Our family dog Plato was with us for eleven years. He came to us as a puppy and died an old man just before I was ordained a bishop.
Like most Golden Retrievers, Plato never met a stranger. He liked everybody who crossed his path and assumed that if you had a pulse you wanted to pet him. By turns goofy and intelligent, he endeared himself to each of us by just being himself.
Plato on a snow day
That’s the thing about dogs. They are just themselves. All the time. Dogs don’t put on airs to impress people or smile warmly with venom in their hearts. Dogs never struggle to be honest for fear of what others might think or pretend to be happy when they’re crying inside. Dogs are who they are.
We human beings, by contrast, have a different lot in life. Being ourselves is life’s chief spiritual challenge. We can inhabit our true selves and we can be inhabited by false selves. Jesus has come to nurture us into our true selves and to liberate us from the false selves who have taken up residence in our souls.
I say all of this by way of providing context for the story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus exorcising an unclean spirit.
Now the Enlightenment part of my mind—shaped by the rigors of natural scientific methods—just doesn’t buy the idea of demon possession and exorcism.
But a variety of influences shape my thinking.
Postmodern writers have helped me appreciate how the imagination knows things that science can’t. Christian mystics from centuries past have relayed to us inexplicable, unrepeatable encounters with the Holy. And I have to admit that reading their reports has given credence to a few my own uncanny experiences.
So as to whether or not Jesus actually exorcised an unclean spirit or Mark’s story is an interpretation from his historical perspective of an event that we would classify differently today, I’m open to suggestions.
But this is what I am clear about. Jesus liberated and restored somebody that day. He liberated a man from a false self that had come to utterly dominate him. And he started this same man on the road to becoming his true self.
I’m throwing around these phrases “false self” and “true self” like we all know what I’m talking about. Each term is just theological shorthand. To be clear I need to spell out what I mean by them.
Let’s start with “true self” and dispel one possible misunderstanding right away.
When I say “true self” I am not referring to your desires or how you happen to feel at any particular moment. On the contrary, we sometimes betray ourselves precisely by acting on some passion or by taking our lead from certain emotions.
For instance, anger can make us lash out when forgiveness would be the path to our true self. We might flee in fear or revulsion when being our true self means offering a calm and compassionate presence.
Our true self is not some deep thing that we already are, just lying there in the inner chambers of the soul waiting to be discovered. We are in the process of choosing our true selves. That is why a false self can inhabit us. Being ourselves involves our choices. And we can choose both wisely and foolishly.
And yet, the true self is not simply a product of our choices. Postmodern thinking sometimes claims that the self is whatever we make it to be and that it’s value is whatever we say it is. We do what we do and then we assert—godlike—that it is good simply because we did it.
Being self-made is, in fact, the very essence of the false self. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll explain the false self in a moment. For now, let’s wrap up what what we mean by the true self.
We are made in the image of God. This is not to say that we are a little replica of God. Instead, God has made us to be especially habitable by him and to extend his love through us to everyone we meet.
To put that a slightly different way, God made us not to obey the Summary of the Law but to embody the Summary of the Love. To be the love of God by loving all comers as if our very life depended on it.
Being the true self means again and again to surrender all artificial boundaries and barriers that make me better than, against, or contemptuous of anyone else.
God’s love, you see, respects none of the barriers and boundaries that we have erected between each other. And we know that we have embodied God’s love when it flows through us to someone who is genuinely an Other.
The Other is the one we initially don’t want moving into our neighborhood, joining us at our lunch table, or sitting in our pew.
For you the Other may be black or white, Muslim or Jew, rich or poor, jock or nerd, gay or straight, liberal or conservative, a Presbyterian or an Alabama fan. The Other is a stretch, a spiritual and emotional stretch for us. And that’s what the true self does. It stretches with God’s love beyond artificial boundaries for greater and greater inclusion.
And now I’ll say a brief word about the false self.
The false self is always something self-made. It can be our career, our academic standing, or our social status. The false self locates itself as higher or lower than others through achievements and connections and possessions.
For religious people, the false self builds itself with moral achievements, theological correctness, and scrupulous adherence to spiritual practices.
Whether our achievements are secular or religious does not matter. When we rely upon them for our identity, we are inhabited by a false self.
The false self forges its identity through exclusion. Whenever you keep another person at a distance, think of someone as not one of us, or sense yourself looking down from a moral height, you’re being possessed by a false self.
God wants us to be ourselves. Our true selves. As it turns out, we are our true selves only when we rely utterly on God and think about the welfare of others as the key to our very own well-being. None of us gets there in a straight line. Neither can we get there on our own.
Our slips and struggles and false starts at being ourselves are just the normal stuff of being human. God did not make us into a finished product. God made us so that he could help us become ourselves. And he delights in doing it.
Dogs never need an exorcist. But in a manner of speaking, we rely upon one every day.
This sermon was preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minden, Louisiana.