Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jesus and the Silent Demon

This week's scriptures are Jeremiah 1:1-10 and Luke 4:31-44.

I have always been struck by the Lukan account of the man with a demon who interrupted Jesus during His teaching in the synagogue. What was his experience like? What kind of demon did he have? Many, if not most of the accounts of demonic posession in the Gospels say something like, "he/she had a demon which made him/her ....(engage in some for of behavior)." Demons caused a young boy to throw himself into the fire (we would now refer to this as a seizure disorder); others caused a man to live among the tombs and cut himself with sharp stones. What is interesting is that we don't know what this particular demon did. What we know is that it responded to Jesus "teaching with authority."

Another thing that I find interesting is that the man is in the synagogue. In Jesus' day illness seperated one from the community. A man with a know demon would not likely have been present. So we're left with the possibility that this man had been suffering in silence for a very long time with the impact of this demon in his life.

What a sad thought. That this man had been going about his life in the synagogue and in the village all this time, suffering from the presence of this demon....and nobody knew...is its own kind of agony. YOu can imagine this man being unwilling/unable to speak of what he was going through because of the fear that he and his family would be isolated; cut off from the community that gave him what little comfort he was able to find. You can even imagine him not sharing his suffering with his wife, his rabbi, his best friend. He and his demon....there, alone in the dark, late at night. The demon thrived on the secrecy created by the man's fear.

What could Jesus have said that so upset the demon that it would break it's silence? That it would try to exert power over Jesus by calling Him by name (being able to call something's name was thought to give power over it)?

I want to suggest that what panicked the demon was the same, or similar, words that Jesus had spoken in Nazareth: "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And I want to suggest that what also panicked the demon-as we talked about Sunday-was what Jesus didn't say. He didn't finish His quote from Isaiah with the words, "and proclaim a day of the vengeance of our God."

The demon had been feeding on this man's fear of rejection: by family, by community, by synagogue, by God; for years. When Jesus announces the coming of the Kingdom; a Kingdom marked by good news, and healing, and freedom, and release....without condemnation or judgement the demon was terrorized and had to put up a fight.....a fight, by the way, which the demon lost.

How many people do we pass every day who are suffering silently this way. In the store as we shop for groceries. On the bus or the freeway on the way to work. At the social gatherings we attend. How many of them sit in the congregation with us on Sunday mornings? How many people around us suffer in silent agony for fear that putting words to their struggles would mean isolation and rejection?

As a pastor and a therapist I can tell you that these "silent sufferers" are everywhere. Their 'demons'? Histories of childhood neglect and abuse; chronic illnesses that sap mind and body; compulsive behaviors that shame and destroy self esteem; unresolved griefs and losses; the list goes on. And the 'demon' thrives on their fear. Their fear that if they address this issue it will destroy them; the fear that others will reject and scorn them; the fear that God will condemn them.

If we stop here, there is nothing but Hell To Pay. But hear the Good News: "Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost"....not to condemn, not to reject, not to punish. This is terrifying news for the 'demons' as well as for those who use this fear to sway political opinion, to control economic situations, or to define the world in terms of the 'inside ones' and the 'outside ones.' But it is good news for those who sit in the darkness of their fear. For Jesus said, "the one who comes to me I will in nowise cast out."

Jesus came preaching this Good News in the power of the Holy Spirit. Into the darkness of our fear and pain comes the Light of God's Love and Mercy. Listen..."and the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it."


Monday, January 18, 2010

Nazareth Rejection, The Body of Christ, and the Inclusive Community

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 4:14-21, and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

Let me start by working backwards (sort of) through these passages.

Paul used the image of Christians as the "Body of Christ." He pointed out that we need one another if we are to fullfill the task of being a "body" and strongly pressed the issue that it was God who had brought the various parts together (as opposed to some choice of ours). He also pushed hard at the idea that distaining one another for who we are (or what we've done in the past?) verged on the ridiculous when compared with our need for one another.

Now it is pretty clear that if we-you and I together-are "Christ's Body," then our task is to be doing "Christ's thing"....doing the things that Jesus said He was here to do. And Jesus puts this on the table very early in His ministy according to Luke. On a trip back home, Jesus is at his home synagogue and is invited to do the reading from the Prophets (the first reading would be from the Torah, the Law). Two things happen here that are very important. And they are things that set Jesus over against the way others wanted to see both the passages He read, and Jesus himself.

The first thing (go take a look at the Isaiah passage) is what Jesus didn't say. He left out the phrase "the day of the Lord's vengence." This omission, in the small settlement of Nazareth, devoted as it reportedly was to keeping Hebrew Law and tradition in the midst of Roman occupation, would have angered Jesus' hearers a great deal. Who did Jesus think he was to re-interpret the Prophet this way? In fact that's what the "Isn't this Mary and Joseph's son?" means. 'Who does he think he is? We know his momma and daddy. Why I remember when he was an apprentice carpenter! Listen to him now, putting on airs.'

And it got worse. Jesus rolled up the scroll and said, "today this is fullfilled in your sight." Talk about ticking off your congregation! Jesus didn't mean that suddenly the prison bars were melting as He spoke; but He did mean that this was the beginning. This was a "Let the word go forth" moment. The Kingdom of God was here, and this is what it looked like. It was emerging into view....could they see it? And this Kingdom didn't include a focus on vengence. No wonder they tried to throw him off a cliff.

Now fast forward with me some 2000-2025 years or so. Think about bodies for a minute. One of the primary writers on the impact of trauma on the human body is Bessel Van der Kolk. Some years ago he wrote an article titled The Body Remembers. In it he pointed out that the human body carries in its cells the memories of physical, sexual and emotional trauma. Persons who have been physically abused carry in their bodies a physical memory of that abuse.
If I take that new knowledge and think theologically about it I am presented with some dramatic possibilities:

You and I are the Body of Christ. We did not pick one another, God put us together. We need one another. We are called to be in relationship with one another in the same way that Jesus proclaimed His relationship to us.....to the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the blind. And as members of a single body, we commit ourselves to carrying the memory of one another's pain.

