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:
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.
Studies have demonstrated that one of the ways our minds work is to save information or store an impression of places that we’ve been, particularly places that we spend a lot of time, such as rooms in our home, offices, perhaps our churches, and so forth. If it weren’t for this ability to store the memories of places we frequent, we would experience every entry into a space as though it were the first time.
This familiarity, while saving effort and preventing us from overtaxing our minds, also leads to the phenomenon of missing small changes in our environments. A book or magazine is moved, someone replaces a lamp, chairs are at different angles, or perhaps something more pronounced has occurred, like a room sporting a fresh coat of paint. Such changes may escape notice when we initially enter a place with which we are intimately familiar, and only enter our awareness when our attention is drawn to a particular detail.
There seems to be a similar phenomenon that occurs with stories with which we are familiar. We allow the details to fade out, because we remember the overarching narrative. We know what the point of the story is because we have heard it over and over again. The problem with this shorthand understanding of meaning, particularly when dealing with one of Christ’s parables, is that we can internalize incomplete or false understandings. When approaching a parable of Jesus, no matter how familiar, it is important that we listen to it with new ears, and seek to allow Jesus’ instruction to form us, as it formed his original listeners.
Although we can no longer assume everyone in our culture is familiarity with the parables, it is safe to assume that people who regularly attend church, especially those who attend church in liturgical traditions such as ours, are familiar with many of them. And of all the parables, one of the most well-known is that of the The Good Samaritan. And I would be willing to suggest that for many of us the point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that we are ourselves to be Good Samaritans; in other words we are to be good people, kind people, people who treat folks well and help those in need. And we’re not wrong.
This is indeed laudable, and is I would say part and parcel of forming a Christian character. But there is more to this parable than a calling to be kind. The call to kindness does not exhaust its meaning. Instead, it is a challenge to us from a few directions: a challenge not only to be merciful, but about those to whom we should extend mercy, and from whom we are willing, or should be willing, to receive it.
We tend to focus on the content of the parable itself–and rightly so–it is important, and it clearly strikes against some universal human tendencies. But while the content is important, we need to remember the context. As Walter Brueggemann writes “The question at the beginning is: eternal life. The answer at the end is: Mercy. [...] The story functions to change the subject away from life with God to life with neighbor. [...] Jesus’ story changes our life-question by plugging us into a world of violence. The subject is a street mugging, which seems far from eternal life. the great gospel questions are worked out midst the concreteness of brutality and nowhere else, brutality we work on each other, brutality we observe but in which we are, by our humanity, implicated” (Bruggemann, “A Zinger that Changes Everything, ” The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, 7).
It takes place in the context of violence. People will often make comments about Jesus and his teaching that reveal their evaluation of him as naive; that they believe he sees the world through rose colored glasses, that his teachings are nice, but not practical: “That Jesus, isn’t he nice. Love everyone… that’s a nice idea, too bad it won’t work in the real world.” But Jesus is not naive. He wasn’t whipped and nailed to the cross because he was ignorant of the human condition. This parable begins in violence, and it’s intended to show us how to live as disciples in the midst of a violent world.
The man is beaten and left in a ditch. Here comes the priest, and then the Levite–both of whom the listeners may have expected to help–only for them to see the man, and pass by on the other side, the implication being that they go out of their way to cross the road and avoid him. Their reaction highlights a failing we have all likely experienced, the tendency to allow our priorities to be turned on their head, for our closely held values to be eclipsed in the moment.
It can be hard… we talk about tyranny of the urgent, but there’s also tyranny of the trivial. Or at least, of the less important over what is of greater importance. Most things in life are fundamentally not emergencies, and yet we act as though they are, to the extent that sometimes we miss the actual emergency. Scholars debate whether the purity codes had anything to do with the fact that both the priest and levite avoid the man in the ditch, but regardless of the specifics, the parable implies that whatever they were doing was enough for them to avoid fulfilling the great commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself. They saw… and they passed by on the other side, leaving the man to his fate.
In contrast, a third person passes by and sees the man, and responds in a completely different way. Jesus’ listeners, like us, would’ve been trained to listen for the third example, the “rule of three” being a common device. Perhaps they already had in mind who it might be who would keep the spirit of the law and offer aid to the man. A Pharisee perhaps. If a respected priest and a respected levite passed by, perhaps a Pharisee (and remember, they were well respected), someone who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, would give aid.
