Sunday, June 23, 2019

Confessions of an Ex-Demoniac

[June 23. Thanks to Pastor Jim O'Hanlon for the opportunity to preach this morning at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Rye Brook, N.Y. And thanks to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency for assuming the role of the Legion of Demons in our fearful society. Luke 8:26-39.]

When was the last time you were seized with great fear?

Years ago our blended family went on the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios in Orlando. 

We were seated side-by-side and when the lights went out the seats began to shudder and tilt. As we began to pick up speed we could feel the wind in our faces, and quickly we were descending into what appeared to be a dark pit. Prehistoric creatures appeared menacingly on the edge of the precipice, and to my horror I realized we were falling into the gaping mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Behind me I could hear Katie shouting, “I don’t want to be eaten by a dinosaur” and I couldn’t have agreed more. At the last minute we diverted from the monster’s jaws but we continued our horrifying ride through the vestiges of time. When we finally stopped, the chairs stopped swaying, the wind stopped blowing, and the lights came on.

Rarely have I been so scared. As we got up to leave I angrily reminded everyone how much I hate roller coasters. 

Martha smiled and said, “This wasn’t a roller coaster.”

Son Will added, “The seats were just vibrating, not moving forward. Didn’t you notice the Exit sign beside you never moved?”

Well, I did not notice, and neither did Katie. Both of us were completely convinced by the mediated illusion of flight. It was a psychological deception in our heads, and we were seized with great fear.

Fear can be incapacitating, and not just the artificial thrills of amusement parks. 

We all face it: the fear of a looming big decision, the fear of financial ruin, the fear of a serious illness, fear for the safety of our children and loved ones, even – for many – the fear of making a speech. Fear is a basic human response that has been evolving in our collective psyches since our ancestors lived in caves. Fear is a survival mechanism, a universal impulse that keeps us safe from danger. Fear is a human trait that we should respect, and we should never taunt or yell “cowardly custard” at anyone who is afraid.

But one has to ask: why on earth were the Garasenes so afraid of Jesus?

If we fail to understand their fear, I think it is because after years of Sunday school, confirmation classes, and church conventions, we have developed a fairly domesticated image of Jesus: Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the Jesus who loves the little children and walks around with fluffy lambs on his shoulders.

But the Garasenes had no idea who Jesus was. They were, however, very aware of malevolent evil residing in the demoniac who sometimes burst out of his restraints and became a naked terrorist in their midst. The wretch was under the control of a legion of demons whose malicious power was beyond human understanding or human control. They hesitated to kill him, not only because of the dictate of the fifth commandment, but because they feared the angry retaliation of the demons if their host was destroyed. Fearful and helpless, they bound the man in chains and shackles and gave him wide berth.

Then, unexpectedly, an unfamiliar but ordinary-looking man appeared in the village. Without so much as raising a finger, Jesus sent the powerful demons out of the man into a herd of pigs, which rushed down a steep bank into the lake and drowned. 

Then the people saw the former demoniac, dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus.

The people didn’t know Jesus, but they knew very well the incalculable evil that had held this poor man in in bondage for so many years. To cast out evil of this magnitude would require a power far greater than the people could imagine. They saw Jesus as an unknown figure with a power so boundless that they “were seized with great fear” what he might do with it next. And it took all the courage they could muster to ask him to leave.

The former demoniac, of course, realized that it was the power of God’s love that had freed him. For this man, what happened because Jesus passed his way was very good news: God’s power of love is greater than evil and hate.  And evil and hate will never overcome it.

The former demoniac’s first impulse was to join Jesus as one of his disciples, but Jesus told him to go home and “declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39)

At that point the former demoniac disappears from the story and we are left to wonder what happened to him. Few mortals experienced God’s love the way he did. Did he ever doubt again? Was he ever afraid of anything for the rest of his life? He was, after all, human. And fear is a fundamental part of the human genome.

But I am sure that if did feel fear, he also remembered the infinite power of love that had passed through him one day when he was in bondage to evil, the love that swept the hideous demons away. Luke tells us the man “went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39). We don’t know exactly what the man told people, but certainly his testimony was this: God’s love restored me and, no matter what happens next, I know God’s love will always be with me. And I will never succumb to my fear again.

