“The Chemistry of Demons”

Mark 1:21-28 (NIV)
South Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship of Faith
January 28, 1018
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

 Mark 1:21-28 (NIV)

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.  The people were amazed at his teachings, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are– the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly.  “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this?  A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.  

This is the Word of the Lord.           Thanks be to God.


I want to talk today about mental illness – something we don’t talk about much in our country unless someone goes on a shooting spree. There has been a STIGMA attached to even ACKNOWLEDING it for … well … as long as I’ve been alive, and even beyond that.

Yet “every year, about 42.5 million American adults (or 18.2 percent of the total adult population in the United States) suffers from SOME mental illness, enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,”[i] according to a 2014 article in Newsweek magazine. 18.2%! That’s almost 1 in 5 people. So right here … if we number 40 in this room … we’re talking about 8 people. Not to mention those who may deal with it in our families.

Utah and West Virginia have the highest percentage, and  New Jersey, surprisingly, had the lowest rates. New York is right in the middle around 18%.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, only 50% of those afflicted with Mental Illness in this country receive any kind of treatment [for it].[ii] The number is even worse for teens and children. I mean – where ELSE would we see 50% as an acceptable rate when it comes to the health of our nation? Would we be content if only 50% of the children got shots?  Or if only 50% of people with CANCER were helped? How about if only 50% of heart patients ever saw a doctor?

It’s ludicrous!

Yet people hold themselves back from getting help because they don’t want others to find out … they’re embarrassed or they feel shame. Some are FRIGHTENED that they might lose their jobs or they worry that others will think less of them. Families don’t want others to know about one of their loved ones out of shame and as a result, their friends … their church … are not able to SUPPORT them through the hard times. The stigma of mental illness ISOLATES people.

And, sadly, those who are worried have a RIGHT to worry because often, sharing that information DOES make a person unsafe and vulnerable.

In 2014, a group of Universities (North Caroline State, Duke, University of California @ Davis, and others) did a study of 4,480 adults with mental illness and found that while SOCIETY might be worried about violence FROM people with mental illness, the fact is that mentally ill people, THEMSELVES, are more likely to be the VICTIMS, not the perpetrators, of violence.[iii]

In looking at mental illness and disorders, there are differences between something like epilepsy or Parkinson’s Disease which are NEUROLOGICAL .. brain STRUCTURE conditions … and things like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.

We USED to think that depression, anxiety, and other conditions were a  chemically-induced issue … an IMBALANCE in the brain’s CHEMISTRY.

NOW, we’re pretty much sure that that’s NOT the case. Well … it might co-exist sometimes, but there is something MORE going on than just that. I have to tell you that MY mind was blown (an apt way to put it, I might add) by an article I just read. It’s by the former Director of the National Institute for Mental Health, Dr. Thomas Insel. I’ll abridge it and translate it a little … but he is saying that, “Neuroimaging (like CT scans and PET scans, and MRI’s and stuff) is beginning to yield [indicators] that predict response to treatment … or possibly reflect changes [(in the brain structure)] BEFORE changes in behavior or mood [occur].

“[He talks about] studies with deep brain stimulation [and how they are] addressing DEPRESSION as a “brain arrhythmia.” [(You know we think of HEART arrhythmias when the rhythm is not predictable and steady. Well here, he’s talking about the rhythms of the BRAIN.)] Scientists are able to demonstrate “how changing the activity of specific circuits [in the brain can lead] to remission of [things like depression].

“An important implication of this new approach,” he says, “is that abnormal behavior may [come about because of] altered brain DEVELOPMENT. [And he uses the examples of]  Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases [where the SYMPTOMS of those conditions] emerge YEARS after the changes in the brain have occurred.

“[He wonders if it] could be the same [for other conditions like depression or even bipolar disorder, and, if so … he writes:] could imaging allow earlier detection and [intervention] of [those conditions? Could early scanning pick up on cases of] autism [and even] the psychosis of schizophrenia?  [After all, he notes,] This preemptive approach [to having people routinely scanned], is common place with heart disease and cancer. Might it also transform psychiatry, by focusing on PREVENTION for those at risk rather than … just addressing the symptoms later in the process.][iv]

That is an AMAZING thing to think about, isn’t it … that maybe, in the not-too-distant-future, we will be able to PREDICT mental illness and make changes to brain structure so that people need never be afflicted in the first place.

So that’s the science.

Now let’s look at the practice.

In his day – and for centuries before and after him – mental illness … anything that wasn’t UNDERSTOOD – was all thought to be caused by DEMONS.

Now, today, we might TALK about someone’s “demons” (in quotes) … the things that he or she wrestles with and that weigh them down or hold them back … but in JESUS’ day they were thought to be actual CRITTERS … demons … MONSTERS that came and lived INSIDE of us. And Jesus cast them out.

How did he DO it?

I don’t know. Maybe he brought PEACE to them when they felt his unconditional love and acceptance. (We ALL know how healing THAT can be sometimes.)

