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I spent the summer I turned 21 in India, as a short term summer missionary with a group called Youth with a Mission. I had many interesting experiences, but the most disturbing was when our group was meeting some religious leaders in a slum in Bho Pal. An older man pointed out a young girl—I would guess she was about eight years old—and told us that she was possessed by a demon and they were going to do an exorcism later that day.
Now at the time, I was coming out of a conservative American religious tradition that used the language of demons and angels periodically, but no one I knew had ever claimed to know someone who was possessed.
I was too young and inexperienced to say much of anything or to ask any questions, so I stood there, dumbfounded.
When I became an Episcopalian, I expected the language of demonic possession to fade into the background of our religious discourse. And mostly, of course, it has. But every few years, someone will come by a church of a friend, convinced they are possessed and ask for an exorcism. Even I have been asked to bless a home the owners were convinced had some evil presence in it.
So, I frankly, don’t know what to think about demon possession. I would like to think that it is outdated imagery based on a pre-scientific understanding of mental illness and epilepsy. We all know how frightening it can be when a loved one disappears right in front of us, because suddenly they are overcome with symptoms of depression or schizophrenia or addiction. We know how frightening it is when WE disappear to ourselves for the same reasons. The experience of mental illness can certainly feel like one has been overcome by an outside malevolent power. But maybe there is another, more spiritual category in which we can be overcome. We may never know for sure. What we do know for sure is that Jesus demonstrated his power over the unknown by healing the man from Gerasene.
Whatever our understanding of what was plaguing the man from Gerasene, his story is a poignant one. His choices were to live in community, but be shackled; or live freely, but alone. The man keeps breaking through his shackles and is forced out of community, so wanders alone through the tombs.
When Jesus heals him, in an instant the man from Gerasene is brought from brokenness to wholeness; from solitude into community.
The eighth and ninth chapters of Luke show Jesus demonstrating his power over and over again. He calms a storm, he heals the man from Gerasene, he heals a woman who has been bleeding for years, and he brings a young girl back to life. Jesus could have continued doing tricks with the weather to show his power. He could have caused tornadoes to come and whisk the Pharisees away when they bothered him. He could have made double rainbows appear every time he made a speaking appearance. Instead, Jesus uses his power over and over again to heal people. He reaches out to people that are ill in ways that estrange them from their communities—the man from Gerasene who could not be in community because of his strange behavior, the woman who had a uterine condition that was considered unclean, the young girl who had already passed beyond all community into death. He reaches out to those who are beyond community and heals them, bringing them back in the fold.
Jesus shows us God’s character through these healings. When we are in relationship with God, God is at work in us moving us from brokenness to wholeness, from isolation into community. Whether we have miscarriages that we feel like we cannot talk about publicly, or cancers in places we’d rather not name, mental illnesses that leave us not feeling ourselves, God moves toward us, never away from us.
Our illnesses do not separate us from God, even if we feel like they separate us from our families and friends.
Last week, I received a really nice letter from a woman who had come to one of our Wednesday healing services. She was a visitor to the congregation going through chemotherapy. We said healing prayers for her and in the letter, she said for her the service was an experience of both spiritual and physical healing and that she has recently been given a clean bill of health from her doctor.
Now, I have to admit, I was totally shocked by her letter! I am so used to the church’s ritual of healing prayer, that I can forget that healing prayer can have real power. But quietly, every Sunday, our prayer team prays in the Lady Chapel for those who need healing, and every Wednesday we pray and have Eucharist together.
The power in healing prayer is not the priest’s power or the congregation’s power, the power of healing prayer is the same power that Jesus demonstrated when he reached out to the man from Gerasene. The power of healing prayer is that same power that reaches out to us when we are feeling our most vulnerable and afraid and alone. Through healing prayer, God reaches out to us and begins to make us whole again, begins to draw us out of solitude, into community.
Even if healing prayer does not instantly heal our illnesses, the act of praying when we are ill or afraid or alone reminds us that God’s power is stronger even than the power of illness and death. In children’s worship we occasionally sing the song,
God is bigger than the boogeyman.
He is bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV.
God is bigger than the boogeyman,
and he’s watching out for you and me.
The song is meant to comfort children who are afraid of what might be lurking under the bed or in the closet, but we grownups have our own set of fears that keep us up at night, and we, too need to be reminded that God is on our side and that he has great power.
Princeton can be a town of great isolation and great loneliness. And I know in many of your lives you are going through difficult times. I see God at work in Trinity moving people out of isolation and fear into community and love and I encourage you to reach out to one another and to be part of the healing work that God is doing in this place.
For Jesus is not done with his healing, he is still at work right here, right now, in our lives, exorcising the demons of our fear, loneliness, disease, anxiety, depression—all those things that weigh on our hearts and souls.
Thanks be to God.