That’s a great message and, if we can steel ourselves to accept advice from a man whose body was once home to a legion of demons, these are words to live by.

All of us know what it is to be afraid.

Remember in the days immediately following nine-eleven, we stopped what we were doing watched fearfully every time an airplane passed overhead en route to Westchester airport?

That was a very fearful time for all of us, and it opened our mediated imaginations to terrible fears. Remember the rumor that “thousands of Muslims cheered in New Jersey” when the towers went down? It was not true, and a week after the terror attacks President George W. Bush condemned the rise of Islamophobia among certain groups:
“When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world,” the President said. “Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace.  And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race …Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow (Muslim) citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
That was a good use of the Bully Pulpit, and I sometimes wish we could hear those truths more often from our leaders in the corridors of power.

Because if the lesson of the demoniac has anything to say to us in the fearsome times in which we live, I think it is this:
God’s love is sufficient to overcome anything we fear. 

The reason the Garasenes feared Jesus is that they did not know him. He was someone other than the people they knew and trusted, and they didn’t take the time to get to know him. They didn’t understand that what he did for the demoniac was not a display of naked power but an act of infinite love. 

As a Christian who, as Luther put it, is simultaneously a sinner and saint, I am aware that my fear may make me indifferent to God’s love. It is my fear that forces my silence when a paranoid fear of the “other” compels the building of walls to prevent immigrants from crossing our national border, or detaining thousands of asylum seekers in detention camps, often separating parents from their children, because we are afraid to let people who are not like us mingle safely among us. 

The acting director of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency announced last week that ICE agents would be conducting raids today in 12 U.S. cities, targeting more than 2,000 undocumented residents.

Understandably, there was a vigorous condemnation of the planned raids by church and civic leaders, many of whom protested the plan as inhuman fear tactics. 

The acting ICE director, Mark Morgan, said, “This is not about fear. No one is instilling fear in anyone. This is about the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of the system.”

But of course it was about fear. 

Throughout our land today, thousands of people would have been afraid to leave their homes, to get into their cars, to go to work, to go to the store, to go to church. To those who lack empathy, the targeted people are the “others” who don’t fit in with the rest of us. But for those of us who have experienced God’s infinite love, they are our neighbors who Jesus told us to love unconditionally.

The sudden gush of air you may have felt at 3 p.m. yesterday was the collective sigh of relief when the White House announced today’s raids would be postponed for two weeks. (It was also the sudden in-taking of breath in preachers’ offices around the country when Sunday sermons had to be edited at the last minute.) 

But the ICE raids are still on the docket, and in our great land there are still those who fear the Other.

The Garasenes feared and rejected the love they could not understand.

Let us help one another overcome our fears with love. Let us pray for those whose fear leads them to conduct fearful acts against their neighbors. And let us pray for those neighbors who today are living in fear of powers and principalities that have forgotten the commandment of neighborly love.

Dear God, overcome our fears with love, and give us the courage to proclaim throughout our land how much Jesus has done for us.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Jesus Could Be Such a Card

Jesus was one rabbi who knew how to get a congregation’s attention.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said drolly, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23-24)

A camel passing through the eye of a needle! Jesus, you’re killin’ me! The image is vivid and unforgettable. 

It’s also funny. Few notice the humor because no one expects Jesus to do stand-up. I try to follow the Ignatian approach of imagining myself in a bible scene and I can almost see Jesus’ disappointment the first time he used the metaphor:

Jesus: “But seriously, folks, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Disciples: Silence. Puzzled expressions.
Jesus: Get it? Camels are huge!
Disciples: Silence. 
Jesus: And needles are … tiny, right? 
Disciples: Silence. 
Jesus: (Clears throat) So … of course no camel could …
Disciples: Silence. 
Jesus: (Walks away) OMG. Tough room.
Dr. Elton Trueblood, the Quaker writer and theologian, thought anyone who missed the fact that Jesus sprinkled his sermons with witticisms – that on some occasions Jesus was, as Mort Saul would put it, apocryphal of wry – is missing an important dimension of Christian theology.

