I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.
As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England. Take a look:
Haseley Church, Oxon.
I wonder what you notice about the lay out?
When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service. Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?
Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.
Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?
What would be the possible benefits of this?
Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.
Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers […]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.
All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.
Sermon Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8
The big news in the Christian world last week was the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Some have asked why I, as an Episcopal Priest, and we as Anglicans/Episcopalians, should care. Fundamentally, we care because Francis is the newly elected leader of over a billion of the world’s Christians. We also care because, unlike many other non-Roman Catholic Christian traditions, Anglicans have, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth (see Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England) and certainly in our more recent dialogues, recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while rejecting universal jurisdiction. All of which means, Anglicans are in the position of honoring the Pope, while simultaneously upholding the principal of autonomy and conciliarism (when we’re at our best).
This is in great contrast to the position of some other traditions, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and a number of staunchly Reformed denominations, which specifically refer to the Pope–or the office of the papacy, if not the person–as Antichrist. Such language is a vestige of the polemics of the Reformation era and is unsurprising, when you consider the high tensions of the time. Consider how frustrated Martin Luther was with the actions of the papacy, most especially actions such as selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was so frustrated with what he viewed as the excesses of the papal court, that he wrote the following in On Christian liberty:
The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty).
In his frustration, Luther both echoed and foreshadowed criticisms of the papacy, and the church more generally.
Many of these criticisms, over finances, buildings and so forth, are familiar to us, not only because they’re regularly hurled at the Roman Catholic Church, but at churches of all denominations. And there are times the accusations are all too true. At other times, they serve as evidence of a sort of miserliness which seeks to avoid responsibility for one’s neighbor by calling from some disembodied and disconnected “church” to provide social services or resources. I’m sure many of us have either heard or even voiced criticisms of the church for spending this or that amount of money on buildings, items for worship, or salaries and so forth. In many cases, these criticisms are overblown, but they are also understandable from the perspective of history.
In this area of concern, Francis has already begun to make a name for himself, as he has done things such as pay his own hotel bill, retrieve his own bags, and ride in the bus with his fellow cardinals, rather than taking one of the papal cars. This is all in keeping with the way he seems to have conducted himself in Argentina, eschewing the Archiepiscopal Palace and instead living in a simple apartment, and refusing a car and driver, to instead ride public transportation. The facts that such actions have been so warmly received indicate a degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the way in which churches have used funds and of the way in which Christians and Christian leaders have conducted themselves.
But as we celebrate simplicity, we need to remind ourselves not to slip over into the easy and selfish mode of being tightfisted with money and other resources. Ours is not a God of scarcity, but plenty. This was the dynamic of the conflict set up in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the disciples about multiple facets of generosity and appropriate extravagance.
Mary of Bethany
Jesus returns to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary. While there he and the disciples dine with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In the course of dinner Mary comes forward to Jesus, takes a pound of perfume or fragrant ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.
There is an undeniable oddity and awkwardness to this situation. As one commentator put it, you might think of this as the sort of uncomfortable over-the-top emotional display that puts everyone else on edge. The disciples would have additionally been uncomfortable with this kind of display between a woman and a man. Beyond these elements of discomfort, there is the issue of the value of the ointment. Check the size of any perfumes or colones in your house. Do any of you have 1lbs bottles? This was extravagant; a sign of abundance.
In the midst of this, the contrasting actions of Mary and Judas are held up: Mary, giving far more than would ever be expected or considered appropriate. Judas, voicing the concerns of an overly rigid culture and faith. An uncomfortable part of this lesson is that many of us would likely respond similarly. Not simply because of the amount of perfume, but because of its cost. When the house is filled with the fragrance, Judas blurts out: “why wasn’t this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John, of course, tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned for the poor, but he does highlight the bizarre excess of what Mary has done. 300 denarii was a year’s wages for the ordinary laborer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall plopping down a year’s wages on a single thing.
Jesus’ response to Judas’ challenge, “leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” serves to highlight the proclamation Mary’s actions constitute. Of all the disciples, it is Mary of Bethany who understands what is about to transpire in Jerusalem, and responds accordingly. On the opposite pole stands Judas, who, of all the disciples, not only can’t understand Jesus’ mission, but comes to actively reject it and betray his Lord.
Jesus’ statement, that she had brought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial, clears up any confusion about whether this was some act of welcome–such as washing the feet of a traveler–or some other strange form of a normal act. Instead, we are informed that Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus for burial: the time really is at hand.
In this sense Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene stand as bookends of the passion & resurrection account: Mary of Bethany, who recognizes what is to transpire beforehand and seeks to prepare Jesus for the grave, responding to the extravagance of the gift of his life, with the most open-handed gesture of giving and thanksgiving she could imagine, and Mary Magdalene who becomes the Apostles to the Apostles, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.1
It is upon this note of extravagant giving that our lesson turns: Jesus’ giving of himself, the dramatic offering it inspires in Mary, and finally, the acts of abundance to which we are all called as Christians.
You see, some have seen in Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, a justification for poverty: You always have the poor with you. The poor are always going to exist, so soothe your conscious and move along.
No. That’s not the message of Christ.
