THE DEMON AND THE MUSIC
A Sermon by
The Rev Barbara Mraz
June 18, 2016
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul Minnesota
On the morning of December 29, 1890, the US. army demanded that the Pine Ridge Sioux at the Wounded Knee reservation in South Dakota, surrender all weapons. Amidst the tension, a shot rang out, possibly from a deaf brave who misunderstood his chief’s orders to surrender. The Seventh Cavalry — the reconstructed regiment lost by George Armstrong Custer — opened fire on the Sioux. The local chief, Big Foot, was shot in cold blood as he recuperated from pneumonia in his tent. Others were cut down as they tried to run away. When the smoke cleared almost all of the 300 men, women, and children were dead, along with 25 soldiers. Some died instantly, others froze to death in the snow. This massacre marked the last showdown between Native Americans and the United States Army. This was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, contrary to what the media told you about Orlando last week.
America has a tradition of trying to exorcise its perceived demons, whether they are the first Americans, blacks, the Japanese, women, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Arab immigrants, Germans, gays, artists or Communists.
We also each have personal demons, forces that, despite our best efforts, haunt our lives, restrict our movements, limit our good nature and accelerate our worst impulses. Fear, greed, anxiety, escapism, narcissism, inertia, shame, failure, faithlessness … what would you add to the list? How would you name your demons? From what do you need to be free?
Into these cultural and personal scenarios comes today’s Gospel with its account of the demoniac at Gerasa, a lesson full of drama and not a little humor.
Jesus is in another country, so to speak. He has crossed the sea from Galilee to Gerasa, a Gentile city outside the Jewish areas of Palestine.
Demons and spirits were abundant across the ancient world and the Gerasene community had tried to help this man possessed by a demon who lived among them. They shackled him, but also guarded him and fed him. But when he breaks his shackles, he wanders off to the world of the tombs. When Jesus calls the demon out of him, his life is reordered and he gains his sanity.
The language of Scripture can be very dramatic. One of the connections to this story in the Hebrew Scriptures is from Isaiah 65. Listen to this: “They were a people who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil, who eat the flesh of pigs and whose pots hold broth of impure meat.” Well!
While this is an important story about the power of Jesus, it has puzzling aspects like, why pigs? Did they just happen to be there? Probably. Although the Jews considered pigs unclean, the Gerasenes kept pigs, so Jesus puts the demon into a herd of pigs (the number we find in Mark’s version of the story is 2000) who then all jump off a cliff and drown! No alerting PETA or making jokes that pigs can fly…
But this story can also be read as a condemnation of the political power of the Roman Empire and its abuses of the Jewish people. Here’s why:
When the first version of this story appeared in Mark’s Gospel, Jerusalem in was occupied by the Tenth Roman Legion. The demoniac identifies himself by the Latin name “Legion,” and demons certainly have many names – ours do. But “Legion” also refers to a company of Roman soldiers (numbering 6,000). The real demon could have been the Roman occupation. In fact, the emblem of the Tenth Roman Legion was a pig. Historians say this symbol must have been intended to humiliate the Jews under Roman power. The Jews considered pigs unclean, yet they had to submit to the pig on the shields and flags of the Romans.
We say Scripture and church shouldn’t be political, but this story is clearly that. The political and the moral can be hard to separate.
Of all the demons that we face, the greatest is fear. When we are afraid, our principles can be compromised, our morality put on hold, our desperation and survival instinct determining our actions. What prompted the massacre at Wounded Knee was fear that a new spiritual practice called the Ghost Dance would get Indians so worked up they would go on a rampage. This, despite the fact that the holy man Wukova, the originator of the Ghost Dancer preached nonviolence.
Yet sometimes we have good reason to be afraid and protect ourselves. Now is one of those times. We should be afraid when we see the numbers of lives lost due to gun violence in America, especially compared to other developed countries in the world. We should be afraid that so many US cities are no longer identified not only by their names but by their association with mass murders: Orlando, San Bernadino, Charleston, Newtown, Columbine.