But the third person, the one who offers aid, isn’t a better follower of the Law. At least from a Jewish perspective, he’s not a follower of the law at all; he’s a despised Samaritan. The priest and the levite are said to have seen the man. But then they avoid him. They haven’t really seen him. They looked at him, but they did not see themselves in him. In contrast, the Samaritan truly sees the man, sees his plight, and is moved with compassion and empathy, which motivate him to give aid.
And this reality brings us to the second issue the parable highlights: We often don’t really like to consider who our neighbor is. It is about who we should offer aid to, and the fact that we are called to extend mercy,
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man [...]” Jesus asks “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)
but it is about much more than that as well. When we ask who our neighbor is, we are not only challenged about extending mercy to all–a proposition that most Christians would at least claim to strive for–but also about who we are comfortable extending mercy to us. One commentator on this parable noted that it might be better to call it the Parable of the Man in the Ditch. Everything in the parable points to the fact that everyone involved, save the Samaritan himself, is Jewish. How might Jewish people of the day have felt about the idea of receiving mercy and charity from a Samaritan?
When we interpret this parable only as though we will always be the ones in a position of offering aid, we miss a good deal of the point. The parable is to help us recognize that the one who has mercy, and the one in need of mercy, are our neighbors–that is, everyone. But when Jesus says to the man presenting the question “Go and do likewise” he is saying to him “go, and be willing to learn, even from a Samaritan, how to be a better follower of God.” And beyond that: “Go, and be willing to receive mercy, even from one you would have called unclean.”
We have probably all asked ourselves if we’d be willing to extend aid to anyone in need, and we’ve likely recognized Jesus’ challenge to do so. The question for us as we leave here with today, I believe, is this: From whom would we be uncomfortable receiving mercy? The answer to that question will present to us a new area of our lives that is ready for the scrutiny of the gospel.
And while I don’t know about anyone here specifically, I can say that our society, our world, has a lot of work to do in this area.
This is one reason I like to contrast the two renderings of The Good Samaritan that I’ve included in this blog post. In the one above, the Samaritan is a pleasant figure, and the whole scene is presented beautifully. In contrast, the image to the right presents the Samaritan as a Quasimodo-like figure, almost grotesque, and it depicts in a visual way the visceral negative reactions Jews of Jesus’ day would’ve had to receiving aid from a Samaritan, to being told that a Samaritan was their neighbor, and that they were therefore commanded to love them as a central tenet of their faith and obedience to God.
How would he have felt, that man in the ditch (assuming he was conscious), to be laying there, praying for help, to see his people, first a respected priest, then a levite, pass him by. Cross over the road to avoid him. Only to then be helped by a despised Samaritan.
Who is our neighbor? Who would we rather not receive aid or care from? Who do we fear appearing vulnerable with? Who is grotesque to us?
This morning (July 14, 2013), when I got in the truck to come to church, the first three stories on the news dealt with this type of division.
The first related to the court case out of Florida, where George Zimmerman was found not not guilty. I learned about the verdict last night when social media blew up with thoughts and opinions. Reading them, I was all the more grateful not to have a television, and not being tempted to listen to the thoughts of the talking heads. I know there are diverse opinions right here in this room about the case–I’ve talked with some of you about them–and I don’t need to get into that. None of us were in the neighborhood that night, and none of us were (physically) in that courtroom or the jury’s deliberation room.
That said, I don’t think anyone can honestly deny the deep divisions highlighted by this case. The anger, frustration, alienation and sadness that stands like a chasm between many of us in our society. The verdict reminded me of a picture I saw on a Facebook friend’s wall, maybe six months ago. He’s the pastor of a black church. In this picture many of his congregation’s adult members (it could’ve been all, or it could’ve been a quarter, I don’t know, but it was a lot of people) were wearing hoodies, and the caption read “do we look suspicious to you?”
That is illustrative of alienation, anger, and sadness . It’s undeniable.
As a pastor friend of mine (@rev_david) from Texas put the question: “Who was Trayvon Martin’s neighbor? Who will be George Zimmerman’s neighbor?”
Who is our neighbor? Who will we be neighbor to, and who will we allow to be neighbor to us?
