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Sunday 22 February 2015

Fear death by water

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

In 1922 T.S. Eliot published what many still consider to be the most important poem of the 20th century. ‘The Waste Land’ presents itself as a series of scattered images of Europe in the wake of the First World War. Ranging from the author’s memories of childhood visits to Germany, through cockney conversations in a London pub and walks along the Thames, to fragmented recollections of classical stories from Rome and India, the poem depicts a world in which the ‘nymphs’ – that is, the coherence of things – ‘have departed.’  Nothing is left, says the voice of the poet, except ‘voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’.  The poem is also about the author’s own ‘death’ – figuratively speaking – that is, his incapacity to make all these images of European meaning cohere in a way that can sustain his life.  ‘Fear death by water’ says a clairvoyant the poet consults early in the poem.  And by the end the poet is so desperately dry and thirsty in the wasteland of his imagining that he has actually begun to search for the water by which he is convinced he will die, yet it is unclear if the poet has found it, or no.

The images offered us by the first Sunday of Lent are not entirely unconnected to what Eliot saw and experienced in London at the end of World War 1.  The Noah story is about a similar cataclysm, a flood, which – like the First World War – completely did away with the world as it has previously been known. One day everyone was going about their business, sure of the foundations on which they walked and the meaningfulness of the directions in which their lives were taking them. But then, suddenly, rain began to fall. And – absurdly, irrationally, inexplicably to most - the rain didn’t stop.  Indeed, the rain kept falling until all life on earth – all except that preserved by God in the ark – was no longer alive, but dead.

And then there is the story of Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. If there was ever a time and a place in which the phrase ‘fear death by water’ rang with portending truth, it was the ancient Mediterranean where literally thousands of souls were sent to a watery grave by the wrath of the gods made manifest in ocean storms and the monster Leviathan who lived beneath the waves.  The rite of baptism deliberately invoked the universal fear of these apparently cosmic forces, that sense in which one could never be the master of one’s own destiny because the gods were always more powerful. Yet baptism sought, also, to both modify and transform that fear by invoking a phenomenon still very strange and foreign in the ancient world, the phenomenon of a God who seeks to influence the world solely by the grace of unconditional love.  

In the baptism of Jesus a peculiarly Jewish logic about the meaningfulness of things is therefore brought to both its zenith and conclusion. For the semitic peoples of the ancient world both shared and did not share in the pagan fear of catastrophe that obsessed their neighbours. Like their neighbours, they believed that the power of nature - the power of water, if you like - signified everything in the universe that could take one’s life away, everything that could render one’s plans and schemes both null and void, everything that could make a mockery of the notion that we are the masters of our own fate.  Unlike their pagan neighbours, however, who were constantly seeking to do deals with the gods to secure their protection against catastrophe, the Hebrew preachers believed that the power behind all power was essentially both good and gracious, and desired nothing other than the good of the people, and desired this good unconditionally.

The Hebrew stories about death by water were also, therefore, stories of LIFE by water. A flood comes to consume the earth and all its wickedness. Yet God preserves the seeds of a new world in an ark that floats upon the receding torrent for 40 days and 40 nights.  The angel of death is sent to destroy all the firstborn of Egypt. Yet God’s people are preserved by walking through the depths of the Red Sea and trecking, for 40 years, through the wilderness until they cross into the land of their freedom via the Jordan river.  Jesus’ life as a carpenter and compliant citizen of the Roman state is put to death in that same river by baptism that he might rise to live the life ordained for him by the God who claims him as his beloved Son.  He receives, at that moment, the Spirit of God, who immediately drives him into the wilderness so that he can really learn what it means to do away with one’s own dreams and embrace the dreams of God.  For 40 days and forty nights Jesus learns what it means to repent, to change one’s mind and heart, for the kingdom of God has indeed come near.

Friends, the 40 days and nights of Lent begin with these stories of death by water in order to set our course aright. 40 days and nights hence is the beginning of the paschal Triduum, the Great Three Days which commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus' own baptism: his death on the cross at the hands of evil powers, and his rising to life as a sign of God’s final triumph over such powers by the power of what we rightly call love.  We look forward to this time because in Jesus’ rising is the possibility of our own rising. In Jesus’ triumph is the possibility of our own triumph. In Jesus' victory is our own victory.  Easter is therefore our goal and our destination.  

Yet, and this is very important, these stories of death by water also remind us that there can be no rising without a dying; there can be no prize without a willingness to give up on the very notion of winning; there can be no victory without a submission to complete and utter loss.  For Lent is the process of getting to Easter by a dying to ourselves and a living to God. Lent is about confessing the truth about ourselves and our world, the truth of our utter helplessness to make for either sense or for good apart from a divinely given sensibility concerning the good.  Lent is about the art of repentance and surrender, of turning from what is evil and giving ourselves only to what is beautiful and noble and true. Lent is about forsaking the business of getting by and learning to walk in the byways of God. It is about crying through the night and welcoming the joy of dawn. Lent, in short, is designed to kill everything in us that keeps us in chains so that God can free us, can redesign us, and fill our ‘empty cisterns’ with a new resonance for salvation. And we speak of these things in image and metaphor precisely because they are far too important to leave to the prosaic, rational, flat language of the prevailing discourse.

I pray you all a blessed and holy Lent.  In the name of God . . .

This homily was first preached within the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist, North Melbourne.

Sunday 8 February 2015

Christ the exorcist

Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147.1-11, 20c; Mark 1.29-39

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus did a number of things after he was baptised. He travelled around the cities and towns of Galilee, preaching that the reign of God was at hand, so everyone had better get ready. He also healed many who were sick, beginning with Simon Peter’s mother in law, who was in bed with a fever when Jesus came to visit her. But what Mark seems to be overwhelmingly keen to tell us about Jesus is that he was an exorcist, a man who casts out “unclean spirits” or “demons”. In the passage we read a moment ago, all the city of Capernaum came to the house where Jesus was staying, bringing their sick and their demon-possessed. There, we are told, he ‘cast out many demons, commanding them not to speak because they knew him’. Towards the close of the passage, as Jesus prepares to travel around Galilee for the first time, Mark has Jesus say that he is off to preach and to exorcise. This, then, is Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission: to preach the good news and to cast out demons. To preach and to cast out demons.

Now I’m not sure what you imagine these unclean spirit or demons to be, but I hazard a guess that, like me, you’ve had different theories at different stages of your life. When I was a child I imagined that a person was a bit like a car, with a personal soul or spirit sitting at the wheel making sure that the driving went smoothly so that there would be no accidents. What happened with demon-possession, I thought, was that some other soul or spirit, some personality that didn’t belong in the car, would jump in on the passenger side at a set of lights and lunge for the steering wheel. What followed, I surmised, was a titanic struggle between the personality that belonged and the personality that didn’t belong, to get control of the car. I also theorized that if I was ever possessed by a demon, I would not be strong enough to get rid of him, so I would have to call on Jesus to help me. And Jesus would. 'Cause demons were afraid of Jesus. The bible said so.

When I’d grown up a little and was reading lots of pop psychology at Uni, I developed my theory a little further, largely in dialogue with a book called People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck. In that book, Peck argued that there were two kinds of demons. One was not that dissimilar to the one I already believed in: a disembodied personality which came from somewhere else with the express purpose of taking over the running of someone’s life. Peck, a psychiatrist, claimed to have come across such personalities on more than one occasion. But the other kind of demon he talked about was not of this kind. It was simply a human personality gone seriously wrong. A human personality, inhabiting a human body, who did evil things but without any trace of regret or pangs of conscience. An example he gave in the book was of a man who gave a gun to his teenage son for his 16th birthday. Now, in American culture that is not such an unusual thing, especially if you live in the rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ southern counties. The difference in this instance was that the boy’s older brother had shot himself with that same gun . . . on his 16th birthday.

The idea of a human personality turned evil whittled away at my demon-theory for a few years, especially while I was studying pastoral psychology at theological college. There I read the psychological theories of Carl Jung, along with the many theological theories of personality which Jung had clearly influenced. For these writers, the demonic was an aspect of every person’s personality. Hidden in shadow, hidden in each person’s unconscious, were undesirable forces that usually went unacknowledged, and yet were very much part of us. Most of the time, said Jung, we “project” these forces onto others; that is, we dupe ourselves into thinking that it is other people who behave badly or with evil intent, when in fact it is ourselves. By blaming others we avoid having to acknowledge the fact of our own responsibility. The goal of spiritual growth, says the Jungian school, is to “withdraw” our projections, or to “make friends with our demons”, a difficult process that involves acknowledging that one can never rid the world of evil without first acknowledging one’s own evil tendencies. Much of contemporary practise in both pastoral counselling and spiritual direction takes its lead from these insights.

Of course, I have changed my mind again. One does. One must, in order to grow. But this time the change comes from another direction. Not from the latest psychological theories, although I’ve read some of them. This time the change has come through a re-engagement with the Scriptures, and with the stories of Jesus’ ministry and mission in particular. What I realize now is that while there is certainly a great deal of truth in the various psychologies I’ve mentioned, it is not necessarily the truth as the Scriptures understand it. And I am convinced that what the church needs now, more than anything else, is a reengagement with the riches of its own truth, preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. For without a deep and transformative engagement with this truth we may still, perhaps, be human beings, but perhaps we shall not be the human beings that God promises we may be. Certainly, we shall not be Christian human beings, full of Christ, possessed (if you like) by him alone.

So, what does Mark, the writer of the first Gospel, say about demons? Well, he says a number of things, if you are prepared to read carefully. What he first says is that demons are bad for people, and they are very common. As common as sickness. They are oppressive spirits which, like sickness, make people’s lives miserable. Note, if you will, the way in which Mark talks about demon possession and sickness as if they are almost the same thing. They are not the same thing, not exactly, which is why Mark distinguishes them by name. And yet he mentions one in a pair with the other on most occasions; and on some occasions—as with today’s passage, where Jesus ministry is summarised as the twofold activity of preaching and exorcism—demon possession seems to represent sickness as well. Why is that? Because demon possession is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It’s not something you necessarily choose for yourself. But the effects are awful, painful, miserable.

The second thing Mark says about demons is that they are often multi-voiced or multi-personalitied. Take, for example, the story of Jesus first miracle, an exorcism in the synagogue. Here the possessed man calls out to Jesus in a multiple voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1.24). Compare that with the story of the demoniac amongst the tombs of the Gerasenes. When Jesus asks the demon’s name, it replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many” (5.9). This last story is particularly revealing, I think. For it tells us that demons have something to do with a people being colonised by foreign powers, foreign armies. Let me explain.

You will remember that Jesus ministry took place in a police-state, much like the police state of, say, Chile under Pinochet, or Russia under Stalin. No citizen could walk more than a couple of blocks without running into a Roman soldier, a legionnaire, who belonged to a massive force of men who had occupied the countryside, and ruled it with absolute power. The people suffered terribly under this yoke. They suffered like Russian citizens suffered under Stalin. A woman or boy could be raped or otherwise molested by a solider, and have no recourse against him. A Jewish man could be commanded to carry a soldier’s pack for him, or to murder someone for him, or to do almost anything that solider wanted, and that man could do nothing about it. Jewish people were paid to inform on each other, to betray each other in order to save themselves from trumped-up charges. In an environment like that, people could not avoid the constant sense that they were not the masters of their own bodies. Their lands, their homes, even their bodies and minds, had been colonised and possessed by the Roman hordes. Like ants, they overran the land in Legions, and the consequences were truly awful.

So what does Mark mean, when he talks about demons? One should remember that he is most likely writing his Gospel just after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. For Mark, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation of his own, Jerusalem-based community. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Mental illness. Despair. Distrust. Lies. Envy. Greed. Murder. War. The kinds of demons one can still see today in Africa, in the Middle East and South Asia, and even here in Australia, amongst Aboriginal people and seekers of asylum. The kinds of demons one sees amongst the colonised.

It is instructive to note that it is not only Mark who took this view. It was also the view of the Christian communities that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, but continued to live under the yoke of Rome. In the second, third and fourth centuries, as the Church developed its baptismal rituals, an important part of the preparations was a regular liturgy of exorcism. Here the baptismal candidates, or catechumens as they were called then, would be questioned by the bishop with regard to the way they lived their lives. Here the key question was, “Are you living your life under the fear of Rome, or are you giving your life into the freedom of Jesus?” At each questioning, as the many layers of Rome and Roman influence were uncovered, there would be an exorcism, a liturgy in which the colonising demons would be symbolically cast out, and the catechumen’s ears and eyes sealed with the cross against the reinvasion of the hordes.

As we approach Lent and (in a few protestant churches) our own rituals of exorcism, let me ask you this. In what ways have the demonic forces of our own culture and time colonised your lives? In what ways have they whittled their ways into your heart and made you afraid, afraid perhaps for your financial future, or for your social and vocational “success,” or that of your kids? How have you taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because you feel there is no other way—no other way than to live as under-resourced nuclear families, stuck in under-supported bubbles which put both marriages and childrearing practices under unbearable pressure; no other way but to buy unaffordable houses a very long way from where our friends and neighbours and support networks live; no other way but to work longer and longer hours and build bigger and bigger prisons, and protect ourselves against the practise of hospitality and compassion?

If the demons have indeed colonised your own heart and mind, as they have colonised mine, then I have a message for you, a message from Mark’s gospel. This is not the only way. There is another way, another possibility. For what Mark also says about the demons is that they know Jesus, they fear him, and they obey him. Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away. For in the end, they are chimera, shadows which recede when the light of Christ’s truth is brought to bear. The Lenten season, which approaches fast, is an invitation and an opportunity; for in Lent we hear the call of God to take our baptismal vows seriously— to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and times, and turn instead to Christ—his will and his way. The promise of Easter lies before us: that if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; that if we lose ourselves, our colonised selves, for the sake of Christ and his gospel, then we shall find ourselves anew, in a new form of a human life and community we could not have imagined before. So. If the demons have hold of you, turn to Christ. He will drive away the demons and fill you with his Spirit. His truth will set you free.