The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Not every possession looks good on a movie screen. Not that folks are watching The Exorcist for the beautiful scenery or lovely depictions of childlike innocence but I think you get my point. The horror industry understandably tends to emphasize the more dramatic face of possession – preferably a face with glowing red eyes that is set on a swivel. In the movies possession looks like supernatural demonic beings inhabiting and controlling everything from humans to dolls to television sets – disembodied gremlins making mischief in the natural world.
While the depictions are often over-the-top, not what one would expect to see in their own poorly lit bedroom, they do, I think, tap into a very common anxiety – and not just common but also utterly realistic. Probably why there are so many movies and television shows featuring possession is that it is a truly terrifying thought – one that feels a bit too possible, maybe even familiar. It taps into our fears of being out of control, of being controlled by a force beyond one's self. And, perhaps more terrifying, it plays on our fears that our loved ones might become possessed, overcome by corrupting forces to the point of being unrecognizable, taken from us by something sinister and destructive.
If i's your thing, a good old fashioned demon possession, can make for a fine horror movie plot – a titillating distraction from the much more terrifying things we might see on the news. But don't be deceived, evil is not limited to the silver screen. And possession does not happen only in the movies.
For a number of weeks now, during our Sunday liturgies, we have been reading through Paul's letter to the Romans. And for the next three weeks Fr. Brendan and I will preach through Romans chapter eight – a beautiful testament to the unshakable presence and impossible love of God demonstrated in Christ that is at the heart of the Christian faith. Many of Paul's letters are pastoral responses to individual Christian communities. Romans is, however, unique in that rather than simply address an immediate issue, here Paul has greater license to explore and expound on the good news of God's salvation, the universal implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This eighth chapter of Romans, from which you heard this morning, captures the heart of Paul's Gospel proclamation – beginning today with “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And ending with the bold Christian declaration that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – an amazing climax to an amazing chapter of the Bible. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. No spoilers, I promise.
In fact, to understand today's reading, we need to go back to something we heard last week. At the end of chapter seven, Paul writes: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” And then today, we read: “You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Not only does possession exist beyond the movie screen, according to Paul, possession is inevitable.
Each and every person you encounter, each and every person you pass on the street, greet in a store, meet in a line, is possessed – possessed by something. Usually not in a way that could drive the plot of a horror movie, but in ways and by forces much more mundane, much more common than that.
Possession does not generally make one's eyes glow red or head spin. But there are forces in this world and they are coming for you and they want your soul; they want inside. As Bob Dylan would say, “You're gonna have to serve somebody.”
We acknowledge this in our baptismal liturgy. When we renounce the forces of sin and submit our lives to Christ we are making a decision that our hearts belong to Jesus. We are choosing a tenant. We're letting the Holy Spirit in and evicting the forces of evil.
In that moment we both tell the truth about the state world in which we live and make a bold, defiant promise to live in this world as Holy Spirit possessed children of God, liberated from cold grip of sin and death.
In our liturgy, we acknowledge that this world is teeming with evil powers, powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, evil powers always inching closer, desperate for a host. We acknowledge in the liturgy what we already know. You have seen these evil powers at work first hand – heroin, alcohol addiction, greed, pride, vanity. And sadly, you have probably seen the results of their work played out in your life or in the lives of those you love, in the lives of those you pass on street corners. The demons that possess the children of God do not look like cartoon devils; they look like needles and pills and empty bottles and broken dreams. And they come to steal, kill, and destroy.
We acknowledge in our baptismal liturgy that this planet is being suffocated by all the spiritual forces of wickedness, forces that oppose God's love in this world, forces looking to seep into broken hearts and broken lives. You have probably struggled with these forces in your own life and in your own relationships – racism, and sexism, and violence, and hatred, and prejudices that breed fear and separation, that prey on love and kindness. The demons of this world do not sit on shoulders; they infect hearts and minds and souls.
We acknowledge in our baptismal liturgy that the garden in which we live is ripe with temptations eager to draw us from the love of God. Feeding on the hungry. And they are marketed incessantly – promising fulfillment that always proves hollow. They are desires misplaced that lead to disappointment and despair. The demons in our world aren't hosting a dance party; those lured away from love by their fleeting desires end up restless and alone.
Life and death are set before us. There is no choice but to choose. Something will stake a claim. We will serve something. Something will possess us. We will drown in the water or we will find our salvation there.
This reality is captured well in Carol Bieleck's poem, “Breathing Under Water”
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
- and I still don't know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought, the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being neighbors
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance, neighbors
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.1
We are built for possession and the evil powers of this world know that too well. We long to have something fill us to fulfillment. We are creatures of restless hearts, more than a little desperate. Richard Rohr says, “Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and honest description for what the biblical tradition called 'sin,' and medieval Christians called 'passions' or 'attachments.'”2
And we are powerless to change that. Something will pull us out of bed in the morning, influence our decisions, control our bank account, and dominate our thoughts and dreams. Something will shape your worldview and help forge your identity. Something will claim you. Something will get inside and possess you – in Paul's words, that will either be sin or Holy Spirit.
The water in which we swim is dark and dangerous. It wants to fill you full until you forget to breathe. The hopelessness and despair and brokenness and pain in which we swim is suffocating. And God's not going to pull us out. This is the world in which we live. And all around us folks are drowning. And so God needs us here. We have been given to this sea. And so God teaches us to breathe underwater. God gives us breath in the abyss: Holy Spirit, our salvation. We're the lifeguards. Through us God breathes life into the dying and grants peace to those thrashing in the waves. Amidst the stormy sea you are a sign of life; you are a beacon of hope; you are the proof that salvation is real.
The Spirit of God dwells in you. The Holy Spirit lives in you. You are possessed, possessed by something holy. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you. Evil and death look scary; but Easter Sunday proved they don't stand a chance.
Yes, the forces of death threaten to overcome us. But your lungs are full of life. Yes, the power of evil moves over the face of the earth like a flood. But, don't be afraid: You can breathe underwater.
1Rohr, Breathing Under Water, xiii-xiv