Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?

Listen for the whisper of the wind.

(You can hear a podcast of this sermon here)

John 14:8-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

That great Iranian Sufi mystic Rumi in his work “Mathnawi”, which some have called the Persian Koran tells this interesting story: (It is worth noting that Persia/Iran falls within the boundaries of the listed observers in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost)

A certain king used to persecute the Christians, desiring to exterminate their faith. His Vazir persuaded him to try a stratagem, namely, to mutilate the Vazir himself, and expel him from his court, with the intent that he might take refuge with the Christians, and stir up mutual dissensions amongst them.

The Vazir’s suggestion was adopted.’ He fled to the Christians, and found no difficulty in persuading them that he had been treated in that barbarous way on account of his attachment to the Christian faith. He soon gained complete influence over them, and was accepted as a saintly martyr and a divine teacher. Only a few discerning men divined his treachery; the majority were all deluded by him.

The Christians were divided into twelve legions, and at the head of each was a captain. To each of these captains the Vazir gave secretly a volume of religious directions, taking care to make the directions in each volume different from and contradictory to those in the others. One volume enjoined fasting, another charity, another faith, another works, and so on.

Afterwards the Vazir withdrew into a cave, and refused to come out to instruct his disciples, in spite of all their entreaties. Calling the captains to him, he gave secret instructions to each to set himself up as his successor, and to be guided by the instructions in the volume secretly confided to him, and to slay all other claimants of the apostolic office. Having given these directions, he slew himself.

In the event each captain set himself up as the Vazir’s successor, and the Christians were split up into many sects at enmity with one another, even as the Vazir had intended. But the malicious scheme did not altogether succeed, as one faithful band cleaved to the name of “Ahmad,” mentioned in the Gospel,’ and were thus saved from sharing the ruin of the rest.

What on earth, you may ask, has this story to do with the feast of Pentecost?

Well, the ending gives the key. Rumi refers to the one faithful band who cleaved to the name of “Ahmad mentioned in the gospel” I have never heard of Ahmad, except as a name for Muslim men I have met, so I was grateful for the footnote in my copy of the Mathnawi that states:

“John 14:26 “But the Comforter (parakletos) shall teach you all things.” Muselmans (sic) read periklytos, (praised) as referring to Mohammed” An interesting way of sychronizing ,or should that be syncretising, the Gospel with the Quran.

Despite Rumi’s little bit of triumphalistic proselytising, ( sometimes it does us Christians some good to be on the receiving end!) the story is a powerful one. The power comes from the fact that it is so true!

As a Protestant I am humbled and embarrassed that my “brand” is one of over thirty thousand Protestant denominations that have divided and divided and are still doing so at viral rates; all in the name of Jesus and claiming to be blown by the Holy Spirit!

Just like the lying Vazir we have clung to our dogmatic beliefs that our Bibliolatrous books and doctrine will save us and like the Vazir we have even begged to be mutilated in our self-chosen martyrdoms and then have licked our wounds with relish and believed we are suffering for Jesus. Yet just as in the story, the megalomania eventually withdraws, kills itself and leaves chaos and division in its wake. Just look at the number of churches on the streets of your town and you will see what I mean.

This was certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he prayed in John 17:21 “...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Jesus was very clear. The paraclete, the counsellor/comforter/helper would teach and remind us of all that Jesus taught. That was pretty simple to remember anyway, “Love God, Love your neighbour, Love yourself, Avoid violence, Don’t seek power, Remember the poor, Pour our your life daily” This is not difficult to recall especially when we have the helper, the Spirit of Jesus, his heart, his mind, his soul united to the Father and breathing in us every moment of every day!

It is here that Rumi’s parable delivers the killer punch. In the story, the Christians don’t listen to the paraclete, they listen to the Vazir.

A Vazir, eymologically means counsellor too. The word entered English in 1562, from the Turkish vezir (“counsellor”), and from the Arabic wazir (“viceroy”), āzara (“to help”), and the root wzr (“to help somebody”)

The word however came to mean Viceroy and Chief Minister to the Caliph, and was adopted to have only political and not spiritual meaning.

So instead of hearing the Paraclete whispering in our hearts to remember Jesus, we have come to trust the Vazir beguiling our heads to believe our suspicious fears.

We divide, we destroy, we deny that we are lost. Whatever we are doing, and for whatever reasons, it is not working! We have been listening to the wrong voice in the wrong place.

I think we need a breath fresh air.

Thank God, the breath of Pentecost is coming!

The Biggest Temptation of All

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”  Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”  Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,   for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’   and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”   Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

One of the greatest challenges I have to deal with daily, as a White, Western-thinking, Euro-African who now represents only nine percent of the demographics of South Africa; is that I don’t know what to do.

It’s not that I “don’t know what to do“. As a Western trained person I have a ton of ideas in every minute of exactly how the world should be! The world my way! The problem is that I arrogantly assume that my solution is the best, most logical and most obvious to any other rational human being. The frustration and anger that follows when no-one else agrees with me, nor implements my ideas, is proof that I have fallen prey to the Biggest Temptation the Wilderness held out to Jesus and holds out to anyone with ego, energy and ideas. The temptation of the quick fix

It is difficult to wait with a problem when your mind and skills base tell you that you know exactly what to do. Add to your competence a resource of divine power, and we begin to see what the temptations of Jesus were really about.