The point of this interlude is to emphasize Christ’s coming work on the cross, but also to emphasize the appropriate type and degree of response from Christ’s people: complete and utter extravagance and giving. In other words: The poor will always be with you, and you will always be called to give beyond what the world finds reasonable. The poor will always be with you. Where Christ’s disciples are, there the poor will gather. Where the poor are, Christ’s disciples must gather, so that God’s extravagant love can be appropriately proclaimed.
You will always have the poor,
You will always have the sick,
You will always have the grieving,
You will always have the lonely,
You will always have the widow,
You will always have neighbors,
You will always have
people to love,
to pray for,
The need to seek forgiveness
The opportunity to offer it.
You will always have the assurance of salvation.
You will always have Christ with you. And the chance to share the good news with others.
This is the extravagant gift of God, and we are called to respond in kind.
It should be noted that the Latin tradition has conflated Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the repentant woman of Luke. Greek tradition maintains they are three distinct individuals and protestants move between two and three. [↩]
It’s strange to consider that we will shortly be entering the season of Lent. Strange because time seems to be moving at such a rapid pace. Where did 2012 go again? 2011? 2010? But strange also because I believe we were thrown into a spirit of mourning even as we prepared for the celebration of Christmas.
When we heard about the deaths of the children of Newtown Connecticut, the bitter taste of ash and the sting of loss and grief punctuated the coming remembrance of the first advent of Grace in flesh. Of course, there have been mass shootings before, all too common in fact. But less common than the more widespread murders that darken the streets of our cities and towns throughout each year. The Newtown massacre brought home to us the senselessness and the human loss of all of these tragedies, I believe, because of the clear-eyed innocence of the victims.
It was in the context of thinking about Lent and Lenten mourning that my mind was drawn back to Sandy Hook and to several other tragic and challenging events in the parish and larger community. How is it humanly possible to deal with such things without simply becoming cynical or jaded, by becoming more and more heartless, less and less willing to feel? Or, alternatively, how to we deal with such horrendous events when they occur in our own lives when the options aren’t so much to be wracked by pain or close ourselves off from feeling, but rather, to be wracked by pain and never move out of it, but linger within it allowing pain to stagnate into bitterness and harsh anger?
Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this struggle. Consider the Collect for Ash Wednesday, and its unflinching take on the human condition and God’s mercy:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP, 166).
Unsurprisingly, given the way we tend to think about Lent, this collect reminds us of the universality of sin, our need for repentance and God’s readiness to forgive. What stands out to me more this year than in the past, however, is one word: wretchedness. Most of us have an idea of what sin is, and even more than a few guesses of particular sins we’re probably guilty of. But wretchedness? That’s a term we don’t hear a lot, particularly outside of the insult of hearing someone–perhaps in an old movie–referred to as a “poor wretch.” But this collect calls on us to acknowledge our wretchedness, meaning that it must be something that characterizes all of us in some way.
The primary meaning of the term is “deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind.” That seems to describe the human condition particularly well, especially after such tragedies. But recognizing the fact that we can be afflicted, dejected or distressed is only part of the story. The other aspect is that there is hope. We lament our sins and profess the truth that God “doth forgive the sins of all who are penitent,” while we acknowledge our wretchedness in the context of the hope of forgiveness and the reign of Jesus Christ, that is, because of the foundation of all Christian hope.
There is a transition that has to occur, from feeling sorry for ourselves or even bitter toward God because of our afflictions, toward a spirit of thankfulness for the good that we have experienced. There’s no doubting that this is much more difficult to do than to write about, but it is nonetheless a necessary change if we are to truly live in hope.
In his book Mending the Heart, which we read for our Advent series, John Claypool recounts the alternative responses he wrestled with following his little girls death, the road of gratitude or the road of resentment:
It came to me that Laura Lue had been part of my life in exactly the same way. She was a gift, not a possession. My mother’s words reverberated in my mind: ‘When something is a gift and it is taken away, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.’
That was the moment I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of the shadow of grief, rather than the road of resentment. To this day I believe that gratitude is the best of all the ways through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not in any way eliminate the intense pain and frustration that always accompany the work of rebuilding one’s life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice as been done, and it opens the way for thanksgiving. Gratitude also deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the good old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well (Mending the Heart, 66).
It reminds me as well of Plutarch who in a letter of consolation to his wife upon hearing of the death of their daughter, writes movingly of not avoiding her memory or reminders of her:
I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind. Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymene who said, ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’ She avoided and shuddered at every reminder of her son. In general, nature avoids everything that causes distress. But in the case of our child, in the degree did she proved to us a thing most lovable to fondle and look at and hear, so the memory of her must abide with us and become part of us, and they will bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy and sorrow (Plutarch, “Consolation to His Wife,” The Art of the Personal Essay, 18).
What Claypool and Plutarch have in common is an effort to remember rightly. That is, to appreciate and recall the joys and blessings they enjoyed during the lives of their daughters, and to avoid the corruption that bitterness brings. The pain of bitterness, brought on by a refusal to accept stewardship as opposed to possession, corrupts and permeates even fond memories with the sting of malice for injustice. Now, the loss of our loved ones, or other challenges and limitations we may face can certainly be unjust, but we have to learn to let go of a proprietary feeling toward others and toward ourselves, for we do not even belong to ourselves, but our very lives are a blessing from the Almighty.