We should be afraid when 90% of the population want stricter gun laws on the books and nothing has happened. Sixty Episcopal bishops including Archbishop Michael Currie took part in a protest on June 2 against gun violence in America and decried the evil holy trinity of poverty, racism and violence. These are not only political issues but moral ones.
So how do we temper any kind of fear enough to do something? To get through the day while battling our personal demons? How do we exorcise those demons that do not prompt us to fruitful action but prevent it?
Jesus used words. He called out the demon and it obeyed. We, too, can use words to state our truths with courage and conviction. We can listen to the words of others. We can put our words into prayers that can change us as much as they might change God.
Secondly, we can temper fear with gratitude. “We can only be said to be alive,” said the playwright Thornton Wilder, “in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” Gratitude for what you have been given and what you have available to give. Gratitude for what you are able to do and the courage you are given to do it. Gratitude for those you love and who love you. Even gratitude for the times in which we live.
Although Jesus performed miracles and people were healed, comparatively we live in an age of everyday miracles. Modern medicine cures mental illness every day; diseases are banished; healing in a manner of days or weeks or months can take place with medication, therapy, treatment. Gratitude can temper fear.
A third way to reduce fear is by understanding what is asked of us. In this Gospel, the newly-freed man desperately wants to go with Jesus. But the boat pulls away without him and Jesus sends him is back to his city. He tells him to tell people what had happened to him Vocation is unique to each of us and some of we seemed called to might scare us. Going back to the city and talking about Jesus was probably not a happy prospect for the man in the Gospel. Yet that is what Jesus asked of him, to speak of what he knew. That is also what he asks of us.
Finally, fear can be lessened by reordering priorities. Novelist Ambrose Redmoon reminds us, “Courage is not the absence of fear bur rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
I don’t know much about classical music. I am not musical myself although I like a good hymn, good musical theater; I like Bruno Mars… So when a friend invited me to go to the Minnesota Orchestra concert of Maher’s Fifth Symphony, I balked. It didn’t exactly sound like Hamilton, which I loved.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know how to listen to that stuff. It sounds well, heavy. And there are no visuals, haha.”
I think I was kind of afraid, afraid of appearing stupid, and afraid of being bored. So I went to the Internet and looked up Gustav Mahler, who was known for his “emotionally-charged music.”
“Okay. I’ll go.”
Of course, it was a revelation. Tender and thundering, the fourth movement, heartbreakingly slow and tender, was written as a love letter to Mahler’s wife Alma. On the way home from the concert, I learned that Leonard Bernstein—who was responsible for much of Mahler’s renewed popularity in this country—conducted this piece at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. And when Bernstein died, a copy of the score of the Fifth Symphony was placed in his breast pocket, laid across his heart
The things that bring us out of ourselves, the things we open ourselves to that we had dismissed, can be a source of healing. And what a miracle that an Austrian composer who worked in the late 1800s and whose work was not acknowledged for decades after his death at age 51 can join forces with a large orchestra in the Midwestern United States in 2016 and bring hundreds of applauding people to their feet for three curtain calls for the maestro.
Maybe that’s why Paul writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about these things.” Because in so doing we can gain the strength and the courage and the inspiration to change our world for the better.
And meanwhile in Orlando: A group of volunteers from the arts community are working worked together to build “Angel Wings,” a blockade of people who will block Westboro Baptist Church members with their hateful anti-gay messages from protesting at the funerals of the Orlando shooting victims.
And K-9 Comfort Dogs, twelve Golden Retrievers from seven states have arrived, to be petted and hugged and cried upon by the workers and families involved in the tragedy, their golden fur absorbing myriads of tears.
The preacher Fred Craddock reminds us: “What scared the people in Gerasa, the most was the recognition of a power present which was greater than the power of evil spirits.” ….
Like music, angels, dogs, and….dads.
History.com “Wounded Knee”.
Sarah Henrich, Working Preacher.com.
Emma Mavin, “The Gerasene Demoniac and Self Harm, Sun, Mind and Soul Resources,” July 20, 2012.
David Lose, “Legion” June 16, 2013, in Working Preacher.com