Monday, June 20, 2016

Somewhere to Cast Our Demons

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
June 19, 2016
Proper 7, Year C
Luke 8:26-39

“Somewhere to Cast Our Demons”

Earlier this week, while beginning my preparation for today’s sermon, I posted the following on Facebook.  “We need to stop hunting wild hogs.  Without them, we’ll have nowhere to cast our demons.  Amen.”  There were several comments, some people taking the post very seriously, some rather disgruntled by the theological or huntingological implications.  My favorite comments, however, came from my cousin Nicki, who reposted what I had written.  In response to one rather disgruntled response, she wrote, “I thought it was funny. Father Bradley Sullivan is my cousin. I know his sense of humor...I used to change his diapers.”   

Saying we need to stop hunting wild hogs so we’d have a place to put our demons was all I had at the time for a sermon starter, and it gave me a chuckle so I figured I’d share.  Then I started thinking that metaphorically speaking, it’s not that bad of an idea…not the wild hogs part, but the idea that we really do need somewhere to cast our demons. 

When the legion of demons begged Jesus not to cast them into the abyss, it seems that they were speaking of the abyss mentioned in Revelation (bottomless pit from which the demons came).  Imagery of the abyss from which the monsters and later demons come goes all the way back to the great deep of Genesis from which fountains of water came forth to drown the earth.  Therefore, they abyss is often associated with water, the seas where the great monsters and the Leviathan dwell.

So, the demons begged Jesus not to cast them back into the abyss, and it seems that Jesus granted the demons’ request by sending them into the pigs, and then they ended up going into the abyss anyway as the pigs rushed headlong into the lake and were drowned.  In the spiritual realm, the demons went back to the abyss. 

For us, in our world today, our society and our world are like the man amongst the tombs.  We are rife with legions of demons:  demons of anger, demons of fear, demons of hatred, just to name a few, and we desperately need somewhere to cast our demons.  I should say we need somewhere other than each other to cast our demons.  In our country, we tend to take our anger, fear, and hatred, and cast it all over each other.   Sometimes we cast our demons onto each other through our fearful words and angry rhetoric.  Sometimes we cast our demons onto each other through hurtful actions that separate and divide us.  Sometimes we cast our demons onto each other with sprays of bullets into unsuspecting nightclub patrons, moviegoers, prayer groups, or elementary school students. 

As much as the exceedingly vast majority of Americans would never cast their demons onto others by shooting them, there is a connection between our speech, our words and actions, and the bullets that fly.  Fear, anger, and hatred lead only to greater fear, anger, and hatred, and eventually to division and killing.  As Bishop Doyle wrote in his response to the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub last Sunday in Orlando:
The Internet is already full of unchristian, disrespectful, and horrific responses supporting the shooting and demonizing Islam.

The reality is that we in this country are responsible for creating a place where hate speech is glorified, unnecessary weapons of mass destruction are freely accessible, and violence is cheered.

 Yes America, we are reaping what we sow.

I too believe we are reaping what we have sown, and I’m not talking about guns.  I’m talking about the ways we talk to and about each other and especially how we talk to and about the other.  There is so much fear, anger, and hatred constantly being spewed out in conversations on the internet, in coffee shops, on the radio, the TV, even in churches and in our homes.  We have been setting an enormous blaze with our talk.  As James wrote in James 3:5-10:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by Gehenna. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

The blaze we have set with our tongues, with our words both written and spoken, is a blaze of fear, anger, and hatred, and fear, anger, and hatred are our demons.  These demons have divided us, made us weak, and turned us against one another.  These legions of demons have done to us what Jesus did to the legion of demons that we dwelling in the man.  While the demons were together, acting in the man as one, they were strong.  No chain could hold him.  No people could restrain him.  Once Jesus cast the demons into the herd of pigs, they were divided, and they were weak.  They rushed headlong into the abyss, the very place where they feared going.

As a country, as a church, as the Body of Christ, we have been divided by the legions of demons of fear, anger, and hatred.  We have been weakened by our divisions and have been rushing headlong into the abyss.  We need to stop casting our fear, anger, and hatred on one another, and we need to find another place to cast them.  We need to find a safe place to cast our demons so that they won’t continue to cause greater harm, and the only place we can cast our demons without them harming others is God.

