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The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, NC.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

The Cathedral of All Souls, Asheville, NC


Sermon for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 8:26-39

June 24, 2001

Nobody likes a good exorcism. You would think the people in the town would have appreciated what Jesus had done for them. No longer need they worry if this demon-possessed person will threaten them. No longer do they need to be concerned that he will bring his destruction to their village. And yet their response is anything but gratitude. They are frightened, and in their fear they ask Jesus to leave. They do not want whatever he is selling.

Why this response? Why are they not grateful? What has Jesus unleashed? Perhaps a look at the process of exorcism is a good lead into understanding their fear.

We hear in the story that the man has been a terror to the village for some time. They have tried to keep him chained and in shackles, yet he continuously breaks free. Finally, the demons drive him into the desert and there he lurks in the caves unclothed until the moment he is set free by Jesus.

The community is not the first to show fear. The demons themselves wish nothing to do with Jesus. "Leave us alone. Do not torment us," they say. The encounter follows a pattern consistent in stories of exorcism. There is the naming, the engagement, the expelling and the description of the one freed.

First, for powers to be exorcised, they must be named. Getting powers to be named is not always an easy task. The reality of denial is nothing new, and the reality of denial reminds me of a story where a gentlemen is browsing through the shop of a blacksmith. He's unaware that the smith has recently placed a freshly worked piece on a particular table. It's not red-hot but still warm enough to burn. The gentleman unwittingly lifts the piece to examine it and immediately drops it as the heat singes his skin. The smith asks, "Burn you?" "No," replied the man, "not my taste."

Getting powers to be named is not always easy. And yet naming is essential for engagement. Jesus asks the demons to name themselves. What kind of power is present when we invite people and events to name themselves? What is unleashed when we find ways to allow others to name their reality rather than us doing it for them? How are we freed from a battle of wills when we find ways to let others name their reality?

As well, how does allowing others to name themselves save us from inaccurate perceptions? Was Jesus surprised to hear the response, "Legion"? Had he accurately perceived what was before him? When we are able to allow others to name their reality, it saves us from the limits of our own perceptions.

Another aspect of his asking the powers to name themselves is that it saves energy he will need in the continued engagement. For in the engagement the demons begin to ask favors. Should he allow their request? Will they outsmart him? Will he let them leave the man only to torment others? Is that healing? Jesus will need all his spiritual and emotional energy in this engagement.

The demons think they have caught Jesus when he agrees to let them go into the swine and consequently into the sea. They think by fleeing in this way they are free, and yet in Luke's Gospel, this story follows the calming of the sea. It is no coincidence. The demons think they have outwitted him--escaped to battle another day perhaps. Yet as they plunge into the sea, they forget that Jesus is the one of whom the disciples proclaimed, "Who is this that even the sea obeys him?"

The demons are named. They are engaged. They are cast out. This is the process of exorcism.

And what about the response of those who are present to it? Their fear? We hear that the swine herders run to town to tell what they have seen. They are not reporting, as did the woman at the well. Their report is not one of joy but panic. As well, those who come out from the city are not hopeful but frightened. Why are they frightened? Why will they state to Jesus, "Get out!" I wonder if perhaps in this process they recognize the inter-relatedness of all things. Perhaps they recognize that this process is no isolated event, that in the exorcism something in them is at stake. What do they wish not to be named? What do they wish not to be cast out?

How often do organizations and families, and even we ourselves, fear change, even good change, due to what its fallout might mean for us? Yes, they have this violent man in their community, but they have found a way to manage him, to control him, at least keep him at bay. Exorcism and this Jesus are not manageable. They are not calculable.

Is this not similar to the fear found in the resurrection accounts? You can almost hear the people saying, "We don't like death," but death having no power may be more frightening. It sounds strange on the surface, yet we are wise not to underestimate the power of stasis. We are wise not to underestimate the power of the known. That there is a power greater than death opens doors through which we may not wish to pass. It removes all kinds of excuses for why something is not possible.

Is it this removal of excuses that frightens them? Does Jesus challenge the pattern of how they have arranged their lives? And is that not what Jesus' power is about? He is not here to make band-aid healings. He is here to speak to structures, to the powers, to the roots of what make the surface healings necessary.

Verna Dozier reminds us not to be fooled, for powers never give up their position without a fight. Any system of understanding, anything organized to provide order, will not understand questions to that arrangement as gracious. Be it governments, civic organizations, churches, or even our own beings, questions to the order will always be perceived as a threat at some level. As one friend reminds me, change is always death.

