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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Demons By the Finger of God--A Sermon

Demons By the Finger of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
October 31st, 2010


Gospel of Jesus 5:1-17

Rising early, while it was still very dark, he went outside and stole away to an isolated place, where he started praying. Then Simon and those with him hunted him down. When they had found him they say to him,
“Everybody’s looking for you.”

But he replies:
“Let’s go somewhere else, to the neighboring villages, so I can speak there too, since that’s what I’m here for.”

So he went all around Galilee speaking in their synagogues and driving out demons. Now right there in their synagogue was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted,

“Jesus! What do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to get rid of us? I know you, who you are: God’s holy man!”

But Jesus yelled at it,
“Shut up and get out of him!”

Then the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions, and letting out a loud shriek it came out of him. And they were all so amazed that they asked themselves,
“What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority! He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him!”

So his fame spread rapidly everywhere throughout Galilee and even beyond. And some in the crowds around Jesus would say,
“He drives out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the head demon.”

Others were testing him by demanding a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking, and said to them:

“Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan is divided against himself—since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name—how will his domain endure? If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out? In that case, they will be your judges.”

Jesus said,
“But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Mark 1:23-28; 35-39; 3:22-26; Luke 4:33-37; 42-44; 11:15-20; Matthew 12:24-28.


Since it is Halloween, I thought it would be a good time to talk about demons.

My daughter and I went to see Paranormal Activity 2 the other night. It was clever. There were several places that incited a good scream. The plot for these films is always the same. No one “believes” in these supernatural demonic agents until they get ya. Then it’s too late.

Some people like scary movies, others don’t. Some people like Halloween, others don’t. I find there is a great deal of ambivalence about Halloween in this part of the country. I personally think it is fun and harmless as long as people are mindful and careful, as in "drive carefully, there are children in the streets." Others, particularly church people, think that Halloween invites “satanic” influences and so on. That should be no surprise. One cannot trust superstitious people to get anything right.

Scary movies are fun because they are movies.

This entire notion of the fear of Halloween by some evangelical Christian people is a good illustration of missing the point. Demons and unclean spirits and what not are a carry over from the ancient world. In the ancient world, or in the pre-modern world, reality is externalized. Gods, angels, demons and so forth were seen as influences upon life. They existed in heavens or in the mountains and forests and what not.

For them what is happening on Earth is being enacted in the heavens at the same time. The spirits of earthly political institutions do battle in the heavens. These gods in turn give favors to mortals if they the mortals do the right sacrifices and so forth.

This was a helpful lecture yesterday by Art Dewey and Brandon Scott of the Jesus Seminar regarding how the ancients conceived of meaning. They projected in outward. We internalize. For us, there are no beings out there. It isn’t a matter of belief. It is where we locate reality. We use psychology and other means of knowledge to talk about what is happening within us or sociology to talk about what is happening between us.

The gospels are written from an ancient perspective. From this perspective, Jesus casts out demons. Others did as well. The Jesus Seminar voted red that Jesus was an exorcist. He cast out what were believed to be demons. Jesus was a product of the ancient world. That is not a worse world or a better world. They are not dumb and we are smart or vice versa. It is a different way of seeing reality and meaning.

While we use the language of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and so forth, they would use the language of gods, angels, unclean spirits, and so forth. It did not mean that they were superstitious. The superstition is on our behalf when we appropriate something from the ancient world to our world. We distort it.

For the ancients, you didn’t need to believe in unclean spirits, or in the divinity of Augustus for example. These were realities. It was obvious that Caesar was divine, it was written on all the coins. If there was any doubt, he had legions to persuade you. It is not a coincidence that Mark’s gospel has a name for the demon Jesus casts out into the swine. Legion. That is a not so subtle reference to Roman occupation.

When Jesus casts out demons “by the finger of God” he is not engaging in supernatural hocus pocus. This is not the film, the Exorcist. Instead Jesus is empowering people. He is waking people up. He is casting out fear. He is telling them and showing them that the gods are favoring them. Which is crazy. Because everyone knows that the gods favor the top 15 percent of the pyramid not the bottom 85% who exist to serve the top 15%.

No wonder they call him Beelzebul. No wonder they call him crazy. He has it upside down. He says things like the Empire of God is for the poor. The unclean spirits that Jesus casts out are the spirits of occupation, grinding poverty, and hopelessness that have been imposed by the peace of Rome. This peace of Rome is good for the top 15%. It is oppressive and deadly for the other 85%.

At the seminar yesterday, Brandon Scott said:
“There is no middle class in the ancient world. There are the elite and the masses who serve the elite.”
After saying that he quipped that there are folks today who want to turn our country back to that state of affairs.

The point I am making is that the Gospels or Jesus or the Bible for that matter, is not about religious stuff. It isn’t about fantasies of life after death, or demons or the existence of supernatural beings. It is about real stuff.

Walter Wink in his very important book, Engaging the Powers, writes:
“…what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called “Principalities and Powers” was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political , economic, and cultural institutions of their day.” P. 6
What is fascinating is that today we cannot even name it. We cannot even be honest with ourselves about our political and economic realities.