This is very much a Lenten reflection for the Lenten season. Lent is a time of letting go. We often think of it as a time to make resolutions, to sacrifice this or that favorite thing, sometimes in an effort to reform our lifestyles and sometimes as a sort of sacrifice and reminder for the season. But Lent is about letting go of more than these things. In the end, Lent is about reflecting upon the passion of Christ, seeing his obedience and willingness to pour himself out, and coming to a place of Christ-likeness. Lent is the season when we strive to have all the dross consumed.
Lent is about learning to let go of what was never ours to begin with–including our selves–so that we can welcome and receive hope and so that we can be truly thankful for every good gift, and most especially for that gift that is eternally ours, proclaimed so loudly on Easter morn.
Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30
I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”
I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well). To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.
I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:
When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.
When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.
But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).
In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.
We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.
L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).
If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).
A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.
Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:
From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.
The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.
It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.
In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.
What about your career? Get out of the way…
What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…
What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…
He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.
Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.
In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.
As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality.
The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.
Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.
Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.
The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.
We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.
Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.
Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.
The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:
“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).
Sermon thoughts for Proper 19 B, 2012
Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
Christians are a people bound together, defined and shaped by a common confession: Jesus is Lord. It is a statement that ought to have a major impact on every aspect of our lives, since, if we really mean it, we believe that we owe our lives to our Lord, and that we have given ourselves over to him; that because of our Baptism, as the Apostle says “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Confessing that Jesus is Lord is a powerful statement. It’s a powerful spiritual statement, and a powerful political, social and personal statement. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are necessarily declaring that no thing and no one else is. It could be compared to the marriage vow to forsake all others.
If Jesus is our Lord, then nothing else ought to have that sort of authority in our lives. No government, family member, employer and certainly no physical item; no idol of wood or stone, gold or silver, automotive parts, brick and mortar, chemical or anything else under the sun. Confessing Jesus as Lord makes all other commitments relative, and bound to be judged in light of that first commitment to God in Christ.
I believe this is the explanation for why Jesus asks this question of the disciples at this point and in this place, as recounted in our gospel lesson for the day (Mark 8:27-38). You see, Jesus and the disciples have advanced to what was once the northern edge of the Israelite kingdom, where, at this point, the Roman city of Caesarea Phillipi stood. But this had been a Greek city since Alexander the Great’s day, and it was a long standing Pagan cultic center. Before it was Caesarea Phillipi, the city had been known as Panaeus or Banaeus, and was named for the god Pan, the goat footed god of shepherds and the forest. But Pan was known for more. I didn’t realize it until I was researching this background, but Pan was also thought to be the source for panic, as one ancient commentator wrote: “During the night there fell on them a panic. For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan” (http://goo.gl/ATfdL).
So Jesus and his disciples travel to the fringes of Jewish territory, to the villages surrounding this city–though they never actually enter it. It’s as though Jesus is looking out over the future mission field, and he turns to his disciples and asks “Who do people say that I am?” Who do all of these folks we come into contact with, the people who whisper along the way… even, perhaps, the gentiles of Caesarea Phillipi–who do they say that I am?
And the disciples answer the the various rumors going around, that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he comes to it: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, always eager and often intuitive declares “You are the Messiah.” Peter has declared the truth of who Jesus is, but he has not yet understood the truth of who Jesus is. It’s easy to perceive Peter as a bit dense. People often play off of his nick name, “Rocky” to say that perhaps it was describing more than his manner. I’ve done it myself. But I’m not sure that is fair. It may be that Peter gets chastised in part because he’s willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance based upon his intuition and understanding. Sometimes–when he understands–it is beneficial. Sometimes–when he acts impulsively or without really listening–it gets him rebuked, as it does in the aftermath of the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions.
Jesus is teaching his disciples a new meaning of messiahship, and it’s hard for them to understand. Peter, being vocal, steps in, takes Jesus to the side and begins to rebuke him for his teaching–everyone knows that’s not what’s supposed to happen to the Messiah! Jesus’ response is immediate: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The problem is that while Peter has uttered the words and made the confession of Jesus as Christ, he has not been shaped by it. It hasn’t sunk in. He’s still setting his mind on human things.
Jesus goes on to define what it means to be shaped by the confession: “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Mark 8:34).
This is the same call that God has placed upon his faithful people from the beginning. We can see it in the words of the Prophet Isaiah who describes the abuses he has suffered: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Isaiah has, from an objective point of view, suffered shameful things. And yet, these things do not define him. Instead, it is his relationship with God that defines him: The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). What has changed is that God has now become one of us to show us what it means to lead a life shaped by obedience to and faith in him.
To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will be changed and defined by that obedience.
Our confession of Jesus as Lord is meant to change us. This is what James is highlighting in his letter when he talks about the evils of the tongue:
With [our tongues] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:9-12).
James is hammering on the hypocrisy of blessing God with the same mouth that condemns and curses other people who are made in the image of God. When we do such things, we reveal that we have not been changed by the confession of Christ as Lord, there’s still an area of our lives to be examined in light of who Jesus is, and who he calls us to be. And this is a life-long task. We never cease to have areas of our lives to be brought under the Lordship of Christ, because, as long as we live, we never stop having the need to be changed by the Word and the Holy Spirit into a better likeness of Christ.