The second story was about the death of seven UN peacekeepers in Darfur, a region of Sudan that where the people have endured a genocide.
The third was about bombs going off outside of mosques in Baghdad Iraq.
Who is our neighbor? This question echoes across the whole earth among all people and in every nation. Divisions may not be punctuated by IED’s and RPG’s everywhere, but people still suffer and people still die all over the world because of our inability to see the truth of Christ’s teaching. A teaching that stems not from naiveté, not from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but from reality. The reality of human sin. The reality of alienation. The alienation of humanity from God and from one another.
I’ve mention Canon Andrew White to you before. He’s the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad. He shared the following comment this morning:
We prayed and hoped for less violence but in the past 12 hrs it has only increased. Scores have been killed in post Ramadan parties, the terrible thing this time is that most of the killings this were directed at the Sunnis and their Mosques. Adding to the fact that we are in a Civil War. Today we look with churches around the world at the story of the Good Samaritan. We ask the question “who is my neighbor”. My neighbor is the other Sunni, Shia, Christian. (Help us Lord to live as one)
The question: “Who is my neighbor?” is always relevant because we always need to be reminded.
How do we get beyond this division? I don’t have a magic formula–and how I wish I did–but I believe we have to start with the small things. We can start where the Samaritan did, with really seeing the man in the ditch and being moved with empathy and compassion. We can start with seeing ourselves in others and seeing them in us.
We can start with actually being neighbors in the more general sense, for one. Recognizing one another in everyday interactions. Saying hello, helping each other in small things, building up the muscles of fellowship to handle the weight of greater adversity. As Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Common Place:
For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and one’s self as a neighbor within it. I am sure that virtues count in the neighborhood–to “love thy neighbor as thyself” requires the help of all seven of them–but I am equally sure that in a neighborhood the virtues cannot be practiced as such. Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions. “He who would do good to another,” William Blake said, “must do it in Minute Particulars.” To help each other, that is, we must go beyond the coldhearted charity of the “general good” and get down to work where we are.
The great task given us in this parable is nothing less than that of getting down to work where we are, and with the people God has placed in our path, and in whose path we have been found. Amen.
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).
A few great videos I thought I’d share with the readers of this blog during the Lenten Season. (Just a note for folks in the Diocese of Tennessee: Stanley Hauerwas–in the 3rd video–is honorary Canon Theologian of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville):
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:
On December 15th one of the more intelligent, pugnacious, and acerbic banner bearers of the so-called New Atheists passed away. Christopher Hitchens was well known for his political and cultural commentary, and for his books such as God is not great. There were unfortunately, I’m sure, some Christians who exhibited a bit of schadenfreude at his passing. On the whole though, his death seemed to inspire thoughtful commentaries and reflections upon the nature of belief and disbelief.
Hitchens was insistent, up to the end of his battle with cancer, that he had no doubts and remained firm in his conviction that God does not exist. There would be no death bed conversion, no rolling of the dice or Pascal-like wager in favor of theism.
When asked how he would respond if he discovered there was a state of consciousness beyond this life, he responded with “I will be surprised, but I like surprises.”
The most poignant commentary by far was that of his brother Peter. Of course, the commentary of any family member on the passing of a loved one is bound to be poignant. This was more so because of the long running disagreement between the two, a disagreement centering on faith. While Christopher was one of the more well-known atheists in the western world–or at least the Anglo-sphere–Peter is a Christian and responded to his brother’s book with his own, The Rage Against God: How Atheism led me to Faith.
While Christopher and Peter participated in a number of public sparing matches over the years, limited eventually by their desire that, in Peter’s words, their disagreement not “…turn into gladiatorial combat in which nothing would be resolved and enmity could be created.”
In the end, it seems, faith was a subject that was off limits as a topic that would inspire more heat than light in their relationship. As Peter writes toward the end of his reflections on his brother’s passing, about the last time they saw each other:
We both knew it was the last time we would see each other, though being Englishmen of a certain generation, neither of us would have dreamed of actually saying so. We parted on good terms, though our conversation had been (as had our e-mail correspondence for some months) cautious and confined to subjects that would not easily lead to conflict. In this I think we were a little like chess-players, working out many possible moves in advance, neither of us wanting any more quarrels of any kind. (In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011)
Some, perhaps, would be inclined to say that Peter failed in keeping his duty as a Christian, that he should have harried his brother to the end in order to bring him to faith. I would submit that such a view of sharing the gospel is not only ineffective, but in the end, runs counter to the gospel that it purports to espouse. Fundamentally, such a situation highlights that it is not our responsibility to convert others.
