Monday, June 24, 2013

5 Pentecost, Year C, 23 June 2013

Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox  
What name did your mother call you when she wanted your attention RIGHT NOW?
“Jason Monroe Haddox, get in here…” 
Even if it’s been years since you heard that voice, you still know that sound.
The power of naming, by which we simultaneously bestow and call forth the identity of the one being named, is a mighty power indeed.  And so it is to be used with great care and humility.    
That power of naming stands behind our gospel this morning.  The writer invites the hearers to see and recognize God’s presence and action in the lives of those named in the story, and in our own lives as well.    
Immediately before this morning’s passage, Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee in a boat with the disciples and calmed a storm, to the disciples’ salvation and confusion.  Afraid and amazed, they ask one another: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”  For Jesus to command the winds and waters from storm to stillness is not merely a cool party trick, a little meteorological sleight-of-hand.  The writer of Luke’s gospel wants us to understand that Jesus’ words “Peace, be still” comes from the same voice of creation spoken over the waters of creation at the beginning of all things, that said “Let there be light.”  To control wind and water is to control the natural forces of chaos and destruction.  This is the work of the Creator, and no one else.   
But the disciples—bless their hearts—just don’t quite get it.    
As this morning’s gospel begins, Jesus and the disciples (who are still amazed and afraid, confused and befuddled) come ashore on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Gentile country.  A man possessed by demons meets them.  He screams aloud “at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the most high God?’”   
The man himself is naked, uncontrollable, wild; he cannot be kept at home, he is driven by raw diabolical impulse into the wilderness, he lives in the cemetery among the dead.  He is as strange, as frightening, as “Other” as imaginable.  And yet HE KNOWS. 
This man knows who Jesus is, and that alone is enough to set him in contrast to the disciples, who are still confused about the whole thing.  Both the man himself—a Gentile, a stranger, one who is clearly one of “them people” in every possible way—and the demons who have possessed him—know and recognize Jesus for who he is.   
Jesus asks the name of the unclean spirit.  To know the name is to have power.  The name given is not a single name; it is the name of a mob.  Legion.  It is a military term for approximately five thousand foot soldiers.  It is a Latin, Roman term, reminding the hearers then and now of the power of empire to possess and destroy the souls of those under occupation.  It is another word of “otherness”, no proper name for a human being at all. 
Like the disciples, the powers of darkness and corruption are filled with fear.  But it is worse for them; they KNOW who this is, and that in his presence their power is at an end.  “Do not send us back to the abyss; let us go over there into those pigs grazing by the lake.”   
GO, he tells them.  “Get out.”
And they go, into a herd of pigs, creatures which are also understood to be unclean, who go mad and plunge down the cliff and into the lake to destruction.  Into the lake, into the water, into the place of chaos and disorder over which Jesus has just moments before demonstrated control and power.  Into the abyss, just as they had feared. 
When the dust settles and the neighbors come to see what all the commotion is about, they find this man whom they have known and feared for years, “from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  He has not been in his right mind for as long as anyone can remember—himself least of all.  Sitting at the feet of the teacher is the posture of a student, of a disciple.   This man is now one of Jesus’ followers, by his disposition and body language.   
He is clothed.  We learn at the beginning of the episode that “for a long time he had worn no clothes” and yet he is dressed and sitting calmly with the other disciples. 
Where did he get the clothes? 
It must be from the other disciples.  An undershirt from this one; a belt from that one; a tunic from someone else…together they clothed this new addition to their community.  Together they provided what was necessary to bring him into the place of calm and welcome and restoration.   
This, as much as anything, makes those who see it afraid.  They discern, however imperfectly, that something very strange and very powerful is present, and they back away from it.  Before this the townsfolk would have stayed away from the man who had been possessed by demons out of fear for their own safety; now they keep their distance out of amazement and holy fear.  They don’t know WHAT to make of all this, only that it is even more strange and unsettling than before.  
For their own comfort, they ask Jesus to leave.  The man who had been freed from the demons seeks to stay with Jesus—of course he does!  But Jesus tells him “No, I have a job for you.  GO HOME, and tell them all what God has done for you.”  So he goes home—how long he has been away from home!—and tells the people there all that JESUS has done for him.  Note the shift—that it is in Jesus that God’s blessing and healing and sending has been revealed.
My brothers and sisters, we are ourselves plagued by the powers of darkness and evil.  We know what it is to wander in the tombs, to be driven into desert and wilderness.  Whether by anxiety or fear, depression or grief for ourselves, for loved ones, or for the world in which we live, we know something of that man’s struggle.  Perhaps we have known ourselves cut off from one another, as if we alone had to battle and batter against shackles and chains. 
Into the midst of all of this—in the deepest darkness, into the place of hurt and rage and despair, Jesus comes to us.  Calls to us, names us with the name which is our truest, most complete self, and turning to the powers of darkness orders them GO—GET OUT.  You shall not have this one, these many, for they are my beloveds. 
For that is who we are, dear ones.  Beloved of God, made in the image and likeness of God, called as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus, in whom (as the letter to the Galatians says this morning) “there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ.”  Children of the promise made to Abraham and his offspring.  Blessed, in order to be a blessing. 
As the newly-freed man in the gospel was clothed by the other disciples,
to go home and tell what had been done for him by God revealed in Jesus,
            so in our baptism we are set free;
            the powers of darkness are dead and drowned in the waters of new life;
            and we are clothed in Christ,
            to go and tell what God has done, is doing, and yet shall do through
Christ, for and in us.   
What God calls us to do, God gives the gifts to accomplish.  As the letter to the Hebrews says: “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  It is God’s power, not our own, at work.  All we have to do is say yes. 
May that yes be our word, our answer to God’s call, this day and all our days. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

4 Pentecost, Year C, June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21A; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36—8:3
Preached by Ian Lasch


          Our epistle reading today, much like both the Bible and Christianity itself, begins with the law. The giving of the law on Mount Sinai was a transformative event in the history of a people who only then became a nation. It was a moment which would come to define them, and us, even millennia later. And while Paul has some very interesting things to say about the law, we ought to delve a bit into the background of the law itself before we get to his points about it.