Why is the American Empire in Afghanistan?
Why is the American Empire in Iraq?
Why does the American Empire have military bases in virtually every country on the planet?
Why does the American Empire spend more on its military machine than the next 18 countries combined?

To bring democracy to the world?
To fight terrorists?
To bring peace?

At least Rome was honest about its ambitions. They were brutal. But they were honest. The historian Tacitus is writing to a people considering whether or not resist Rome’s domination. He writes:
By the prosperity and order of eight hundred years has this fabric of empire been consolidated, nor can it be overthrown without destroying those who overthrow it. Yours will be the worst peril, for you have gold and wealth, and these are the chief incentives to war. Give therefore your love and respect to the cause of peace, and to that capital in which we, conquerors and conquered, claim an equal right. Let the lessons of fortune in both its forms teach you not to prefer rebellion and ruin to submission and safety. Tacitus, History 4.73-74.
Two choices: rebellion and ruin or submission and safety.

That is what it means to bring democracy to the Middle East.

At least Rome was honest as to what war was about.
Gold and wealth.
We cannot even name it.

There are two numbers that you should tattoo to your forehead.
The mark of the beast.

20 and 8.

Nice round numbers. Approximations really, but helpful.
20 and 8. Think of millions. 20 million and 8 million.
I have said before and will say again,
In oil we live and move and have our being.
Civilization is based on oil. There is no energy source that is anywhere close to providing for us what oil has provided for us. It appears that we have used up the cheap easy to get stuff. Yet we have become accustomed to it. It is the "American way of life", that our former president told the world is "non-negotiable".

The American Empire consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day.
It extracts 8 million barrels.

Where do we get the extra 12 million?

We need to “persuade” the nations that have oil that we deserve to consume a quarter of the world’s supply while having 4% of the world’s population. And we would like it cheap. That is a tough sell. So we persuade them with the presence of the most expensive and powerful military Earth has ever seen.

But that is not all.
China wants some of that oil too.
And they have a few guns.

This is not going to end well.
We are entering the end game.

And we are not even talking about it.

When more people know about Charlie Sheen’s hooker in his hotel closet than they know about Peak Oil, we can pretty well assume that we are in denial.

Those whom we trust to tell us the truth are not doing it.
The President is not talking about it.
The politicians we are supposed to be voting for on Tuesday are not talking about it.
The media, and I am not talking about individual reporters many of whom are incredibly courageous and conscientious, but the media corporations are not talking about it.

It is up to us.

The reason I brought the Jesus Seminar here is not because I am interested in esoteric theories of the Bible or the ancient world. It is not to satisfy intellectual curiosity. They are some of the few intellectuals left within the Christian tradition with any integrity.

At Westar’s 25th anniversary just a few weeks ago, historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan talked about his purpose.

He talked about what he lives for.
That is a good thing to do.
It is good to have both a purpose and a source of identity and meaning.
It is good to have a mythos.
It is especially important to have a mythos that works.

He referred to a book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization. This is what Amazon says about the book:
In this delightful and illuminating look into a crucial but little-known "hinge" of history, Thomas Cahill takes us to the "island of saints and scholars," the Ireland of St. Patrick and the Book of Kells. Here, far from the barbarian despoliation of the continent, monks and scribes laboriously, lovingly, even playfully preserved the West's written treasury. When stability returned in Europe, these Irish scholars were instrumental in spreading learning, becoming not only the conservators of civilization, but also the shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture.
Crossan said that this is could be a role for us during the collapse of the American Empire. We need to be able to preserve the wisdom we have gathered so that future generations won’t have to start from scratch. How are we going to do that?

How to plant seeds,
Know how diseases are spread,
how to make a shelter—basic information that will be lost in the collapse.
It is no good to save all that on a disc.

It was refreshing, in fact I think I felt a lump in my throat which I think was grateful recognition, when Crossan said plainly that the American Empire was heading toward collapse and that we have a purpose. There is wisdom within our tradition that we need to bring forth onto the lifeboats that we need to build now.

I realize that it is weird that a preacher says this kind of stuff about oil and Empire when those we trust are silent or soft pedal it so much that there is no urgency or political will to change.

The point is not to scare people.
The point is to encourage you to build lifeboats.
We build these lifeboats not for us so much but for those who will inherit what we leave them.

In addition to practical things we all should be doing,
  • having emergency supplies of food and water,
  • skills in first aid,
  • learning how to live on a fraction of the energy we currently use,
  • learning to grow food,
we also need to find the spiritual resources to help identify the struggle and the hope. We need both a purpose and a mythos. What can we take from our tradition that can help us?

That is why I find the Jesus Seminar especially helpful. For those of us in the Jesus tradition, who do not want to give it up, we can find a credible Jesus who can help us make sense of Empire and our purpose in its collapse.

The first century gospel critique of Empire and alternative way of living as opposed to Empire is helpful.

When Jesus casts out demons,
he was casting out for those who could see..

...the way of Empire that is based on domination, violence, and power over.

He was casting out fear and panic.
In place of fear, Jesus says,

“Trust.”

Trust yourself.
Trust each other.
Trust the Universe.
Trust God.

Not Empire’s god,
but the god of Jesus,
the god of non-violence,
the god of sustainability,
the god of justice, of joy, and hope,

Amen.
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