Only God can bring others to conversion, attempting to do so ourselves only serves to alienate people and in fact, drive them away from the opportunity to see God at work in our lives.
The story of the calling of Nathaniel illustrates some of this.
Philip invites Nathaniel
John 1:43-51, the calling of Philip and Nathaniel, closes out the chapter and follows immediately on the heels of the calling of Andrew and Peter. Jesus is traveling through Galilee and he sees Philip along the way and simply says to him, “Follow me” (John 1:43). If Philip asked any questions or had to be convinced, the gospel account is silent. He responds to Jesus’ call quickly, and more than that, he immediately goes out to share what he has discovered, going to his friend Nathaniel and telling him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).
Just as Philip’s response may reveal something of his character, Nathaniel’s response shows that he is at least a bit incredulous, if not cynical of Philip’s pronouncement. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. Some scholars think that this sounds like a local saying, but there is no attestation of it outside the gospel of John. Regardless of whether this were a local saying around parts of Galilee, taking a swipe at Nazareth, Nathaniel shows his quick wit, skepticism and directness with this response.
I would say that, in many ways, there are a lot of Nathaniel’s in our culture today. People who, while not exactly hostile to faith, are at least skeptical of its more traditional and institutionalized forms. Ours is, largely, a culture that empowers the individual, including in the area of the spiritual. This can be a good or bad trait, but it always means that received authority is a poor support for something you’re hoping to share with others. Likewise, argument becomes a self-defeating tool when trying to share the faith with others.
Imagine, if you will, what might have transpired if Philip had tried to brow-beat, cajole or otherwise convince Nathaniel of the rightness of his assessment of who Jesus is. Nathaniel seems a pretty self-possessed guy, free with his thoughts and secure in them. Of course we can’t know exactly what would’ve happened, conjectural as that thought is, but we can take something important away from the way Philip handles the situation. He doesn’t attempt to overwhelm Nathaniel with the prowess of his logical argument, or to confound him with scripture citation after scripture citation. Philip knows his friend, and that makes all the difference.
Rather than attempt to convince Nathaniel, Philip does something profoundly simple. He says in response to Nathaniel’s quip, “Come and see.”
This is precisely how we’re to respond to the various Nathaniel’s in our own lives today. We share with them what we have found in Jesus Christ, but when it comes time to convince them, time for them to move from audience or bystander to participant, we’re called to simply say, “Come and see.”
This is an amazingly freeing proposition. Episcopalians and other mainline protestants have rightly been accused of being a bit embarrassed by the “e” word, evangelism. There’s no denying that one of the reasons our congregations are shrinking is because of a simple failure to share what we have found with others. Few mainline folks invite others to church for example.
And that raises an important question. Are we neglecting to invite others because we are embarrassed by Jesus, by the forcefulness of other Christians or is it something else. Is it because we are afraid that people won’t actually meet Jesus if they come to worship with us?
The Invitation is to see Jesus at work
Philip invites Nathaniel to come and see Jesus, and in so doing he recognizes that the impetus for conversion comes not from his argument, no matter how well crafted or how well meaning. The impetus for conversion comes from Christ himself. It is God who turns hearts, not us.
This truth is evidenced in John by a contrast between what Philip says and what Jesus says. Philip, in his invitation to Nathaniel says that he has found the Messiah, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Of course, as readers and hearers we know that it is in fact Jesus who finds and calls Philip. The reality behind this is highlighted even more starkly when Nathaniel takes Philip up on the invitation to come and see Jesus.
As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus calls out to him, saying “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 15:47). In the exchange which follows, Nathaniel is amazed that Jesus tells him what he was doing before they met, that he had been sitting beneath a fig tree. Jesus tells him that he will see greater things than these, including “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). This demonstrates an important theological truth that will be emphasized even more in John 15, when Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).
