Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Easter/Transfiguration Moment

My sermon for Last Epiphany, February 19, 2012
In my last Manifest article, I wrote about some of the features of the Gospel of Mark, including the way it ends. Matthew, Luke, and John all end with the resurrection and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Mark, it seems, from the earliest copies of the text we have, does not. It ends with an empty tomb story, and with the women who had gone to anoint Jesus’ body after the Sabbath running away in fear after encountering a strange man in white who announced (but didn’t show) that Jesus had been raised from the dead. So there’s the promise of resurrection, but we don’t get to see it for ourselves in Mark; an omission that later editors of the Bible sought to correct by adding an ending more similar to Matthew and Luke. 

What Mark does have is the story we heard today: the Transfiguration. This is the Easter moment for Mark. It is clear in who Jesus is and how he is related to the Divine presence, and that he is not just a prophet or a wise rabbi. It’s the story that makes you want to say, “Alleluia.” And it’s interestingly similar to that empty tomb story in Mark’s Gospel. In today’s Transfiguration story, there are three disciples who witness the event: Peter, James, and John. In Mark’s empty tomb story, there are also three disciples: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Today Jesus is dressed in a blazing white robe; at the tomb, it is the young man who proclaims the resurrection who is wearing white. At the transfiguration, the male disciples are terrified; at the empty tomb, the women are terrified.  

In both cases, the disciples see something that will profoundly change their lives. At the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell what they’ve seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead (so you get the promise of resurrection in both stories); at the empty tomb, the man in white tells the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus would be going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they would see him there. Nobody tells at first—even the women who have been commanded to do so—but word gets out eventually; the Good news must be shared. 

Transfiguration is the summit of the Epiphany season when we feast fully conscious of the long 40 days of penitence and fasting ahead of us. It’s like being on the mountain with Elijah and Moses and Jesus propels towards the cross and ultimately toward the resurrection. It’s like we zip down off the mountaintop on a bicycle to pick up speed so that we can pedal hard enough to climb the mountain of Calvary. We need to be fed today, because it’s going to be a long 40 days. And in other areas of our lives as well—when it is time to feast, we need to feast, because famine will always come. Remember the Joseph story from Genesis—Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by the seven skinny cows signifying the seven years of abundance followed by the seven years of famine. God does not promise us a permanent feast on earth. But—there is also always the promise that the fasting doesn’t last forever. Resurrection comes; the feast takes place.

So how do we approach Lent this year, when we know we aren’t going to get the exciting payoff we usually do of hearing the story of the risen Christ standing at the tomb. If I were to preview the Easter sermon right now, the theme might be something like, “Alleluia! Christ is missing. The Lord is missing, indeed, Alleluia!” Not as satisfying as “Christ is Risen!” is it? We are not going to get fed spiritually on Easter morning this year quite like we may want to be fed. We will not see Jesus with Mary Magdalene or Peter or the other disciples in the Gospel story on Easter morning. So in anticipation, we need to feast all the more. 

Some family members of mine had an adventure a few years ago where they sailed from Baja California to Hawaii. In their preparations, they made a few mistakes: the list of supplies that the women were buying included beer; and the list of supplies that the men were buying included toilet paper. As reported after their safe arrival in Hawaii, there wasn’t enough of either. They assigned the wrong supplies to the wrong people to correctly estimate what they would need to get through the journey.  

Lent is the church calendar’s way of identifying a particular season of fasting and repentance—a period of leanness—but of course, our own spiritual dry seasons don’t adhere to any calendar. I’ve been reading the book Still: confessions of a mid-faith crisis by Lauren Winner, which is her account of what her life was like when she encountered a sustained low place in her faith—after the emotional bloom of excitement at her conversion to Christianity, after her divorce, after the endless conversations with Jesus things just became still. God was absent—or at least, that’s what it felt like to her—and her faith sagged as she felt like God was no longer speaking to her—even when she knew God was speaking to her, she couldn’t or wouldn’t hear it. But she still went out and got fed-in her professional life, in her church community, and I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but I think that’s what’s going to eventually enliven her faith again, but this time in a more mature, sustainable way. Even during her lean years, she had some supplies: a church community, rituals of prayer, Bible study, the Eucharist; that got her through.  

