July 8, 2018

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:6b-13

“Casting Out Demons?”

In an earlier draft of this morning’s sermon, I started off with an exploration of the major characters in this morning’s biblical texts. I wrote about David, who started out small and became a great king. I wrote about Paul, who was an amazing apostle, but had his own embarrassing past of persecuting Christians.

And even once those two became the wonderful leaders that they were, they still had weaknesses. David let his passion get the better of him, took advantage of his royal position and power, and needed to be corrected by the prophet Samuel.

And although we don’t know much about Paul’s difficulties, we know that he had some. He tells us that he struggled with a kind of “thorn in his flesh” that kept him from perfection so that he had to rely on God’s grace instead of just his own natural ability to be a successful minister of the gospel.

These guys are great examples for us, especially when our struggles are with perfectionism or our ego needs. When we get anxious about doing everything right, doing everything ourselves, and get worked up over the possibility of making a mistake or forgetting something important.

And I admit that those are the kinds of things that I struggle with. I like to be prepared. I like to do well at my ministry, and be well-regarded by others. Of course, I know that perfection is not what God requires of me. It’s not what God requires of any of us. But sometimes it is difficult to do what Paul did in today’s passage, to acknowledge our weaknesses, accept them, and trust God to make use of us anyway.

I appreciate the way that Jesus sends out the first disciples. He invites them to be vulnerable, to step out in faith, to trust God, each other, and the people they will meet along the way. He doesn’t wait for them to become perfect followers first, but sends them out just as they are.

And they go out, two-by-two, and they do ministry in his name. Can you imagine doing the things they did? 1. Proclaiming that everyone should repent, 2. casting out demons, and 3. anointing sick people and curing them of their diseases.

That’s quite the job description those disciples had! It’s not the job description of the famous theologian, or the world-renowned preacher, or the charismatic faith-healer. It is the job description of the regular disciples… the fishermen, the tax collectors, the women, and the people like all of us.

The first job sounds reasonably manageable to me. Jesus has been preaching and proclaiming that all should repent, and the disciples get to echo his basic message. Repent just means “turn back to God” and it’s a message of grace and love for many people who are already longing for some help and some hope in their lives.

And the third job sounds okay too. I mean, I’m not a medical professional, but I can anoint people with oil and pray for healing, assuming that the Holy Spirit will do the actual healing work. And I can help in all kinds of practical ways too, providing hospitality, food, welcome, care, and a listening ear to people who are dealing with illness or injury.

But I get a little hung up on job number two in the list of things those disciples did. If this is the job description of a disciple, I’m not sure what to think about it because “casting out demons” is outside the realm of my experience or comfort zone.

When I think of “casting out demons” I imagine some of the things I’ve seen in the movies with lightning flashing, wind rushing, dramatic prayers shouted above the din, and furrowed brows from the spiritual effort of forcing those evil spirits out. And I just don’t think I could do that. I’m not even sure that it’s a thing that needs to be done, or could be done.

And yet, “casting out demons” is something the Gospels tell us that Jesus did. And apparently the disciples did it too. And we’re disciples, right?

Well, not long ago I got a phone call from a woman who told me she was living in an old Presbyterian Church. I expected her to have some historical question about the church, and I doubted I would know the answer, but then she started to tell me about all the things that were going wrong with the building itself.

It had been one issue after another since she bought the place, and she was starting to think that something needed to be done about it. She wondered if maybe the church had never been deconsecrated, and that there was a spiritual issue that needed to be resolved.

She hadn’t quite said what she wanted me to do, but I was already imagining a long drive out to the old church and waving my hands around and saying prayers as if I had some sort of power to drive out spirits.

I guess I wanted to avoid the possibility of her asking me to do that, so I began to explain that Presbyterians don’t actually consecrate our church buildings. Sure, we dedicate the space for a particular purpose to glorify God, but there is no particular spiritual change that takes place in that. All space belongs to God, and is used for various purposes at various times… hopefully all of those purposes are things that honour God in their own ways. But there’s really no need to DEconsecrate a church. It is simply a space that has been used for worship, and now it’s a space that is used for family life, hospitality, and activities of daily living.

I went on to suggest that perhaps the problem was that the building was just really old, and perhaps not constructed all that well. She had already mentioned that it had been a really good deal when she bought it.

But I began to realize, even as the words were coming out of my mouth, that my response was dismissive and not very pastoral. Instead of ignoring her concerns about some spiritual problem in the old church, I really should have taken the time to listen more carefully and deeply for the real reason that she was reaching out and calling a church.

In the course of a little more conversation and some follow-up emails, I began to do a little better, I think. Though I may not have corrected the damage already done by my initial reply.

You see, I might not need to cast out actual demons or ghosts from her home, but what kinds of demons might I be able to assist her in casting out of her life, if I was humble enough and patient enough to listen and really understand her needs?

Certainly, she was plagued by a demon of fear. Fear about the future, fear about the significant cost of repairs that she couldn’t afford. And perhaps some demons of loneliness, uncertainty, or even guilt. When I stopped judging her theology and dismissing her seemingly ridiculous concerns, I may have been able to help a little… to offer a small prayer and provide some words of encouragement. Perhaps a few demons were cast out, or at least undermined in their mission.

I cannot be sure about those demons, but I do know that a few of my own demons made an appearance. Demons of pride, impatience, and superiority showed up like the little devil that appears over your left shoulder tempting you to choose selfishness and convenience over patience and care.

But the angel over my other shoulder was there too, and ultimately that was the stronger voice, calling me to do better and offer more. Perhaps next time someone comes to me with a need expressed in a similar way, I’ll be able to respond more promptly and helpfully. I guess that will be the test to see if those demons were truly “cast out” or not.

This kind of “casting out of demons” won’t be as dramatic or exciting as we initially imagined, but it is the kind of “casting out” that all of us “regular disciples” are called to do as part of our ministry job descriptions. Some of it will involve other people, inviting and assisting them in listening to the voice of the angel (or the voice of God) calling them to faith, love, and righteousness. But I think that a lot of it will involve recognizing and driving out our own demons. Because as imperfect people like David and Paul and the others, we have some thorns (some demons) that need our attention.

Casting out pride by choosing to humbly learn.

Casting out jealousy by choosing to celebrate with our neighbour instead.

Casting out greed by choosing to be generous to others.

Casting out anger by choosing to be merciful, as God is merciful to us.

Casting out fear by seeking to understand someone who thinks, or acts, or looks different from us.

Casting out bitterness by choosing to forgive the person who has wronged us, maybe even seven times seventy times, as Jesus taught.

When I think about it like that, I realize that the “casting out of demons” to which we are called is even more challenging and difficult than the dramatic scene I first imagined with hands waving, and prayers being shouted, and evil spirits rushing out like whirlwinds.

But the good news is that we don’t have to be perfectly strong, or able, or wise, or good in order to “cast out” these demons through our own power. In our weakness, God will enable us to do it, giving us (like he did the first disciples) authority over the unclean spirits, so that we can indeed cast them out.

I don’t know all of the thorns in your flesh that keep you from perfect discipleship or perhaps hold you back from taking on some of those more daunting discipleship tasks. But today I want to remind you (and to remind myself) that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. And God is indeed sending each and every one of us regular disciples out in mission. Two-by-two, and in the community of the church, let us respond to that call and go out in faith, even to cast out demons.