One way of casting our demons upon God is prayer, particularly prayers of lament, as I wrote earlier this week.  We read in the Psalms prayers of lament, prayers of people who are so fed up, that they are crying out to God, even blaming God for the problems that beset them, asking God to seek vengeance upon their enemies.  Some of these prayers make a turn and offer blessings and praise to God; some of them do not and simply end with these prayers of anguished cries, calling for God’s vengeance and questioning God’s justice. 

We need to bring back the prayer of lament so that we can cast our demons upon God rather than upon each other.      

It sounds easy, especially for the preacher man to say that we should cast our fear, anger, and hatred upon God rather than each other.  I realize that with some of my preaching about loving our enemies, not seeking retaliation, it may seem that I’m rather detached from the violence and hatred in our world.  I am not.  I fear for my children’s lives.  I remember riding my bike a half a mile or more away from home, spending whole days down by the creak behind our neighborhood, totally unsupervised.  I can’t imagine my kids doing that nowadays.  I’ve come into adulthood in a world in which being shot by a sniper while stopping for gas along a highway is a viable reality for me and my children.  I am afraid for my children and the world they are inheriting.  I want to protect them.  I want to stop anyone who would harm them, and in the moment, if someone was trying to kill them, I have little doubt that I would do everything in my power to stop them, even if it meant killing the killer.  I don’t know if that goes against what Jesus taught or not...depending on the day, I'll tell you one thing or another; I simply know that in the moment, it is what I might do. 

At the same time, I believe that praying for our enemies, for their welfare, praying love for them, seeking not to retaliate against evil is the only way that we are going to make a dent in containing the blaze of demons that we have set.  I know that the more I dwell on those thoughts and fears, those plans for horrific eventualities, the more the demons of fear, anger, and hatred fill my heart and guide my actions.  I know that I can’t with any efficacy or success rail against the things in this world that I don’t like.  All my fearful and angry writing and speech will do is add fuel to the fire, increase the blaze, and cast even more demons upon others already plagued with demons of their own.  I’ve done more than enough of that already, as have many of us, or all of us.

We need to stop all of the blame and simple solutions for the problems in our world, given as ways to alleviate our fear, anger, and hatred.  One easy target has been the government, folks saying the problems started because we took prayer out of schools or removed the 10 Commandments from government building.  Before we start blaming governments or states or school districts for removing prayer or Christian symbols and practices, we need to look at the potential of logs in our own eyes, remove them, and then lead by example.  Saying, “the problem is that they took prayer out of our schools,” is simply casting a demon of blame upon the world.  Such a statement makes someone else to blame, and makes the problem someone else’s to solve.

The problems of casting our demons upon others is a problem that is all of ours to solve.  Render to God what is God’s.  Give the demons of blame to God.  Pray to him your blame of someone else.  Or even blame God and pray that to him.  God can take it.  God would probably appreciate the honesty.  God is the appropriate place to cast our demons, because unlike everything in all creation, our demons can’t hurt God. 

Render unto God what is God’s to deal with.  Render unto God our demons of fear, anger, and hatred, so that he can cast them out.  Like the woman last week who came to Jesus full of sin, weeping upon his feet, we need to come to Jesus full of demons and then weep them out at his feet. 

When we weep our demons out at Jesus’ feet, we will likely feel powerless.  With that, we find yet one more demon with which we struggle:  our powerlessness.  We want solutions to the problems in our world and we are mostly powerless to make those solutions happen.  So we rant, we criticize, demonize, we divide. 

