Whitworth University 2009 Graduate Commencement Address
May 16, 2009
Casting Out the Demons
(based on Mark 5:1-20)
I love Bible stories. They're interesting, they're funny, they're inspirational, they're great. You don't have to be religious to get something out of a Bible story. That said, you might be wondering why I chose this Bible story for today's commencement address. Probably those of you who are teachers think you know exactly why I chose this passage. You're thinking, "That caveman reminds me of one of my students. Maybe the little maniac is demon-possessed. Maybe. But that's not why I chose this story. Actually, my message to you graduates today is about your demons, and about one demon in particular that could destroy the confidence you should be feeling right now.
Most 21st-century demons are not the poltergeist type. Usually, we refer to "demons" when we're talking about those "uncontrollable" impulses we all seem to have. Sometimes I say to myself, "Don't be stupid, Bill. Don't say that, don't say that; …I can't believe I said that." And almost any verb can qualify as a demon: Don't buy that. Don't eat that. Don't think that. Don't do that. And then the demon gets us and we do it. Yeah, that's what happens. It's the demon's fault.
Most of us battle these everyday demons, but we seem to be spared from the satanic type we read about in the Bible. Although I'm pretty sure I did get sideswiped by a Bible demon in 1976. At the time, I was a student minister at the 200-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. My office was tucked in the back of our magnificent sanctuary. It was a serene little cubicle, except for the one Friday each month when faith-healer Kathryn Kuhlman held her healing services in our sanctuary. On those Fridays, a colony of afflicted people would settle into the pews not 15 steps from where I was trying to work. For the most part, the whole deal didn't bother me too much...that is until the Friday when suddenly I got a headache of supernatural proportions. The only thing I could figure is that Ms. Kuhlman cast out a direct descendent of one of those "legion" demons who needed a pig to invade. So the demon must have mistaken my skull for a pig, or maybe he just thought he would have a little fun by tunneling through my brains on the way out of church.
Wouldn't it be nice if our demons just smashed us and then left? Wouldn't it be nice if the anger demon stayed for one epic bout and left? Wouldn't it be nice if the depression demon told us one time we're big losers and left? Wouldn't it be nice if our consumption demons stayed for one binge and then left? Yeah, that would be nice, but that isn't how it works, is it? Instead, the demons lie in wait, looking for a home. They disguise themselves. They never knock. They just let themselves in when we leave the door unlocked. Sometimes we even invite the demons in…when things really get hard. We have an excuse. We let the demons comfort us or distract us from the moment. But in the long run, they will bind us. We think we'll just ask them to leave when things get better. But they don't like to leave. And so we try to bind them. But they break the chains. They win the binding contest. We never should have let them in.
The stress of today's world has thrown open the door to a legion of demons. And the 2009 demon that seems most difficult to keep out is fear. You graduate today. But into what? There are so many unknowns out there. There aren't very many safe places in this world economy. Even if we dodge the most direct hits, people we love are getting hurt. I prayed for you graduates this morning. I prayed you will get jobs and keep jobs. It's hard not to worry about that. Our youngest child is also receiving her master's degree today, in St. Louis. She doesn't have a job. It's hard not to worry about that. It's hard to lock out the fears.
I've chosen today's topic because a master's degree will do you little good if you don't master your fears. You would not be here today if you didn't have the ability to succeed. This whole event is a celebration of your success. You have every right to be confident. But you must expel your fear demons. Today's Bible story gives us a couple directions for casting them out.
First, you need a higher power to battle demons. The 12-step program is famous for helping deliver people from the demon of addiction. Step 1 is admitting you're out of control, and Step 2 is recognizing your need for a higher power. The demon-possessed man in our story knew he was out of control, so if he could have exorcised his demons by himself, he would have. He lived in a cave near a herd of pigs. How's that for a swine flu threat? He was imprisoned by his rage. Who would choose that life? This man needed a power greater than his demons to help deliver him. And he got it. As soon as Jesus arrived, the demons knew they were outmatched, "Son of the most high God, please don't torture us!" The bullies were now groveling.