Peter–the Rock–had a lot of rough edges, a lot of areas to be honed and polished and worked smooth so that he would be able to live out the exhortation in first Peter (1 Peter 2:5) to “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” But he strove toward that goal his whole life and, in the end, the man who had misunderstood Christ’s messiahship, who denied his Lord before the crucifixion, who cowered in the upper room out of fear following it–this same man was able to encourage the better part of his nature, to the part that had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, and to live his life for Jesus, to the point of martyrdom.
One of my favorite comics is a picture of a group of people sitting around at a Bible study, and one lady in the study says “I’ve never actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” I think that’s often how we look at Christ’s admonition to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This denial of self is the denial and refusal to feed the parts of our nature that would curse as well as bless. We’re called to be changed, and we can be encouraged by the examples of those ordinary people who have gone before, and have borne witness to Christ. I think Peter would be the first to tell us, that if he could be made a fit living stone for God’s Kingdom, then so can we, if we take the time to reflect on what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.”
Christ tempted by Satan: Christians are always in need of Discernment to know whether they are falling prey to temptation or being faithful
First Things has published a video (also available after the break) in which Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, takes a shot at what Bonhoeffer might have said about the Health and Human Services mandate that has raised such a furor and so many questions related to individual liberty vs. religious liberty as well as the common good. Some of you might remember Metaxas from his prayer and presentation at the National Prayer Breakfast. It might also interest some of you to know that Metaxas did–and as far as I know, still does–attend the Episcopal Church of Calvary-St. George’s in New York.
At any rate, I left the following comment on the post over at First Things, and I think it expresses my ambivalence on this question quite well. On the one hand I am uncomfortable with the government taking on greater and greater authority to define the boundaries of religious institutions and their functions. On the other, I’m not quite certain that the “cooperation with evil” portion of the argument against the Health and Human Services mandate rings true. Perhaps that’s because I think simply existing in our society means we cooperate with evil every day (that’s something i think Bonhoeffer would agree with), so we have to b careful how we frame these sorts of arguments. Additionally, I think a good argument can be made for the mandate from the area of supporting the common good of our society (many of the treatments covered by the mandate will serve to improve overall health and may, if statistics are any guide, actually result in fewer abortions as well as better overall health for women). At any rate, here’s the text of my comment:
In many ways it seems that the most troubling part of the mandate is that it draws the circle even more narrowly in terms of what sorts of organizations are considered religious organizations and, as has already been mentioned, unnecessarily and harmfully forces religious institutions to weigh whether they can in good conscience offer services for the public and the common good.
At the same time, David Nichol is right that there are always certain agreed upon restrictions to religious liberty. For example, I imagine far fewer Americans would find it problematic to require employers–including non-profits–that were associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses to provide for blood transfusions than there are folks who find the contraception/sterilization/abortion issue problematic. A lot more could be said about this, but where I really have the question is in another arena.
The public conversation has focused on who pays for specific treatments etc…, and whether it is moral or constitutional to mandate that a religious institution provide insurance that covers procedures or treatments that they find objectionable rather than on the question of who defines religious institutions. The deeper question, to my mind, is related to individual choice. Insurance is a benefit that is simply one part of a persons compensation, and many people put forward a certain amount of their monetary compensation to pay for a portion of their own insurance. If it is morally objectionable for an institution to pay for an insurance policy that would, in the event the individual chose to avail themselves of a certain service, cover a treatment that the employer felt was immoral, then why is it *not* morally objectionable to provide a salary to a person who might go out and choose pay for the same procedure out of pocket. Simply having the option of having a treatment covered by insurance doesn’t mean that a person will choose to use it, and not covering it doesn’t ensure that a person might not use other resources provided by their employer to attain it. In the end, it seems that they are the same degree of separation away and the real issue is that an institution is employing folks whose moral reasoning they find questionable or lacking.
One of the most widely known statements of Christ is recorded in John’s Gospel. For many of us it likely echoes in our minds in the wording of the old King James Version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
We are confronted again in the passion reading (Mark 15:1-47) with the account of Jesus’ trial and execution. And, by being encouraged to once again take on the role of those who welcomed Jesus with palms of victory, only to turn and cry out for his execution a few short days later.
In past reflections on The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, I’ve dwelled upon this sharp transition, this ultimate illustration of the way people responded to Christ during his earthly ministry–following and listening (if not always understanding) one minute, offended, critical and even hate-filled the next. This has been a focal point because it demonstrates the capacity we all have to vacillate between the good and the bad, between evil and righteousness. It illustrates supremely well, the profound and honest observation of the great Russian author and anti-communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.
But the story of human frailty and sin is only part of the story. A part we would to well do remember, but only a part, and not the largest part. The more wondrous element is the way in which God responds to such sinfulness. The grace of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to the world–even those who responded to the presence of God with murder–is impossible to grasp. The acts of God in becoming incarnate as one of us, in transforming an implement of torture and execution, a sign of judgement and condemnation standing over all humanity 1, into a sign of hope and forgiveness, deserve our full attention.
