The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380

Diversity in unity: A Reformation sermon

Of all that can be said about the tragic events of October 22, 2014 at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill, one thing we can agree on: something changed. In the aftermath of the shootings, we are still figuring out exactly what.

The day started for me with great anticipation that evening of the ‘battle of Ontario’ between the Senators and Maple Leafs at the Canadian Tire Centre. The day certainly didn’t end that way.

As I drove past the quieted Canadian Tire Centre with its vast, empty parking lots on my home late that tragic day, I marvelled how a single act of cowardly violence could alter the psyche of a city: The anticipation of a sell-out, jam-packed arena was suddenly silenced. Instead, I along with the rest of the city was eager to get home to be with family and loved ones after a day of anxious and often chaotic lock-downs in schools and downtown buildings.

Images of armed officers and special police units swarming familiar and beloved symbols of national remembrance, barricaded Members of Parliament, horrific visions of a slumped body at the foot of the war memorial ricocheted in my mind. Sounds of gun shots from security personnel in the Hall of Honour in Centre Block echoed in my head.

And then, words from the Prime Minster and other party leaders assuring Canadians that this attack was aimed at undermining our values. It seems times of collective crisis, such as this one, burn through all our usual distractions and reveals what is truly important to us. Indeed, now is the time to affirm, and attempt to clarify, what is the nature of our identity and community.

Earlier in the day I went to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where the victims of the violence were taken. The place was streaming with extra security personnel at the entrances and in front of the emergency department. What struck me was the way in which the medical staff went about their usual business of caring for the patients in the hospital. Obviously aware of the ongoing, ‘dynamic’ operation downtown and the possibility of many more injured to arrive any time, they nevertheless kept to their scheduled procedures with smiles and loving attentiveness to others. Their jobs, however routine, became infused and enlivened with caring compassion, in the moment.

On the eve of the shootings, Bishop Munib Younan — president of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands — spoke in downtown Ottawa to a diverse group of Lutheran leaders and laity about peace. He described an image often portrayed in the media of young people in his part of the world throwing stones at their enemies. Bishop Younan prays for a day when those stones could be used to build bridges of peace.

How appropriate. He was, after all, speaking to Canadians whose international reputation is one of peace-keeping and building, respecting the humanity dignity of all people.

In all the media reporting on Wednesday, I heard an American security official comment on what he saw to be a typical Canadian response: He observed how RCMP officers and Ottawa Police communicated with the public on the streets of downtown Ottawa in the hours following the shooting; they would often say ‘please’ move to the other side of the street. Politeness and consideration continued to be hallmarks of our public interaction, even in the midst of a crisis.

Some say now we should no longer be so ‘laid back’ as Canadians. We should be tougher, more aggressive. On Reformation Sunday today we sing with pride Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Let us, dear friends, not become the fortress where we exclude others who are different from us. Let us, dear friends, not become a fortress where violence escalates and hatred is encouraged — which is precisely what the haters want. Now is the time to affirm what has always characterized us for the good.

But what is that, as Lutherans? Martin Luther affirmed that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’. What is a good metaphor for grace? Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Grace pools like water at the bottom of things. Water flows naturally into the lowest recesses of a land’s topography. Vast rivers seek their way downward towards the ocean. The grace of God is like water, whose primary direction is downward.

The cross of Christ is a symbol that God is discovered precisely where it hurts the most, where we feel the most vulnerable and shamed and exposed. This was central in the thinking and theology of Martin Luther — the Cross: God is found where we least expect it, when we least expect it. This is relevant especially to Canadians and Ottawans in particular, in light of what has just happened.

Could we respond not just with pronouncements of who we should be more like, but with a sober affirmation of who we are? Could we respond with a commitment to paying attention to what is reality for most of humanity around the globe, and not just for the rich and famous, privileged and elite? Could we respond by embracing again a faith that proclaims resurrection and new life through the ‘momentary’ suffering that comes to us all?

Martin Luther experienced the devil, at which he threw ink wells and much profanity, while alone in his study at Wartburg and during an immense personal struggle and angst. The Germans have a good word for it — ‘anfechtung’ — which describes an internal battle. The devil is not personified in any particular religious group or ethnic profile, but comes to us all in our own personal struggle with hatred, blaming, and self-righteousness. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that our struggle is not against enemies of ‘blood and flesh’ but against ‘cosmic powers and spiritual forces’ to which we are, each and everyone of us, vulnerable. Therefore, in the words from 1 Peter 5:6-11 …

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.

A mighty fortress IS our God. God will shelter us under the wings of God’s care and protection. No matter where we go — in the public spaces or by ourselves, alone. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

The desert journey begins

One of the first things we do even before setting out on the journey is to contemplate: “What should I bring along?” And so we need to imagine what it is we will be getting ourselves into, on this journey. Where will I go? What will I do? What will the weather be like? As such, we must initially deal with our expectations.

And as the weather goes, so the reality of what actually happens once we get on the road might not coincide at all with what we had anticipated. We all know those people who travel without high expectations or a highly controlled agenda; they just experience things and deal with situations when they arise. And if that’s how we are to travel on this spiritual journey, some of us may not want to go; we may get stuck even before we head out the door.