In therapy with trauma victims the somatic (bodily) memories call the individual to deal with their past, to heal the old wounds. As the Body of Christ, our memory of, and sharing in, the pain of the wounds of our brothers and sisters (a list, which according to Jesus is never ending, and over which we have no say...it's God's list) calls us to be about the tasks of Christ: "to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Are we willing to be the Body of Christ? To carry the memory and the pain of the earthquake victim in Haiti; the abused child in Glen Burnie; the torture victim in the CIA 'black op' prison overseas; the mental patient in Baltimore; the homeless child in the local shelter; the prisoner in Hagerstown; the villager in Afganistan?

We don't get to pick and chose who we think God cares about. We don't get to say, 'you get the Lord's favor; and you get the Day of the Lord's Vengance.'

The Body remembers....The Body of Christ remembers.....and in that memory we are called to both hold the pain and the need of the 'other' for whom Jesus came; and the call that Jesus embraced on that day in Nazareth.

We cannot do this alone. But then, we're not asked to. We are the Body of Christ; and we have been promised that when we take this task to heart, "Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

Hope to see you Sunday.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Responding to 'Christ in Need' in Haiti

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 43:1-12 and Luke 3:1-20.

I may post another set of comments later in the week; but the situation in Haiti has me turning to John the Baptist's comments about "bear fruits worthy of repentance." When asked to apply this to the specific situations of his listeners, John's comments were directed to issues of justice and care.

You and I as Christians are called to care for those in need. We're taught that Jesus comes to us in the person of those we encounter who are in need or agony, who mourn or hunger.

All of these are evident now in the situation in Haiti. So let me make a suggestion: take the time you would normally read this blog and go to the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Baptist World Alliance, Church World Services or some other reputable site that is collecting for relief in Haiti and make a donation. The needs are great and will be great in the days to come. Let's put some legs on our faith in response to this tragedy.

"As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me."

Hope to see you Sunday.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Encounters With Herod

This week's scripture is Matthew 2.

This is Epiphany; the time the Church traditionally celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men to worship the Christ Child. The probably didn't arrive at the manger with the shepherds...all artistic works to the contrary. They most likely arrived (based on who Herod is going to order killed later) some time between the baby's first and second birthday.

They arrived bearing gold (a fitting gift for kings); frankinsense (which has medical properties as well as being used in perfumes); and myrrh (which has multiple uses including medical, ritual, and the anointing of the dead. It was considered worth about 5 times the value of frankinsense).

But on their way, they stopped by the court of Herod. This was a natural decision...Herod was called the "King of the Jews" so one could assume the new king would be born there.

Matthew 2:3 says, "When Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him..." It's an interesting passage. Herod was frightened...so Jerusalem was frightened.

If you've ever been around a tyrant....whether a boss, a parent, or lived in a country where oppression is the order of the day....you'll understand. When a tyrant is frightened, people get hurt. Tenimin Square, Idi Amin, current affairs in Iran and Yemen are examples that many of us could point to to prove this true. And Herod was notorious for his paranoid rage. If Herod is frightened; the Jerusalem is terrified.

Now remember that previously when Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple for the sacrifice for a new born they did not have money for the normal sacrifice. They offered two pigeons-the poor man's sacrifice.

But now God is going to tell Joseph to pack up his family and run to Egypt. To make the dangerous journey by themselves; establish a new life; survive. How will they do that? And when the time comes to return from Egypt and settle in a new place, Nazareth, how will they do that?

In my opinion the answer to that question is that they will live off the gifts of the Magi.

In all fairness I have to say that many historians believe that the Slaughter of the Innocents never occurred. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that while the numbers reported were way over the top (they estimate that the number of male children in the area surrounding Bethlehem would have been only a couple of dozen at the most), such a small number murdered, when compared to Herod's other cruelties, would hardly rate reporting.

I tend to lean in the direction of this understanding. I do so for both experiencial reasons and theological ones. We all have seen the 'nameless ones' whose torture and death are just written off as 'collateral damage'. In war ravaged Somalia, what does the rape of one child, the death of one old person, the torture of one opposition member....what does it count? It hardly merits notice. It will make no history book.

Theologically what this reminds me is that God came, and comes, to us as one of the 'nameless ones.' God doesn't just come as a tiny baby; God comes as a tiny baby that doesn't matter; one of the ones, who when they're murdered and the slaughter is over, everyone in Jerusalem breaths a sigh of relief and says, "thank God it wasn't worse...just a few babies in Bethlehem...sad of course, but it could have been much worse."

It reminds me that God still comes as one of the 'nameless ones'. The starving on the African continent; homeless person begging on the median strip of West St.; the child prostitute in Thailand; and the neighbor child with the strange bruises we don't want to know about. These are all God coming to us. And you and I are called to be Magi.

We cannot save the world. But we can offer the gifts we do have: money, time, energy, creativity, skills....to combat the work of our "Herods". Because the Magi brought their gifts, Joseph had the where with all to take his family and run. God was at work in bringing the Magi there for that purpose. Joseph's family would make the journey. And along the way, perhaps Joseph would buy their way into a traveling caravan, bribe a warlord for safe passage, purchase food to keep them going.

We need to ask ourselves how we have been Magi? How has our seeking after the Christ caused us to help the "God-Met-In-The-Other'(for that is who the 'nameless ones' are) to escape Herod's cruelty?

Jim Strathdee wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home
The true work of Christmas is begun

See you Sunday.