Walter Wink says that exorcism is a cleansing of the mind. We do not always wish to have our minds cleansed, our understandings questioned, our position or place challenged. I believe this is why the villagers are not ecstatic. "The system is working fine, thank you. May not be perfect, but we have found a way to manage, so please leave us alone. Do not threaten our sense of management. Do not remove our excuses for why things must be the way they are." Nobody likes a good exorcism.

In the Episcopal Church, we recently had a glimpse of an attempted exorcism. It was subtle and probably mostly overlooked, for the occasion was one ripe with a battle for power, control, and certain understanding. The occasion was the invited visit of a foreign bishop to perform confirmations in a diocese where some local clergy judge their resident bishop lacking theologically. It was a move which stated to the resident bishop, "You are not fit for ministry among us." In a gracious move, the resident bishop welcomed the visiting bishop rather than feed a moment of designed confrontation.

During the confirmation service, the invited bishop may have been expected to preach in support of that which brought him to this church and proclaim his own judgment upon the resident bishop and others. He did offer judgment but not regarding the bishop or the heated issues of the wider church. Instead, he talked about Western wealth and the greed that feeds worldwide suffering. He talked about what we in the West expect economically while people are starving and lacking medical care around the world. He offered an exorcism to us all. Given what received the most press after the service, one could say that many who heard the sermon declared, "Nice sermon, but let's get back to the issues of who has power in the church. Don't seek to cleanse our minds." Nobody likes a good exorcism.

Many years ago, I went to my then rector, Gray Temple. I was discussing a situation in which I felt I had worked very hard at finding reconciliation with another person, and I had good data to support my case. I am not sure what it was that Gray picked up on in the discussion--I have some ideas now some 20 years later--but at one point in the conversation, Gray leaned back, got this Cheshire cat smile on his face and said, "Todd, you're not yet convinced of the depths of your own complicity in this matter, are you?" I was not amused. I did not care for his attempt at exorcism.

So why allow for them? Is life not more predictable when we have a repertoire of excuses? Is the ability to manage and a sense of power worth risking? If I yield my position, do I lose something, and what if the naming of my demons or our demons turns out to be "Legion"? Are we up to the task? It's easy to see why the community is not ecstatic about the exorcism.

So why allow it? Perhaps the man who has been freed offers some ideas. After the exorcism, his immediate context is not a good one. Yes, he is healed, but how welcome will he be in the community? How long will he serve as a reminder of what has been challenged in the village? Will they attempt to exorcise him from the community? As one person has said, "No good deed ever goes unpunished." What kind of challenge will he find as he attempts to resume his life? Will he be tempted to invite the demons back?

Perhaps the payoff for him is something internal. Walter Wink says, "The victory of faith over the powers lies, not in immunity to their wrath, but in emancipation from their delusions." I wonder what delusion costs our soul? What limits do we immediately accept in life when we accept unchallenged understandings and unquestioned powers? What kind of victimization do we accept in delusion? What power do we yield? "The victory of faith," he says, "is emancipation from delusion."

To accept exorcism is to accept that God is present in every moment--that every moment is ripe with opportunity for our own transformation. The Powers may or may not be changed. Yet we can choose to live as Gandhi, King, Parks and others--people who refused to let the delusions of the powers define who they were and what excuses they accepted. They also chose not to let the domination of the powers drive them to bitterness and hate. They chose transformation and allowed God to exorcise their hate as well as their delusion.

As we contemplate what we think can and cannot be exorcised in powers and in ourselves, we recall Jesus casting out "Legion." Steve Shelstad states, "The Impossible is standing in front of me and looking me in the face. The Incredible is credible."

To believe in the story of the man possessed and exorcised is to believe that we have choices. Choices about what we accept, what we believe, and choices about what we think is possible. Choices to name our own demons as clearly as the ones we perceive in the powers around us. Choices to believe that shackles and chains in any form are chains for us all. Choices to accept that emancipation of one is emancipation for all. Accepting exorcism is accepting our ability to cleanse our minds from the delusions which pretend to serve us.

In this season after Pentecost, where we focus on the Spirit doing in us what Jesus did on earth, may we recognize that the demonic is still "Legion" and that the delusions of power are as deep in us as they are in others. May we not accept the limitations of delusions--our own or those of other powers. May we be aware of the fear of exorcism both in us and others and recognize that nobody likes a good exorcism, for it proclaims that we always have choices.

And so the question this story of exorcism leaves for me is, "What will I do with my choices?"

Let us pray. O God, help us to name those powers we fear that our
lives may be freed from delusion to truth. Amen.


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