St Bride's: Sermons

Possession

Luke 8:26-39

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26 And they arrived at the country of the Gadarenes, which is over against Galilee.

27 And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs.

28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most high? I beseech thee, torment me not.

29 (For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.)

30 And Jesus asked him, saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him.

31 And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep.

32 And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them.

33 Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.

34 When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country.

35 Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.

36 They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed.

37 Then the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought him to depart from them; for they were taken with great fear: and he went up into the ship, and returned back again.

38 Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying,

39 Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.

It was two years ago this month that I visited St Bride's for the very first time, as part of the interview process for this job.  I travelled here from Birmingham to be shown round the church and the Rectory, and to meet with one of the Churchwardens.  And a couple of days after that, I returned to London for the formal interview. 

That particular week in my life was to prove unusually challenging, because, as chance would have it, in between those two visits to London, I was involved in a court case in Birmingham.  I had brought a case against a man for stalking and harassment - as a result of which he is now in a secure hospital.  But, for me, the experience that led to that court case connects very directly with our Gospel reading this morning.

John was a man I knew well - indeed, by the time of the court case, I had had to deal with him pretty well on a daily basis for the best part of a decade.  John suffered from serious mental health problems, and had managed to fall through every safety net that society provides.  When I first knew him, he was sleeping under a hedge, and he survived by scavenging from dustbins.  During one particularly harsh winter I was concerned that he was actually going to freeze to death, so my church in Edgbaston allowed him to shelter in a little outbuilding in our churchyard, where he was to live for the next six years.  He was by no means the easiest of 'tenants' - indeed, eventually, and spectacularly, he managed to burn that particular building down, causing £30,000 worth of damage - but we always did our very best to help him and support him. 

Unfortunately John's mental state steadily deteriorated, and his behaviour became more and more irrational and obsessive, and eventually threatening.  For several years he refused to wear trousers, and on two memorable occasions he turned up on my doorstep wearing absolutely nothing except a pair of walking boots(!)  And John also become increasingly obsessive in his church attendance - which meant that whatever I did he was always there.  Eventually he even started following me to choir practices, and demanding the right to attend committee meetings of the church. He would sit on my front door step for hours at a time, bring my rubbish bags back in so that there were not collected, and dump piles of rubbish of his own on my drive.

Early one Sunday morning, I had unlocked the church for the 8.00 o'clock communion, which one of my colleagues was due to take, and I set off home to get ready for the main service.  John was waiting for me outside, very disturbed and upset.  That was the first occasion on which he actually assaulted me.  Fortunately two parishioners saw the attack and came to my rescue, and the police were called.  John was arrested and taken away.  I was shaken and bruised, but basically OK - so, having given a statement, I returned to the church to take the main Eucharist.  And it was then that I realised what the Gospel reading was for that day, which left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable: it was the same Gospel passage that we heard here a few minutes ago.

It is the story of a man who, like John, was out of his right mind, disturbed and tormented.  A man who wore no clothes (again, you will see the connection), and who for some years, like John (who resided in our churchyard), had lived not in a house but out among the tombs.  He was a man who inspired fear in people - just as our congregation members found John's conduct increasingly difficult, and at times menacing.  He was a man whom they tried to shackle, but who broke free and went off into the wilds.  John, too, at various points was held in a psychiatric unit but either discharged himself or, on one occasion, escaped - and when he did so, he decamped to an area of woodland on the edge of our churchyard.

And having had to deal with John so regularly, I can also understand perfectly why it was that an earlier and less sophisticated age than ours reached so readily for the language of demon possession when encountering a man like John.  Because although we always tried to see the human being behind the illness, at times it really did feel as if John had been taken over by an alien force of violence and irrationality. 

Unfortunately that is where the similarities between these two stories - the Gospel reading and my own experience of John - come to an end.  Because in terms of their eventual outcomes, they could not have been more different.

In our Gospel reading Jesus meets the troubled man and immediately commands the unclean spirit to come out of him.  The man falls down before him, crying 'What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?'  Then, as we heard, the demons who had entered the man begged Jesus to allow them to enter a herd of swine who were feeding nearby.  This happens: the demons entered the herd, and the herd hurtled down the hillside into a lake at the bottom and were drowned.  The man is then found by the local people sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. 

My own story was very different.  We did everything we possibly could to access the help and support for John that he needed: we were in touch with social services, and the local psychiatric team, and the homelessness unit.  I even managed to get John a solicitor, who was an expert in dealing with vulnerable adults, who could act as his legal deputy and claim benefits for him.  And we did our very best to love him and accept him; and of course, we prayed for him.  All the time.  One of our congregation members even had him living in her house for a couple of months until his behaviour became so threatening that she had to call the police to have him removed.  But John's 'demons' were never exorcised, and his mental state continued to get worse rather than better.  Which is why, in the end, in order to get him the care and help and support that he needed, I had no other option left but to go down the route of a criminal prosecution.

So, what sense have I made of this experience, as a person of faith, and as a Christian minister?  Why did things end so very differently in my own situation?  The first rather obvious point to make is that I am not Jesus.  I do not have the power to still storms, or to raise the dead, or to cleanse lepers, or to exorcise demons - although I can, and do, constantly entrust people into the loving care of the God who can do all kinds of things that I cannot, and sometimes witness astonishing transformations as a result. 

But we must also remember that, even for Jesus, his miracles were never ends in themselves (which is why in Mark's Gospel, Jesus is forever ordering the people whom he has healed to tell nobody about it).  The purpose of these miracles is to point us to something else - to the life of the Kingdom of God - a Kingdom that is not yet fully realised in this world, yet which we can, from time to time, manage to glimpse.

Which is why it remains our challenge and our calling to do whatever we can to help to bring that Kingdom a little closer - even when our best efforts do not produce the happy endings that we would all love to see.  The forces of evil and destruction and disorder in human life are so powerful and so deep-rooted - forces that lead to incidents as shocking, and perverse, and pointless as the appalling murder of the MP Jo Cox on Thursday - that there may not be easy solutions to them that we can actually see.

But it is also true that God's gifts come very strangely packaged sometimes.  For all that my experience of dealing with John was so unbelievably difficult, at a personal as well as a professional level - at the end of it all, oddly enough, I do feel bizarrely grateful to him.  Because there is no doubt at all that John changed us as a church community; and he changed me (both as a human being and as a Christian minister), for the better.  Because the fact that we learned to love and accept John meant that we learned to love and accept anybody.  Thanks to John, we really did grow in love and grace.  And it is thanks to John that I am now a stronger and wiser and more discerning Christian minister than I would otherwise have been.  As I said at his trial, John was not a bad man - he was just a very sick man. 

The Christian faith does not duck the harsh realities of life, nor does it present us with superficially attractive but ultimately bogus answers to its most challenging questions.  Rather it calls us to live with those questions and in those situations, lovingly, faithfully, and hopefully - and to rejoice that God's healing love and grace will ultimately prevail in the lives of the Johns of this world, even if that will only come to fulfilment in God's Kingdom, rather than in the here and now.  Our best efforts may sometimes seem to come to nothing; but Christ demands of us that we continue striving to love, just as he loves us. 

Because, believe me - no act of love and grace is ever, ever wasted.

 Amen

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