The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/21/98
Text: Luke 8:26-39
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A familiar story. One wag says it is the only one in scripture that deals with "deviled ham." Yuck, yuck. The narrative builds around the sensitivities of Jewish piety. Pigs were the personification of uncleanness.(1) They were easily associated with Gentile uncleanness. Tombs were also a source of uncleanness, and in Jewish areas they were whitewashed so that one might not come in contact with a tomb accidentally.(2) A man with no clothes on would be an outcast since nakedness was shameful.(3) Unclean! Unclean! "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" And moments later, the demons...the uncleanness...gone. Praise the Lord!

No question, modern ears have trouble hearing this story. We would understand it better if the poor man in the graveyard were simply described as mentally ill. We are not comfortable in either giving credit or blame for the events of our lives to unseen beings. We would rather understand the story as one more example of Jesus' deep compassion for hurting individuals and an affirmation of his marvelous power to heal even when our afflictions are "legion." But that would MISunderstand the story. This one is about MORE than healing; this one is about confronting evil - in the language of first century theology, DEMONS. The townspeople had been content to control it by isolating it on the outskirts of their society - the graveyard - but Jesus was prepared to get rid of it all together, even though, as the story makes clear, the society at large was not ready to have that happen. He did it anyway. And the message I get from this story is "Go, thou, and do likewise."

Say what? Me? Cast out demons? Absolutely. In a sense, what your church has been doing this past week in Charlotte is a contemporary follow-up to that lesson. The 210th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) gathered, not simply to set policy for our denomination, but in a wider sense to join Jesus in doing battle with the demons - the evil which confronts us at every turn.

By way of background, let me share a bit of what leads up to an annual Assembly. Representatives are chosen from each of our 170 Presbyteries, the numbers determined on the basis of total membership, with equal representation of clergy and laity. They are called COMMISSIONERS, because they are COMMISSIONED by their Presbyteries to do the work of the WHOLE church and to vote as they believe they are led by the Holy Spirit, not on the basis of partisanship of regionalism, but for the good of ALL. Nine out of ten commissioners have never been to a General Assembly before.

Everyday begins with worship. This is not merely an ecclesiastical convenience - it says what we believe is important by putting it first on our docket. First and foremost, the church is a worshiping community. Many of you were a part of that wonderful experience in the Charlotte Coliseum last Sunday. Monday was equally good as Larry Hill, pastor of Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, one of the churches burned several years ago in that rash of church arsons, brought the message. He began with the story of the poor choir member whose enthusiasm for the task dwarfed his talent - he was terrible. So terrible, in fact, that the other choir members came to the pastor asking that he tell this man that he should quit the choir. Reluctantly, the pastor did as he was asked. He told the man that church members were saying that he could not sing, so he should quit. To which the man responded, "Well, Reverend, the people say that you can't preach, but you don't hear me telling YOU to quit." Hmm. Then Pastor Hill got serious. He told us we can celebrate or despair our differences, but never to forget that we are still one people - God's people. Ending his message on a resounding note, he reminded us that, as Presbyterians, we are at our best when worshiping, working and praying. And when Presbyterians are at their best, nobody does it any better.

To work. Once the Assembly has convened, it elects a Moderator who will chair the plenary sessions, then breaks into pre-assigned committees, through which business items (some 800 of them this year) are filtered and screened; 50 or so random Presbyterians, selected by computer, are asked to become scholars of some subjects they may never have thought much about before - stewardship, evangelism, ecumenical relations, health concerns, global politics, etc., etc., etc. One of my friends describes it this way: "as unfair, as clumsy, and exactly as noble a tribute to the human spirit (and a gamble) as is the American jury system, where amateurs are asked to take unbearable responsibility and reach impossible decisions."(4) After two-and-a-half days of wrestling with the issues, the committees are ready to report to the full assembly. Then for the next several days and nights (and sometimes into the early morning hours) guided by the occasionally confusing and, at times, frustrating rules of parliamentary procedure, the debate moves forward. The battle with demons is joined.

Some of the demons are reported in the press (although not necessarily in that language). For example, one of the first things to get the attention of the media (and particularly here in North Carolina) was the discussion about tobacco. It was prompted by a commissioners' resolution calling for stiff taxes on cigarettes and strong curbs on the advertising, marketing and worldwide distribution of tobacco products, particularly to children. The resolution also called for churches and governments to "express compassion and concern" for those addicted to nicotine, family tobacco farmers, and manufacturing workers in the tobacco industry. It also called on churches and governments "to provide emotional and financial support" for those whose livelihood will be affected by the declining use of tobacco.

Debate on the measure was impassioned, but not lengthy. Some were concerned about the excise tax, others about the impact on farmers. Some said it should be up to parents and churches to use moral persuasion to keep children from smoking. But speaker after speaker told personal stories of the health problems created by tobacco. One commissioner, who served on the Assembly Committee on National Issues which had first considered the resolution, said her father had died a number of years ago of lung disease caused by smoking and, with her voice breaking, told the Assembly her mother had died of the same ailment just the previous day while the committee was debating the resolution. The measure passed by a better than three-to-one margin.

One observer remarked that the church might do better if we ourselves would raise our voice about the dangers of tobacco use instead of asking the government to do it for us. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps we have not said loudly enough to our own people, STOP SMOKING! IT CAN KILL YOU! So I will say it, in case anyone has missed the message: please, please, please, STOP SMOKING! IT CAN KILL YOU!