Divided, we rush headlong into the abyss.  We weren’t made for division.  We were made to be unified in Jesus.  Unity does not mean unanimity.  With all of our difference, we were all baptized into the one body of Jesus Christ.  “All baptized people are called to make Christ known as Savior and Lord, and to share in the renewing of his world.” (BCP p. 531 - Ordination: Priest)
We were not made to share our anger for the destruction of this world.  We were made to share our faith for the renewing of this world
We certainly need to share our fears, our anger, and even our hate with others, but for the purpose of seeking help in bringing those demons to God.  We are meant to help each other cast our demons out upon God.  As baptized disciples of Jesus, we are meant to do for each other what Jesus did for the man suffering from a legion of demons.  We are meant to help each other find a herd of wild hogs and help each other cast our demons there.  I realized just likened God to a herd of wild hogs, and I probably just secured 10 more years in purgatory for it, but the analogy holds true.  We need a place to cast our demons, and that place is God, and we need to act as Jesus for each other, helping each other to cast our demons upon God, rather than upon each other.  Rather than remaining divided, rushing into the abyss ourselves, we cast our demons upon God so that they will run into the abyss, and we will remain united in Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Prayer of Lament for Orlando

On Sunday, 50 people were shot and killed, and 53 more shot and wounded at a night club in Orlando. Once again, innocents have been slaughtered. The gunman appears to have killed out of a radical ideology of terroristic, fundamentalist Islam. Previous killings have been for similar reasons:
  • some by terroristic, fundamentalist Muslims (Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik)
  • some by terroristic, fundamentalist Christians (Timothy McVeigh)
  • some by people who seem to have had severe mental disorders (Adam Lanza).
Regardless of the cause, the result is the same: innocent lives have been ended, families destroyed, hatred and anger multiplied, fear increased, and many looking not only for a solution, but for someone to blame.

My response has thus far been one of sadness and longing for God's Kingdom, the kingdom in which we truly do love God and love one another. My response has also been one of anger, fear, and a desire to destroy those responsible. I'd like to be Captain America rushing in and stopping (killing) all the bad guys.

It works well in the movies, because afterwards, the credits roll. In real life, however, the credits don't roll...heads do. The result would be (has been) that those who love the bad guys would feel just as I do, and they'd all want to do exactly what I wanted to do. The violence and bloodshed would simply beget (have begotten) more violence and bloodshed.

Another response which has begotten more anger and vitriol has been to write or speak all of the anger inside of us. While we need a vent for our anger, shouting out or typing angry, fearful comments generally only further inflames the problems. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29, "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
We need to deal with our anger and violence in a way that Jesus taught, and what Jesus taught us to do was to "love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]." (Matthew 5:44) He didn't say exactly what those prayers should be, and I'd like to suggest that our prayers for our enemies should be as vast and complicated as our own feelings.

We should definitely pray for the welfare of our enemies and for their repentance. Praying for their peace helps bring about peace within us, within them, and within the world.

We also get to pray that God will utterly destroy our enemies. We get to pour all of our anger, our hatred, our fear, and our desires for vengeance into prayer. We may feel like we shouldn't pray for God to kill our enemies, but our prayers are exactly where we should say such things.

God can be trusted with our anger and fear.
People, often cannot.

Consider Psalm 137:8-9, "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" Not a part of the psalms we usually hear on a Sunday morning, and that is unfortunate. Lament is an important part of our prayer life.

We need to offer to God our whole selves, not just the parts we think may be acceptable. By offering such prayers of Lament, we are not commanding God, as though God would follow our commands. We are being honest with God and trusting him to do what is right with the hurt, pain, anger, and fear within us. When we deal with such things on our own, we usually end up hurting others. God can take it.

As Paul also writes in Philippians 4:6, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."  

As we respond to tragedy and killing, offer prayers to God. Pray for your enemies. Pray for their repentance and well-being, pray for reconciliation, and pray also the prayer of lament. Perhaps such prayers will help to bring about the peace in our world which all of our angry and violent words and actions have yet to accomplish. May we all become weak, trusting in God's strength, for his power is made perfect in our weakness.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Woman After God's Own Heart

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
June 12, 2016
Proper 6, Year C
Luke 7:36 - 8:3

“A Woman After God’s Own Heart”

Imagine sitting down for dinner with Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house.  It’s a fairly nicely appointed house, not a rich man’s house, but you can see that this Pharisee is well off, nonetheless.  They had low tables and didn’t use chairs, so you’re sitting or kneeling at the table with several others, servants have brought bowls for you to wash your hands, and the meal is about to be brought out.  Then this woman begins weeping behind Jesus, poring her tears onto Jesus’ feet and wiping them off with her hair.  You’re getting quite uncomfortable at this point, waiting for Simon to do something, and thinking to yourself, “Well, this is awkward.” 