And yet, we know, no amount of planning can determine precisely how we experience the journey.

Jesus wandered the hillside, countryside and byways around Palestine. It seems every time we encounter Jesus in the Gospels he is on the move. He is either coming or going. And so it is consistent with the nature of the pilgrim God we worship: Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he even begins his ministry, the Spirit of God sends him into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights where he fasts and contemplates the journey ahead (Matthew 4:1).

“Do not worry,” Jesus later preached, “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink … what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25,31). In the desert, admittedly, those luxuries become somewhat irrelevant, don’t they?

Jesus goes into the desert. We may not literally need to go into the desert – although you can understand why ancient Christian pilgrims made it a point to spend time in the desert as our Lord did because you cannot find a more austere location for a true ‘letting go’. An actual desert pilgrimage brought spiritual benefit for many followers of Christ. But the harsh climate in that setting – with the sand dunes, scorpions, snakes and burning hot air – can also stand as a metaphor for us.

Michael Pacher’s masterful, artistic depiction of the temptation of Jesus on an altar piece in the Sankt Wolfgang church in Austria shows Jesus and the devil not in the middle of a desert as we would imagine. But on a narrow street in a medieval town in front of a cathedral, of all places. And what is more, the devil is not holding a pitch fork and coloured red. He is wearing a monk’s habit and bent over like an elderly, wizened man.

Pacher’s interpretation is worthy of reflection, as he translates the desert into his own daily reality. Living in the 15th century, Pacher implies in his art that the journey of faith is not tied down, literally, to any particular geography but is lived out especially in one’s own place, wherever one is. What is more, our greatest temptations are more subtle. What can destroy us will more often than not come disguised in familiar, even culturally acceptable ways and people.

We often discover, do we not, that the greatest challenges and difficulties on the road arise from the least expected sources — you packed the wrong pair of shoes, or you can’t decide whether to grab a quick burger here or there or skip lunch altogether. The biggest temptations, or tests, come from the most familiar, most common and from those nearest to us — even from within ourselves!

And yet, we do not overcome the devil by avoiding this pilgrim journey. In truth, the only way we experience redemption, healing and restoration is by committing to the journey through the desert of our lives.

Go, we must, should we seek the Lord. Jesus went into the desert. And so, we will follow there. “Follow me” Jesus called to his disciples (e.g. Matthew 9:9). But how shall we be? What shall we do?

If we follow Jesus into the desert, we must also consider about what Jesus was tempted. And we know that Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of all, right up to the end when he hung on the cross “despised and rejected” was taunted again by the voice of the devil in the passersby: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:39-40).

We know that, as from the beginning, Satan tempts his victims to go for power: To Eve he promised: “You can be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Perhaps this is why the first of the Ten Commandments establishes who is the God we are to worship and place undying trust in: “I am the Lord your God … you shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). The three temptations of Christ are really three variations on this same basic theme: the turning of the bread – about the miraculous; the falling from the temple – about the spectacle; and while the first two show semblance of persuasion, the third goes directly for sheer control (p.46, Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 2, JN Press Kentucky, 2010): “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4:8-9).

The pilgrim ‘desert’ journey is the sure fire antidote to the danger of pretending we have ultimate power and control over life. It is the path of humility, letting go, and ultimate trust in God – that God will take care of us as He did Jesus.

But we have to move. On a journey, we move, physically. We put one foot forward at a time. What tangible, intentional discipline will you do during these forty days before us now? Whatever it is you decide to take up in Lent, envision each time you do it like taking one step forward on that journey.

In worship, we symbolize an intentional discipline by refraining from singing “Alleluia”, the Hymn of Praise after the Kyrie, and, generally, simplifying and toning down the style of worship. We also give opportunity for more prayer and worship on Wednesday evenings, during which we practice the ancient Christian rite of laying on of hands and anointing with oil. With tangible, earthy, disciplines that we do together, we keep our feet on the ground and moving forward. Our soup suppers before worship on Wednesdays are intentionally simple, to remind us that we have all that we need in trusting Jesus for our very lives.

And despite the temptations and set-backs we may occasionally experience on the road, Jesus goes with us. What Jesus shows us, above all, in his wilderness experience was an unyielding trust in God, the Father. After all, it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness in the first place. Jesus needed to trust God that God knew what He was doing in sending Jesus on this unappealing journey. Jesus had to trust God’s words in Scripture over-against the devil’s wiles. Jesus had to trust God that in the end, his needs would be met. And indeed, they were, as angels came to attend to his hunger and physical need (Matthew 4:11).

Whatever temptations come our way, they are essentially an invitation not to trust God. Temptations are those ways of thinking and behavior that place more and more power and control in our hands – as if we were God. Instead, we are invited each Lenten season, specifically, to welcome opportunities to be vulnerable, to open our hearts, to not be afraid to go on that journey into the desert and experience for some time what is feels like to let go, and trust God even more.