So it is Jesus who does the choosing, not the individual. Philip does not convince Nathaniel, he simply offers an invitation for him to come and see Christ at work. When we invite folks to come and see, we are inviting them to come and see what Jesus is doing, whether that is in our corporate worship, in the way we live our lives, in the way we respect one another and serve those in need. We are relieved of the need to convince others as though they could come to faith through debate, but we should be reminded of the responsibility to share our experience with others, and to invite them to come and see Christ at work. When we have come and seen, we have the responsibility to go and tell, without the fear of rejection, without the added expectation of somehow having a good enough argument, or a profound enough story to convince someone else. We bring others to Christ, and let Christ do the work, just as Philip did.
In the past a person hounded by others may have feigned belief to keep the peace in their relationship, or they may have attended church services simply because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do, but today, there is no such pressure. Indeed, societal pressure actually runs against belief or at least active involvement in a faith community. There is truth to the old adage that “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In today’s world, attempts to force agreement don’t even result in false believers, they result in people alienated from faith and more people cheering on the criticisms of the New Atheists.
So, while it is unfortunately true that some well meaning Christians would (and have in my hearing) criticize Peter Hitchens for not “doing enough,” and that there are many who would opine with certainty on the eternal fate of his brother, I applaud Peter for not pushing, and for offering a witness to the fact that a Christian can maintain their convictions while also maintaining their relationship with those who do not agree. When we let go of the lie that we can save others, then we are truly free to share the good news with them, in deed as well as word, and in a situation where words just won’t do, we still have the relationship and we can say, by our love, “come and see” Christ at work in the way we live our lives.
Let all of us who have seen, have the strength to share the truth, and also the strength to let go of what is not our responsibility, so that we can fulfill what is: inviting others to meet Jesus and let him do the convincing.
Some thoughtful comments from Fr. Robert Hendrickson, of Christ Church New Haven reguarding the results of the National Survey of Youth and Religion. I commend them to you:
Identity Crisis Part II
So, having put up results from the NSYR study of youth and religion, I have gotten some interesting responses. They ranged from “Oh my God, the Church is dying” to “These numbers are really suspect” to “We are Episcopalians, we don’t do Church the way these other denominations do.”
None of these is especially helpful.
To allow our young people to grow up without clear teaching means that we cede faith to those who continue to use it for political or personal gain because those are the loudest voices or we risk them drifting aimlessly between self-exploration, astrology, reincarnation and the like without a firm foundation so that when life’s trials come they do not have a spiritual and moral footing that will hold them fast.
The study notes that “The majority of adolescents reported remaining at the same level of religiosity, and when adolescents did report a change in their overall religiosity, a higher proportion of them reported becoming more religious than becoming less religious.” In other words, there are opportunities for us to draw young people deeper into the life of faith. They are not rejecting the faith so much as having it presented to them in such a slipshod manner that it is irrelevant.
The survey results bear this out. Read again these results:
“…while 93 percent of Presbyterian Church (USA) teens and 91 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America teens report that their churches usually feel warm and welcoming, only 69 percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian say the same.”
“65 percent of Church of God in Christ teens and 57 percent of both Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist teens say that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues…while only 31 percent of Episcopal teens agree that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues.”
“less than one-half of Episcopalian teens who attend church more than a few times a year (46 percent) say that church usually makes them think about important things.” (by far lowest and the only group under 50%)
We have the lowest percentage of respondents that say our churches are welcoming to them. We have the lowest percentage that says that church is a good place to talk about serious issues. We have the lowest percentage that says church makes them think about important things. If we are serious about intellectual engagement with the faith then the numbers would bear this out. We would have young people who felt challenged and believed we talked about serious things and made them think about important things.
The Letter of James, which some scholars contend echoes the words and teaching of Jesus more than any other portion of the scriptures outside the Gospels, provides the following exhortation: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). This statement could well the the corollary of the intriguing comment that Jesus makes to his disciples and the crowds in the midst of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 23:1-12):
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matt. 23:1-3).
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, James admonishes us. Be doers of the law and not simply promulgators Jesus seems to be saying.
Both of these statements are directed at the faithful in general, but both are particularly pointed for those who are in the position of teaching the faith. Call no one rabbi (great one or teacher) Call no one Father. Call no one instructor.
But while they are particularly pointed for religious types–I’m often called “Father Jody” after all, the issue can be pushed. St. Jerome dealt with the question of whether anyone could rightly be called teacher or father:
“No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father, because all things are from him. He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God.
