Is madness born of evil? Or, put another way, is evil a mental health problem? I use overly simplistic rhetorical questions because the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, claimed that the murder of 19 innocent children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas resulted from ignored mental health problems. – MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM! Mr. Abbott may have been trying to speak words of comfort to the gun culture in Texas.
Still, I believe that there is nothing anyone can say or do that will make what happened acceptably understandable or even tolerable for the vast majority. We are like Rachel written in the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
Is madness born of evil?
In most of the first-century world, many disorders and what we would call mental illnesses were believed to be caused by demonic possession or evil spirits. Even something as benign as divination is in our reading from Acts of the Apostles this morning. Paul and Silas’s curious tale in Philippi involves an enslaved young woman “who had a spirit of divination that brought her owners a great deal of money by fortunetelling. She keeps announcing to all who will listen that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
After a while, this annoys Paul, even though this is precisely what they are in Philippi to do! Perhaps Paul feels he does not need the services of a public relations campaign. (1)Or this woman was an ever-present reminder of the very injustice she was undergoing. Enslaved people were supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive, like sentient furniture, living bodies that could anticipate and do your will without your having to engage them as human beings. This woman trapped in slavery would not be silent. And when oppressed people refuse to be(2) quiet, people with the power to do something about that oppression, who don’t want to deal with it, get very annoyed.
At any rate, he performs an exorcism that silences the young woman and frees her from demonic possession. Her owners realize they will lose a sure source of income and have Paul and Silas imprisoned. Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.(3) She is restored to wholeness, free to live a life of freedom from slavery to the demon, and all anyone cares about is money. With stories like this in the New Testament canon, one wonders how it is that Christian charlatans throughout the ages justify taking money for performing exorcisms under revival tents or on television. (Just saying).
Interestingly, Paul did not talk to the young woman but directly to the Spirit or demon possessing her. He tells it to be gone, and it obeys.
Paul and Silas are thrown into prison after a flogging, not because they cost the owners of the young woman their ill-begotten income but because they were injecting Jewish beliefs into the Roman system. Similar to accusations against Jesus. Paul and Silas have succeeded in unleashing the liberating power of the gospel, but the result is that they have exchanged their freedom for the freedom of the slave girl. And that’s another truth we don’t like to grapple with. If and when we finally listen to the Spirit enough to get serious about participating in the liberation of oppressed people in our communities, there is often a cost(4).
Paul and Silas are in prison in chains singing God’s praises until midnight when an earthquake splits the prison, removes their shackles, and liberates them.
Here we see that God’s redemption and liberation are not just for the prisoners, but the invitation extends even to the jailer. The jailer’s place in society is complicated, for he carries out the coercive violence of the state against the prisoners. Still, he is also subject to the state’s violence, as seen in his hopelessness when he thinks the prisoners have escaped. On the one hand, he is the oppressor, and yet, on the other hand, he is caught up in a more extensive system of oppression. And this reflects the reality of the world around us. While it would be easier to cast every person as a villain or hero, the world is more complex than this binary view. We see here that God’s unity is not a top-down compulsion but emerges wherever it will. Though this passage starts with the liberation of the oppressed slave girl and then the prisoners, even those who stand in for power, oppression, and coercion are included in the invitation of God’s love(5).
As Jesus prayed in what we call his high priestly prayer in today’s gospel, His unity is unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit in one God. We are included in that unity and that we all may be one as we pray. These passages from the lectionary, and the broader Scriptural context, are clear that God’s unity is grounded in love and liberation.
The unity that Jesus prayed for in the church as we understand it, the mystical body of Christ, has never truly existed on earth. Peter and Paul had differences, and most of Paul’s epistles deal with differences and strife between churches. But still, we strive and pray for it. This is ecumenism. But in some evangelical branches of the American church. If you will, there is a strain to form a national church, a theocracy. This is splitting many evangelical churches. I gasped when I saw an advertisement for veteran-made wall crosses painted with an American flag.
Do we ever stop to consider just how disappointed Jesus must be? We see his last act of devotion is directed to us so that we might be one, united with him, in him, with Jesus and the Father, as one people, one body, through one baptism. And here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, at a time in history when our reckless misuse of God’s creation is eliminating one species of creature daily while at the same time we further splinter the body of Christ into more and more denominations and groups.
How do we conspire to contribute to the body of evidence that prayer is utterly ineffective by spending so much time, energy, and resources – yes, money – asserting that our tiny little corner of Christianity is the “true church”? People must say, “Why can’t these Christians spend more time trying to live into their Lord’s prayer for unity with one another, themselves, and with God?” To borrow from Joe Hickerson and Peter Seeger, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?”
In today’s reading from the Revelation to John, the last book in the Bible, the final words of Holy Scripture are “Come, Lord Jesus!” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift come. Come, Lord Jesus!
Come, Lord Jesus, and help us heal our nations madness – Amen.
(1) An In-Between Place, Easter 7 (C) - 2013 – The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/an-in-between-place-easter-7-c-2013/
(2) Liberated, Easter 7 (C) - 2019 – The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/liberated-easter-7-c-2019/
(3) An In-Between Place, Easter 7 (C) - 2013 – The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/an-in-between-place-easter-7-c-2013/
(4) Liberated, Easter 7 (C) - 2019 – The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/liberated-easter-7-c-2019/
(5) Easter 7 (C) [RCL] Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17 .... https://www.episcopalchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2022/05/Sermon-Easter-7-English.pdf