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Sunday 23 June 2013

Taking leave of ourselves

Texts: 1 Kings 19.1-15a; Ps 42; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39

When the prophet Elijah fled into the desert wilderness of Mt. Horeb, he had good reason to do so.  The powerful pagan queen, Jezebel, was very angry with him for having defeated the priests of Baal, a local fertility god, in a game of ‘my god is bigger than your god.’  She promised to kill Elijah, as she had killed the other prophets of Yahweh a couple of chapters earlier.  So Elijah strapped on his pack and headed for the hills to hide.  Now, the next bit of the story is really interesting. While Elijah is out there, we are told, he suddenly falls into a profound despondency, a despondency so deep that he begs for God to take his life.  The source of this downer appears to be Elijah’s belief that he is ‘no better’ than his ancestors, for a true believer in God would never have run away at the first sign of danger.  Especially if he or she had witnessed the power of God to save only a few days earlier!  At this, his lowest point, Elijah had apparently lost faith in his capacity to have faith.  Not an easy thing to have to deal with!

Now, if we turn over to the story from Luke for a while, we find another man who appears to be hiding out.  This time it’s not a prophet, but a demoniac, that is, a man possessed by a demon.  Clearly, like Elijah, this fellow had a death-wish, because he lives in a grave-yard.  To the first-century mind, someone who lived in a graveyard would have been already ‘dead’ because he or she clearly preferred the world of the dead, a shadowy region beyond the borders of safe society and commerce.  Note also that the name of this guy’s demon was ‘Legion.’  Interesting name that.  At the time when Luke wrote his gospel, the most obvious meaning of the word was military.  A Legion, for first century Mediterraneans, was a very large company of Roman soldiers or ‘legionnaires’, a tangible symbol of Rome’s absolute power over every aspect of one’s life.  So, when Luke tells us that his man is possessed by ‘Legion’ he means us to recognise that the man has been driven ‘mad’ by the omni-present pressure of Roman power in his life.  Luke wants us to see that this man has been so colonised by Rome that there is little to nothing of his original self left.  He is now only what Rome has made of him.  He has been repressed and belittled to the point where the only escape he may contemplate is that of death.  And so he inhabits the tombs, contemplating death and yet held back from killing himself by a demon who accuses him, over and over again, of being so useless and insignificant he does not have the guts even to kill himself! 

Two stories, two men.  Both are hiding out in a wilderness where people rarely go.  Both are seeking a haven of refuge from the political power of their times.  Both struggle deeply with the decisions they have made in life, with the selves that brought them to this point of despondency or illness.  Was there another way?  Could I have handled things with more courage, more resolve?  Where has my faith in God gone to?  Is there no escape except into the darkness of death? 

These are not hypothetical questions about two chaps who may or may not have experienced all this several thousand years ago, on the other side of the world.  These are questions that have regularly been asked by many people who live in Australia today.  One of them is a fellow I know whom I shall call ‘Patrick’.  Patrick comes from Ethiopia in Northern Africa.  To my mind, he is a modern-day Elijah figure because, in the early 90s he was a trade-union leader who stood up to the increasingly racist policies of his government in the name of a justice he had learned from Christ.  As a consequence of his actions, Patrick received a series of death-threats and his house was burnt down.  At the urging of his friends, and because he had a new bride whom he loved, he finally decided to flee the country.  For the next five years Patrick was a fugitive who, many times over, fell into a deep despondency about being so powerless in the face of evil men.  He also accused himself, very often, of having failed—not only with his work for justice, but also in his trust of God.  Would someone who trusted in God have run away like that?

Another friend who asks these questions regularly is a fellow I shall call ‘Mark’.  Mark has a disease known as schizophrenia.  Schizophrenia is a mental illness that afflicts a very large number of Australians, most of them young men.  Mark’s particular history is that he comes from a good, middle-class family.  He has a mother and a father who are good people and who cared for him well.  He went to private school where he received the best of educations.  Yet, in his early twenties, he began to hear voices in his head, voices which accused him of being a nothing, a nobody, a waste of space in the world, someone unworthy to be alive.  Mark tried to kill himself, and he has tried to kill himself many times since.  In his late twenties, he came across some Christians who took him to church and tried to care for him.  He discovered a faith in God which sustains him, and yet . . .  when he is having a relapse, a downer, the voices now accuse him of failing to have faith in God.  ‘If you had faith, you would be healed of your affliction’ they say. 

To my mind, Mark is a modern day demoniac.  He is in the grip of a power which has so invaded his heart and mind that it has become very, very difficult to separate the essential Mark out from the voices he hears in his head.  Without in any way contesting the physiological and genetic basis of schizophrenia, I often wonder why it is that the numbers of people afflicted by the disease are increasing so rapidly.  Could it be that many of us are vulnerable to becoming ill, but more and more are becoming so in fact because the voices of belittlement out there in the world are becoming far more pervasive?  The new colonial powers, I sometimes think, are the moguls of consumer capitalism.  Every day they bombard us with the message that our lives are not good enough.  We would be more beautiful if we used this product or that, that we would be more successful if we wore this suit and did this kind of job, that we would be more worthy of friendship and love if we would only become more like everyone else.  I sometimes think that Mark, and others like him, are simply more vulnerable to these powers than the rest of us - that, for them, the voices of the advertiser are experienced internally and personally in a way that most of us do not hear them.  In that sense, Mark is perhaps like the demoniac of the Gerasenes, for whom a strong and tenacious resistance to Roman power was simply not possible.  In the end he was overwhelmed, and found himself dallying with the dead.