It’s important for us to understand, as scripture teaches, as as Christ emphasized again and again in his ministry, that God judges the desires of the heart.
But we turn to reflect today not upon our frailty and sin, and not upon the fact of the cross. Today, we go deeper and consider what the cross calls us to as followers of the Crucified Lord.
As Christians, we believe that we see the character of God most fully in the character of Jesus Christ. I would suggest, going beyond that point, that, save only for the incarnation itself, the trial and crucifixion of Christ reveal the heart of God for humanity–for you and for me. God declares the worth of every human being to be nothing less than the life of himself in Jesus Christ.
And so, we come to it. The reason why it is proper to say a little less on a day when we are confronted once again with the death of Our Lord. The reason why fewer words and a deeper reverence call to us. We have witnessed again what Christ has done. We have no need of lengthy interpretation to understand it.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
In no greater way has God revealed his love for humanity, than in going to the cross for our sins.
In no greater way has the forgiveness of God been pronounced, than in the forgiveness offered even to those who ridiculed him as he hung on that tree.
So that we might be forgiven and say, with the centurion “Truly, this man was God’s son.”
“For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)
But in going to the cross, God goes beyond forgiveness, and by the effectual working of his grace, empowers us to answer his call to be more like him, as revealed in Christ.
Just as the passion calls for so little interpretation, but a great deal of listening, so too does the life we are called to lead require more action than we sometimes imagine. In the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is the word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world” (A Testament to Freedom, 86).
I would argue that in going to the cross, Christ offers up the deed that interprets itself, and it is in baptism, when we say we have died and been buried, that we are a new creation, and that is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that we can adopt the same attitude as Jesus, and become a people whose hearts have been transformed by the Grace of God, so that we too can perform the deed that interprets itself, that is, so that we can offer the same love to one another that Christ gives us.
At the time of the crucifixion, because we did not and could not give ourselves over to God, we gave God over to the cross. But rather than judgement, we know–even in the midst of Holy Week–that the cross brings a deeper hope and abundant grace. Lent and Holy Week are here to remind us how desperately we stand in need of that hope and that grace. It’s at this time of year that we are called, more than any other, to examine our hearts and push forward in the struggle to make them a truer and truer reflection of Christ’s.
The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings, statue at the Vatican
Recently a video went viral on the internet of a father who had found a Facebook post of his teen daughter complaining about the work that was expected of her around the house. The post was quite the screed and was filled with expletives and insulting language and sentiments toward her parents, so it’s understandable why her father would be hurt on one level. The degree of anger displayed however, is not quite so understandable (something I will address briefly later). In order to teach his daughter a lesson, he recorded himself reading her post and then emptying the clip of his pistol into her laptop, after which he posted the video for the world to see.
In a series of conversations in the first few days after the video went viral, in particular, with @aehowardwrites and @AdamWaltenbaugh, several primary issues seemed to be raised by the response.
First, as Anna, Adam, and at least two parishioners at @StJoeshville pointed out, the response itself was a bit like a tantrum in that it does not so much challenge the childish behavior of the daughter–which was mostly on display in the fact that she posted her comments online, not that she said or thought them–as it reinforces it and wraps it in a shell of veiled violence. “Remember” the video says “who has the power here,” and power is displayed and reinforced with an instrument of violence in a violent act. As Adam reminded me from his work with abusers, physical displays such as throwing an item–not necessarily at a person, just in their presence–is a sort of violent display that moves toward intimidation of the other party. I suppose one might trace it to such primal urges as beating one’s chest and screaming incoherently. The root of the display is the same.
So, there is a subtext of violence, not, I think, conscious, but rather cultural and contextual. The other deeper issue is that it demonstrates a degree of anger and retaliation that is inappropriate for an adult who is actually secure in themselves and their authority. It is a demonstration, I believe, of a phenomenon described by Rowan Williams in his book entitled Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, in which he describes how our society fosters the creation of sexualized children (actually, also appropriately termed consumerized or choice-laden children) who come to be seen as competitors by the childish adults which our society also produces, who never learn to distinguish between the needs and desires of a child and those of an adult. Because there is no understanding of the difference, a child or adolescent comes to be seen as competitors and are responded to as such, with anger, as a threat. So, this is where this video is an illustration of an inappropriate level of anger inspired in a person with power by the transgressiveness of a person without. But because neither their individuality or their relative powerlessness is recognized, but only “threat,” the response is anger (an even more extreme example of this is that of the Texas Judge who’s mistreatment of his daughter was caught on tape by her and revealed a decade later as he prepared for another run at his judgeship).
But what about the post from the girl that started all of this? The post demonstrated that the father reacted to the wrong thing. The problem was not the content of what the girl wrote, but that she posted it online. She was probably upset that her father was able to read the post which she had hidden from him, but if she was, she shouldn’t have been because any expectation of privacy she had was a false expectation–not because it is wrong to want privacy, but because it is a misunderstanding of the nature of the internet to expect it. This is the lesson parents and other adults ought to be teaching youth, not that you can’t say things that others shouldn’t hear (there are things that none of us should ever know or even desire to know that acquaintances, friends and loved ones have said or thought about us at times), but that whatever you put on the internet stays on the internet–and I don’t mean like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Rather than challenging the most troubling aspect of his daughter’s actions, the father simply reinforced the worst aspect of the exhibitionism and, as was pointed out in this editorial in the LA Times, harmed himself much more than his daughter, and unwittingly testifying to the end of shame.
