Our Gospel passage today ends with Jesus empowering his disciples with authority over unclean spirits. He then sends them in groups of two to different villages and “they cast out many demons.”
I always have trouble with this language about unclean spirits and demons. For many of us, it feels like this archaic language from the ancient world and we moderns have progressed far beyond the ancient worldview of angels and demons.
And yet I have close relationships with people who say that the best words they know to describe what they are going through is with this language. “I’m struggling with my inner demons.” Some people mean this more literally than others, but there are times that I can relate to that phrase.
But what is an unclean spirit or a demonic spirit?
At this point in my life, the best way I know to answer that question is to contrast unclean spirits with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came to Jesus like a dove at his baptism. He heard a voice saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
That’s the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with you and says to you, “You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit says this to your neighbor and to the stranger and even to those we call our enemies.
On the other hand, the unclean spirits that the disciples were to cast out give a different message. They’re the voice that says you aren’t loved. That you aren’t successful enough or rich enough or pretty enough or young enough or old enough or kind enough or tough enough. They say you were born in the wrong country so you aren’t welcome here. They deliver the message that you don’t matter and that nobody cares about you.
Jesus knew these unclean spirits infected his culture, so he sent his disciples on a mission to heal people from them. But the mission wasn’t easy. In fact, Jesus warned that as the disciples went on their mission, many people would reject them and would refuse to hear the message. And when people refused to hear the message, Jesus advised the disciples to simply shake the dust off of their feet and move on. For there were a lot of unclean spirits in Jesus’ culture, and the disciples had work to do.
And my friends, unfortunately there are a lot of unclean spirits in our culture, too. I hear them all the time. It’s the message that black lives don’t matter. That immigrants from Latin America are all gang members. That Muslims are all terrorists. That poor people are just white trash. That rich people are greedy and callous.
These unclean spirits pit us against one another, leading to a spirit of hostility and indifference to the suffering of others. How do we work for a better world?
We follow Jesus. 2,000 years ago, Jesus sent his disciples on a mission, empowering them to cast out unclean spirits of hostility and indifference. And Jesus sends us on the same mission today, empowering us to cast out the same unclean spirits of hostility and indifference that infect our culture.
One way that you cast out unclean spirits is to name them. A recent unclean spirit that I’ve seen recently is named, “Womp, Womp.” It showed up a few weeks ago when Corey Lewandowski went on Fox News to support President Trump’s immigration policy in a debate. Lewandowski’s debate opponent brought up a story about a 10-year-old girl from Latin America with down syndrome who was separated from her mother at the border.
Lewandowski interrupted the man’s story by saying, “Womp Womp.” If you are unfamiliar with this phrase, it basically means, “I just don’t care.”
And last week at a “Families Belong Together March” in Huntsville, Alabama, the unclean spirit called Womp Womp appeared once again. An Episcopal priest named Kerry Holder-Joffrion, who is also a military chaplain, delivered a prayer that began the march in Huntsville. But a counter-protester came with the intent to disrupt the march.
As Rev. Joffrion began to pray, she said, “Holy and ever-loving God, we pray for the children of this nation and every nation…” the man interrupt her prayer with the unclean spirit by shouting, “Womp Womp!” and “Ice, Ice Baby.”
But the priest kept praying. She prayed above the unclean spirit of Womp Womp. Amidst the man chanting these demeaning and hostile words, she prayed to her Holy God, saying, “We ask that you give us the strength in the face of the opposition, not to hate, but to love. And we claim through this prayer that the uniting force of love is greater than the force of hatred. Prayer is stronger than hatred. It’s stronger than noise. It’s stronger than fear. It’s stronger than policy. It’s stronger than politics. It’s stronger than misogyny. It’s stronger than any one administration.”
In the face of an unclean and hostile spirit, Reverend Jeffrion didn’t stop to yell for someone to get that jerk and shut him up. She didn’t respond with hostility to hostility. No, instead she went beyond the unclean spirit of Womp Womp. She proclaimed that love is stronger. Prayer is stronger.
And this is the direction I want us to go. This is the direction I want my country to go.
Because there are a lot of unclean spirits out there. And this Episcopal priest shows the way to cast them out of our individual and national heart.
I don’t know about you, but I have a certain problem. When I’m confronted with an unclean spirit like “Womp Womp” my default is to respond with hatred. I tend to imitate the unclean spirit of Womp Womp back to the people I think are consumed by Womp Womp. And in the process, I get consumed by Womp Womp.
But Jesus moved his disciples beyond Womp Womp. He told them to go into villages to preach the good news and heal people. But Jesus was rejected in his hometown and sometimes his disciples were rejected in the villages.
I’ve often wondered why people would reject the message of the Gospel. It moves us beyond the unclean spirits like Womp Womp, but many people would rather stay with the unclean spirit of Womp Womp than live into the Gospel.
Why would people reject the Gospel message? It’s the same reason that I often reject it. It’s because when we say Womp Womp to others, it gives us a sense of superiority over them. Whether we’re progressives or conservatives or anywhere on the political spectrum, an unclean spirit tempts us to put the other side down so that we can feel superior to them. Unclean spirits like Womp Womp create an us against them mentality and keeps us stuck in cycles of hostility, which distracts us from spreading the Gospel message of radical love and care for all people.
But as Rev Joffrion said, the Gospel message is the good news that love is stronger. It’s the good news that Womp Womp doesn’t win. Love wins. That’s the message of Jesus. You see, Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to avoid the unclean spirits. He told them to come face to face with them. And he empowered them, as he empowers us, to shine that love into the world as we work for justice.
The best way I could find to conclude was with Rev. Jeffrion’s prayer. As she came face to face with the unclean spirit, she prayed, “Holy and ever-loving God, we pray for the children of this nation and every nation. We ask that you give us the strength in the face of the opposition, not to hate, but to love. And we claim through this prayer that the uniting force of love is greater than the force of hatred. Prayer is stronger than hatred. It’s stronger than noise. It’s stronger than fear. It’s stronger than policy. It’s stronger than politics. It’s stronger than misogyny. It’s stronger than any one administration.”
My friends, Jesus is sending us on a mission. Each day we have the opportunity to be a vessel of God’s love in the world – to be channels of God’s grace and mercy in a world that desperately needs more grace and mercy. May we cast out the unclean spirits of hostility and indifference with the Gospel of love. For this is our mission. So may we trust the Gospel message that love is greater than any other force in the universe. Amen.