God knows how easy it is to miss that dimension of Jesus homiletical style. Some of us grew up in congregations where a sober frown was regarded as the appropriate mask of faith and the giggles of children were sternly shushed. 

That’s a shame, because there is so much funny stuff in church lexicology that goes undetected. How can one keep a straight face, for example, when reading local press accounts of church high school football rivalries: PIUS X CREAMS MARY IMMACULATE.

Trueblood writes in The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, 1964) that the scriptures prove how much Jesus loved to laugh. His sermons and parables were generously sprinkled with irony, hyperbole, and droll scorn. 

Actually, Jesus scorn could be quite piercing. His reference to the Pharisees as “you snakes, you brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33a) is harsher than the more genteel “sons of bitches.”

Jesus’ love of laughter and the good life was used by his enemies to criticize him.  “For John came neither eating nor drinking,” Jesus said, referring to his cousin, the ascetic baptizer, “and they say, ‘he has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Matthew 11:24) 

It’s hard to imagine eating and drinking without jokes and laughter, so it’s no theological leap to conclude Jesus was a joke teller and a laugher.

The camel-and-needle shtick is not the only time Jesus uses gross exaggeration to get his point across. It’s an entertaining spiritual exercise to leaf through the Gospels to identify the times Jesus was just kidding and did not intend his words to be taken literally.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus uses hyperbolic images to drive home the point that everyone sins. 

Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28)  

This is a dismaying revelation to all us guys whose eyes stray toward well turned ankles in a crowd, telling ourselves it can’t hurt to look. It is especially challenging today as we are assaulted by mass media that offer images of hundreds of beautiful women and men for instant ogling and free-based fantasizing. 

But wait, there’s more. 

“If your right eye causes you to sin,” Jesus continued, “tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” 

Point made, but Jesus was not advocating mass blindness on an Oedipal scale. If vicarious lust required wandering eyes to be cast out, the whole world would bump blindly into another Jesus story: “If one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14b). Slapstick humor. 

Nor is Jesus is not above sardonic scatology: “Do you see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (Matthew 15:17-18) Again, the point is made and the mental image – even if it doesn’t elicit a giggle or two – is unforgettable.

Also unforgettable is Jesus’ send-up of the scribes and Pharisees as he explains in quick-fire Rodney Dangerfield staccato why they should get no respect:

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (referring to the more visible sartorial symbols of pharisaic piety, Matthew 23:5). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he said, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27).  

Jesus! Lighten up!

“Or,” Jesus said to the crowd gathering on the mount, “how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5)

But as hard as it is to imagine a log in someone’s eye, the camel passing through the eye of the needle is the hyperbolic tour de force

It’s also one of those biblical images we’ve heard so often that its rhetorical power is waning. To get a better measure of how delightfully surprising the camel-needle image can be, tell it to a nursery class – checking, of course, that they know what camels and needles are. Children who encounter it for the first time recognize a riotous Sesame Street image when they hear one.

When Jesus uses humor to grab the attention of his congregation, it’s usually to call attention to a very serious point. For many, the point he was making in the camel reference is too heavy to bear.

“Jesus said to (a rich young man), ‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:21-22).

The rich young man is never cited as an exemplary biblical role model, which is ironic. Most of us follow his lead anyway. There are many who tithe to the church, and many whose charitable contributions are substantial and generous. But few of us are inclined to sell all our possessions for the benefit of the poor, and those who do run the risk of being committed to mental health facilities for psychosis or dementia.

But Jesus knew very well how difficult it is for the saner among us to give away all we have.

“Truly I tell you,” he told his disciples – he may have been smiling wryly, but that was never recorded – “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Da Dum. (Matthew 19:23-24)

The gross exaggeration challenges the imagination and has inspired hundreds of internet cartoonists. (Search “camel through eye of needle” on your computer to see some diverting examples.) 

The hyperbole is so strained, in fact, that it’s tempting to hope Jesus was overstating his advice to the rich young man as well. “Jesus was kidding, right?” prosperous persons ask their spiritual advisors. “We don’t really have to give away everything we have to the poor?” 

But Jesus does not appear to be kidding. And his use of the camel-needle metaphor does not mean we can dismiss the whole idea with a wink. On the contrary, the allegorical leap is Jesus’ way of saying he knows full well how hard it would be to give away all we have.

