Sermons from St Faith's   

Wrestling with demons

Fr. John Reed,

Sunday, 23rd June, 2019

Sylvia Sands from Belfast writes poignant and prophetic  poetry, some of it from personal experience.  I am going to begin with one today. It is called “Legion”, a word we heard in  our Gospel today.

Safe in psychiatric hospital
I had placed four friendly plastic bags,
Which once held loving gifts of fruit,
Chocolate, magazines, flowers.
Firmly over my head
In the cloakroom of the locked ward.
Like Legion, I wrestled with the demons.
Tramp, tramp tramping through my brain.
A legion was a Roman Regiment of
Six thousand troops.
Show me a more accurate picture of mental illness.

After my failed cloakroom debacle on the ward,
The self harming  (….razors, needles, fire)
Young girls aged 14 to 21,
And I were irresistibly drawn together,
Our hollow eyes locked in a nightmare of understanding.
They mothering my ageing self with
Hugs, toffees under the pillow,
Carefully drawn pictures,
The delicate offering of painting my fingernails
In shocking pink.
Caught tears at two in the morning.
Legion, in among the tombs, watching his demons
Crashing via two thousand pigs over the Gadarene cliffs;
The relief of it! echoed later as he sits,
Clothed and in his right mind,
By the side of Jesus.
Who is to say that an echoing miracle was not begun in my mind,
(But slowly)
By that small regiment of unlikely,
Oh so young, self-scarred angels
In the locked ward?
After all
Here I am sitting, calmly, writing poetry once more.

Our Gospel records a Gadarene man, not a Jew, from a community that bred pigs.  Pigs: the ritually unclean animals forbidden to God’s people; pigs: an important part of the occupying power Roman’s diet. His mental illness separated from his own people; family, friends and community; unclothed and indecent to human society, uncontrollable even when he was chained, living amongst the dead, where the living feared to go. Alone totally isolated with his legion of demons. Shunned by all, best not mentioned in polite conversation.

And a Jewish teacher called Jesus arrives and confronts the powers that hold him in chains not wrought by human hands.  This is the same Jesus who has just stilled the storm in the earlier verses of the chapter, the one at one with the voice of the Creator that called order on the unruly forces of the water that covered the world. 

Peace, peace, peace. The tramp, tramp, tramping through his brain is silenced, and he can sit clothed again at the feet of the teacher as all good disciples do, to hear good news.

Sylvia Sands does not come back with a glib answer, the miracle for her began slowly through the care of fellow patients, people who were wrestling to piece together their own brokenness.

We all experience brokenness, whether it has a medical name or not. We all know where  God would like to us be, but would admit we often fall far short.  We are distracted by a legion of distractions that tramp through our heads - tramp tramp tramp  - but the God of Isaiah says here I am, here I am HERE I AM.  And even in the eyes of our father in heaven, the shrivelled, wrinkled, sun dried, slightly mouldy bunch of grapes has the potential to produce the juice that makes the wine of Joy.  No one is regarded as being useless in God’s eyes.  He just keeps calling; “Here I am.”
For the times of the early church, many people from many backgrounds found freedom in following Jesus; it was revolutionary, it made the very social constraints that regulated Roman Greek and Jewish society unnecessary. Slaves free in Jesus to relate to owners as brothers and sisters, slave owners free to relate to slaves as brothers and sisters in Jesus, women free to be recognized as equal to men in Jesus, men free to relate to subservient women as equals in Jesus.  And over the centuries the church has grappled with what this means, from the monastic orders to the Reformers to Wilberforce, to the founders of the Salvation Army and the Church Army to the liberation theologians of South America.  To those who championed the ordination of women to the Priesthood. To today’s prophets who question why there are so many homeless on our streets, why knife crime is someone else’s problem and we choose to ignore it, why the foreigner in our midst is treated so poorly, why the poor have to queue at food banks to feed their children, and why the mentally ill are struggling to find care.  The excuses as to why this is happening from those who hold the purse strings are legion. But the God who cries “Here I am” doesn’t have social outcasts living amongst the dead, they too have a place at the teacher’s feet; all are equal to the God who cries “Here I am.”  Come to me, bring others with you, bring them through your acts of caring, your words of encouragement, your generosity sharing the gifts God gives. 

And if you feel a bit too broken yourself to be able to do anything, then Sylvia Sands puts it so well:

Who is to say that an echoing miracle was not begun in my mind,
(But slowly)
By that small regiment of unlikely,
Oh so young, self-scarred angels
In the locked ward?
After all
Here I am sitting, calmly, writing poetry once more.


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