Saturday, January 28, 2012

Defeating the Demonic

Stories like this week's lectionary reading from Mark 1:21-28 often lead to discussions about what was meant by "unclean spirits" or "demons" in Jesus' day.  I grew up around people who believed that "demons" were entities, servants of the devil sent to lure us into sin-and finally into hell.  I also grew up around more "liberal" people who scoffed at such ideas and went on to explain how the primitive folks in Jesus' day knew nothing about mental illness and so called problems that we were now able to deal with through modern medicine "demons." 

Both, I believe, were wrong.

First of all, as a psychotherapist, I'm not sure we know that much more about how to deal with mental illness....we certainly haven't 'cured' it and many of the advocates for the mentally ill will tell you that the stigmas associated with it are still strong. 

Second, I'm not one who believes in hiearchies of angels and demons....at least not in the way that the folks I referred to above did.  Such views have made for great movies: "The Exorcist," "Devil's Advocate;" even the new television show "Grimm" (which I enjoy by the way) have gotten great milage from these views.

I do however, believe in the demonic. I do believe in evil.  The demonic is anything that blocks or interferes with the life-giving intention of God for God's people-individually or collectively.  Evil and that which is demonic cannot create anything; evil can only twist the good. In this belief, by the way, I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis who stated that sin was the taking of some good gift of God in a way that was not loving or lifegiving.  For example, our sexual desire is a God given gift which draws us closer to one another and can be an incredible expression of our love for one another in a committed relationship.  But turned into a means of keeping score, of proving our worth, of venting our rage....these uses become deadly for the persons involved-they become demonic.

The same can be said for the desire to protect one's self.  In Luke, Jesus sends his disciples out into the bandit ridden roads to take the message of the Kingdom to some small villages.  He asked them if they had swords.  The disciples began waving the two that they had like boys on a schoolyard and Jesus (probably shaking his head) said, "that's enough."  We keep locks on our doors.  But the dependence on atomic weapons which guarantee the mutual destruction of not only the countries involved, but the collateral destruction of millions who aren't....this isn't self preservation...this is demonic.

Jesus came to give live and so that we "might have it abundantly."  Not so that we could get caught chasing fix, pill, drink, sexual encounter, business deal, gambling high, food comma, power rush....or so that we could live our lives in opulence at the expense of others....or so that our countries could stockpile death in a paranoid frenzy that makes the folks who wrap their heads in tinfoil so that the "aliens can't listen in" look absolutely sane.  No, Jesus came to free us from all of this and to give us so much more.  Whatever interferes with this is demonic.

Mark doesn't tell us what kind of "unclean spirit" this man had; just that he had one.  Interestingly, it isn't until Jesus shows up that it becomes evident.  What we do know is that the unclean spirit reacted with fear to Jesus' presence, tried to take Jesus on (that's what's happening with the spirit saying, "I know who you are"-it's a power thing about knowing something or someone's name), and lost.

We need to take the demonic, the death dealing, life destroying things about us seriously....but not so seriously that we lose track of the fact that this is exactly what Jesus came to fix.  Jesus came to fix this broken creation; to heal the wounded; to bring us home....in other words: to defeat the demonic.

You and I are called to join Jesus in this task.  To battle the demonic whether it shows up in persons trying to self medicate against their pain and trauma with addictive substances and behaviors; or in the bullying brutality of domestic violence or ethnic cleansing; or in international attitudes that betray the truth that we are all-Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, English, Indian, Somali...created in the Image of God.

We start when we create in our families and our local congregations safe places where wounds and sins can be owned, healed, forgiven; and the enemies of healing and wholeness can be taken on and named for what they are.  We are, in this, as Paul said, "laborers together with God."

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Strangeness of Being Called

Mark's account of Jesus calling his first disciples is deceptively simple.  Jesus walks by; He calls; they follow; no problem....right? 
But that's the thing about Mark.  Like my friend Abby says, reading Mark is like opening up those Russian Dolls where there's always another one inside till you want to just scream "enough already."  There is so much stuff here that unpacking it could take a number of sermons and even more blogs.  That being said, let's make a try at it.