So what will your Spirit need this Lent, because you don’t want to run out. What do you need to feast on now to get through to the resurrection? Look at today’s story—Jesus is transfigured—it is an extra-ordinary moment. Moses is there. Elijah is there. There is continuity for the people of Israel and hope for the future in the form of the voice from heaven. And there is hope for Peter, James, and John, too—they don’t get it right away, they are terrified, they try to do something silly first in building the booths, but they come down off the mountain, and on the way down (in the next verses that we didn’t read today) they continue to ask Jesus questions about what they’ve seen. They are curious and inquisitive and willing to keep bugging Jesus until they can understand.  

I always come back in the transfiguration story to the clarity of the voice from heaven. “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” It tells us who Jesus is, and how we should be interacting with Jesus. The command isn’t really to take action, just to listen. Which is a good thought for the Lent ahead of us. Listen. To Jesus. Go back to scriptrue. Read the stories—read what Jesus has to stay. Tell them to your children—bring out those Bible storybooks, and if you don’t have one, get one. Let this Lent be a season where you ration out the words of Jesus a few at a time—whether by using Day by Day or reading the daily lectionary or just planning to read, say, the entire gospel of Mark over the next six weeks. Listen to the words of Jesus. 

And let those words be food. Just as we say at the Eucharistic offering, “Feed on him in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving,” feed on his words by faith, and with thanksgiving. Hear the healing story we read last week, and Jesus’ response to the leper’s statement that if Jesus chooses, the leper can be healed. Jesus responds, “I do choose.” Jesus does choose to heal us, whether in body, or mind, or spirit. Hear the call stories, and know that Jesus is calling you to follow, not just some first century Galilean fishermen. Hear the teachings, and incorporate loving God with your heart and your mind and your soul and loving your neighbor as yourself into your daily life. And if you are really despairing, listen to Jesus’ words from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we encounter despair, we are not going anyplace that Jesus has not gone before. His prayer can become our prayer, and his resurrection our own.

And there is one more character we need to be ready to listen to: the young man at the empty tomb. Can we believe in the resurrection without seeing it? Can we listen to the young man on Easter morning, and believe not with our eyes, but with our ears? The next six weeks are the time to work on that, so that when the feast comes, and that young man says, “He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you,” we will remember today, and we will remember Jesus’ own promise of the resurrection that we heard today, and we will believe. And we will be blessed. Because we will be those who have heard, but have not seen, and yet who believe.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Demons and Demonizing

A sermon for Epiphany 5 B, 2012

“And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” 

I was intrigued this week by the presence—again—of demons in Mark’s Gospel. Last week’s gospel also was an encounter with a demon (actually, Mark didn’t use the word “demon” in that passage, but rather a phrase translated “unclean spirit” which in the Greek was literally a “spirit without catharsis.”) The idea that Jesus is the one who can cast out demons must have been very important to Mark, because Jesus is constantly encountering, silencing, and casting out demons—and this is replicated in Matthew and Luke. 

I am comfortable with thinking of Jesus as a healer (which he also is today, which is why were are offering anointing for healing later in the service).  I am comfortable thinking of Jesus as a teacher, and I'm even mostly comfortable with thiking of him as a sacrificial lamb—but I am a lot more squeamish with thinking of Jesus as an exorcist, even though that is one of his fundamental roles in the Synoptic gospels. The idea of demons is something that in the 21st Century Church we shy away from and try to keep at a distance, not so in our popular culture, where movies and TV shows about vampires, werewolves, zombies and even people possessed by demons are hugely popular. 

So what is a demon? I come at that question with a general assumption that evil exists. There is too much evil in the world—in violence, in greed, in blindness, and in demonization of others for me to believe that there is not some clash of good and evil, of light and darkness. And some of that is personalized in us, and yet, at some level not of us. The experience of demon possession comes out of the sense that we are sometimes controlled by someone or something else; and if when we are called beyond ourselves in good ways and attribute it to the Holy Spirit, perhaps attributing being called beyond ourselves in bad ways might be attributable to an evil spirit.

There are two places where the Episcopal church carries that assumption of the reality of demons into the 21st Century; and one of them should be very familiar to all of you, because we just did it two weeks ago right here. Do you remember? Our baptismal rite actually still contains the remnants of an exorcism; before I ask the person being baptized, or the parents of a baby being baptized, if they believe in Jesus, I ask three questions about evil—they renounce evil and Satan and the powers of wickedness three times before they affirm their faith in Christ three times. Historically, the evil spirits had to be exorcised and removed before the newly pure person could be baptized and made a Christian.

