Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
It was a very odd lunch conversation to be overhearing, two of my colleagues talking about demons and exorcisms. I was serving a term as a hospital chaplain with a cohort of other clergy or clergy in training from many different backgrounds. Each of the six of us had designated wings or floors of the hospital to visit, make the rounds, meet the patients and offer what spiritual and pastoral care we could.
Well midway through the summer, there came this moment.
“What’s your strategy? Like do you lay hands on their forehead or shoulders, or what?” Ryan— the ex-marine, evangelical pastor in training, asked.
“It really depends on the situation,” replied Father Jose, a newly ordained Franciscan Cappuchin friar. “I have seen some extreme cases where a deacon has to restrain the possessed person while the priest conducts the exorcism.”
“Whoa. Yeah. I am trying to figure out how to go about it with this patient I have up on three-west. She curses and spits at the nurses. They have her restrained to her hospital bed,” Ryan went on.
I sat there quietly. This was so far outside of my theology and tradition being a protestant main-liner through and through. Real outside demonic possessions and here the evangelical and the catholic were finding common ground.
Whether one believes in demons as personified, evil beings or not, the danger, it has always seemed to me, is in assuming you have the sole power to determine who is and is not demonic. You can literally end up demonizing people who are different from you or who act in ways that don’t conform to your sense of normalcy, or you can just further stigmatize someone who is already carrying a tremendous weight like mental illness or self-loathing or … fill in the blank.
So when we read about Jesus casting out demons, as we do in this morning’s passage, it behooves us to be attentive and careful in how we understand what is happening and what it means for us.
We can gather up the details of this tormented man’s situation. He does not have the wherewithal to care for himself—which is to say wear clothes to protect his body from the elements. He lives among the tombs, this symbolic element of living, but not really, not fully, he is more of a dead man walking through his life. We get the further detail that the man used to be contained by chains and shackles; he was imprisoned by those around him. Maybe they thought they were helping him, that it was for his own protection.
The demons in him intuit that Jesus will not be good for them. Jesus, gently and in his deeply humanizing way asks the man “What is your name?” It is worth noting here that Jesus is talking directly to the man, not to his demons. Right? Verse 30 clues us in: “Jesus then asked him “what is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him.
“Legion.” On the surface, this is explained by there being many demons that have entered him. Yet Legion is also an imperialistic term. It was what the Roman Empire’s armies were called. They were forces for colonization, expanding the dominion of Rome. The voice speaks in the language of the occupying Roman military forces. As Pastor Isaac Villegas describes it, it is as though “A whole regiment of dehumanizing powers has invaded his life, becoming internal to his psyche—spirits of oppression eating away at his humanity from the inside.”
Though many of us may not suffer in the same extreme ways as this young man whom Jesus encountered, the idea that maybe sometimes our demons are the voices we have internalized that are not our own is one that resonates.
Who does society say we are supposed to be? And do those voices sometimes become the ones we hear inwardly louder than our own true selves? Messages about how we are supposed to look, what we are supposed to like or be interested in, messages about who we are supposed to love, how we are supposed to dress, and what we are supposed to want. Sometimes it is voices telling us how to measure success or meaning, which often times can leave us feeling inadequate or isolated.
In particular on this Pride Sunday, there are sure parallels to the demons this Gerasene man faced and the ways many in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced homophobia and transphobia. It starts as something outside, perhaps heard in pulpits or whispers of rumors among concerned adults. But it can morph into an interior voice, a self-loathing, a sort of demon that has nothing positive to tell them about themselves. And stories of Jesus casting out demons often have been interpreted by Christians in a way that labels LGBT identities as demonic.
On this front, we know, sadly, that the church has often played the part of the frightened, stigmatizing community that pushes LGBTQ folks away, rather than following the lead of Jesus in helping people be restored to themselves, be reminded of their worth and dignity, asking them their own name (or pronouns), and not taking for an answer the names of the demons they are struggling with. No. That is not who you are. Jesus’ healing of the man begins with a question: what is your name? That is start of the healing process for this man. A question that opens the doors to freedom and recognition of his own belovedness.
In a similar fashion, a brave Presbyterian pastor asked a question that opened the doors to creating a church open to LGBTQ Presbyterians and starting to exorcise the entrenched homophobia.
David Sindt was a pastor who grew up here in the twin cities and served churches around the Midwest. He even served as associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church here in St. Paul. As he ministered with different congregations, he underwent his own journey to understanding himself as a gay man in the early 70s. For as open as he tried to be about who he was, other queer Presbyterians were not as free or able to come out as openly. A couple did connect with David, but it remained a very quiet, on the down low thing, these connections. He knew there had to be more gay and lesbian and transgender people in the church, but it was hard to come out. There was pressure to be in the closet, lest you lose your ordination or be asked to depart the church. So at the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1974—the national gathering—in the main hall, David climbed up to the top of the bleachers and held up a big hand painted sign that said on it: “Is anyone else out there gay?”
This created quite a stir—much of the response was negative, fearful—as with the community in the Gerasenes where they were shocked to find this man they had only known as a demon cured. Yet for many in the church at that time, as Jesus had done for this tormented man, the question opened up the road to wholeness, to being an integrated self—Spirit, mind, body, sexuality and gender and soul. David Sindt’s sign was sort of a gay Presbyterian bat signal, and within a year the first Presbyterian LGBT group was formed—Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. Many queer Presbyterians trace their courage to come out to that moment, realizing there was someone else who asked the question that opened the door for them to be themselves.
The sort of healing Jesus offers in this story is the restoration of the man to his whole self. It is self-acceptance based on God’s own love and acceptance for her beloved child. Let us celebrate with Pride who God has made us to be, and let us celebrate with Pride the healing of being a whole self—affirming God’s love for gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual and the many other gender and sexual identities that have often been demonized. We worship a God of healing, who calls us to be integrated and whole people, and to declare with this Gerasene man, how much God has done for us. Amen.