But there’s more here. One of the reasons this sort of online mind-dumping is a bad idea is not because what was said was all that bad. I know some people are or would be horrified by some of the things that teens say.. and their memories must be clouded, because I’ve yet to see anything in the Facebook posts of teens from the congregations I serve, or teenage relatives with whom I’m Facebook friends (always taking care which posts I comment on, as I try to be an adult who respects their boundaries but who is still available to bounce thoughts off of etc…) that was all that bad in comparison to the things I and my friends said and did at that point in our lives. The great distinction however, is that aside from the ever more foggy memories of my cohort, there is no record of what we said, did or observed. Today though, teens lives (and everyone else’s for that matter) are being preserved in the amber of the internet and the Facebook timeline. There is within this world where nothing is ever forgotten–even the mundane details of what one ate for lunch on March 25, 2005–a transition from grace to law and from forgiveness to judgement.
All of us, after all, have examples of comments or moments–fragments–of our lives that we made or pursued in anger or out of spite. We are, I’d venture to say, thankful that so many have been forgotten, allowing us to move on into the future. Teenage angst is not a crime or a surprise, nor is the fact that we will also make mistakes as adults. There are then, many events or segments of our lives that we would desire nothing so much as for them to be forgotten.
In one of his essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas cites a letter Bonhoeffer wrote that addresses this idea quite well. Bonhoeffer writes: “The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragments of our life how the whole was arraigned and performed, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent “Hell” is too good for them)… (Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, p. 36).
So the real tragedy in all of this is that our technology makes it possible for the past to always be present and fresh, that it makes forgetting and shame ever more impossible and shifts forgiveness toward the improbable as every mistake hangs stagnant in the air and every wound remains as fresh as the day we received it.
There are many occasions in our lives where, if we allow time to reflect, we’ll realize that we are at a loss. That we really don’t know what to do or how to respond to the situation we find ourselves in, or to the challenge posed by it.
Such times of life seem characterized simple endurance. But there is a difference, I think, between enduring and abiding. Endurance puts all the weight of getting through on our own sholders, on being strong enough to bear it. Abiding hints at a foundation, a support and bulwark beyond ourselves. As Christians we are called to abide. Specifically, we are called to abide in Christ, which is to abide in hope.
Hope can be a difficult thing because of the way we often think about it. For some among us, hope seems to be characterized by a lack of grief, or pain, or by an active glossing over of the negative emotions we experience in response to loss, affliction, illness, abuse, or trauma. I was recently reading an account by a grieving mother who’d lost her child. When she took the time and went through the effort of sharing her pain with others, some–calling themselves Christian–were all too quick to respond by citing scripture: do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). As a Christian herself, she was not without hope, but as someone who had experienced loss, she was grieving, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. (In such situations I direct folks to Romans 12:15–Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Any desire to “correct” the grieving of others means that we are not actually with them in their time of need).
Enduring such a situation means learning to put one foot in front of another. Abiding at such a time means remembering–somehow–that we don’t have to put one foot in front of another alone. We might think of enduring as being like Atlas of Greek myth, kneeling, bowed down, but enduring, with the weight of the world resting on our sholders. Alone. Weighed down. Unable to do anything but endure. But we don’t have to be frozen and weighed down. We can move forward, even in the dark. And we don’t have to find our way alone, in the darkness of such times. We can find our way home, because Jesus is there to lead us. To help us endure, yes–but also to help us learn what it means to abide.
Our gospel lesson (Mark 1:29-39) provides us with the moving story of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We don’t know her name (nor do we know the name of Peter’s wife for that matter). One of the pastors I follow online has decided, for the purpose of her sermon, to refer to her as Lois, which name is as good as any, so I’ll follow suit.
Lois is not in a good situation. She’s sick, in danger–fevers can be scary things in our day; at the time of the New Testament, they were often a prelude of bad things to come. But Jesus comes to her. Jesus, fresh from the Synagogue there in Capernaum, where he demonstrated his authority and power by silencing the demon and casting it out of the afflicted man. Jesus arrives at the house of Simon Peter and Andrew and is immediately told of Lois’ condition. He went to her, took her hand, lifted her up… and she was cured. The fever left her. Immediately. To emphasize the point that she was completely well, we’re told that she “immediately began to serve them” (Mark 1:31). I should acknowledge here that I’ve had some questions arise about the results of this healing. I recall one Bible study where someone made the comment, “Well, that sounds about right.. the woman was nearly dead and it took Jesus himself to heal her, and the first thing she ends up doing is taking care of the men.” If we see it this way, I think it’s safe to say we’re missing the point. It’s a shame, because a lot of people have evidently missed the point, enough that one of my study Bible’s includes a note about this that makes an important point for us:
One must beware of any tendency to reduce the importance of the mother-in-law’s action because she is a woman. She acts toward Jesus and the others as the angels earlier acted toward Jesus in the wilderness. (p 1807, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible)
The word used to describe Lois’ actions (serve) is the same word used in Mark 1:13 to describe the actions of the Angels as they were said to have “waited” on Jesus.