But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” Remember this distinction. It is one thing to be a father or teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity. For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: the fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father. (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10)
Jerome has touched on something important: the fact that Christians believe that Christ plays an ongoing role as our great Teacher. One of the great classics of the early Christians centuries is entitled “Christ the Teacher” (Cyril of Alexandria), and there is a particular Iconographic depiction of Christ that bears this name as well. You see, as one commentary puts it “Christians have only one teacher, Christ, in the sense that they are lifelong disciples of him alone. Other teachers play a transitory role.” (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary)
The problem is when religious leaders, teachers and others forget the fact that we are all answerable to that which is greater than ourselves. When this forgetfulness is coupled with power it leads to abuse. As St. Chrysostom says in his commentary on this passage: “For such are all they who practice self restraint in mere words while being unforgiving and grievous to bear when they have had no experience of the difficulty in actions. This is no small fault. In no small way does Jesus increase the former charge. (St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 72.2)
So, we understand how it is that a person can be called “teacher” if they have association with the Teacher, that is, Christ. But what about “Father?”
Just as St. Jerome indicates that no one should be called teacher except insofar as they have association with the Teacher, so does C.S. Lewis argue that to call a person father is only rightly done insofar as they reflect the virtues of the Father, that is God, the archetype of our virtuous and righteous actions. Lewis was not, and most people today are not, so naive as to think that every human father actually acts in this way. Unfortunately there is ample reason for the fact that many people have problems reflecting upon God as Father because of their relationships with their human fathers. Recognizing that troubling reality does not prevent us from seeing in this fact a clarion call to greater virtue among human fathers–they are called to exhibit the love of God. They are called, as we all are, to be doers of the word.
I would say that the same is true in talking of the mothering virtues as well–they are archetypical of God, who is spoken of in scripture as brooding over Jerusalem as a hen broods over her young (Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). This imagery is appropriated in a rather jarring, but wonderful and effective way by Johnny Cash in his song When the Man Comes around, in the phrase, “When the Father Hen shall call his Chickens home.”
This is why Paul can use both masculine and feminine imagery in reference to his relationship with the Thessalonians. He and his co-workers where “gentle [...] like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children,” and in our lesson for today, Paul says they “dealt with each [of the Thessalonian believers] like a father with his children,urging and encouraging [...] and pleading that [they] lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
Anything that is good, anything that is virtuous in humanity is good in reference to God, is good in the sense that it reveals the character, the heart, of God. And working to share the nature of Christ is precisely what it means to be a disciple, a student. The word is the same from which we get the term “discipline,” so to be a disciple of Christ is nothing less than to be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only. It implies action.
So before you give anyone any sort of honor, square them up and see if they are striving to lead a virtuous and faithful life. Are they humble before God and are they trying as best they can to love their neighbors. Are they truly exhibiting the passion of a faithful teacher, the care of a spiritual father. Are our mothers nurturing and our fathers supporting (recognizing that, of course, men and women can each do both of these things). In other words are we working every day to be more and more Christ like, and reveal in a more complete way the character of the God in whose image we were created in whose presence we thrive. This is what it means to be doers of the word. This is what it means to always be students of Christ the Teacher.
Still, for good or ill, as true or false, Jesus would have appeared primarily as a prophet, and as a prophet he proclaimed the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, which evidently meant, for him as for others, that God would fulfill God’s promises and vindicate God’s people (Mark 1:15, 9:1; Luke 11:20). Naturally, such a proclamation had implications for those who held power in the present age–for masters and slave owners, for administrators and governors, for kings and emperors–since it relativized their power, declaring them accountable for their use of it. If God reigns, then God reigns over everything, “for you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). [emphasis mine] (Bryan, 41)
The following is one in a series of ads put out by Christ Church, New Haven. They have sparked quite the response on Facebook. It’s interesting that I shared one of the ads and it received several “likes” mostly–though not totally–from younger folks, providing an example of the phenomenon discussed below. Check it out.
So, what is going on here? In all, I have counted 150 or so “likes” on our page and on the pages of those that shared the ad along with lots and lots of comments. It is rare that a piece of church media generates such a response. It has obviously stricken a chord.
The interesting thing is that it was overwhelmingly younger folks sharing and liking the ad. Those that expressed doubts or outright resentment were from another generation. They seem angry that young people would find value in something they worked to undo.