Proper 7C / Ordinary 12C / Pentecost +5
June 23, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15
Today’s Gospel reading – the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac – is one of my favorites. It has all the classic horror movie elements that appeal to SyFy Channel addicts like me – demonic possession, naked madmen in graveyards, and herds of swine plummeting to their deaths. I also identify with the Gerasene demoniac – I, too, have had a demon exorcised that had me living in dead places and acting like a madwoman for about 19 years.
Its name was alcohol. My name is Amy, and I’m an alcoholic.
The name of the demon in this story is Legion. A legion was the name for occupying army of 6,000 Roman soldiers. Anyone dealing with an addiction can tell you that addictions are many-headed beasts. One woman I know described early recovery as being like “putting an octopus to bed”. You think you have one tentacle in and three more pop out. You think you have one crazy alcoholic behavior under control and three more come at you. Battling Legion is not for the faint of heart.
When Legion sees Jesus, it knows the jig is up. It shouts at the top of its voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”. When our own demons encounter the light of the holy, they know the jig is up as well. This is not to say that there are no religious alcoholics, but their religion tends to be the kind that can be parked at church on Sunday and conveniently forgotten about in the vicinity of a bottle. At the bottom of my drinking, I avoided churches and anything remotely spiritual like vampires avoid sunlight.
Exorcism, however, is not about eradicating demons. The word “exorcism” comes from the Greek ek (“out”) and horkizo (“I cause to swear”). The exorcist brings the demon out of the possessed by binding it – either through an oath or through possession of power superior to the demon. Once the demon is bound, it can be compelled to act against its own interest. My own demons have been bound through adherence to a twelve-step program of recovery, which includes “turning our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood [God]”. Many people equate this with enslaving ourselves to a someone else, but ultimately, it is the demon that is bound – while I have been free to live a sane and sober life for over 16 years.
The demon Legion, nonetheless, causes chaos on its way out of the possessed man’s body. The demon enters into a herd of swine (at Jesus’ command), which then plunge into the sea to their deaths. The process of pulling the demon alcohol out of my body was a fairly chaotic one. My first year of recovery was sheer hell. I felt like my hair was on fire every waking minute of the day. The slightest noise would send me into irate, swearing fits. I was not pleasant to be around. There were probably many people who would have preferred that I remained in a quiet, drunken stupor.
Consequently, when the demon alcohol is exorcised, there are many people who will not be grateful for this favor. In the Gospel reading, when the villagers (whose swine have just drowned) see the formerly possessed man in his right mind, they respond by giving Jesus the kiss-off: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear” (Luke 8:37). Alcoholism doesn’t just make the drunk person crazy – it makes all the people around him or her crazy. The people who suffer from another person’s alcoholic behavior (known as al-anons) eventually find their own behavior warped by alcoholism. Covering for the alcoholic, rationalizing his/her behavior, and ensuring that there is always a steady supply around becomes second-nature. When alcohol is pulled out of the picture, and the alcoholic has to get used to a strange, new life sober, all those around him/her find themselves having to do the same thing. The result is not always gratitude. Sometimes the demon you know seems preferable to the one that you don’t.
The healed demoniac, on the other hand, wants to drop everything and go join Jesus as He leaves town. Jesus has an unusual response, though: “… but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’” (vv. 38-39). Newly-recovering alcoholics often want to go to the Mountaintop to dedicate themselves to a pure, spiritual life, throwing themselves into hours of meditation, service and AA meetings. When it comes to applying their sobriety in the regular, messy, day-to-day world of family and work, though, they often balk. It was a very difficult thing for me to learn that the world did not have to retro-fit itself around my recovery to guarantee that I stay sober. I had to learn that my sobriety was my own responsibility, and that I had an obligation to live life on life’s terms. Work would still be work, people around me would still continue to drink, and I would still have to stay sober.
So while the process of removing the drink demon is not for the faint of heart – and while it doesn’t always have a picture-perfect ending – the end is still infinitely better. My own recovery was a slow, painful slog through days that seemed to last 72 hours at a time. But the days racked up. Then the years racked up. Like the healed demoniac, I can say that my life today is 10,000 times better than it was on the best day when I was drinking. And for that, I am grateful.