I wish I could report that our US Senate heard our message delivered from the heart of tobacco country, but the very next day, the McCain legislation which would have done much of what our Assembly called for, was unceremoniously dumped in the political scrap heap. Surprise, surprise! But then no one ever said that battling demons would be easy.

Another demon the Assembly took on was the distressing level of biblical and theological illiteracy in our day. What are the basics of our faith? Too many church members would have difficulty in answering. And if members do not know, how can they share the faith with those outside the church? In an effort to counteract that distressing scenario, the Assembly approved three new catechisms that will help explain what we believe - one to teach children, another to teach those being confirmed for church membership, a third one longer and more complex which would be suitable for in-depth study. (We will study that one in detail this fall as we reconvene our midweek Bible studies.)

Another demon - gun violence. The Assembly approved a recommendation calling for Presbyterians "to work intentionally to remove handguns and assault weapons from our homes and from our communities." The call is to individual action, not a legislative ban. As might be expected, it was still opposed by a few commissioners who argued that the second amendment to the Constitution allows us to have guns (after all, we MUST be ever vigilant and prepared in the case of a British invasion), but the view of the vast majority of commissioners prevailed which said that working to eliminate handguns and assault weapons is essential to protect our nation's children and schools and to make our neighborhoods safer places.

Another demon - our seemingly endless battle about how to understand issues of human sexuality. This is not only a Presbyterian problem. Last Sunday, as the bus which took us to worship at General Assembly made its way from Greensboro to Charlotte, I read the newspaper. There were three articles about major church gatherings which were currently underway: the Southern Baptists, the Annual Conference of the United Methodists, and us Presbyterians. All three articles focused on our controversies concerning sex, whether it be the place of women in God's scheme of things or the appropriateness or inappropriateness of homosexual behavior. If we relied on the press, it would seem that the church thinks of nothing else but sex. Well, the way THIS Assembly chose to battle this demon was to call TIME OUT and refuse to say anything at all. Despite calls to specific action from the right and left, commissioners said it was time to back away, to let dialogue press forward, but make no decisions that would short-circuit the continuing conversation. This demon lives.

Others also live, but we were not content to ignore them. The Assembly approved a paper on "Just Peacemaking" which outlines the moral and ethical principles in dealing with regions of the world beset by ethnic and religious strife, and where such conflict produces economic and social inequities, not to mention horrors such as "ethnic cleansing." The Assembly directed specific attention toward peace and justice issues in Serbia, Burma, Colombia, the Korean peninsula, Iraq, the state of Chiapas in Mexico (where our friend Saul Pulido Perez has been involved), and Israel, with special attention to the plight of the Palestinians.

One more demon raised its ugly head at the Assembly in a most unlikely way. On Thursday evening, a new Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, Elder John Detterick, was installed with great ceremony. He takes office after a two-year interim following the Assembly's refusal to re-elect Detterick's predecessor. In the installation service, one of the speakers urged the church to support her leaders. He noted that in the 11 years since the current denominational structure has been in place, 20 division directors have been named to office. Only TWO have been elected to a second term. There is a crisis in the way the church treats her leaders, whether at the national level or locally in individual congregations. If the church dissipates its time and energy in internal squabbles, no wonder evil can be victorious. The Assembly took no action in regard to the concern, nor was it asked to. But these vicious internecine battles, at whatever level, are nothing less than demonic, and they must STOP!

Doing battle with demons. It is part of what Jesus does. It is part of what we as Christ's church do. As they are being fought, these battles are not pretty. There is pain. Sometimes pigs die. But evil, by its very nature is destructive, so pain should be expected. No wonder society at large is uncomfortable with the process, even to the extent of asking Jesus to leave.

In the first century, demons were a scary business. They were thought to be able to take control of natural processes and often were thought to take possession of persons or control their fate. The demons could enter a person through the ears, nose, or mouth. Amulets, magic, sacrifices, and rituals were needed if one were to have any hope of appeasing or escaping these spiritual powers. But then we meet Jesus and find that HE has a power these demons cannot match. Move to 1998. We no longer attribute calamities or illnesses to unseen forces, but rather understand them as functions of nature or politics or to internal physical or mental problems. The remedy is not exorcism but medication or counseling or political action.

Does the story of the Gerasene demoniac speak to OUR day as it did its own? Absolutely! To the church which battles the demons of social evil, the message is there is hope in Jesus. To individuals for whom there is an everyday battle ongoing with the demon of depression, the message is there is hope in Jesus. To those who battle the demon of fear, the message is there is hope in Jesus. Those who fight the demon of addiction, the message is there is hope in Jesus. And to those who have SO MANY BATTLES going on against SO MANY DEMONS that their name is LEGION, the message is there is hope in Jesus.

Your church is battling demons this morning. As it does EVERY morning. Are there demons that you are battling as well? Just remember, the message is there is hope in Jesus. Then remember the Lord's instruction: "Return to your home, and [tell the story]...tell how much God has done for you."

Let us pray.

O God, there are times when we would rather NOT battle the demons. It is so much easier to give in. Give us the strength for the struggle, for Jesus' sake. Amen!

1. Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8

2. New Interpreter's Bible, electronic edition, disk 2, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)

3. Genesis 3:7; 9:21-27; Isaiah 47:3; Ezekiel 16:8,36-37

4. Houston Hodges, via PresbyNet, "GA210 Reports," #13, 6/16/98

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