Sermon delivered October 26, 2008
A young child came to her mother complaining that her stomach hurt. "Oh, honey, your stomach is probably empty," the mother responded. "You just need to get something in it and you'll be fine." About a week later, the pastor was speaking with the girl and her mother and he happened to mention that he had a headache. "Oh, pastor, my mommy says that your head is probably empty," the girl responded. "You just need to get something in it and you'll be fine."
My guess for most of us is that our headaches are not because of empty-headedness. Rather, our minds are probably awash with a myriad of thoughts. Our busy lives in this busy world are filled with to-do lists and problems to solve. Sometimes, we may feel overwhelmed by them and cannot even imagine where to begin. At other times our brain is so full it is difficult to concentrate on anything.
In today's gospel (6th Sun. Luke 8:26-39) Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and meets a man who had demons for a long time (vv.26-27). Jesus asks him, "What is your name?" He responds, "Legion," because many demons had entered him (v.30). I would assert that when our mind is filled with thoughts to the point where we feel overwhelmed and have difficulty concentrating, we are under assault from a legion of demons. If we are not careful they will make their home within us. Each one of us can understand that it is not only to-do lists that fill our heart and mind but also thoughts of every other sort. Some are good like recollections of happy moments and thankfulness for good things bestowed on us. Some are not so good like thoughts of jealousy, anger, bitterness, revenge and lust. Pile these on top of the to-do lists and it gets even more crowded and crazy up here in our brain.
Each thought is like adding ten pounds to a backpack while hiking up a steep mountain. However, we need to lighten our load, not add to it, in order to travel well all of life's roads and mountains. Every situation of each day requires discernment. Discernment is defined as critical thinking considering all the outcomes of different choices within a particular context and then making the decision that brings about the greater good according to God's will. Discernment requires clear-thinking and that's not easy when our mind is cluttered up with a legion of thoughts.
In several gospel passages, we see that Jesus knows the thoughts in the mind and stirrings in the heart of the people around Him. This speaks to His miraculous divine abilities but it also demonstrates that we should know our own thoughts, that we should have a self-awareness about what is going on inside of us. This is impossible if we are letting the legion of thoughts and demons run wild within. Interestingly, one characteristic we see in some saintly, holy people, is clairvoyance or the ability to discern the thoughts of other people.
So, how do we guard against the assault of the demonic legion? And if they have already broken through the walls and occupy the city of our heart and mind, how do we expel them?
First, we must slow down. The engine of our car cannot run at high speed forever and neither can we. We must regularly take breaks to rest the engine of our mind. For those of us in middle age and beyond, we know the engine does not run as well as it used to anyways.
Second, resting the engine is not enough by itself. We must keep the engine clean also. Almost every automobile has a fuel filter that keeps impurities out of the engine. We must use a thought filter to keep impurities out of our mind. We may not realize it but with every thought, whether generating from within us or coming from the outside) that enters our mind we have a choice: to accept it or to not accept it. We have a choice to dwell on what is right, good and true. We also have a choice to not think about what is imperfect, wrong and bad in our life, other people or the world around us.
Thirdly, we may find ourselves daydreaming, fantasizing and obsessing about these negative, sinful realities. By this I mean catching myself after an unknown period of time has passed without an awareness of what happened during that time. This is a sign that the legion is already within us. Then, we must act immediately and decisively to call upon Christ to exorcise us, to cast the legion of demonic thoughts out of us because He is the only one who has the power to do so. In Mt.17:21 Jesus remarked to the disciples that certain demons only can be expelled by fasting and prayer. Fasting and prayer are the main tools we use to unite us with Christ our God, so that His Holy Spirit can work within us, can work on us, in order to expel our own legion of thoughts and demons.
If any of us has doubts about the destructive power of demonic thoughts, we need to look just a few verses later in today's gospel passage. After Jesus expels the legion of demons, He permits them to enter a herd of swine. The demons then cause the pigs to run violently down into the lake and drown (vv.32-33). Every violent word or deed that we commit, started with a violent thought. There is no shortcut between a demon and our mouth or a demon and our hand. It's not like the movies, the demons have to enter and go through our mind and heart first before they can speak through our tongue and raise our fist.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.