Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sermon for 5th February 2012.

Sermon for 5th February 2012.  The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL
Mark 1:21-39

There are times when I am tempted to think that the bible is no more than a compendium of religious information – some of which is useless trivia, and some of which is more or less useful.   Or I will begin to use the bible as if it were a self-help manual, filled with inspirational snippets which will help me through life.

Of course, that is not what I said when I was ordained.  I avowed that the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation”.  That means, among other things, that within the bible we discover what God’s word and will is for life.

Indeed the bible is filled with accounts of human encounters with the Holy One, encounters which are more than the anecdotes of religious people.  They are encounters which are meant to move us towards the conversion of our lives to God. They are encounters through which are the templates by which we are led to god-like-ness.

Christians believe that the most reliable template is that which is created by the life, teaching, actions, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Indeed we believe that in Jesus we encounter the fullest and most complete revelation of God.  In him we see the image and likeness of God.  That image and likeness which was defaced by our mythical forebears Adam and Eve, is restored to us in the very humanity of Jesus.

Jesus is at one and the same time the complete and perfect image of God, and the complete and perfect expression of humanity.

We’ll be reading a lot from the gospel according to Mark this year.  

The Jesus we see in Mark is the one who resists all evil:

he resists all that keeps humans in bondage to self and sin.

he resists all that evil which destroys human “communion” or community with God and with others.

The casting out of unclean spirits is part and parcel of Jesus’ guerrilla warfare on evil.  

The Revd. Andrea Taylor pointed out to us earlier this week that these spirits are called “unclean” because they exclude people from the on-going life of the community. A person with leprosy would be deemed “unclean”, and would be shunned by family, friends and neighbours, and excluded from normal human social intercourse.  A person with an “unclean” spirit would be similarly cast out, and forced to live in the dark abyss of total loneliness.

So it is that the exorcisms of Jesus have more than a personal dimension.  They change the dynamic of social life.  The one excluded is now to be included, out of isolation into community

Are there dark, evil, or unclean spirits?  The prayer book teaches so! In baptism we “renounce satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness which rebel against God”. 

That’s uncomfortable language for we progressive Episcopalians, convinced as we are (despite all the evidence to the contrary) of the perfectibility of human nature. We act as if all the human condition needs is a little more information, and a little more inspiration.  We do not believe that we need to be saved -  after all – a wee bit of improvement here and there will be quite sufficient, thank you very much.

And yet.....  there are “spirits” which cut us off from communion with each other and with God. 

I give an example: - there is the spirit of criticism.  There are folks for whom everything is imperfect.  Their children, their co-workers, their neighbours, a cousin in a distant city -  all these are subject to a withering critique.  

Folks like this come to Church prepared to dislike the hymns, the sermon, the vestry, the coffee – and within minutes of the close of the service they launch into their whining critiques.  This spirit of criticism can “take over” people’s lives – and it is utterly destructive and isolating.

A colleague of mine up in Massachusetts observed the destructive power of the critical spirit.  The Eucharist would have been just fine, with lively music and thoughtful preaching.  Parishioners would leave the sanctuary possessed by a sense of the grace and goodness of God.  Then, at coffee hour, a particular parishioner  – possessed of a critical spirit – would “work the crowd”.  That person would move from individual to individual, and from group to group -  and within a short while many of the members of this congregation would be riled up and the Rector would be isolated as she became the focus of all that was supposedly wrong.  It was all extremely destructive. It was evil.  It led to the eventual demise and closing of that parish.

There are other dark spirits. Many of us have also encountered others who are possessed by anger, or self-loathing, or spiritual arrogance, or cynicism.  Their behaviours are self-destructive. Their behaviours spread dissension and disunity.

These are they for whom no amount of good advice, or helpful information, or liberal optimism can be effective. 

 It simply does not work to be “nice” in the face of evil. To paraphrase a New York Rabbi “Expecting evil to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian” (1)

But all is not hopeless, for there is the good news of God which we encounter in Jesus of Nazareth. He who rebuked an unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” is yet present with us in the presence of a Holy Spirit. 

Each week we pray “deliver us from evil”.  We are delivered through that gracious work of God in our lives which we call conversion.  The gospel never calls us to self-improvement. It calls us to surrender our wills and our lives to a power which is greater than ourselves.  The spirit of evil is always trumped by the Holy Spirit.

Recovering alcoholics know this well.  No amount of cajoling or good advice could talk them out of addiction.  No amount of self will could make them sober.  For that which they once thought they had controlled, now mastered them.  But by the grace of God alone they moved through spiritual renewal to conversion and newness of life, in three simple and yet profound steps.

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable;

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity;

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

Should we come to believe that steps such as these are worth taking  - and at what better time or place than this -  in us will be restored the image and likeness of God.  And with Jesus we shall enjoy our true vocation -  to be human beings fully alive!

(1)             Adapted from “From Baghdad to Brooklyn- Growing up in a Jewish-Arabic family in Midcentury America”, Jack Marshall   (Coffee House Press 2005).

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