Hello. My name is Tobi, and I struggle with depression and anxiety. I’ve often thought that Alcoholics Anonymous would be a better venue for grace than the Church. What I mean is that when people come to church, they put on their Sunday best. Well, they used to. We show up and try to keep the kids quiet for an hour. We try to look put together. We don’t want people to see our scars and wounds. We cover the bruises with make-up, put a mint in our mouths to hide the smell of smoke or alcohol, put a smile on our faces to hide the grief or anger, pretend our family isn’t falling apart. Make it look good—because these are church people. Don’t let them see the mess, the chaos, the depth of darkness we may live within. Don’t air the dirty laundry. Don’t let ‘em see you sweat. Put on a good front. Get the ducks in a row.
We might say that the church is a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints, but that doesn’t stop us from doing all we can to make sure we’re not the sinners in need of treatment. We’re here to help others, right? We don’t need the help, ourselves. Which is why AA often makes more sense than the Church when it comes to grace, healing, and God. Because the first thing people say and acknowledge is that they don’t have ducks in a row. Instead, the monkeys are on a rampage.
So, let me be the first to say that, whether I’m here or at home, I’m a hot mess. And I bet, dollars to donuts, that you are, too.
One of the purposes of our Faith-to-Face Ministry is take the stigma off of things like addiction and brokenness. Addiction—whether in alcohol or drugs or food or even exercise—is an illness. Sometimes it comes from one bad decision that tricks your body into a cycle it can’t get out of alone. Sometimes it’s events in life that mess with your head, that get into your soul and convince you that you aren’t enough without…whatever. That you can’t live without… That you are nothing.
Imagine the man possessed by a demon showing up at the synagogue. Even if it’s not the Temple, itself, it has been set apart as a holy place—a place for worship and teaching of holy things. And if holy places have already been identified as distinctive from the secular, from the everyday, from the dirt and brokenness of the ‘real world,’ then can you imagine what the people must have thought of this man, convulsing and speaking in a weird voice and clearly and literally being “out of his mind?” How would you respond if that happened here?
But Jesus doesn’t tell him to go away. He doesn’t concern himself with the well-being of the others at the synagogue. He doesn’t try to protect the congregation from the ugliness that just walked in the door. He doesn’t try to keep the demonic out of the holy place. Instead, he invites the holy into the broken and commands the demon to leave the man alone.
What are the demons that plague us? It’s not just personal challenges like addiction and mental health issues. It’s not just the financial wolf that has gotten even busier, knocking at more and more doors, demanding payment…or else. It’s not just the cancer and the COVID; the sexual abuse and the murders. No, our demons go even deeper.
Our collective communal demons darken the doorways of Churches and government offices in the guise of order and truth and patriotism and holiness. Our demons try to tell us that they are there to protect us…from the others. From the ones that are different. We name our demons Freedom and Rights and Christian, but they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
And those wolves, when revealed, show their ugly faces Their true names are White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, Sexism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance…just to name a few. These demons we not only welcome into our Churches. We promote them. We honor them. We worship them—creating a god in our own image: a god who demands retribution and vengeance; a god who only offers forgiveness begrudgingly after a time of repentance and punishment; a god who insists that might makes right; a god who is always and only on our side.
This is Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s gospel account. Its purpose is to distinguish his ministry from that of the Temple—that God cannot be encased or defined or captured by a building or its people. The first thing he does when the demon addresses him is to tell it to shut up. Stop talking. Stop taking up space in our heads and our hearts. He acknowledges its presence, but he shuts down its power. And he sends it away.
I wonder what the man felt once the demon had left. Obviously relief. Freedom. Openness. But I wonder if he also felt like a big part of him was ripped out. Maybe he had become accustomed to its presence. Kind of like an addiction. Kind of like an illness. Kind of like the people of a nation being faced with its own brokenness. We get so used to living in the cage that we forget how to fly.
Maybe that’s part of the reason we put on a happy face for the public. If no one knows the demon, we won’t be faced with the opportunity to live without it. It is quite the conundrum. One that, I suspect, we all deal with at some time and in some way. For we all have demons that Jesus calls out. But are we ready to release them? Do we hold on…just in case Jesus was wrong? Are we afraid of what lies on the other side of that?
And sometimes, of course, those demons hold onto us. Like a cancerous tumor that entangles itself among the tissue and tendons of our souls. It becomes more and more difficult to discern what is me and what is demonic. And often, trying to extract it is impossible without taking some of me with it.
That is the nature of the demon. But the nature of God is to never give up on us. The nature of God knows what is us—because God’s fingerprints are on every sinew and synapse and cell of our bodies. And God knows that extricating the demon isn’t a one-time, one-event, all-and-done kind of thing. It’s a process that takes a lifetime. A lifetime of naming the demon. Calling the ugliness to account. Not letting it ensnare our hearts even as it muddles our thoughts and tells us lies about who we are and whose we are.
The demon will tell us that we should be ashamed of what we have become and the struggles we have endured—and caused. But God tells us we are forgiven. God tells us that shame has no place in God’s kin-dom. God tells us that we are already accepted and loved and honored and welcome and beautiful and good. God tells us the demon is a liar. And the first step to undoing the tendrils of demonic power is to name it. Acknowledge it. Demons hide in the shadows we create around our fear and shame. But God invites us to shine the light on them. Call them out for who they are. To speak truth against them.
And then—and only then—does healing take place. Together. Without makeup and false smiles and pretend happiness and rows of ducks. Bring the feral monkeys and unherdable cats to the community in all their glory. For they are not you. You are God’s beloved. Always have been. Always will be. And no demon can change that.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church