I once took a group of students on a community service trip to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.
It was an amazing experience.
The school where I was working put great stock in such trips as a way of getting students to imagine a world beyond the places where one could always hail a taxi if necessary, and although my world was probably larger than that, it wasn’t perhaps as large as I considered it to be.
Being in the Dominican Republic showed me that.
Just the list of required vaccinations was eye-opening.
Another was the awkwardness of being among Christians who believed very very immediately in the constant presence – the clear and present danger – of demons.
The orphanage was a faith-based place, and many of the other volunteers were there to do mission work.
My group was a school group, and mostly understood our being there in different terms.
Mostly, that was fine.
But at one point, one of my students was trying to make conversation with the daughter of another group leader.
“How old are you?” he asked pleasantly.
“Ten years old,” she said.
“So…I’m guessing you’re really into the Harry Potter books now,” he said.
“Oh no,” she said. “We don’t read those.”
“You don’t?” said my student.
“My father says they’re not allowed,” she said. “They’re about Satan and make jokes about demons.”
My poor student.
He could skateboard without a helmet through Times Square at night and live to tell the tale, but for something like this, he had nothing.
“Hey, Revvvv…” he called over desperately, thinking he had to fix this.
But he didn’t.
The child smiled and happily wandered off to go refill her lemonade.
Speaking about Satan and demons – or with a faith-based lens upon the world – was not awkward or embarrassing for her.
That wasn’t a faux pas in her world. Only in ours.
Now let me say that it seems needlessly impoverishing of the imagination to deprive a child of Harry Potter. To me, they’re actually some of the most acutely moral books around.
But even if they weren’t, I also believe that God can handle a whole lot of things that make the culture warriors start tut-tutting.
There was plenty of tut-tutting about the things that Jesus said or did.
You’d think that would make us more self-conscious about finger wagging as Christians.
It doesn’t seem as if it has.
But more to the point, it never ceases to amaze me how eagerly we try to make certain things unspeakable among us.
If only banishing our demons were that simple.
Silence is the thing that gives them life.
This morning’s story from Mark’s Gospel is the first of four early healings that Jesus effects throughout Galilee as his movement takes shape.
They solidify his reputation – actually, in ways that he does not want at this stage.
He seems to be profoundly aware of beginning his ministry under the shadow of John the Baptist’s arrest.
This message of repentance and new life, of renewed hope in the possibility of a better world has powerful enemies at that time.
Nevertheless, the healings happen.
In this morning’s story, they begin because the demons can see what the average human eye cannot—that God is present in this man and in these words he says in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The demon is the only one who really gets it.
Capernaum was a small city as opposed to a village, like Nazareth, and the synagogue folks were probably in their way a bit like folks that we might know – fairly steady in their habits, fairly conventional in their dress, fairly aware of who the movers and shakers among them were and inclined to treat them with proper form.
Maybe when someone finally retired in Capernaum, he stopped wearing a tie when he showed up for services, but believe me, in Capernaum, after the Prelude started nobody in that room was secretly checking their phone.
That wouldn’t fly there.
So on this day when the guest lecturer comes in, and along with him a different breed of cat arrives, I’m sure they smiled and handed out nametags, even as they noticed the workboots and the heavily tanned faces and the wind-chapped lips.
Like it or not, company’s coming, so they’ve got their best smilers at the door to say good morning, and maybe at some point one of them turns to the other and said, “Well…coffee hour’s going to be…interesting.”
But apparently it gets interesting way before that.
Now, once the service starts, it’s the man with the demon who cries out, of course, but Mark is clear that he’s not the only one who’s been unsettled by what Jesus has said – and by whom it suggests Jesus is.
We don’t know how far into the service they get, but however far it is, it’s abundantly clear that in addition to what Jesus says, he just sounds different.
He carries himself differently than what they’re all used to.
There’s an authority to this man who shows up with all these odd other folks.
They knew about Nazareth, where he’d said he was from. They’d looked at it, but you know, the schools.
So when he speaks to them with authority…when he owns that pulpit like it’s his house, not theirs, they don’t really know what to make of it.
And so when the man with the demon cries out, saying “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”, I bet at first the people of Capernaum didn’t hear a demon talking.
Not at all.
I think they looked at each other horrified for a moment that somehow they were the person who’d just come and said that right out loud in front of God and everybody.
If you ask me, plenty of the people had been sitting there, asking themselves the same questions, more or less.
“What is this?”
“Where’s he going with this?”
“If I did as he says, what on earth would happen then?”
In a funny way, that demon has done them a great service.
That demon is willing to say things out loud that respectability would not dare to so much as whisper.
Because Jesus is pushing them.
Jesus does that.
He pushes them, and he pushes us to ask ourselves questions that we’d rather not ask, and he helps us see things that quite often we would rather not see.
There’s a reason that so much of his healing seems focused on blindness and unspecified disease: we are so often blind until, in him, we see; we are so often sick in our soul in ways that just show up in our lives like lumps that we’re very certain weren’t there yesterday.
Jesus knows that if we’re going to banish our demons, to be healed in the way he wants to heal us, we need to able to name them—especially to ourselves.
Along those lines, so often a demon isn’t an agent of evil so much as it’s our way of denying a truth we have not learned to live with.
Maybe it’s stifling it…hiding it…denying it…that makes its power destructive.
In that sense, a devil with horns and a pitchfork or a witch with a hat and a broom are paltry expressions of true darkness.
Whom did Harry Potter ever turn astray?
There’s a lot darker than that, out there.
But closer to home, a lot of times, we don’t really want the truth to set us free. We want it to go away…to go disrupt some other poor soul.
That’s not good for anyone.
Even in lives that are relatively blessed, indulging in things that aren’t good for us, working at things that don’t matter to us, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t care about us, chasing after dreams that cannot possibly fulfill us – these are dark paths to be led down.
People we know and love are doing these very things all the time.
We are doing them all the time.
The part of us that would rebel against all that might well be the voice of reason.
Because that’s the thing about what we might try to call a demon.
It isn’t always evil. And it isn’t always wrong. (ed–Yes, I know that’s from a Billy Joel song.)
This morning, we get the sense that Jesus was pushing the people of Capernaum.
It’s not because being pushy was his thing.
It’s because the love of God pushes out things that aren’t true, and things that aren’t good, and things that don’t stand on the side of abundant life in the Spirit to which God calls us in Jesus.
God puts up with an awful lot from us as we try to get it together.
But God knows, and Scripture affirms, that a life that is serious about God has no patience for false gods and the things that don’t matter.
And as we live into that, there are some things that start to come loose.
It’s always interesting to see what starts flying around when a new breeze begins to blow.
If we did as he says, what on earth would happen then?
What demons might finally be laid to rest?
What worlds will we finally have eyes to see?