Monday, June 20, 2016

Looking evil in the eye

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7C. June 19, 2016 - Luke 8:26-39

Don’t you wish sometimes that you could just gather up all the evil in the world and just dump it into a rocket-ship and fire it into the sun or something? I don’t know about you, but this has been one of those weeks for me.
In the gospel today, when Jesus is confronted by a man who was possessed by demons and it sure seems like Jesus bundled up all that evil and sent it away, into a herd of swine who ran headlong into the water to drown. After a week of mass shootings, violence, and all kinds of hateful language and controversy, I sure would like to send all this evil far, far away!
We Episcopalian Christians take evil seriously. We are called to know its name and look evil in the eye. We are called to speak up and not be silent when evil enters the room. Every time we baptize someone, the candidates, or their parents and sponsors, have to answer two questions: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
That doesn’t leave us much room does it? Some people say “I don’t cross my fingers when I say the creed.” I wonder how many people cross their fingers when they make these two renunciations?
The spiritual powers that rebel against God and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God appear mainly through fear and hatred.  These are not just emotions, but a spiritual state. It is very easy to be tempted to confront evil with more evil…to pile on fear in response to fear, to meet prejudice with prejudice,violence with violence. That’s because everybody is against evil but very few know what to do about it!
I am intrigued by the various responses to evil in today’s Gospel. 

There is Jesus who, when confronted with a madman who screams at and threatens people, who throws himself to the ground and roams among the dead in a cemetery, looks evil in the eye and forces the demons, through his calm clarity, to speak its name and flee.
Then there were the people in the village who tried to contain evil the old fashioned way: by force. By the possessed man broke every leather strap and broke every bound and ran loose among them. Trying to tame evil by force failed.
And then there were the people who were more afraid of Jesus’ power to confront evil than they were of the demons he confronted! They were, perhaps, grateful for the peace and quiet, but still asked Jesus to leave because God knows what other apple carts Jesus might upset. They were content to live with the evil around them as long as life was predictable.
One of the difficulties this week was how hard it was to name the evil visited upon Orlando. Instead of naming the shooting for what it was, an open, unashamed attack on LGBTIQ people, we gave it a general name: terrorism. Instead of ministering the victims pain and the fear of that community, we said that it was an attack on us all. We argued about whether it was really the worst mass killing in our history. All of these distancing tactics are poor attempts to fight evil on its own terms, and evil always breaks loose.
All too often, we put up with small evils as if that is the way things are, are horrified when someone takes these beliefs to a horrible conclusion. We act as if one has nothing to do with the other...until it's too late. 

It has become a cultural ritual, hasn't it? Someone picks up a firearm and kills a bunch of people. We go through a cycle of rage. We go through various exercises to frame the meaning...terrorism...gun legislation...seeking a motive...burying the dead...finger pointing. And when it's all done, our leaders have done...nothing. To confront evil effectively, we must look it in the eye, name it for what it is. But when we do, we become scared because we are afraid of how it might change us. So we settle for half-measures and simplistic solutions.

But this is not new.
Not long ago, white Americans decried the lynching of their black neighbors but protected the laws, customs, and social rituals of racism…as if one had nothing to do with the other.
We hear people decry sexual violence but uphold a social structure the diminishes women, as if one had nothing to do with the other.
We hear people openly mourn the dead at the Pulse, while they continue to deny full equal protection under the law for LGBT persons, and preach theologies that turn these persons into second-class Christians, as if these two have nothing to do with each other.
A hero of mine was a Lutheran Pastor named Martin Niemoller who, after the Nazi Party took power stood in his Berlin pulpit and said “Herr Hitler, God is my Fuhrer!” I have always admired his courage and clarity. But my hero was not immune to half-measures. The was a time when he also used the phrase "Jewish problem" in his preaching, but instead of concentration camps and Jewish laws, he preferred conversion to Christianity as "the Solution." It was a blind spot, a kind of myopia in an otherwise clear vision. It would not be until 1963, long after the war, years after his own arrest, and confinement to a concentration camp before Pastor Niemoller publicly confessed to his own anti-Semitism. For all his courage and resolve, it took that long for him to come to terms with his part in what he came to fight. 
That same year, 1963, Martin Luther King went to Birmingham, Alabama, and was arrested for peacefully protesting segregation. Some local pastors—including Episcopal clergy—wrote him and asked him to tone down his rhetoric and stop the protests. King wrote from his jail cell “how long shall we wait in the face of injustice?" 
But just as the Gerasenes could not contain their demon-filled man with mere straps and chains, so we cannot contain evil with pretty words or half measures.
Jesus was not distracted by the evil but sees it for what it is…He even dialogues with it! But he stays focused on healing the man possessed instead of playing evil’s deadly game. The demons can’t take it! They flee from the man and away from Jesus into that herd of swine.
What drove these demons out of the man? What made life unbearable for those demons that Jesus faced? It was the power of Jesus’ love that made these demons want to take up residence somewhere else! Jesus was doing the things that evil hates!
That is what Jesus is teaching us during this terrible week: if you want to cast out demons, do the thing that evil hates.
Jesus shows us, in his unflinching encounter with a legion of demons and on his journey to the cross, that it is God’s power and God’s authority that enables him to confront evil on God’s terms. By simply living and doing what he was called to do; by teaching, healing, and being a companion to the outcast he did all the things that evil hates…he drove evil crazy! They wanted to run away! When Jesus was crucified, it looked as if evil won. But in fact evil was defeated. Forever.
And through of the cross and resurrection God remakes creation. It is through Jesus, and our participation in God's redemptive work that we discover over and over again that what the Apostle Paul said is true: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female [..and I should add here is no black and white, gay and straight!] for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." 
While we are justly horrified at the actions of an angry man who uses religious words to cover his evil, the response of people to the violence is even more remarkable. We see evil defeated in thousands of great and small ways.
We saw it in every candle lit, every rainbow flag flown, every act of love, every grieving person hugged and cared for, in every pint of blood donated and ever frightened person embraced. Once again, one man chose to do unspeakable evil. And once again, when the chips were down, thousands upon thousands chose to do the good.
And maybe, just maybe, this will be a repentance moment for all the churches that have said “hate the sin but the love the sinner” while gay and lesbian people face violence and injustice…married on Saturday and fired on Monday, beat up in bars... but we must work to repent daily of the kind of half-hearted response to evil that mourns the dead while we continue to make God's love and the Church's sacraments conditional, or  who are declared by their very being to be somehow “incompatible” with Christian teaching by their churches.
Jesus did not meet the demon-filled man with half-hearted theology, but looked evil in the eye and drove it away. Once again, we are called to live our baptismal promise to resist evil with love. To put aside weak-kneed, make-do theology and platitudes, but to look evil in the eye, calmly confront evil with the things that evil hates, speak clearly to evil, and, with the power of Jesus, make evil flee.
I wish we could sweep up all the evil in all the world and send it off in a rocket-ship, far, far away. But you know what? God beat us to it! Jesus has already defeated evil and put death to flight on the cross and in his resurrection. When we do as Jesus told the man he healed to return to where we live and “declare how much God is doing,” we are showing that no matter how much hate, violence, cynicism, or fear is out there, we have, through our baptisms, the Eucharist, and the power of the Holy Spirit in this community, the power cast out evil in wonderful, surprisingly practical ways of compassion, clarity, holiness and calm.

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