Demons or Baggage: Stop and Listen – a sermon for Pentecost 5C: Luke 8:26-39

voice withinBobby wasn’t like any other 10-year-old boy. Bobby had the face of an angel but the temperament of a devil. Bobby was a beautiful child. His blond hair and blue eyes together with his alabaster skin, pointed toward his Scandinavian heritage.  At first sight, Bobby appeared to be the kind of child that any congregation would be proud to count as a member. But, Bobby’s physical appearance was deceiving and Bobby’s presence in church was not welcome. Bobby didn’t go down to Sunday school classes with the other children.  The Sunday school teachers had tried to include Bobby, but after several parents threatened to withdraw their children, they asked Bobby’s parents not to send Bobby anymore. So Bobby stayed in the sanctuary with the adults. Most of the adult members tried to tolerate Bobby’s presence but for some, Bobby’s presence was simply unnerving. Bobby is autistic. Sitting and behaving in church was impossible for him. As long as we were singing hymns, Bobby was happy.  He would catch the rhythms of the music and rock back and forth and sing. He never sang the same words as the rest of the congregation.  But it was clear from his movements and the sounds that emanated from his lips that Bobby was singing. The trouble was that Bobby never stopped singing when we did. When his parents would attempt to put an end to Bobby’s song, he would flail about and sometime throw himself on the floor.

Now there are some churches where flailing about and throwing one’s self to the floor would be interpreted as a sign that the Holy Spirit was at work. But in this little Lutheran church, the reaction of the worshippers to Bobby’s outbursts made it clear that they feared that Bobby was possessed by spirits of the evil variety. Oh, they would never have come out and said that Bobby was possessed by demons, they just acted as if he were. Bobby’s favorite part of the service was communion.  I think that he enjoyed the opportunity to walk up to the front of the church and kneel at the altar.  When the Pastor would place a communion wafer in his hands, Bobby would giggle with glee.  Bobby never ate the communion wafer; he would just hold it up to the light and smile. The communion wine was another thing altogether. Sometimes Bobby’s mother would try to help him drink from the common cup.  Sometimes Bobby would dunk his wafer into the intinction cup and slop wine everywhere.  At other times Bobby would be so preoccupied with his wafer that he just let the cup pass him by. On a good day Bobby’s behavior only made people uncomfortable. On a bad day, Bobby’s behavior embarrassed some, offended others, and sometimes outraged many.

I remember being summoned to an extra-ordinary council meeting. The meeting had been called to deal with the complaints and concerns of several long time members of the congregation that had decided that Bobby’s presence could now longer be tolerated at worship. The people who were complaining were not bad people.  They were fine upstanding members of the congregation who found themselves unable to deal with Bobby’s presence in their midst. During the meeting we agonized over what to do. 

In hindsight, I’m happy to tell you that we rejected a motion to ask Bobby’s parents to stop bringing him to church. But in all honesty, I have to admit that it was a tempting proposition. We knew that members had stopped coming to the early service which Bobby’s family attended.  We also knew that some visitors found Bobby’s behavior so disturbing that they never darkened our doors again. Perfectly reasoned arguments were made for excluding Bobby from our worship. The pastor struggled to remind us that we had a responsibility to Bobby and to his family. After three hours of painful discussion, it was decided to call another meeting the following week to determine Bobby’s fate.

During the week that followed the congregation was a buzz with people putting in their two cents worth. Whenever a member of Bobby’s family would walk into a room, the place would become deadly silent. When the council gathered for their second meeting twelve people had petitioned to speak on the issue. Annie was one of those who spoke.  Annie was just sixteen years old and she was Bobby’s baby-sitter. She’d been helping to look after Bobby for about six months and in order to learn more about autism, Annie had been attending workshops at the university. Annie was learning various techniques that were being used at the time to reach autistic children. Annie volunteered to work with Bobby on Sunday mornings.