Or maybe through his power and his touch, he was doing some sort of deep BRAIN stimulation and RESTRUCTURING the actual neurons. I don’t know.

But here’s what I DO know …

When we talk about the Chemistry of Demons … we’re not just talking about BRAIN chemistry. We are also talking about the chemistry of our CULTURE where MANY people are unkind … where many people are FRIGHTENED by those who are different – especially those who have a condition that others don’t understand.

I remember when CANCER was a word that was only whispered. Boy. Betty Ford changed that, didn’t she?

We HAVE to do that about mental illness, too.

We look at people who are depressed and we say, “Come on. It’s been 6 months! Get OVER it already.”

We would NEVER look at someone with CANCER and say, “Come on. It’s been 6 months! Get OVER it already.”


There are four parts to each one of us. We all move through life with a PHYSICAL self… an INTELLECTUAL or mental self … an EMOTIONAL self, and a SPIRITUL self.

Each one is important.

And no ONE of those can be just written off as if it didn’t matter.

Our role as Jesus’ ambassadors … as his BODY in the world … living in the Kingdom of God by GOD’s rules and not our CULTURE’s rules … is to be where people are afflicted … and to try and ease their pain. NOT because we are better than they are, but precisely because we are NO better than they are.

Eight years ago we began a ministry with patients at the Rochester Psychiatric Center that we call SoutHeart Fellowship. It is a worship service followed by fellowship time.

It USED to be that the mentally ill were WAREHOUSED in order to help them … Really, we just didn’t know what to do with them. That’s what the abandoned high-rise down the street was for. Over 4,000 people – PATIENTS – lived there at one time. And they’d stay there for YEARS!

But NOW the model is VERY different. There are probably no more than 200 patients at a time at the Rochester Psychiatric Center now. And it is TRULY a HOSPITAL … just like Rochester General. Except that all of the patients have a MENTAL illness at RPC while at RGH, they have PHYSICAL illnesses.

The average patients stay weeks or months … not years. They stay long enough to find the right medications and to dovetail those with the right THERAPIES … plural. Multiple therapies. And, as soon as its possible and prudent, the patients are returned to the community – either through a supervised, group experience, or through their own families – with wrap-around services. The therapists go to THEM because we’ve all learned that whether you’re healing from abdominal surgery or from a psychiatric intervention … people heal better at home!

So SoutHeart reminds folks that God loves them. And we celebrate with them when they’re about to leave. We ARE their church while they are there. And we help them feel COMMUNITY while they’re there. And every once in a while one or two former SoutHeart people will show up here or at other Acts of Faith because they know they’re safe and they’re welcome here.

Well, then LAST fall, we started working with a very specialized population at the Psych Center … the FORENSIC unit.  These are people who have either been accused or convicted of doing some horrible crime and a judge has said that their mental illness played such an extensive role in their actions that they not only need to be receiving psychiatric intervention, but they need to be in a safe and secure setting to receive those services.

These are mostly folks who have been found Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Defect – what we used to think of as the “insanity defense.” We don’t know the crimes they committed … murder … worse … but they are PATIENTS … not inmates because by all medical standards, they were not in their right minds.

Our volunteers have to be a little more trained to go into the Forensic Unit. This is one of the four BEST forensic units in the country and doctors apply from all over the WORLD to do post-doctoral work here because it’s so cutting edge. Most patients are in the Forensic Unit for no LESS than 8 years. And it’s into that energy and that REALITY that South has taken its mission of sharing God’s love and teaching about Jesus’ way of life. They are our newest Worshiping Community and already, after only 3 months, they are beginning to develop a SENSE of being a worshiping community.

If you are here today and you volunteer at either SoutHeart or Sonray, would you raise your hand????

I hope the rest of you will talk with these folks about what the ministries – the Acts of Faith – are like because they are TRANSFORMATIVE … for the patients, for sure … but also for us!


It’s up to each ONE of us to cast out the demons. I’ll say that again … It’s up to each one of US to cast out the demons. Not the demons of mental illness – the doctors are doing that. But it’s up to each of us to cast out the demons of stigmatization … of looking DOWN on people … of being AFRAID of what we don’t understand.

It’s up to us to BE the Kingdom of God with its love and inclusivity even in the places that make us uncomfortable.

That’s who we are called to be:  compassionate … loving … light-bearers for Christ in the world.

May the Holy Spirit empower us to continue doing that.







[i][i] http://www.newsweek.com/nearly-1-5-americans-suffer-mental-illness-each-year-230608. Downloaded 1/27/2018.

[ii] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml. Downloaded 1/27/2018.

[iii] https://news.ncsu.edu/2014/02/wms-desmarais-violence2014/. Downloaded 1/27/2018.

[iv] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2011/mental-illness-defined-as-disruption-in-neural-circuits.shtml. Downloaded 1/27/2018


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