This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel reading was Luke 8:26-39. The sermon was clearly inspired in part by the recent release of my book, Darkwater.
The stories in scripture are our stories of faith, stories that tell us about ourselves and about our relationship with God. And like any stories, some of us relate to certain ones more than others.
Perhaps you feel a connection with Simon Peter when he tried to walk on water, but began to sink. Or perhaps you have a kinship with Moses being called to do something he felt completely unequipped to do. Maybe one of the healing stories speaks to you.
For me, today’s gospel reading is one of those stories. I see myself in this story, particularly in the unnamed man in the story, the one who was possessed by demons.
This man has a voice in his head, a multitude of voices, in fact. These voices keep him from being who he is meant to be. They cause him to do things that are unhealthy and unhelpful for him. I relate to this man because I too have a voice like that.
Now my voice is not quite the same as his. The voice in my head does not drive me to live naked among the tombs. Yet my voice is also destructive and demonic. My voice tells me that I am unworthy. That I am unloved and unlovable. My voice tells me that I am worthless, that I am a mistake. That I continually do things that are insensitive, or cruel, or harmful. Whenever something goes wrong in my life, the voice whispers bitterly to me, “You deserve this, because you should have known better.”
Now, I don’t literally hear voices. I don’t hallucinate. I don’t get confused about whether this voice is another person or not. But I do get confused sometimes about whether this voice is really me or not.
And sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I listen to it. This voice is one of the ways that I experience depression. I don’t think of it as a demon, but in a way it might as well be, because it can be so cruel and unrelenting.
But there is good news, because I also relate to the healing that happens in this story. In the story, Jesus comes to the man, speaks to the voices in his head, and heals him. The Holy Spirit has indeed come to me, and has spoken to the voice in my head, and has healed me. Like the man in the story, I too have been healed by God. Many times.
There was the time when I was 17 and the dark voice in my head convinced me that the world would be better without me here. I made plans to do something about it. But at the last moment, just before I was going to do something very rash and very permanent, I saw a light in the distance, a light that told me, “No. Do not do this.” I am convinced that light was the Holy Spirit telling me to stop, and to live.
There was the time when I was 41 and the dark voice convinced me that this congregation, that the whole church in fact, would be better off without me as a pastor. I made plans to resign, to find a new career. But before I did anything rash, I experienced God telling me, “Wait. See if you can just take a few months away and come back.” And this congregation gave me that time, and in that time, I experienced God holding me and healing me and giving me a new chance to live and thrive.
These are only two examples. The dark voice within me tries to attack me and destroy me, but every time, God’s voice has been stronger, speaking to me through light and through people, and through other ways.
And so my experience is actually somewhat different from the man in the story. His healing seems to have been total, and accomplished in one moment. Jesus sent the demons out, and that was that. But my experience is different. My voice, my demon if you will, has never gone away, not for good. It’s always there. Whenever I’ve received healing, it has been real, but it’s never lasted forever. I always fall down again. I always hear the voice again. It’s still there, and I think it always will be.
But that’s okay. That’s okay, because I have received mercy. And I trust that I will continue to receive mercy.
Let me tell you about mercy. Mercy is what today’s gospel reading is all about. Jesus shows mercy to everyone he encounters here. The most obvious sign of mercy is to the man with the demons. Jesus shows him mercy by expelling the demons, healing him, giving him his life back.
Jesus also shows mercy to the demons themselves. They were so frightened of him. “Do not torment us,” they said. They begged him to send them into a herd of pigs instead of sending them back to the abyss. Jesus did so. He showed mercy, and allowed them to go to where they asked.
And Jesus showed mercy to the townspeople. When they arrived and saw Jesus and the man who no longer had the demons, they were also so frightened of him. Luke tells us they were seized with great fear, and they asked Jesus to leave them. And Jesus did. But before he left, he gave them a gift. He gave the man who no longer had the demons a task to tell his fellow townspeople all about what God had done for him. Jesus left, as they asked, but he showed them mercy by providing a messenger for them, a missionary, someone to tell them the good news.
I believe that God has given me the same task. To tell you how much mercy God has shown me. So I will do that right now.
God has shown me mercy by preventing me from ending my own life, more than once.
God has shown me mercy by giving me a loving family, parents and a sister and a spouse and children who love me and care for me.
God has shown me mercy by giving me a congregation who continues to care for me and support me, even through my struggles. A congregation who has not turned away from me because I am broken.
God has shown me mercy by giving me the ability to make a difference in the world, a positive difference. God’s had to hit me over the head a few times to make me admit that, but it’s true.
God has shown me mercy by giving my life a purpose.
God has shown me mercy by giving me the gift of writing, and by giving me the opportunity to publish a book about my experiences, which might help others.
God has shown me mercy by enabling me to live with my dark voice. Even if it is not gone forever, I can live. I can thrive. I can find hope and peace.
God has shown me mercy in so many ways, and like the man healed of his demons, I can tell others about that mercy. And so doing, the mercy and grace grows and spreads.
I believe that’s my job as a baptized Christian. I believe I’m called to share my story, a story of God’s mercy. I wonder if you might be called to do the same thing, perhaps in a different way.
How have you received mercy from God? And how can you share that with others?