The other place demons continue to be recognized in the Episcopal Church is much less public. The Book of Occasional Services contains the following: 

Concerning Exorcism: The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship. Very early in the life of the Church the development and exercise of such rites were reserved to the bishop, at whose discretion they might be delegated to selected presbyters and others deemed competent. In accordance with this established tradition, those who find themselves in need of such a ministry should make the fact known to the bishop through their parish priest, in order that the bishop may determine whether exorcism is needed, who is to perform the rite, and what prayers or other formularies are to be used. 

Now, Andy Dietsche, our Bishop Coadjutor Elect, has just been to “baby bishops” school, where newly consecrated and soon-to-be-consecrated bishops learn the ropes of their office; I wonder how much time they spent on what to do as a bishop when you’re called upon to authorize an exorcism. I only know one Episcopal priest who, to my knowledge, has ever actually performed an exorcism, and he refuses to talk about it; so it’s certainly not a frequently used practice. But the very fact that it exists points towards a faith in demons and evil being rather more corporeal than we might assume if we were to just write off demon possession as a first century way to explain mental illness and emotional distress. And to be clear: illness, whether physical or mental, and frailty, are not demonic. They are mortal, and there is a difference between mortality and evil.  

If we talk today about demons, it’s usually in the context of “giving in to our demons” or something as a way of explaining why we did something we knew was not good: drinking too much, eating too much, reentering old patterns of relationships, giving in to stress or anger or a misguided self-image. Our demons are bad habits. And there’s something to that. It’s like when St. Paul talks about not being able to do the good that he wants to do, and somehow being forced to do the bad that he doesn’t want to do. Demons are those forces that prevent us from doing what we want to do—what we know God wants us to do. They are the evil that lives inside us, along with the good, that is in an eternal battle for control of our lives.  

But they are also “ours”—we always refer to “our” demons. So I’m not sure that demons are so separate from ourselves; I don’t like the idea that demons just anything that cause us to be out of control or that prevents us from being our best selves (or the selves we imagine we are). Demons cannot just be an excuse for our imperfections.

If there were some way for Jesus to cast out the evil that is inside of me, I would show up at Peter’s mother-in-law’s doorstep to get myself cured. But as I experience evil inside myself, it is of my own making; it is mine. It’s not something outside of myself that I can say doesn’t belong to me. I wish it didn’t—I wish I could give it away. But when it comes down to it, and I sin or commit an act that is evil in some way, the devil didn’t make me do it. The demon didn’t make me do it. I did. So to me, my demons are, in the words of our collect this morning, “the bondage of our sins.” And Christ is the one who casts those sins out—who washes them away, purifies us, and sets us free from being controlled by them. In that sense, Jesus is the one who exorcises me—but not of my demons, rather of the entirety of my sin, but offering eternal life and forgiveness.  

So if someone asked me, “Do you believe in demons?” I’d have to respond, “Well, that depends upon what you mean by demons…” If you mean a personal spirit that belongs to me, not really. But I do believe in the demonic. Because somehow, sometimes, the evil that is inside of me, speaks to the evil that is inside of you, and the evil in the next person and on and on until somehow the evil generated is more than the sum of its parts—and THAT, to me, is the demonic—because it is in that sort of group evil that we demonize others. That we deny the goodness in other human beings, emphasize their faults, and lose sight of our own frailty. That is demonic.    

As I said at the beginning, there are lots of incidents of casting out demons in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But there are no incidents of casting out of demons in the Gospel of John. In fact, the only person accused of being a demon in John is Jesus himself, who is repeatedly accused of having a demon or being a demon by his opponents. It is Jesus who is demonized by his opponents—they cannot believe that someone would be able to do the acts of power Jesus is doing if he were not possessed by evil. In the Gospel of John, the Jews demonize Jesus; and then Christians turned that around for centuries and demonized Jews. It has been bad for everyone.  

Demonization is real. Evil feeds on evil, and it is those personal demons, that personal sin and weakness, that feeds on demonizing the other, where we no longer recognize our own demons but project them onto someone else. Jesus is the one who stops that circle of demonization. He is the one who said, “Yes, demonize me, and I, who am without sin, will let myself be killed, and you will think you have won. But I will rise. And I will triumph.”  