At this point, don't you wonder why Jesus didn't just tell the demons to go back to hell? Why did he even talk to them? Isn't it kind of like negotiating with terrorists when he granted their request for relocation? Was he just being kind to the demons? If that were the case, what about the poor pigs? What would PETA say about that? Jesus just calmly responded to the demons' request, "Okay… just go." I think the point of this brief exchange isn't about Jesus or the pigs. The point is that the presence of great goodness leaves little room for demons. The apostle Paul says it this way: "Overcome evil with good." You can't just expel your demons. You need a replacement strategy. You need the presence and power of goodness. Draw close to what is good and virtuous and positive. Surround yourself with life-giving influences. At Whitworth, we believe that the greatest presence and power of goodness is exactly the one that delivered this man. It is God revealed in Jesus Christ. If you share that belief, I hope you will do exactly what this wild man did. Throw yourself at the feet of Christ. The apostle John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. The power of Christ's love is strong enough to cast out your fears. If you follow Christ, he is your best exorcist.
Second, be warned that not everyone will be happy to see you conquer your fears. To me, the strangest part of this whole Bible story is the townspeople's reaction to the exorcism. Evidently, when this demon-possessed lunatic was out ranting and raving, the people were not scared. But when they found this guy sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, they were scared. What's scary about that? When I took care of our children, my goal was to have them sitting down, clothed and in their right minds. But it wasn't really the man who scared the townspeople; they were afraid of whatever was stronger than demons. Strength scares people. Our culture feeds on weakness and exploits fear. If you don't believe me, turn on talk radio. When your fear demon is replaced by strength, confidence and optimism, you can't be manipulated. You are no longer defined by your insecurities. Your strength might make people nervous. If you have townspeople in your life who start to get afraid when you stop being afraid, get away from them.
Three days ago, some of you found out you'd lost your jobs. Some of the rest of you might not be far behind. Is it legitimate for you to be nervous and a little afraid? Of course it is. Some fears are natural. In fact, fears are healthy when you use them. But fears are unhealthy when they use you. The question becomes, Who is the master – you or your fears? You are master when your fears mobilize you. Your fears become master when they paralyze you. We could almost think of fear as a pharmaceutical in which the dosage is critical, and an overdose becomes deadly. Martin Luther King, Jr., had to treat fears with delicacy and control – both his fears and those of the people he led. He said, "Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve; abnormal fear poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear, but rather to harness and master it."
If fear is starting to get the upper hand in your life, I have a two-step program for you – which is 10 steps shorter than the 12-step program – but it's really only eight steps shorter because I'm assuming you followed my two suggestions above. Capice? If not, this address will be posted on my website by Tuesday.
Step 1: Remember the story where Jesus walked on the water? It's night, the weather is terrible, and the disciples are in a boat battling a fierce headwind. All of sudden, they see this shadowy figure out on the water. They think it's a ghost. But it's Jesus, and he says, "Take courage. It is I. Don't be afraid." Peter says, "If it's really you, Lord, have me walk out on the water." So Jesus tells him to come ahead.
Now, props to Peter for having the courage to step out of the boat. And he does fine, but then the Bible says he became aware of the storm, and he was overcome by fear, and he began to sink, and he cried out for Jesus to save him. Now, Peter was a commercial fisherman in pre-lifejacket days. You cannot tell me he couldn't swim or at least dogpaddle his way back to the boat. But he was paralyzed by his fear. So here is Step 1: When you start to feel fearful about what you CAN lose, focus on what you CANNOT lose. You cannot lose your education, so keep learning. You cannot lose your experience, so keep gaining it. You cannot lose the acts of service and compassion that you have committed, so keep serving those less fortunate than you. And if you are a Christian, keep your focus on Jesus. You cannot lose his love and protection. Peter could lose his miraculous buoyancy, but he could not lose his Lord. It is only when Peter looked away from his savior that he began to sink.
Step 2: This step is a great fear-buster. And it's a step you can take today. After Jesus delivers the caveman from his demons, he gives him a maintenance program. As Jesus is boarding the boat to leave, the man begs Jesus to let him go along. But Jesus says, "No, go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you. That's Step 2. Gather with the people you love and tell them how blessed you are. Show them your gratitude. Let your thankfulness and joy leave no room for the paralyzing demons of fear. Today is a day of rejoicing in all that you have accomplished. Don't be afraid. Great days lie before you. And may the peace of Christ chase away any fear that holds you back. God bless you.