Now what is the gospel word to people for whom life has become so difficult, so stark, so bereft of comfort?  What is the gospel word for people who accuse themselves even for their lack of faith, and use that fact as another reason to condemn themselves?  Well, let us return to our stories.

Note, first of all, that there is no condemning God in either of our stories.  In the Elijah story, God does not confirm Elijah in that picture of himself as faithless.  Neither, in the story of the demoniac, does Jesus condemn the man for being mad.  There is not even a hint, in either story, of God shaking his or her head at a lack in the people—whether it be a lack of courage or faith or whatever.  What we see, rather, is a God who quietly and persistently gets on with restoring or creating a self that is able to resist the power of the enemy.  In the case of Elijah, God gives the exhausted prophet food and rest.  Then he takes him on retreat into the desert, when Elijah learns that the work of God is not only about fireworks and miraculous power, it is also about discerning that place of silent stillness in which there is peace.  Even if the world is out of control, there is a stillness at the heart of things in which one may find oneself again.  For the stillness is God.  In the case of the demoniac, we find that Jesus does not address the man himself, first of all, but the power that enslaves him.  In essence, Jesus tells the power that it has no authority to brutalise the man, and that it had best be gone.  Only after he has addressed the power itself, does Jesus turn to the man with his word of liberation.  “The demon is gone.  Return now to your home, to those who love you, and tell them what God has done for you.”  It seems to me there is a pattern here for any who would work with people who have a so-called ‘mental illness’.  First confront the power that is responsible—not the ill person themselves, but the crazy power of consumer capitalism.  Question its authority to belittle us all.  Then, having done that work of advocacy, address the suffering person themselves.  Tell them that they, themselves, can now re-claim their place in home and society because they are worthy.  They are worthy because God has said they are worthy.

There is a great deal else that could be said about these stories.  But I shall conclude only with this.  That the work of the gospel is a work of conversion.  It calls us to leave behind the selves we have become, the false selves which we have become at the bidding of the powers of our time, and to embrace a new self, a self made in the image of Christ.  For in Christ we are made new selves, we are made children of God, sharing in God’s own dignity.  The power of the gospel is simply this: to remind us that we are loved, that we are accepted, that we are worthy because God has declared us worthy.  The power of the gospel confronts the authority of any power in the world, whether political or economic, any power which would declare us unfit or unworthy, any power that would belittle us or make us small.  All who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, says the apostle.  In him you have left the belittled identities given by the powers behind.  Now you can live in the freedom of God. 

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's church in Mount Waverley in 2004.

Sunday 16 June 2013

You are forgiven!

Texts: Galatians 2.15-21; Luke 7.36-8.3

In the story we just heard, Jesus does not one, but two things that no self-respecting Jewish Rabbi should ever do.  First, he tells a woman that her sins are forgiven.  Definitely a no-no, for only God can forgive sins, and in the eyes of the religious folk with whom he was eating at the time, Jesus was certainly not God!  Nor was he an ordained priest who could speak for God.  But then, while they are reeling from the shock of that first gesture, Jesus makes yet another controversial move.  He declares to the woman not only that her sins are forgiven, but also that it is her faith, faith mind you, that has saved her.  Now, this is pretty weird stuff, coming from a first century Jewish Rabbi.  Because, as every Jewish schoolboy could tell you, the only way to experience God’s salvation was to obey the law of Moses.  Indeed, some would have argued that obeying the law and salvation were exactly the same thing.  Salvation was obeying the law.

So, what was Jesus up to here?  Were these actions just a piece of stirring?  Was Jesus just the kind of bloke who liked to rouse his mates up before he told them he was joking and ordered another round of bitter?  Well, no.  What Jesus wanted to do was nothing less than to change their understanding of God.  In his view, their God was way too small-minded, way too concerned with fretting over the minutiae of human failing.  Jesus’ God, on the other hand, was one who was big-hearted, a God interested not so much in rules as in relationship.  The key question that this big-hearted God asks of humankind is not ‘have you done the right thing?’ but ‘do you trust me with your future, do you believe that I love you?’

There are two ways to understand sin, you see.  Yes ‘sin’—I know it’s not a particularly hot topic these days—but it’s kind of indispensable to Christian theology so the preacher really has no option but to talk about it.  One could see sin as breaking a set of moral rules set up by God.  You know, do not steal, do not kill, do not bear false witness against your neighbour.  That kind of thing.  In this case, sin is defined primarily as law-breaking.  There are many Christians, Jews and Muslims who hold this view of sin, even today.  But there is another, slightly more complex, way of understanding sin, and that is to see the breaking of those moral prohibitions not so much as a breaking of law, but as severing of trust in relationship.  That is to see the breaking of the moral law as symptomatic of a more foundational breakdown in the relationship between neighbours.  In this view, a person kills or steals because she no longer cares for her neighbour; or does not believe that her neighbour cares for her.  This latter view of sin is more faithful, I believe, to a genuinely New Testament faith.  And it is borne out in the story we are reading this morning.