Jesus, for his part, doesn’t seem to mind in the least.  Apparently he likes a foot massage, and was not in the least bit interested in what was proper.  Then, rather than Simon, the host speaking up, Jesus begins speaking to Simon.  You think he’s going to talk with him about lax security around the city that this sinful woman could even enter, or possibly congratulate him on being a gracious enough host for not kicking this woman out immediately, but that enough was enough.  Instead, Jesus insults Simon for not being a gracious enough host, not offering him a kiss or water for his feet.  Pretty rude of Jesus, you think, to insult their host.  Then, Jesus comes way out of left field and says this woman’s sins were forgiven because of her rather unseemly behavior.  Didn’t Jesus know anything?  She didn’t even bring an animal to be sacrificed by the priests. 

What you didn’t know was that Jesus was reading at least the Pharisee’s mind, maybe yours too, and the Pharisee, Simon, wasn’t concerned that the woman was there, nor that she was crying over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair.  He was concerned that a “sinner” was touching Jesus and that Jesus seemingly didn’t know that she was a sinner and try stop her.  Simon questioned Jesus’ prophetic powers and ministry. 

Jesus, for his part, wasn’t really concerned with social norms, nor his status in the guests’ eyes as a prophet, nor a perfect follower of the Jewish animal sacrifice system.  Jesus was interested in repentance, forgiveness, grace, and love.  He didn’t see the woman’s actions as impertinent, out of place, or awkward.  He saw a woman who deeply desired reconciliation with God.  He saw a woman who was in anguish because of her sins.  He saw a woman who wanted to repent wholeheartedly, a woman who was falling, a woman who needed grace, forgiveness, and love.   

As for the woman, we don’t know what she had done that she was considered “a sinner.”  Nothing in the text says what her sins were; Jesus simply says her sins are “many.”  Interestingly also, nothing in the text indicates that she wasn’t supposed to be there.  Simon, the Pharisee didn’t ask her to leave or to stop what she was doing.  You’d think if she was an intruding and the whole thing was totally improper, that someone would have spoken up.  Perhaps they were all too taken aback, just sitting in uncomfortable, awkward silence.  We don’t know.

We don’t know what her role was in being there.  Perhaps the Pharisee, as a religious leader, regularly had people to his house, even those he did not know, his household serving them, as part of his work in teaching about God’s law.  Total speculation on my part, but it could serve to explain why the woman was not asked to leave, or how she was there in the first place.
However she got there, the woman was not concerned about being improper or awkward.  She loved much, was torn apart on the inside by the guilt of whatever sins she had committed, and she desperately wanted forgiveness.  So, when she heard Jesus was at the dinner party, she boldly sought him out to seek forgiveness.  She put aside any shame she had, did not hide, or pretend, or make up some story.  She sought Jesus out wholeheartedly, brought what she had, and did for him what she could out of a deep desire for a new beginning.

She couldn’t turn her life around.  This woman was stuck in whatever sins she had committed.  Even her touch brought the Pharisee’s ire, and she couldn’t claw her way back from being anything other than what she was reported to us as being, a sinful woman. She needed Jesus’ grace and love to declare her forgiven and to give her resurrection, a new start.  The difference between this woman and Simon the Pharisee was that unlike Simon, the woman knew that she needed resurrection, knew that she needed Jesus’ grace, forgiveness, and love. 

Looking at another sinner who needed repentance, we have our story this morning of King David.  David is seen as the greatest king Israel ever had.  He was devout in his faith in God, and he led the people to remain true to God, not running after false idols as so many kings after him had done.  David was also a murderer, and adulterer, and very likely a rapist.  When David saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, bathing, he wanted her and being the king, he got what he wanted.  Being that he was the king, Bathsheba probably didn’t have much say in the matter.  She probably didn’t exactly figure she could just say, “No thank you, your Grace.”  So we now have David as an adulterer and likely rapist.  Then, when Bathsheba became pregnant by David, he had her husband Uriah killed by placing him on the front lines of battle and then commanding that all others draw back so that Uriah faced an army alone.  Now we have David as a murderer, to hide his adultery and rape. 