          There is a tendency, particularly among us as Christians, to think only of the Decalogue (meaning “ten words”), or the “Ten Commandments” as we know them, when speaking of the law. The Decalogue is very important, but an article I read recently about it by Leon Kass referred to it as the preamble for the law, which seems like an apt description. The Decalogue gives a framework for the law; an idea of what the law entails. The first four commandments concern how we should relate to God and the last six are about how we should relate to our fellow human beings. But the Decalogue is just a bird’s eye view. The full Law of Moses contains some 613 separate commandments and is spread out within four different books. I promise I won’t go into too much detail, but I want to highlight just a couple of parts of the Decalogue, not because they’re any more important than the rest, but because they give us an idea about the intent of the law.

          The fourth commandment or word is to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy; as it’s given to us in Exodus it explicitly parallels creation, which wasn’t finished until God desisted, and admired the whole of creation, and saw that it was good. But that article by Kass brings up the point that it also echoes their experience with manna in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt. During this time God provided for them when they feared they would starve, by raining food on them from heaven, but only for six days out of the week. Every day, they’re to gather only what they need, except for the sixth, when they should gather enough for two days, so that they can keep the Sabbath. This shows Israel, and us, that this world in which we live is not a world of scarcity, but a world of plenty… that God will provide sufficiently for our needs, and that we shouldn’t work endlessly to try to accumulate more than we need… that we cannot be grateful if we’re always worried about getting more.

          The tenth commandment or word says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” This as much as tells us that those desires we have to accumulate or possess, to be consumers, are often contrary to God’s plan. Just as we are told to stop struggling and working for one day out of the week, we find out that we shouldn’t be as enamored of stuff as we are.

          These two commandments, again, don’t represent the whole of the law. But they give us at least a small idea of what the law intends. It’s important to have at least a little bit of the background of the law, because it is such a major part of who Paul is. It’s a law that he spent his life pursuing, up until the time of his conversion, and he knew it inside and out. Even at the time of writing this letter, he continued to try to live by it, so it’s all the more surprising when he says that a person is not justified, or rectified, or made righteous by the works of the law. That always seemed a bit counterintuitive to me. It never seemed to make much sense. I mean, how could someone not be righteous, if they follow the law? But God isn’t concerned only with how we behave. He also cares how we think and feel. Is it compassionate to refrain from murder because it's against the law? Is it charitable to pay taxes, even knowing that some of that money will be used to take care of the poor, if we only pay taxes to avoid jail time? Is it faithful to refuse to cheat on a spouse only for fear of the consequences? In these cases, the law is meant to be a minimum standard that all should follow, and if we congratulate ourselves for doing the bare minimum, the only righteousness we get is self-righteousness. That’s why the law cannot make us truly righteous. To be truly righteous depends on our intentions, on our heads and our hearts. And this is what God wants to change.

          Luckily, Paul gives us a solution. While we cannot be made righteous by following the law, we are justified instead through faith in Jesus Christ (or, perhaps more accurately translated, through the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ). Paul tried to find righteousness through following the law, and it didn’t come. Through the law he died to the law, because that way did not lead to life. It was by pursuing righteousness through the law that he found out it wasn’t possible. Paul found out, just as we know, that by being crucified with Christ through our baptism, we are set free and made right. As the epistle could alternately be translated, “I have been crucified with Christ and yet I live. But it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” This “I” who no longer lives in Paul is a word familiar to us, thanks to modern psychology. The Greek word is “ego.” By sharing in the crucifixion, Paul has put his ego, his self, his desires and wishes, to death. They no longer live in him, because he has decided to let them die so that Christ may live in him instead. This may seem extreme, but it’s something that Christ himself told us several times. In the Gospel of Mark, he tells us that a house divided cannot stand. No one can plunder a strong man’s house without first tying up the strong man. And we know that our desires are strong. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and Mammon, a Greek word which means “wealth” or “material possessions” or even “greed.” We cannot serve God if we’re trying desperately to get more stuff.

          And so, like Paul, we try to put those earthly desires to death. We strive to submit to God’s will, even knowing that it means subjugating our own. By being baptized into Christ’s crucifixion, so we live. But not us; Christ lives within us. Knowing this, we cannot help but be forever changed. Christ lives in us; in each and every one of us. He lives in me and he lives in you, just as he lives in my neighbor, and in my friend. He lives in my coworker and my acquaintance. He lives in my competitor and my enemy. And this is the intent of the law, for us as Christians. We still try to tithe to God’s church and to keep the Sabbath, but not because we'll feel bad if we don't or we think it's expected of us. We still remain faithful to him, but not because that’s the letter of the law. We still try to love one another as Christ himself loves us, but not out of guilt or obligation. We do it because Christ lives in us, in each and every one of us, and without the gifts we are given by the grace of God, not one of us would have a dime to our name, or breath to draw, or one minute of time on this earth. All that we are and all that we have is because of God, and it is only through him in Christ that we are made righteous.