a veneer of bravery. She clung to her cell phone as if it were a flotation device.
I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the woman. She’s not one of mine, I thought. I’m not on duty right now. I’m not wearing the uniform today.
But even as these thoughts entered my mind, I felt the muscles in my arms and legs tense. My chest constricted. For a horrible moment, I felt myself unraveling. I was unmade. I was a traitor in my own body.
I know this seems like an overreaction or hyperbole employed for dramatic effect. But it is entirely accurate. So why would such a small event as me overhearing an anonymous woman in distress cause me to plummet into a moment of existential crisis?
Because I had a choice. I could ignore the woman in need or I could do something – anything – to help her. One of those choices would affirm the true self, the authentic person who God created me to be. And one wouldn’t. I chose the latter. When I chose to embrace the false self, the inauthentic person, I felt myself start to fray around the edges.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt yourself start to unravel, so to speak, because of a decision you made that runs counter to the person you know you are?
Perhaps you were in the cafeteria at school. You weren’t the bully or the bully’s target, but in the moment of decision you chose to laugh along with the rest of the onlookers as the victim was teased. And as you chuckled along, you noticed there was a hollowness in each of your laughs. But the hollowness wasn’t just in your laughs. You looked within and noticed a void, an emptiness, a lack of the self you knew to be true.
Perhaps you and your spouse got into an argument. It started over a perceived disparity in the household workload but pretty soon you were fighting just to fight. Then you chose to punch below the belt. A word escaped your lips – an expletive, a derogatory name that took all the light out of your spouse’s eyes. You grinned for a moment in triumph, but then as your spouse backed away and fled the room, you felt the light going out in your own eyes. You looked within and everything was darkness.
This is what it means to unravel, to fray at the edges, to be unmade, to be a traitor in your own body. When you make a decision that embraces the false self, the inauthentic person, you might be able to recognize your body in the mirror, but it won’t be you staring back.
Remember, I warned you this sermon is about demons. Have you seen them yet? No, probably not. You haven’t seen them because there’s nothing to see. But that’s precisely the point. The hollowness, the darkness – these tell us that demons have been by. We only ever notice them because of the absence they leave. We can choose the fullness of our true selves and the light of our authentic persons, but when we don’t, we unravel just a little bit more because that demonic absence is eating away at us and pulling us away from God.
The good news is that God doesn’t just sit idly by while we unravel. God is in the business of helping each and every one of us discover the true people God created us to be. When we live as our true selves, we are honoring the image and likeness of God within us. Just think how wonderful you feel when you make choices that affirm your authentic self. So full of light. So full of joy. You are at home in your body. You look in the mirror and see yourself smiling back. Far from an imposter, you are exactly the person you are supposed to be. You aren’t unraveling. You are whole.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus engages in the ministry of helping us embrace our true and authentic selves. The Gerasene man hasn’t been himself in a long time. The demons have hollowed him out, and they fill this hollowness with their presence – or should I say, they fill it, paradoxically, with their absence. But Jesus yearns for the man – and for each of us – to live as our true selves. So Jesus heals the man. Jesus fills the hollowness with his own presence. And when he does so, the demons have nowhere to go.
This healing of the demonic within is a piece of each of our stories, too. With each of our choices, we embrace either our false selves or our true ones, we embrace either absence or presence, hollowness or fullness. When I chose to ignore the woman at Panera, I felt unmade. But God gave me a second chance. Rather than ignore her, I prayed for her from across the room. I asked God to connect my soul to hers for those few moments when our proximity made us kin and to make me a beacon emanating God’s peace. I don’t know if that prayer had an effect on her, but it did on me. The second chance gave me the opportunity to embrace the authentic person God created me to be.
I invite you this week to take stock of the choices you make. How do those choices make you feel? Which lead to wholeness and which to unraveling? When you are faced with a choice, pray to God to help you choose the decision that promotes your true self, the authentic person God created you to be.
I said this sermon was about demons. But it’s really about God’s triumph over the forces that seek to unravel us. While we may succumb to demons from time to time, God will never stop speaking healing and wholeness into our souls. And that means the demons will never win.