The first thing is that rabbis don't call disciples.  In Jesus day, a young man who wanted to be the disciple of a rabbi would seek out the rabbi and essentially go through an interview process of questions about Torah and the Law.  If the rabbi thought he had what it took, he'd invite him to stay.  If not, he'd send him home to learn the family business.

Jesus did just the opposite.  He comes to these guys who're already in the family business, who, if they ever had ideas about studying under a rabbi have given that idea up.  This is important.  Especially when we focus on the fact that Jesus is showing us what God is like.  Jesus "Gods" (by this I mean expresses God) the way that apple trees apple.  If Jesus does it, count on it telling us something important about what God is like.

So here is Jesus, calling these ordinary men to follow Him.  Jesus will later say, in John, "You did not chose me, but I chose you."  God does not call us on the basis of our being somehow especially gifted or extra-ordinary, or because we believe we are somehow destined to be special.  God calls us because God has chosen to use ordinary people to share the Good News of God's love.

The next thing worth noticing is WHO Jesus picks and what that says about what He's trying to accomplish.  From the very beginning Jesus is working toward creating a community, a new 'kinship group.'  So he calls two sets of brothers.  That sounds reasonable.  But notice: one set of brothers are on the boat with their father.  They have enough financial umph to own their boat and to have hired help.  On the shore is the other set of brothers.  They don't have a boat.  They're throwing casting nets into the surf as they wade out to launch them just the other side of the breakers where the fish are most apt to be.  From the very beginning, Jesus' community is going to express the diversity of God's Kingdom.  In this first set of calls that diversity is economic.  Later it will be political and theological as well.

See what I mean by the "Russian Dolls?"

Jesus is on the move; proclaiming that the Kingdom of God, the New Creation, is here, now.  He is demonstrating what that Kingdom looks like.  It looks a lot like you and me being called out of the ordinariness of our lives into the life long task of following, learning, and imitating the God "who loves us and sent His Son."

Jesus called.  They followed. They dropped what they were doing and followed.  What will we do?

Hope to see you tomorrow at church.
Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rippin' Baptisms and Dive Bombing Doves

I've gotten really intrigued with this coming Sunday's Gospel passage from Mark 4:1-15.  I can hear some of you saying, "that's a good thing, since you've got to preach about it," but it's more than that.  I mean that the visual/viseral images that it stirs up for me are unusually powerful and theologically (at least for me) profound.

The first issue is a question that was raised by my friend Gabe during the group that studies the passage for the following Sunday's sermon together each week, which was "why did Jesus need to be baptized if John's baptism was about repentance and the forgiveness of sins?"  Good question.  If Jesus was the Son of God and perfect, what did He need to be baptized for?

There are, I think, two major answers to that question.  The first is that Jesus' baptism marked the point in His life when He said "Yes" to the task of being the one who would inaugurate God's Kingdom.  The human part of Jesus had been moving His whole life toward this moment, responding to the part of himself that was God preparing to start God's great restoration project.  But that human part had to say "Yes," had to actively get on board.

The second thing.....and this to me is terribly important.....is that in going down into the water with all those searching, seeking, stumbling, repentent sinners, Jesus proclaims His solidarity, His identification with us....with all of us, in all our frail and stubborn humanity.  He bound Himself to us.  The reconciliation and redemption of humankind doesn't start at the cross (though the cross is an important part of that task), it starts here as Jesus symbolizes His kinship with us.

This leads to what Jesus sees as He comes up out of the water.  He sees "the heavens torn apart."  Now first of all, if you remember your Advent scriptures, Isaiah begs God "O that You would tear apart the heavens and come down."  Well here it is.  At Jesus' "Yes" the barrier between God's realm and humanity is ripped apart.....not 'disolved,' not 'gently pushed aside'......ripped away! God is on the move; and powerfully so.

Then there's that dove.  Methodist pastor and writer Elton Brown suggests that a "dive-bombing dove" would fit in better with the "torn apart" sky that Jesus saw.  Especially since Mark says that "immediately the Spirit drove Him out into the wilderness."  That's the same Spirit that descended like a dove.  It drives him "immediately" into the wilderness.  No sooner does Jesus say yes to being this profound identification of God with humankind than He sees the sky ripped apart, hears God tell Him that He's a beloved Son who's made his Daddy really proud, and He's dive-bombed by the Spirit of God that drives him out into the wilderness to be tempted.......now that's a baptism!