One of my former seminary professors, Fr. Bill Carroll, now engaged in parish ministry, wrote a moving sermon on this week’s gospel (Mark 1:29-39) a few years ago (which he re-posted a few days ago), that has embedded itself in my thought process this week. In particular, in terms of the symbology of Jesus taking the mother-in-law’s hand and lifting her up. Connecting the dots of this healing act to our own need and desire to be lifted up, to have Jesus take our hands in the dark hours of our lives, he mentions the beloved hymn Precious Lord.
I’m sure many of you know the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand // lead me on, let me stand // I am tired, I am weak, I am worn // Through the storm, through the night // Lead me on to the light // Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
How many of us are aware of the origins of this hymn? Like several other beloved hymns–probably more than we actually know–Precious Lord is the result of tragedy. Thomas Dorsey wrote it shortly after the death of his wife in childbirth, followed shortly by the death of their infant son. (I’m struck by the similarities this story bears to the origins of another well known hymn, It is Well With My Soul).
Somehow it is prayer and praise, testimony and plea all in one. In it Dorsey’s words become ours, as we sing and ask that Jesus would take our hand, while at the same time proclaiming that he has and will.
Texts like this speak to us, no matter the details of our lives, because they speak to universal experience. As Fr. Carroll put it so well, “They apply equally well at deathbed or prison. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle–whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.”
Remember that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is said to have served Christ in a manner similar to the Angels in the wilderness. I think we can expand this analogy if we look at the role of Angels in scripture. Angels are the messengers of God (angelos means messenger), they proclaim the acts of God and share good news. It is in their very nature to do the will of God. As Christians we are called to do the will of God as revealed in Jesus, to do what he commanded us–to love one another as he has loved us, to share the good news, to imitate Christ as best we can in our faltering ways.
In the darkest and most challenging times of our lives we can find the strength not just to endure, but to abide, praying for help, and testifying to it.
We can abide in Christ because we do indeed, have hope. Hope that in such moments, Christ will lead us home here, and that in the end, when we stand “at the verge of Jordan,” ready to cross over and be with God, Christ is there as well. As Dorsey writes in another verse:
When the darkness appears // and the night draws near // And the day is past and gone // At the river I stand // Guide my feet, hold my hand // Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.
In the end we are able to abide in Christ, because Christ abides with us–taking our hands and being with us in the most trying moments of our lives, calling us. Wounded angels walking the highways of life, abiding in Christ and sharing his Love. Amen.
As I’ve been writing out my thoughts for the upcoming solemn communion preparation class that will begin at the end of February, I’ve been rereading a number of books to refresh and tighten up my thinking on the sacraments. One of these, which I purchased in seminary as one of those “other recommended texts” is by the French Roman Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet and is entitled The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body.
Something in Chauvet’s introduction struck me as incredibly important for many of us today:
First, theology is a believer’s task. Faith is not at the end but at the beginning of this task. To make an act of faith does not mean simply either to believe that God exists (“believe that” is in the domain of opinion) or to believe ideas about God, beautiful and generous as these ideas may be (to believe for example in science, the immortality of the soul, or astrology, still pertains to a purely intellectual thought process), but to believe in, which means to have trust in someone, to put one’s faith in that person. This is never the product of a merely intellectual reasoning. Because it necessarily involves us as persons in a vital relationship with another, “to believe in” (a spouse, a friend, and so on), belongs more to the relational than to the rational order… (Page ix, The Sacraments, Chauvet).
The contrast that Chauvet draws attention to, between believing that something is or believing certain ideas are true and believing in, that is, putting one’s faith in something or someone, is central to a problem that besets us as Christians. It is not a new problem. It is a very old problem–as old as Christianity itself, as old as faith itself. It is a problem that James, the brother of our Lord rails against in his epistle, putting the problem in stark terms: “You believe that God is one [or simply, that God is]; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).
In the account from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) of the exorcism of the demoniac at Capernaum we are faced with the reality of the difference between believing that something is the case and putting one’s faith in something. It has been said by cultural commentators that the standard form of American religion, whether liberal or conservative, takes the form of gnosticism. The term gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, and while there are multitudinous forms, in the ancient world and in our own day, one of the basic elements is that it depends upon knowledge. Knowing the right things, or perhaps even being one of a select group that knows the right things is seen as salvific. In other words people focus on getting the intellectual details of their theology right. I often say that some folks go into a church and check to see if the statement of faith matches the one they brought in the door with them, as though they were looking at the platform of a political party. Having checked off the right boxes we can confidently remain exactly as we are. Or at least we think we can. In reality, we deceive ourselves: “Even the demons believe–and shudder.” If we believe that we have the right beliefs, and we check our boxes off and never give such things another thought–and by so doing, never experience a softened heart that can be changed by the prompting of the Holy Spirit–then we are not actually experiencing a spiritual relationship with God.