Demons do not have the last word. Life does. Jesus does. But that web of the demonic, that evil feeding on evil and growing ever stronger in people, whether here or there, whether us or them, whether close to home or far away. that evil needs to be named and cast out. We need to say, collectively, “Be gone. You are not welcome here. In the Name of Christ, you have no power here, and I command you to leave.” Because we have Christ’s power, each one of us who has been baptized, not just me, not just the bishop, every one of us. And nothing can withstand that power, not even our own evil. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Life in the Whirlwind

My February, 2012 article in The Manifest
We are thoroughly enmeshed in the Gospel of Mark this season in our worship—it is lectionary year B, which means most of our Sunday gospel readings come from Mark. I described Mark’s gospel in a sermon recently as being the gospel on an adrenaline rush—it is succinct to a fault. Mark has 16 chapters compared to Matthew (28), Luke (24) and John (21) and Mark uses the word “immediately” at least 28 times. No characters in Mark’s gospel dawdle over decisions; Jesus moves from place to place rapidly; and the plot drives steadily toward Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.

I’m not sure if the pace of Mark’s Gospel is helpful for us today because it is so familiar or dangerous for us today because it encourages our own speedy lives. I was just looking at my calendar, and the word immediately seems eerily applicable—“and immediately I will leave to go to my next appointment, which is immediately followed by….” There is a driving pace to life in the world today, and since communication around the globe can be instant, I find myself with little down time and leisure. Responses to e-mails are expected to be immediate; decisions can be made quickly (and efficiently) but there isn’t necessarily time to fully grasp or appreciate everything we’re doing.

There’s a delightful scene in the movie Babette’s Feast where the Danish elderly spinster sisters are teaching their new French refugee (and haute cuisine chef) how to prepare their food. They gather some ludefisk—lye soaked dried fish—from a line and put it in water. “Let it soak,” they sternly intone. They make “ale bread” by putting stale bread in water and beer. Again, “Let it soak.” The local cooking style is to let nature take its course. Later in the film, when Babette has won the lottery and is cooking a meal similar to those she prepared at the CafĂ© Anglais in Paris, the speed and efficiency of her cooking is one of the contrasting features, not to mention the taste. High flame, searing, fresh ingredients,—there is nothing that must simply soak except the champagne in its ice bath! It still takes time; turtles must be killed, quails plucked, truffles sliced. But the cooking is active and intense, a whirlwind of activity.

In 1 Kings, Elijah waits in a cave for God and there are a series of intense natural events—an earthquake, a fire, a whirlwhind—and each time the author of 1 Kings poetically reflects, “But God was not in the earthquake/whirlwind/fire.” It is only in the “sound of sheer silence” that God’s word is heard. It is a beautiful image, and I am confident that God is in those moments of peace and stillness.

But somehow I think God must also be in the whirlwind. The challenge for me is to be able to transition from the whirlwind to stillness. I cannot live my entire life in a whirlwind; I need to be able to slow down, spend time with Nathan playing endless rounds of the “tree game,” where I cover the “Nathan seed” with the blanket on his bed, and “water” him and wait for him to grow into a tree. I need to let myself soak in the small activities of parenthood and domestic life, and balance that with the whirlwind of my vocation.

I cannot encounter the whole Gospel only in Mark—I also need the rich theology of John, the expanded parables in Matthew and Luke, and perhaps most of all, I need the resurrection.

You see, Mark is the earliest gospel we have—likely written somewhere between 67 and 71 C.E. The first word is “beginning” and the last word is—probably—“afraid.” I say it is probably the last word because Mark’s original ending seems to have been obscured by later writers. There seems to have been no account of the resurrection in Mark originally, only the story of the empty tomb and the fear of the women who sought Jesus there. This perturbed subsequent generations of Christians so much that they “corrected” the story to reflect the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples, contained in other gospels. We now have collected enough early copies of Mark, however, to ascertain that either Mark left his gospel unfinished, or his original ending was lost, or he deliberately left it provocatively unconcluded. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are greeted at the tomb by a young man in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has risen and that they will see him again in Galilee, and they flee in fear. A new whirlwind has begun after the three days of silence in the tomb.