The disciples did not laugh at the far-fetched simile. They were, scripture tells us, astounded. “Then who,” they asked, “can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them reassuringly, perhaps winking, perhaps smiling. “For mortals it is impossible,” he said, “but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26).

Jesus used a silly simile to guide us toward several profound truths. Among them:

During our earthly life spans, it makes no sense to acquire more possessions than we need to live comfortably and support our families. Stored up treasures become the love of your life. (Matthew 6:21)

God has a particular love for the poor that is expressed in hundreds of scripture verses throughout the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures. If our pursuit of possessions causes us to be indifferent to the poor, we will be indifferent to God. 

During our earthly life spans, our primary task is to love God and love our neighbors. When our neighbors are struggling amid poverty and injustice, God expects us to intervene in their suffering and do all that we can to help.

The meaning of life is discoverable in our love of God and our love for the human beings with whom we live. If we are distracted by the pursuit of riches, we will fall far short of God’s intention for our lives.

Getting our lives on track means setting aside the pursuit of riches, putting mere possessions in their proper perspective, and re-dedicating our lives to God’s love.

Accomplishing that is difficult beyond belief ; in fact, as Jesus observed with a grin, it’s virtually impossible. Like getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

But with God, all things are possible. And camels pass easily through the eyes of needles for the amusement of all and for the glory of the God of love.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

When God's Message is Hard to Read

“The beginning of the spiritual life is often difficult not only because the powers which cause us to worry are so strong,” Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote, “but also because the presence of God’s Spirit seems barely noticeable.”

Sad but true. Sometimes the Spirit of God is hard to detect.

But it’s an odd thought to insert between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, when the Holy Spirit is supposed to be in ascendance. Where is the Spirit, anyway? What is she saying to us? If the spirit is among us, or inside us, why don’t we feel her? If the spirit is inside us this moment, why aren’t we citadels of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? 

Sometimes I feel those things, but not all at once. And more often the serenity of the Spirit eludes me and I am anxious, worried, and fretful.

Part of that recurring anxiety may be due to the three years I spent as a police and political reporter for the Pottstown Mercury in Pennsylvania. A reporter sees a lot of grief and tragedy. All of us experience loss and pain at some point in our lives, but a reporter sees it happen to someone every day: fatal fires and auto wrecks, airplane crashes, murders, murder suicides, sky jumping deaths, sexual assaults, child abuse. Police, ambulance drivers, judges, and pastors see it, too. We become those pain-in-the-ass parents who growl when our kids ask for the keys to the car. “Aw, I’ll be careful,” they insist. “Nothing is going to happen.” But we know better. Something does happen, to someone, every day.

Of the thousands of poems I scanned as an English major in the sixties and seventies, there is one I can still recite from memory: “Hap,” by the British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy loves loss is my hate's profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan...
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

The poem was written in 1866 when Hardy was 26 years old. Some people think Hardy was having a depressive reaction to the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which set forth the theory of evolution. For millions of good Anglicans – including Darwin himself – the book was a serious challenge to the story of creation and the nature of God.

In “Hap,” Hardy registers a complaint against the universe: if he is going to suffer and die because an Almighty God wills it, so be it, amen! But if suffering and joy are heaped upon us by chance, woe to us all. My own Haiku puts it more crudely:

Life sucks with dreadful
Interludes. Will God be there
When it’s time to die?

Most of the time we can face life with a qualified optimism. It has been eighteen years since 9/11, and there have been no further terror attacks – although a common prayer of drivers when they head into the Holland Tunnel is, “Please, God, not today.” But even reporters and cops have no reason to suspect imminent mayhem, especially this time of year, especially in June. Perhaps a little James Russell Lowell will provide an antidote to the pessimistic Hardy:

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten ...

Sometimes it’s possible to sustain Lowell’s optimistic airs, at least when the sun shines. But every now and then something happens that gives us pause: Trump, the earthquakes in Iran, and once natural disasters exacerbated by human folly and climate change: killer tornados and hurricanes, unprecedented floods in the American mid-west. Every now and then the media reports that a huge asteroid is passing precariously close to the earth’s orbit – a celestial phenomenon that happens often enough to inspire science fiction films. In the 1998 movie, Armageddon, an asteroid the size of Texas is headed for earth and the world's best deep core drilling team is sent to nuke the rock from the inside.