Do you ever wonder what would happen if anything close to this happened to us?  What if our encounter with the Jesus who, perfect as He was, stepped into all the chaos of humanity with us and tore apart the seperation between us and God.....what if that encounter caused God's Spirit to drive us out into the wilderness and the world where the rest of the humanity Jesus came to reconcile to God is hurting and bleeding and struggling?  You and me, dive-bombed by the Spirit of God....driven out to serve the ones Jesus also died for....and, if Jesus' words are true.....we will meet Him there.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Herod Within Me

If you go to Matthew 2:1-18 you will find, semi-hidden in the story of the Magi, one of the most horrific accounts from the life of Jesus.  It is the story of the paranoia induced "slaughter of the innocents" commanded by the Roman appointed King of the Jews, Herod the Great.
Herod the Great was a dispicable human being.  He had at least three of his sons and one of his wives murdered.  When he became ill and knew that he was going to die, he had many of the Jewish leaders held prisoner and ordered that they be killed upon his death so that there would be suitable mourning at his passing because he knew that the people would not mourn for him.

So, the murder of a bunch of poor male infants in a backwater town was nothing compared to what he had already done and would do in the future.  It was just classic Herod.  Get in his way and sooner or later he'd do you in.  He was a genuine "my way or the highway" kind of ruler.

When the Magi come and ask about the one born to be "King of the Jews" they're asking about the one who would bear Herod's title.  And Herod already knew who he wanted to rule when he was gone (though he changed his mind more than once).  So when scripture tells us that Herod was upset and "all of Jerusalem with him" we can understand why.  Whenever the tyrant is upset, the world around him or her is upset and frightened as well.

We do not have to look further than recent news to discover that the spirit of Herod is alive and well.  The names of Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Il leap immediately to mind; to be followed quickly by others that we have seen on the stage of history in our lifetime.  Pursuers of ethnic cleansing.  Racial and religious bigots.  These are the easiest places to spot Herod.  Closer to home, during this year of election politics we will hear flashes of 'Herod-speak' on both the right and the left.

But Herod is alive and well in relationships as well.  Many of us have worked for a Herod; either in large corporations or small businesses where the Herod supervised only a handful of people.  Some of us grew up in the house of a Herod.  Children of rage-a-holics know that feeling that Jerusalem had-that when Herod was upset, everyone was upset.  They learned early to walk on eggshells and test the atmosphere when their Herod entered the house.

It is easy, and true, to say that Jesus came to oppose all the kingdoms of the Herods; whether they are national tyrants, corporate bullies, or abusive partners and parents.  The Kingdom of God confronts Herod everywhere with an alternate vision of what the world is to be like.  And one day, at the name of Christ, all tyrants will fall.

What is not easy is to identify the Herod in me.  To own the grasping, paranoid, demanding self that insists that I be in control...always.  The part of me that is capable of making my spouse miserable and my children say, "I've always wanted to tell you how much it hurt me when you......"  We are all capable of being Herod.  And at sometime, all of us are.

This story in Matthew is the first time that the life of Jesus challenges the status quo in a really direct way.  And Herod's choice is to try destroy that challenge if he can.  What is my choice when the Herod in me is confronted by being held in the Light of the Kingdom?  Do I confess my sin and work to change?  Do I lash out or try to manipulate the ones who bring the message?  How I respond will shape who I become moving forward.

When held up in the Light, we are all found wanting.  The good news is that God's Grace is available to all of us; offering forgiveness and aid in turning from the Herod within toward the Image of God in which each of us was created.  Nations need repentance, as do their leaders.  Relationships need the confrontive judgement of comparison to Jesus' example of love for the 'other' as well as the neighbor.  But perhaps all of this begins when I am first willing to shine that light on myself and to admit how easy it is for me to fall prey to the same sins that make Herods of tyrants throughout history.

What gives me courage to do this is my trust that Jesus came, not to condemn-them or me-but that through Him we all might be saved.  In faith in that Grace I can risk the judgement which motivates repentance and change.

Hope to see you Sunday as we unpack this story a little more and risk where it might take us.

Shalom,
Stephen