I don’t use the word miracle very often.  But I have to tell you that what Annie and Bobby accomplished in just a few short months was nothing short of miraculous. Bobby still sang in his own unruly style, but Annie’s approach never caused Bobby to flail about, or throw himself to the floor.  And in time even Bobby’s shouting was brought down to a minimum.  For several years Annie and Bobby were inseparable in worship. By the time Bobby was thirteen Annie was off to university. Bobby was no longer the unreachable child he once was.  Annie along with Bobby’s parents and teachers had taught Bobby how to reach out. Annie had also taught many of her sisters and brothers how to communicate with Bobby. In the community that gathered as Christ’s body, God’s grace had inspired compassion in us and healing took place and those of us who participated in that healing, we were ourselves healed.

I tell this story not to point to Bobby and draw parallels between Bobby and the metaphor of the demoniac in the gospel story, but rather to look at how Bobby’s demons resemble the demons that haunt us. Each of us is haunted by our own demons; demons that live in us, and most of us have such a variety of demons that you could call them Legion. And I’m not talking about the gremlins that annoy us from time to time. I’m talking about the really scary demons that get in the way and cause us to behave in ways that we’d rather not think about. Most of us manage to confine those demons to the farthest recesses of our consciousness. But that doesn’t stop them from impacting our lives.

Most of us wouldn’t call the stuff that haunts us, demons. We’re modern sophisticated individuals and we know a thing or two about the human psyche and so our metaphor for the stuff that haunts us has changed; these days we are more likely to call it baggage. Rather than referring to demons that haunt us we talk about baggage that we haul around, or baggage that we need to unpack, or baggage that we need to leave behind, so that we can move on. But there’s some stuff that we carry around with us that is so disturbing, or so paralyzing, or so frightening that the metaphor of baggage just doesn’t quite capture and if the truth be told this stuff functions more like the demons of old.

Bobby’s demons were upfront and pretty unsophisticated. Bobby’s autism never let Bobby pretend for a moment that they weren’t there. His coping skills were limited and so all too often his demons would parade about in public much to the chagrin of the people around him. Just like the demoniac that Jesus encountered, sometimes Bobby would need to be bound in order to calm the demons. Oh, sure nobody every bound Bobby with chains, or drove him out of town, they found more polite and acceptable ways to bind Bobby and to ensure that his family kept him away from good decent folks who were trying to go about their business.

In our culture, just as in the culture of the first century, you are not supposed to let your demons parade about in public. But were as a child with autism doesn’t have the where with all to control his demons, most of us have become pretty adept at keeping our demons to ourselves. We’ve learned the fine art of capture and control and so in the deep dark recesses of our consciousness our demons flail about, and if from time to time they manage to escape, we quickly toss a net over them and haul them back under control.  Modern life is designed to help us keep our demons tightly bound up. The first line of defence is denial and we’ve got all sorts of things to help us in our denial. First of all we can keep very, very busy.

When we’re busy the demons can’t seem to get through to us and we can make it seem to all the world as though we’ve conquered our demons. And if denial should fail us, then distraction works well. We’ve got our jobs to distract us, we’ve got stuff to do around the house, we’ve got people to see and places to go, and we can keep ourselves so very busy that the demons won’t be able to keep up with us. And if the odd demon or two should happen to catch us we can tune out, with any number of addictions, like television, or sports, or alcohol, or food, or drugs, or exercise, or shopping, or something or anything that will take our minds off those demons that threaten to cause us to implode.

So, we keep moving. We keep on keeping on, lest we come face to face with one of those demons. Some of us run all the way to our graves. But every once and a while, a still small voice comes along and calls us and if we have the courage to trust that small voice, if we can hear what that still small voice has to say, that voice has the power to exorcise demons. But first you have to stop.

Stop. Stop. Unless we have the courage to stop, we won’t be able to listen. To listen for the sound of that still small voice that speaks to us of the power that comes from the very fact that we are not alone. We are not alone in the face of our demons. For the One in whom we live and move and have our being, lives and breaths in us, and there is no demon in heaven or on earth that is a match for the reality of our connectedness to the Source of all that is. For there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the LOVE that is! It’s a power that each of us is intimately connected to. It is a power beyond our demons.  If we only stop, and listen. Listen to the still small voice.