A century or more ago, it was easier to enjoy God’s creation without worrying about killer asteroids. Of course, asteroids did come, they did hit the earth, and the results were catastrophic. Some scientists attribute the extinction of the dinosaurs to an asteroid collision that strown (as Hardy would put it) dust and debris into the atmosphere for months, blotted out the sun and killed off the flora and fauna on which the dinosaurs depended to live. In 1908, an explosion rivaling the detonation of a hydrogen bomb leveled 830 square miles of forest near Tunguska, Russia – an event scientists believe was caused by an exploding asteroid. It happened in a remote area of Siberia, so few people noticed it at the time. If the asteroid had exploded over Port Chester – and it was pure chance that it did not – it would have been famous.

Happily, our ancestors rarely worried about these events because they didn’t know about them. If you Google “asteroid,” you get plenty of apocalyptic (if not always scientific) speculations. Scientists say a huge asteroid will hit the earth in 2036. No, update: in 2182. Whenever. Asteroids have hit the earth before and they will hit the earth again.

Is there any way we can bring ourselves to stop worrying and love the asteroid? Many of us pray to a more powerfuller than we that the asteroid will miss us and hit somewhere else, or that it will avoid the earth until 2036 when our grandchildren can deal with it. But either petition puts us in the same predicament faced by the women and men of London during the Blitz in 1941. Is it fair to pray that the bombs will miss your house if they will hit your neighbor’s house instead?

Sometimes it’s exhausting to inventory all the things we have to worry about, ranging from your kids dinging the car to an asteroid hit on the Empire State Building. Life is unpredictable. Trump is still in office. Children are being separated from their parents and locked in cages on our border.  Xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamaphobia are encouraged. The human causes of climate change are smugly denied by the dunderheads who run our government. There’s not enough Alprazolam in the world to help us deal with the stress.

Which brings us back to Henri J.M. Nouwen, a spiritual leader whose authentic spirituality my spouse, the Divine Doc M, observed when she sat in a classroom with him during her seminary years. “The beginning of the spiritual life is often difficult not only because the powers which cause us to worry are so strong,” Nouwen wrote, “but also because the presence of God's Spirit seems barely noticeable.”

On Trinity Sunday, it seems more urgent than ever that we notice God’s spirit. The powers which cause us to worry are stronger than our will to set them aside, and until we can do that, our spiritual life remains embryonic. But how do we do it?

Nouwen is frank. In another blog this week he wrote: “How can we move from fragmentation to unity, from many things to the one thing necessary, from our divided lives to undivided lives in the Spirit?” His answer: “A hard struggle is required.”

Sometimes I think the struggle is too hard. In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that some theologians believe the one sin beyond redemption is blasphemy against the Spirit. And I wonder: is it blasphemy to doubt that the Spirit will keep her promise to be with us at all times as an advocate against the powers that cause us worry?

No doubt Nouwen is correct. When the presence of God’s spirit is hard to detect, a hard struggle is required. And we can’t be passive about the struggle, delegating it as we often do to our pastor or our spouse or our loved ones. It has to take place within ourselves.

Brother Thomas Merton said that detecting the presence of the Spirit will require a willful shutting off of all the powers that cause us worry – turning off our televisions and computers, setting our iPods aside, closing our windows against the drone of traffic – and sitting in expectant silence. Only in the silence, Brother Thomas said, will we begin to hear the barely audible voice that dwells within us: the voice of the Spirit of God.

It won’t be easy, but the fruits are magnificent, the antithesis of the human weaknesses and worries that distract us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)

But here’s the thing. We can't get there without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it takes many quiet moments to detect her presence. The journey to spirituality is not a caravan we join to follow others to the destination. It's a road we have to walk ourselves.

As always, Nouwen tells us where to begin.“Prayer,” he writes, “is in many ways the criterion of Christian life. Prayer requires that we stand in God's presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing.”

Once we acknowledge our complete dependence, the Spirit of God will guide us all the way.