Sermon preached on 29 January 2012

Here’s Sunday’s sermon. Quite a tricky gospel reading all about casting out a demon.

I do like being in a congregation where you can speak from the pulpit about exorcising the demons of the Bible and commanding them to be quiet, as Jesus did with demons. In some places, if you preached a sermon like this one, the Jenny Geddes’s of this world would be sharpening up their stools.

I did enjoy preaching this one. I did keep them hanging on to the end for a laugh, but it was worth waiting for.

Fifteen or so years ago, I was in training to become a priest. Now, there was much that was poor about my training and much that I disliked. It was one of the least creative times in my life and quite certainly, I think, the most unhappy period of time I’ve ever known.

However, sometimes I have to remind myself that there were some good things that happened to me during that time. There were new experiences that I had. There were new things that I learned. The fact that it was largely despite rather than because of those attempting to form me as a priest is something that I’ll probably never let go of. However, even then, some things that they asked me to do were good.

The best of these for me were always the pastoral placements. Off you went to this church or that church, to this priest or that priest to gain experience of being with God’s people.

I loved it. Whenever I was out of the training institution and out on placement I thrived. I loved being with people and then as now, people in all their diversity fascinated. Their endlessly diverse experiences of God were compelling and that diversity in the way that people experience the divine remains one of the key things that keeps me beguiled by the holy and held in the hand of God myself.

I want to remember my second placement this morning. I had successfully completed a congregational placement. Now it was time to be sent to something different.

They thought about sending me to a prison. But that didn’t work out. Then it was going to be a hospice, but they didn’t have vacancies for students then. So, almost by default, my placement was found for me. I was sent to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – the local psychiatric hospital.

And this morning, I want to reflect a little on some of the things that I’ve learned since then about mental health, mental illness and mental wellbeing, in the light of the gospel that we have just read together.

You see, I find the gospel that we’ve just heard really quite difficult to read aloud in church.

It comes right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel and it presumes a world in which, most of the time, I don’t think I inhabit. The presumption that Mark makes is that everyone reading his words will quite uncritically accept that there was this man who was possessed of a demon and that Jesus had a verbal tussle with the demon who eventually left the man. And then all was well. And Jesus became famous not for being Godly, not for being kind, not for feeding the hungry or preaching wise words (as Matthew puts near the beginning of his gospel). No – Jesus becomes famous, Mark implies, for being the person who could deal with demons.

Now, I rationalise this kind of language. You’ve heard me do it often no doubt. I believe that we have to think about the demons that are in us collectively in society – racism, bigotry, homophobia and all the presumptions that make us think us more worthy of grace, favour or love than someone else are all demons that rightly need to be exorcised.

And I don’t find it difficult to read these stories as a parable of what needs to be cast out of the church or a blueprint for what needs to be exorcised from society.

But that is perhaps to give into the temptation to avoid looking at the more difficult questions that this gospel reading raises.

How is to be read along with those for whom it seems very real. For whom it seems as though they are possessed by something malevolent that will not let them go?

I have no simple answer. Indeed, I have more questions than answers sometimes.

I remember the person who said to me from a wheelchair that the bible is not always a good book for disabled people to read.

There are presumptions in it that are not healthy – that physical or mental disability is caused by sin to start with, that mental disturbance is all about unclean spirits to be going on with and that in a spiritual battle between good and evil there is a risk of evil winning.

I’ve come to the conclusion that those presumptions are some of the demons that lurk in the pages of the bible.

Those things after all, are not true.

And we won’t be safe and whole as a diverse people of God until and unless we name those demons and demand, like Jesus that they are silenced.

But there I go reading the gospel as though it is an allegory again.

What about the folk I met when I was on placement in Edinburgh those years ago.

What did they teach me about wellbeing and health?

Well, they taught me that sometimes people need medical intervention. They taught me that sometimes people need a place of safety. They taught me that very many people in life get to stages where they cannot cope with who they are and how they perceive the world. And they taught me that modern medicine has things to offer. Modern counselling has things to offer and modern drug therapies have things to offer.

They also taught me one of the few lessons about priesthood that has stayed with me through my ministry which is that one of the key tasks of the priest. It is to be able to go to places where one might normally be frightened and in the name of God put aside that fear for the task of saying to people “You are already loved”.

When I am with people at times of grief, I know it is my task to say “you are already loved.” When I am with people who are struggling with who they are or where they find themselves, I know it is my task to communicate somehow or another the words, “you are already loved”. When I am with people who feel rejected, or hated, or lonely, or sad, or bewildered, or confused, or angry, or misunderstood, that is what I have to offer.

“You are already loved”.

When I was on that placement in Edinburgh all those years ago, I was put into a group with a bunch of people who were finding it hard to hold on to the same sense of reality that most people have. Their perceptions were odd. Disordered some would say.

We’ve learned to be wary of labelling people as mad. Or at least I hope we have.

But one young man in that group used to call what was up with him craziness. It’s just my craziness, he would say. Whatever way he was seeing the world – and some of the ways he saw the world were quite unique to him – it’s just my craziness, he would say.

After 12 weeks working with the chaplaincy in that hospital, I had to say goodbye to the group.

Why are you leaving us, he asked?

I told him I was wanting to be a priest and tried to tell him why I had been there. I tried to communicate that reality – that he and they all were already loved.

He said, What? I heard you talk about wanting to be a priest weeks ago but took no notice. I thought that was what was wrong with you. So you are actually going to be a priest? I thought that was just your craziness speaking.

It still is.


  1. Elizabeth says

    Thank you for sharing this sermon. Or more importantly sharing your experiences. Very helpful.

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