The last time I saw Bobby, he had grown into a hansom young man.  His communication skills are greatly improved, but communicating with Bobby is still not easy. Annie is now a social worker.  She lives among the poor in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Buffalo.  Annie once told me that she learned more from Bobby than she ever learned in any classroom.

Bobby managed to teach me a few lessons over the years but one lesson sticks out in particular. It happened one Sunday morning when Annie came to me in a panic.  Bobby was missing. We searched the church and couldn’t find him anywhere. The parking lot was almost empty when we went outside to see if Bobby was hiding in one of the cars. My car was parked alongside of the garden shed.  I was about to hop into the car to head off in search of Bobby, when I heard someone crying in the shed. I found Bobby crouched inside, his shirt was torn and he had a cut above his eye. When I asked Bobby what had happened he just looked at me and said, “I’m not a retard.”

I asked Bobby to tell me who had done this to him. But he refused to tell me. He just said, “Don’t worry, I know they’re sorry. It’s okay don’t be mad. It’s okay.”

Annie and I cleaned Bobby up and the three of us went to the Dairy Queen. Bobby was in the middle of his favorite desert, a large butterscotch sundae, when he caught sight of a couple of boys from church. Bobby jumped up from the table and went straight for the boys. Suspecting that these boys might have had something to do with Bobby’s injuries, and worried that Bobby was going to strike out, Annie and I followed in hot pursuit. By the time Bobby reached the boys, they realized that we were behind him and they looked more than a little worried. Bobby just smiled and told them, “It’s okay. “Don’t worry; I know you’re sorry. It’s okay”

To this day, when I’m weary from battles with my own demons if I’m able to simply stop, to stop just for a few moments and listen, sometimes the still small voice speaks to me. Sometimes the still small voice sounds just like Bobby, in fact the voice I hear is Bobby’s quietly saying, “It’s okay. “Don’t worry; I know you’re sorry. It’s okay” And when I hear that voice, I can’t help but see that beautiful child of God who used to look so very much like an angel and I know that my demons can’t help but be soothed by that angel’s still small voice. “It’s okay. “Don’t worry, I know you’re sorry. It’s okay”

Stop.  Stop.  Stop. Listen.  Listen and you will hear the still small voice. However the voice comes to you, you will know that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate you from the LOVE that is.

Rest in the LOVE of God. Rest.  Sabbath Rest. There’s another word for Sabbath rest: Peace. The kind of peace that surpasses all our understanding: Peace.

Benediction:

It’s okay

Stop.  Stop.  Stop.

Listen.

Listen and you will hear the still small voice.

And however the voice comes to you, 

you will know

that there is nothing in heaven or on earth

that can separate you from the LOVE that is.

Rest in the LOVE of God

the peace of Christ

and the tenderness of the Holy Spirit.

3 thoughts on “Demons or Baggage: Stop and Listen – a sermon for Pentecost 5C: Luke 8:26-39

  1. Once again, Pastor Dawn Hutchings reminds us what the Gospel Is (Love) from a personal story and the profound wisdom of a Pastor’s heart. Pastor Jon Fogleman

  2. Thanks so much for this Pentecost sermon — I googled your name after reading your Trinity sermon in the Progressive newsletter. I love your attention to and exploration of Scripture, your faithfulness to be in conversation with Tradition, your commitment to Reason and your high evaluation of our human experience in God’s world. And your turn of phrase ain’t bad either! Your story telling within your sermons helped me to “overhear the Gospel” (Kirkegaard’s phrase). I was able to identify some of my demons Bobby and Annie’s story and some of my idols in the story of the town’s flood – and to ask God’s help in transforming some and escaping others. Thank you for your faithfulness. Steve Wayles (rev dr Stephen Wayles, United Church of Christ, retired)

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