Like Simon the Pharisee, David was blind to his sin, until Nathan opened his eyes with the story he told of the rich man who took the poor man’s sheep.  Nathan was very clever in showing David what he had done, and David was completely incensed at the injustice and greed of the rich man in the story.  Then Nathan dropped the hammer on David.  “You are the man,” Nathan told David, and at once, the scales fell from David’s eyes, and he realized what he had done to Uriah and Bathsheba.  Once his eyes were opened, David repented with his whole heart.  “I have sinned against the Lord,” David said, and truly meant it. 

With all that David did, his terrible, obvious sins against God and other people, David is called a man after God’s own heart.  He obviously wasn’t during the time of his adultery/rape/murder affair, but David had been called a man after God’s own heart before he was king, and he repented wholeheartedly after his affair. 
It’s hard for us to reconcile that.  Adulterer, rapist, murderer:  forgiven.  It doesn’t seem fair, and it’s not.  God isn’t fair.  Grace isn’t fair.  Imagine King David was not a lofty king living thousands of years ago, but a regular guy, not well off, living now in Bay City.  Imagine he raped a married woman by coercing her into having sex with him against her will and then conspired to have her husband killed.  Once her husband was dead, imagine this Bay City degenerate took her as his wife, she having become pregnant by his rape of her and knowing full well that he had had her husband killed.  She’s probably terrified at this point.  Then, imagine this man coming to his senses, realizing what he’s done, and that realization cutting him to the very core of his being.  Imagine this man desperately wanting to atone for his sins, desperately wanting forgiveness, probably going to jail, and imagine Jesus declaring him forgiven.  He’d still be in prison, but forgiven by God, beloved of Jesus. 

That doesn’t seem fair.  Thankfully, grace isn’t fair.  Thankfully God isn’t as concerned with our notions of fairness as he is concerned with his beloved children.  God sees us all as both perpetrators of sin and victims of sin.  We are victims of sin, from the moment we are born.  Even those born to loving parents begin almost immediately to be broken in thousands of little ways as they grow, and as they and as all of us grown, we end up breaking others out of our own brokenness.  Whether our sins are obvious and known or hidden and known only to ourselves or only to God, all of us are sinners, broken people who break others out of our brokenness.

So back to the woman in our Gospel story today.  Unlike Simon the Pharisee, the woman knew she was broken.  She knew she had broken others out of her brokenness.  She knew she needed grace.  She knew she needed a new start, and so she sought out Jesus and humbled herself at his feet.  She didn’t try to put on a show of how good she was so that he would accept her.  She came to him full of sorrow, full of weakness, full of regret, and full of need.

Now, this woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair has usually been labeled a prostitute, people assuming that the Pharisee’s description of her is euphemistically calling her a prostitute.  Of course anywhere else in scripture, when a woman is making her living via prostitution, she is simply called a prostitute, so if she were, Luke would probably just have written that she was a prostitute, but he didn’t.  Labeling any specific sin for this woman forces the reader to miss the point of the story.  If we can label her sin, then we can focus on that particular sin, and many readers can disassociate themselves from the story because they don’t share that particular sin.  The point of the story, however, is not what her sins were or weren’t.  Her sins were many just like all of our sins are many.  The woman is any one of us.  The point of the story is her repentance and Jesus’ love and acceptance of her.

Rather than label the woman with any particular sin, I recognize that the woman was brave.  She was a model of approaching God in humility and self-awareness, in authenticity, and in boldness, seeking his grace, forgiveness, and love.  She is a woman after God’s own heart. 

Jesus was never interested in people who thought they were better than others.  He had little time for those who believed they did not need repentance.  Jesus had a heart for those who knew themselves to be sinners, who knew they needed God’s grace, and who came seeking God’s grace.  Rather than thinking ourselves to be better or less sinful than the woman in the story, we need to remove the log from our eyes before judging her speck…or better yet, we need to come to Jesus with ointment and tears and the log still in our eye, and ask him to remove it.  Ask him for resurrection and the new start that we all need throughout our lives.  Following the example of the woman after God’s own heart, trusting in God’s unfair grace, we too, all of us, anyone, can approach Jesus in humility and self-awareness, in authenticity, and in boldness, seeking his grace, forgiveness, and love.  Amen.