Food

Overflowing with compassion at the suffering of the people that he had grown up with, Jesus wanted more than anything to see the hungry fed. Stones to bread was a simple solution. It was a quick fix. In Africa we are constantly confounded by how a well meaning air-drop of tons of food to starving people on this continent, can issue in cartels of connivance and control as food becomes another weapon to be used by the power mongers with the assault rifles. How can the well intended dropping of food be so abused to increase the suffering of the starving who can now see the bags of food they still have no access to?

Favours

In a world lost and hungry for meaning Jesus knew that he had a secret that could change lives forever. Would it be so bad to enter a coalition with another spiritual super-power, for the good it could bring? Surely together they could do more than when divided?

South Africa really liked the idea of trading with China, and still does. How embarrassing when that alliance meant the South African Government had to refuse a visa to the Dalai Llama who was invited to the country by the Buddhist community here. Quick fix coalitions can have counterproductive consequences.

Fantasy

Who doesn’t love a thrill? Entertainment is a massive global industry. It is fuelled by our need for illusions that will be the quick fix to the agony of reality we face daily.

Travel through any informal settlement in this country and you will see television antennae sticking out from the simplest of shacks. Everyone needs to be entertained.

Of course the media can do a power of good to expose and to educate. That is why every oppressive regime will demand total control of the media. In South Africa we have had experience of that in our dark history.

But fantasy and entertainment can also have devastating effects. What is a young man, with no education and no employment , to do when he sees on the television that to be a real man, he has to drive a German car, wear a Swiss named watch, and wear the shoes that it seems everyone in New York is wearing?

How does that young man become what he is told by the media to become if he has an illegal fire arm and a head full of crack-cocaine. What does he do when he knows where the people live who have what he has to have? If you don’t know the answer, read your next daily newspaper, it will tell the story of young men like the one I have described.

It is very difficult not to fall for the quick fix.

Food, Favours and Fantasy are powerful temptations, that have seduced even the church for centuries. They still do.

So what did Jesus know that made it possible for him to survive?

Based on his answers in this passage he seems to have understood that:

  • Food is not the only supporter of meaningful life.
  • That Faithfulness is more important than favours.
  • Living a fantasy is the ultimate deception for the soul/ego.

The journey through Lent each year offers us the opportunity of cutting through the veils of deception that so easily wind around us.

  • We fast, becoming aware of our obsessions with food.
  • We seek solitude with God, examining our dependence on networks of favour and power that often supplant our trust in God.
  • We simplify, our use of media and entertainment and come to live our God given realities in gratitude without constantly testing God to make things different from the way they are.

And through these forty days we pray to see that the quick fix for ourselves and others, is the biggest temptation of all.

Have you “herd”? – Epiphany 4

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week we considered the nine word one-liner sermon that Jesus gave as he sat down after reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. This week’s Gospel reading opens with those nine words and continues…
‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’
So Jesus had clearly finished the formal exposition from the words.
The narrative now continues with Jesus speaking as if he knew what the people were thinking.

It is a common homiletic device. As a Methodist I was weaned on it as John Wesley used it frequently. The preacher verbalizes what they think the audience is thinking. In this case and often for Wesley, it takes the form of objections that may be in the mind of the hearer. “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

Jesus then makes a statement that , “…no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town”, and goes on to illustrate his point by referencing two events. One from the life of Elijah and one from his successor Elisha.
In both stories he points to the fact that God’s favour is not determined nor directed by familial, community or cultural rights of access. Being a home-boy does not give Nazareth special rights of privilege. In fact it would seem that cosmopolitan Capernaum is a preferred site for signs of God’s reign.
It is worth remembering that it was only the other day, in 2007, we crossed a line.  Since then,  for the first time in human history, more people on the planet live in cities than in the country. Before that cities were seen as places of excess and debauchery. Tire, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, you can complete your own list, but I think for Nazarenes, Capernaum would be on their list.

This was not what the good homeys of Nazareth wanted to hear. They of all people had rights and claims to this their home-reared son.
Again, in our individualistic, Western, deconstructed nuclear families, we may not feel the tug of clan and community as the culture of Jesus would have exerted it. Those of us in more tribal cultures will have a better grip on this pressure. Imagine club, team, religion, herd, culture, gang; whatever helps to understand that people who share your origins, believe they have rights above others on your talents. Imagine that, and you will have an angle on why the Nazareth congregation became so angry.
One moment they were praising the gracious words, the next they were an angry mob wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Years ago I watched Anthony Quinn pay tribute to Ingrid Bergman. ‘What made Ingrid great’, he said,’is that she was able to see fame and criticism for the impostors they are.‘ Jesus had the gift before Ingrid.

Let’s not forget that in the Gospel record two archetypal events had preceded this preaching in Nazareth.
At his baptism, Jesus had heard from God, just who he really was. “That’s my boy! I am so proud of you
In the wilderness, the shadows of ego, ambition, and power had constelated into a diabolical manifestation called, al-Shaitan= the adversary.  Jesus knowing who he was in God’s sight managed to hold his vocation and vision intact through the forty day ordeal.
Is it any wonder that he was not particularly threatened by some home town good-ole boys who got angry because he wouldn’t dance to their tune?

Christ following is a demanding and ego-threatening enterprise.
Loyalties, connections, cultural nuances, demands, threats, will all be grist to the mill that will sift us like wheat.
We will have to know who we are AND we will have to face the shadow adversaries within us.

So, how did he manage to walk through the “midst of them” and “go on his way“?

My years in conflict mediation have given me a clue.
Some mobs, some crowds, some passionate, vindictively righteous assemblies, can get so enraged, so angry, so violent, so hynotised by their fulminations that truth, light, and Universal Love, are able to depart from amongst them so swiftly they don’t even notice!

Hey! Where did you go?