Casting out unclean spirits

A sermon for June 14, 2020. The readings are for the Second Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, Proper 6. Jesus sends out his disciples to cast out demons and heal the sick of the house of Israel.

We are at peace with God, writes Paul, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who proved God’s love for us by living and dying for the sake of us. (Romans 5:1-8) We are at peace with God not through our own merits, for we were still sinners when Jesus died, and we are sinners today. We are at peace with God because God is peace, and it is God who extends peace to us.

But we are not always at peace with one another, because we are sinners; because we fall short, over and over, of the perfect love that Jesus lived out for us.

Jesus gives his disciples power over unclean spirits, disease, and sickness. (Matthew 9:35-10:23) He sends them out to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the countryside. He warns them not to try to monetize the gospel – this is a gift that they have received, not something they own and can sell.

He tells them to practice on their own people first.

Jesus tells them, these conversations will not always go well. They will not always result in conversion. They will not always be peaceful. They will not be universally enlightening. They are necessary, for the kingdom of God is at hand, and it is high time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.

Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, that Jesus references? Not the unbiblical story that has been told as a slur against beautiful and loving people over the intervening centuries, but the actual, scriptural story that Jesus knew? The original story, just to be clear, had nothing to do with people’s sex lives, but everything to do with whether they loved God, and their neighbours as themselves.

The story (in Genesis 18-19) goes that God received some sort of report of the sinfulness of the city of Sodom. People there had no respect for God nor for the image of God within one another. They were positively abusive. And this is where Lot, the nephew of Abraham, had chosen to set up home with his family.

God said, “I’m going to obliterate the place.” Abraham said, “But what if there are good people there?” God said, “For the sake of fifty, I will hold my fire.” Abraham, knowing that his nephew’s family was in the city, negotiated God down to ten. For the sake of ten righteous people, God would withhold judgement from the entire city. No pressure.

Unfortunately, when the angels went to test the people’s hospitality and humanity to visitors, they found it severely lacking, to say the least. Lot and his family took them in, but even there Lot’s willingness to put his daughters’ lives on the line reads as ethically complicated at best. And there were still only four of them, not ten. In the end, the angels led the family out of the city ahead of its destruction, and still, they too were sinners, and they proved it in the stories yet to come.

The wrath of God is stirred up when people are prepared to behave abusively to one another, to give up their humanity to defile and deface the humanity of another. The wrath of God, the story warns, will fall like fire upon racism, and white supremacy. It falls like sulphur smoking out discrimination, the abuse of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning folks. The wrath of God falls heavily upon brutality and violence, especially the abuses of the powerful, especially abuse of the most vulnerable and of those most in need of hospitality and humanity. The wrath of God will one day fall on wickedness. But even sinners are saved from the fire by the patience and forbearance of a faithful God.

We are at peace with God because God extends peace to us, even sinners such as we are. But that doesn’t remove our responsibility to live as those who know the love of God. If anything it increases it.

We are called, we are compelled, we are commanded by Jesus to cast out unclean spirits. And let’s be abundantly clear, anything that diminishes the dignity and the fullness of a person’s humanity is unclean and ungodly. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, xenophobia – these are unclean spirits, and they live among us. Sexism is an unclean spirit. White supremacy is an unclean spirit. Racism is an unclean, unholy, inhuman, unChristian spirit. And when those spirits dance together, God help us. God help us.

Go, Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, and cast out unclean spirits, defeat demons, starting close to home, with your own house, with your own heart, with your own family.

Don’t expect all of these conversations to go peaceably, nor all of them to lead to conversion. And don’t expect to be able to cast out demons by demonizing others. Take care that you keep your own humanity intact, that you keep your love for your enemies as strong as you are able, that you pray in any case even for those who persecute you, even if your prayers sound like protest, because it is God’s will to bring you to peace, and hatred will not let your heart rest there. “Be angry,” as Paul has written, and as Minister Taneika Hill quoted at our Faith in the City rally this past week; “Be angry, but do not sin,” and he adds, “do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) An unclean spirit cannot drive out an unclean spirit. Only God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit can do that.

But don’t expect all of the difficult conversations that you dread to end badly, either. Conversion is possible. With God all things are possible. God knows, if someone, if more people than I deserve, had not taken the time and the love to educate me in some of the errors of my ways – only some, because I have plenty more errors in me; God knows, I am a sinner – God knows that if the righteous anger of a demon-defeating disciple was not visited upon me from time to time, I would be sitting in the dust and ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, wondering what the hell just happened.

Conversion is possible. I was going to tell you the story of my first boyfriend, and how my parents reacted, privately, after they met him for the first time, and realized that he was not White, but I don’t have the time left today. Suffice to say that after much gnashing of teeth and several years later, my mother brought up his name to me in conversation, to make her confession, to express her repentance, not to me, but with me to the memory of him. With God, all things are possible.

Go first to your own people, your own house, your own heart, Jesus instructs his disciples, and use my unflinching, uncompromising, indiscriminate, inescapable love to heal them. Then your peace will return to you.

The kingdom of God is at hand, and it is time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.

Then, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” (Exodus 19:8)

As today’s Collect prays,

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 230)

Image: Albrecht Dürer / Public domain (deatil) via wikimedia commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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