While the language of relationship may be overused in some quarters, and it can drift off into its own form of shallowness, when properly considered, it does help us identify the way we’re to interact with God. For one thing, a relationship is not static, it is dynamic and changing and–ideally–deepening. In such a context it is impossible for us to ever say that we are “done” because there is always some new challenge, some new learning that we’re called to as we seek to reflect Christ more and more in our lives. The problem with believing the right things as a sort of intellectual exercise and believing that’s enough is that it becomes ever more tempting and easy to justify our own actions even when we know–intellectually–that they aren’t the most honoring to God. In other words, intellectual check-lists when divorced from a living–which means humbling, but also an up-building–relationship with God can leave us in bondage to forces in our lives that are positively demonic in the sense that we have given over control to something outside of ourselves that holds us in bondage.
In the encounter at the Synagogue in Capernaum we learn something about the nature of the forces that seek to oppress us: they know our names. This means much more than we might believe. When Jesus teaches in the Synagogue and is challenged by the unclean spirit, the demoniac cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The fact that the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name and announces his role (indeed, it is thematic in Mark that the demons understand this reality more clearly than the people) is significant. Historians and biblical commentators remind us of the ancient belief that knowing someone’s name gave you a form of control over that person. In this instance, the unclean spirit is defending against the authority and power of Christ by naming him and showing that his identity is known. In contrast to other exorcists of the time, Jesus performs no elaborate rituals, uses no tools etc…, but simply commands the spirit to be silent and come out of the man. There is no engaging in a game, there isn’t even a contest, the spirit is silenced and exorcised immediately on the word of Christ. It is this action, this demonstration of power and authority (the Greek word is the same) that leaves the people wondering. From this exchange, we can see, on the one hand how knowing something like a person’s name–that is having intimate knowledge of them–can be important, and in certain circumstances can even be threatening. This is not so much about knowing someone’s name, I believe, as it is about knowing enough about them to know their weaknesses. To know someone’s name in the ancient sense may perhaps be related to having someone’s “number” in our parlance. The fact of the matter is that the demons all of us face every day have our number–they know our weaknesses. Those demons, those interior voices, contracted, inherited, or formed, possessing or oppressing us, which I believe are so often related to what some authors refer to variously as our impostors, shadow sides or inner critics–they know our weaknesses and they prey upon them to keep us in bondage.
These are the sins, fears, and the pains that know our name and can paralyze us or prevent us from doing what we know we should. These are the things that drag us back down into the mire of self doubt and pity on the one hand, and the false foundation of self aggrandizement on the other. These are the voices that whisper in the dark that we’re not good enough, that we’re not worthy enough, that we can’t do it, while in the next instant pushing us to go it alone, to rely solely on ourselves and to reject the companionship, friendship, and aid that we need in this life. It’s the voice that tells us no matter how much we succeed, it’s never good enough, that no matter how much we need help, we ought to be able to do it on our own or we’re failures. It’s the desire that prompts the addict to find the next fix, the spouse to reject marital counseling, and any of us to give up and not try something we believe we may be called to do.
The question for us today is this: what are the demons that know our names? What are the things in our lives that limit us, that keep us going round in the same old harmful patterns, that keep us from changing when we know we need to change? All of us need to change. That may seem like a bold statement, but we’re not far enough out from those new year’s resolutions to have forgotten the reason why they’re so popular: the recognition that all of us, in ways small or large need and desire change in our lives. The problem is that most often, we don’t know how to change, we don’t even know where to begin.
A few weeks ago, I gave a bit of a devotional at one of our Wednesday Eucharists, and I mentioned a song I’d recently heard by the singer Ben Harper. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Harper is a Christian. His background is interesting, with a Jewish mother from a family of folk singers, and a father who was part African American and Cherokee. Harper is certainly spiritual, and has recorded plenty of songs on spiritual and even Christian themes, on his own and with the gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama. On his latest album, Give Till it’s Gone (a title probably deserving of some reflection in and of itself) he has a song entitled “Don’t give up on me now.” I absolutely love the chorus of this song because I think it epitomizes so well the state in which most of us live most of our lives. It goes like this:
I don’t even know myself // what it would take to know myself // I need to change, I don’t know how // don’t give up on me now.
The gift of the gospel is that it shows us where to start. We don’t have to fear the demons that know our names because the one who is the Lord of all Creation calls us each by name. We are known and loved by God in Christ. The one who had the power and the authority to silence the demons tormenting the man in that Synagogue all those centuries ago in Capernaum can also silence the voices that torment us in our day. For every voice that tempts us to give up, to loathe ourselves, to reject the hope of strengthening or rebuilding relationships with loved ones, or to loose the hope of finally beating some harmful behavior, or even that seemingly insignificant voice that convinces us not to attempt a challenging task–there is a great voice that drowns them out, that calls us by name and silences the cacophony. The first step of change, the foundation of hope, of the ultimate hope presented in the gospel, is that God has not given up on us. On any of us. No matter what we’ve done, no matter what we think of ourselves or what others believe or think about us. We know our worth in the eyes of God, a worth measured in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one with the authority to silence our demons, and to bring us home to God.
When we face a particularly difficult or trying time, when it seems like we’re fully in the grip of something that knows or name, that capitalizes on our weaknesses, let us remember that we are called by a greater name, the name of Christ, and marked and sealed as his own, forever. In the name of Christ, called by the name of Christ as Christians, we have been and can be freed from bondage. Amen.
An acoustic version of the Ben Harper song I referenced: