The devil you know

Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Luke 8:26-39 – Trinity, Winchester

It’s that time again: Ordinary Time! We’ve made it to the Second Sunday after Pentecost. Last Sunday was of course, Trinity Sunday. 

After two principal feasts in a row, it is perhaps fitting that this morning is a bit more subdued. We are reminded that no matter the day, no matter whether there is organ music or hymn-singing, the risen Christ is with us. 

If you noticed anything weird about today’s gospel, you wouldn’t be the only one. There is, of course, the whole demon-possession thing, but I’m talking about this: Jesus is asked to leave town, even after he exorcised a man of a demonic spirit. 

What’s up with that? 

Upon his arrival to the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus is immediately confronted by a solitary, naked, demon-possessed man. A danger to himself and others, Luke tells us that the man is often restrained in shackles. 

Jesus does what Jesus does. He confronts the demons, who recognize him as the Son of God, and sends them, at their request, into a herd of pigs which run into the lake and drown. 

People from all around come to see what has happened and find the man fully clothed and of sane mind, seated next to Jesus. After hearing eye-witness testimony of the exorcism, you might think they would have invited Jesus to stay for dinner and given him the place of honor at the table, but no. 

Instead, the crowd’s fear takes over, and they ask Jesus to leave. “Go on, pick your stuff up, take your friends, and get out of here. We don’t need you making anymore trouble.” 

At first blush, their desire for Jesus’ departure doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jesus be asked to leave town when he has demonstrated that his power is greater than the demon’s? He has saved their countryman from demonic possession and restored the community to health and peace.

But if we ponder this unusual request for a moment or two more, their insistence that Jesus leave may start to make more sense. 

There is, of course, the economic factor. An entire heard of swine are dead. If I were one of the pig farmers, I would be pretty upset. How did insurance work in the ancient Near East, anyway? 

It goes much deeper than economics. To understand the Gerasenes’ desire for Jesus to leave, we have to look deeper into our own human nature. 

How does the saying go? “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” Or in this case, perhaps, “Better the devil you know than the Jesus you don’t.” 

The Gerasenes know evil. They are used to evil. They deal with evil everyday. They chain it up, post guards around it, and hang up those little signs that say “Beware of evil.” “Please don’t feed the evil.” “Must stay at least 20 yards from the evil at all times.” 

We, too, are well-acquainted with evil. We each have our ways of coping with it. Some of us are skilled at keeping it at arms length, while others of us simply choose to ignore it.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I just can’t stand to watch the news anymore!”? “Whenever I hear that voice I just—smack—turn the radio right off!”

On the other hand, the power of God—the power for good—often seems to allude us. The Gerasenes weren’t so accustomed to it, either. Jesus’ liberating power was unfamiliar to them. When something is unfamiliar, we often find it threatening.

Those among us who are more naturally competitive than others may recall the experience of meeting someone who shares our interests, but has talents that we perceive to be better than our own. We feel jealous of them because we feel threatened by them.

Grandma had the same experience with microwaves. She had no use for one. She cooked every meal from scratch and had perfected each one herself. If she wasn’t afraid of the new technology, she was certainly afraid of what it would do to her lifetime of cooking experience.

Likewise, when we encounter something new it can awaken in us a primal fear.

When a family member dies we know instinctively that things will be different. Fear is a big part of our grief. Who will carve the turkey this year? Who will drive me to the doctor’s office? What will I do with all my time?

Change makes us uncomfortable, even if it appears to be for the best. For some reason we prefer the chaos that we know to the chaos of uncertainty. In other words, our eyes are kept from seeing the good because the change itself is so scary. 

Take for example the woman who gave her husband a bottle of Jack Daniels for the first anniversary of his sobriety. She knew if he drank it he would become belligerent and abusive once again, but that’s the only life she knew how to live. With her sober husband she was lost. Her identity was changing faster than she could cope. 

She had no idea how to function as the partner of a stable person. Even though any bystander would observe that her life changed for the better, she didn’t know what to make of it. 

Even liberation can be threatening, scary, uncomfortable. It’s not so surprising, after all, the Gerasene response. When faced with uncertainty our first instinct is often to push the source of that uncertainty away. We just want things to be “normal.”

It’s hard to imagine new life when the only thing you know is death. At least death is concrete. At least we know what we’re getting with death. 

“At least when he lived out by the tombs—as good as dead—he could keep control of him. At least back then we knew what he was up to. Now, who knows what kind of funny ideas he’s going to have?” 

The story is not new. We hear it every year on Good Friday. We would rather reject God’s offer of transformative love by nailing Jesus to a cross than accept the promise of a resurrection that we cannot yet imagine.

Jesus comes to the Gerasenes today to give them a glimpse of what resurrection has to offer. It’s startling, it’s dramatic, it’s a lot to take in. 

We can’t blame them for asking him to leave. We are much the same. Take heart, there is still time to learn. Jesus is always right beside us, ready to remind us what new life—what resurrection—looks like. 

I’ve given you examples of it before: overcoming addiction, managing grief, asking for help when you hit rock bottom. I know you’re in the habit of spotting signs of life all around you. 

Whenever you realize God’s liberating power of love it’s only natural to want to take some time and bask in it. Like the healed man, you may want to stay all cozy right up next to the source of your resurrection, but there is a little time for that. 

Simply observing and enjoying these signs of life is not where we stop.

Listen to Jesus. He’s calling you to go one step further. He bids you still today, “Return . . . and declare how much God has done for you.” 

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11


Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 


[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).