Traditionally, the sinful woman in our story is portrayed as a prostitute, one who chose to sell her body to men in return for money.  If this is true, she must have been a very high class prostitute in order to afford the alabaster jar of ointment which she lavishes upon Jesus!  Such items were, in first century Palestine, very rare and precious.  Only the very rich could afford them.  It is likely, then, that the woman in Luke’s story is not a common prostitute but, rather more complexly, the slave or concubine of a Roman official, a woman who would have been passed around his friends and business associates as part of the hospitality and entertainment of his house.  If that is so, then it is really very unlikely that the woman ever really chose to become the ‘sinner’ that she is.  More likely is that her parents, or a former owner, sold her to the colonial invader in order to pay off their debts.  It is unlikely that she would have had any say in such a transaction, because in the first century woman had little say about anything.  Woman – and especially young girls -  were regarded by both Jews and Gentiles as chattels to be bought or sold according to the economic needs of their fathers or husbands.  Here is a woman, then, who probably never intended to break the Jewish moral code, but is forced to do so, whether she likes it or not, simply because she is caught up in a cruel and unjust economic system.

What Jesus is able to see about this woman, that his dinner-table friends are unable to see, is that while she is indeed a sinner in the formal sense—someone who breaks the moral law—in her heart of hearts what she longs for most is nothing less than the restoration of her relationship with both God and her people.  In the place where she lives and works, she is simply unable to keep the Jewish law and stay alive.  As a consequence, she suffers the judgement of her religious community, a judgement which includes the belief that God has rejected her as well.  Yet, in her heart of hearts she believes that this cannot be so.  She cannot keep the moral law.  But she does not believe that God would reject her over something she cannot do.  In her heart of hearts, she believes that God loves her, that God is merciful, that God would forgive her even if her community will not.  And it is that longing, and that belief, that gives her the courage to pour out her love upon Jesus.  For her, Jesus is clearly God’s representative, the one through whom relationship with God becomes possible again.

Now, I put it to you that we, all of us, are not so different to this woman. Most of us try to live upright lives.  We believe in the value of the moral code, but we cannot always keep it. We are caught up in economic and social systems that make us sinners even where we do not intend to be.  Like when I bought some flash new clothes at Chadstone last year.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing available in the store that was not made by slave labour in China.  And the kind of clothes I needed were not available at the op shop.  Does that mean that I am condemned by God, that I shall never share in God’s salvation?  Certainly, I broke the moral law.  And I do so every day simply by being a member of this scandalously privileged society in which I live.  Every piece of buying and selling I do rips somebody off.  Yet, I do not believe that God rejects me simply because I break the moral law.  I believe that if my intention is otherwise, if I care about God and my neighbour and long to live with them in a just and loving relationship, that God will honour my desire.  I believe that God loves me, and forgives me even though I am, objectively and by any measure, a sinner.  It is faith that saves us, as Jesus says.  Faith in the fact of God’s forgiving love.

Now, that turns around what many of us commonly understand as sin.  In the perspective of the New Testament, the real sinner is the one who thinks she or he is righteous, while the really righteous person is righteous only insofar as she or he has faith in God’s love and mercy.  For that is what Jesus teaches in the story he told the dinner guests.  The righteous person is no longer the one who does no wrong.  Rather, the righteous person is someone who knows that she stands in need of God’s mercy, and believes in her heart of hearts that God will forgive her.  For righteousness is not, for the God of Jesus Christ, ultimately about keeping the rules.  It is about trusting that you are loved and accepted even though you cannot keep the rules. 

In Galatians, the Apostle Paul says this:  that a person is not justified before God by keeping the law, but by trusting or having faith in Jesus Christ.  Through Christ, he says, we die to the demands of the law, because the law only serves to highlight our guilt.  In Christ, however, we live a life in which it is not our own righteousness that matters, but Christ’s.  Only Christ was able to live the truly righteous life that made no compromise with evil.  Only he was willing to suffer the full consequence of doing so, to be killed by evil men because he would not play the game.  Therefore the Christian is called to depend on Christ, and on Christ alone, to approach God - not in one’s own righteousness but in Christ’s.  But that takes faith, faith in the word that Christ says to the woman in Luke’s story, ‘your sins are forgiven, go in peace.’

In the end, all that that save us from this dog-eat-dog world of corruption and despair is our faith in God’s word of forgiveness and mercy.  Do you believe?  Do you trust this word and believe it with all your heart?  If you do, then live the life of faith.  Do not judge your brother or sister who sins, because you are yourself a sinner who lives from the power of God’s forgiveness.  From now on, says the apostle, ‘it is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’  Paul, it seems, actually lived his life as though he was a forgiven sinner.  We are called to do so as well.