Wednesday, June 22, 2016

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Then they found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.

This morning's Gospel is one of the most strange accounts in all of the Gospels. It's also one of my favorites, because I think it offers a striking representation of self-destructive humanity which is delivered and renewed by God in Christ. After crossing the sea of Galilee, our Lord and his disciples enter into a primarily Gentile region—this is evident by the fact that in this county the people keep herds of pigs which of course then and now are forbidden food for observant Jews. In this land our Lord and his disciples meet a man who, according to St. Luke, had certain devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any houses but in the tombs. In a parallel account in the Gospel of Mark, we are told in addition that this man used to cut himself with stones. I cannot help but be struck how suggestive this detail is for our own age. There is a small but significant trend among young people—young women in particular—to cut themselves and practice self-harming. One of the triggers for this in this intense negativity that young people feel about themselves and their bodies. I believe that this phenomenon is not just isolated abnormality of human psychology but actually an acute manifestation of the more pervasive problem of self-loathing. Listen, you probably don't cut yourself, you may not even loathe yourself, but I bet you know a lot of people in the world, and maybe young people in your family who loathe themselves. Look at the staggering number of suicides every year among teens and those in their twenties. Despite Gen-Xer's and Millennials being fed a steady diet of self-esteem reinforcement with things like participation awards, very little of this has seemed to translate into greater confidence and positive self-image. The world, my friends, has defined what constitutes a happy life—certain physical looks, popularity, academic and professional success—and when these don't measure up, as inevitably they don't because we're human, the living flesh and blood pales with this perfect image, and self-loathing ensues. The demon-afflicted man may seem a world apart from us, but I would suggest that he is really a representation of our self-loathing society and may be a portrait of us in self-loathing or self-destructive behavior.

But the power of the Gospel is that our Lord comes and he wants to deliver this demon-afflicted man. There is no personal gain for our Lord—he just pities this afflicted son of Adam and wants to see him restored to his right mind. What further illustrates the vigor of self-destruction in these demons is that our Lord at the demons' request sends them into a herd of swine. The demons who make the man cut himself, enter into the swine and the herd runs violently down a steep place into the lake and are choked.

Life, my friends, is a battle. It is outward battle of trials and vexations, mostly things out of our control, and it is inward battle as we struggle with sin and temptation and fight our own inner demons of addiction, or self-hatred, or anger, or greed, or malice. All these kill. These are the demons that cause the man to cut himself and that move the herd to be cast violently down and drowned. The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, he points out that implicit to the commandment is the love of self. And so he asks the questions what does it mean to love yourself, and concludes that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us.

Our Lord wills to deliver those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow. Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your inner demons and self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. When we are going through a time of intense internal struggle, it is so easy not to look beyond the present feelings and circumstances, and so to hand ourselves over to despair. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, he has pity on the afflicted sons and daughters of Adam.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

The Lord loves the righteous, the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.

In last week's Gospel, we heard the story of the centurion of great faith, and who sought to have his servant healed by Jesus. There was an interesting tension in that account: on the one hand, there were the centurion's friends and sympathizers who said that the centurion was worthy of having this healing performed even though he was not a Jew, and on the other hand, you had the centurion himself declaring that he was not worthy. As I pointed out in my sermon, we do good things not so that we can present them to God as a kind of resume, but rather, doing good that we can do, we recognize that before the Lord we are not worthy because our good is never unalloyed with a little bad and even the good we do pales in comparison with him who is goodness itself. What is particularly notable about last week's Gospel in contrast with today's is that our Lord was asked to come and perform that healing, while in today's, where he raises the only son of a widow from the dead, he acts without being implored. As much as we may have a sense that we are growing in holiness and in the life of the Spirit, the more profound truth is that at some point we were like this dead young man. To put it into the words of that familiar hymn, I once was lost but now am found. At some point our Lord found you; he came unsolicited and unwanted, by his own authority and moved by his heart of love, to awake you out of spiritual slumber. The Lord's greatest work is almost invariably unsolicited, and this is so because so often we don't even realize the good things we need or can have from the Lord. Gorging ourselves on a steady diet of stale biscuits and water, we too often miss the fact that our Lord has spread a table before us, and by his grace has called us to partake, all of his own initiative.

It is interesting to put the first and Gospel lessons in conversation with one another. Both contain stories of raising a widow's only son from the dead. Luke wants us to think of this scene from the life of the prophet Elijah because he understands Jesus is a prophet, but of course, he is even greater. This is evident if read them side by side. The broken-hearted widow reproaches the prophet Elijah for the death of her son. The prophet takes the child into an open room, and beings to pray, Lord, O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn? Then he lays upon the child three times, and finally the soul of the child comes into him again. It is clear that this raising from the dead is by the power of God and not by Elijah's power. He is merely the pleader and the intercessor, the instrument through whom the Lord works. In contrast when our Lord sees the young man being carried on the bier, thronged with mourners and processing towards the grave, he sees the sorrowful mother and has pity on this poor widow. Walking over and touching the bier, he says, young man, I say unto thee, arise. Here our Lord is seen not as the pleader and intercessor, but as the one in whom authority is given to raise from the dead. Like the prophets, our Lord proclaims the truth of God, but unlike the prophets, in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, to use the words of St. Paul. Our Lord is not only the mouthpiece of God as a prophet, but the incarnate God. He shows that he has authority over every sickness and demon, and even over death.

But someone might ask why didn't our Lord raise all deceased children? Was his compassion limited just to this widow? I like what George MacDonald, the great 19th century Scottish divine, had to say about this passage, O mother! mother! wast thou more favoured than other mothers? Or was it that, for the sake of all mothers as well as thyself, thou wast made the type of the universal mother with the dead son—the raising of him but a foretaste of the one universal bliss of mothers with dead sons? Now a modern interpreter might argue that widows were often destitute in the ancient world, so our Lord's raising of the young man had more to do with providing for her than sympathizing with her grief, but such a view misses the plain wording of the Scripture: when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said unto her, Weep not. It is a horrible, horrible thing for a parent to bury a child. Some of you may have been through that; others perhaps have seen loved ones and friends mourn the death of a child. A window in this church memorializes such a death. The thought of a child cut off in the flower of youth is horrible to contemplate—lost life and joy swallowed by the oblivion of death. And yet our Lord comes, he has compassion; he touches the bier. He did this not just for this widow, but for all mothers and fathers who mourn the death a child to show them that he is the Lord even over death and destruction. In his kingdom, the love between a mother and a son, a parent and a child will find its reunion and fulfillment because God is love, and that motherly love was a gift of his. Our Lord touches our sorrows and has compassion on the those who mourn, and we pray that, to quote the graveside prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, he would raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.