Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jesus, remember me...

Because of the Length and complexity of the Palm Sunday liturgy, my sermon was exceedingly short. This was intentional, because I simply wanted people to be led into the liturgies of Holy Week with a brief meditation on the Cross and Passion. The service began at 10:00 am with an ecumenical liturgy of the palms with several of the other Protestant Churches in Cooperstown. 
Palm Sunday is a paradox. We began our service together, with a great big ecumenical show celebrating Jesus entrance to the city of Jerusalem. Then we immediately changed direction, and heard in extended and agonizing detail, the story of Christ’s suffering. The terrible contrast, even the contradiction between Christ’s victory procession, entering into Jerusalem as a conquering king, and his humiliating death as a Condemned criminal; We remember, even celebrate both today, because somehow, they are the same. In his death outside the city walls, Christ does conquer.

When the disciples came with Jesus to Jerusalem, they had high hopes, but in less than a week they saw all those hopes crushed. Very few people could see that Christ’s death was not the end of that Palm Sunday hope. There were a few who stuck with Jesus to the end, but Of all of the characters in this story, only one seems to have understood at the time what was really happening. The unnamed thief, probably the least likely person, is the only one who seemed to get it. Somehow he perceives that even at the Lowest point, where hope seems to be lost, that the mocking sign above Jesus Head “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is really true. Jesus reigns even on the cross, and he is still triumphant.

One reason, perhaps, that the thief could understand this, while so many who had followed Jesus much longer couldn't, is that the paradox of the cross and of palm Sunday, is not the sort of paradox that can be understood or resolved from the outside. We can’t pull it apart like a riddle, or break it down into its parts and come up with an answer. The cross isn't a problem, a logic game or a puzzle, it is a mystery in the fullest sense. Mysteries are not solved by cold examination from a cautious distance, but by diving ever more deeply into the mystery.

The theologian Walther von Loewenich said “The meaning of the cross does not disclose itself in contemplative thought but only in suffering experience. The theologian of the cross does not confront the cross of Christ as a spectator, but is himself drawn into this event.” In other words we can only understand the cross, from the perspective of the thief in this gospel reading, when following Christ we have taken up our own cross, and we find ourselves at the point where the mystery seems darkest and the contradictions most painful; by seeing that somehow in the moments in our life where hope seems lost, we are perhaps closer to God than we have ever been before.

Until we have hit that point, I don’t think we’re really ready to receive the resolution of this mystery, the resolution that only comes with Easter. The cycle of Holy Week services is there to bring us to a point where our eyes can be opened, and we can look at the cross and see that it is not a sign of defeat, but of victory. This holy week, may we like the thief be able to see Christ crucified with the eyes of faith and pray “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” Amen

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Now is the judgment..."

Here is my totally unedited, un-spellchecked sermon from evensong today.  The text is Mark 5:1-20, the Garasene Demoniac (of "Our Name is Legion, for we are many" fame).  Freaky stuff.  Originally, I had intended to use a scene from the Brother's Karamazov, the conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, about the suffering of children, as an illustration, but time constraints caused me to drop it.   I did, however, have the chance to incorporate some more abstractly theological musing I have been doing on Providence and the problem of evil.  By the way, if you are ever looking to reflect on that particular question, David Bentley Hart is the theologian to read as far as I am concerned.  He combines lucidity, humor, insight, and just the right amount of vinegar.  Here endeth the commercial.
I think on first glance the gospel reading for tonight looks hopelessly strange to most of us.  The odds are that most of us have fairly little experience with demons, at least in obvious ways.  If, like me, you grew up in a fairly mainstream Christian Church, demons were probably not even talked about very much.  For the most part we tend to leave modern demonology to the directors of horror movies, or to a few of the more eccentric Christian preachers.  
I think this reading from Mark teaches us real lessons about the spiritual world that we live in, about demons and exorcisms, which makes it tempting to turn this sermon into a lecture on demonology 101. I’m not going to do that, though, first because I am massively under qualified, and because hopefully, none of us here, will ever have to deal with demonic activity on the level of the man in this reading.  I can guarantee, however, that we will all have to deal with evil at some point.  We have all had, and all will have, real encounters with evil that can only be described as demonic, whether it comes with big budget special effects or not.  This gospel reading has something to tell us when we meet with that sort of evil.
Most kinds of evil, we can understand - some even seems glamorous in the right light.  It’s not nice, but I can understand why someone who  has been horribly might go as far as to commit murder, especially in the heat of the moment.
But then there are some evil things where we don’t know how to even talk about them.  There are things so evil that they don’t make sense. This, I think, is the kind of evil that Jesus confronted in this man, possessed by many demons.  The demons in him knew Jesus immediately for who he was, and they came grovelling to him.  The thing they were most afraid of, apparently was having nowhere to go.  Luke tells this same story and he adds a detail we don’t get in this version, that they begged Jesus to send them into the nearby herd of pigs instead of “The Abyss.”  Whatever the abyss is, they are afraid of it.  I am not quite sure what the rules are for demons, but from this story it sounds like they have almost a need to take up residence in some sort of host.   
At the same time, we see that they are not particularly good to their hosts either. Before Jesus met this unnamed man, We know that “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.” (Mark 5:5 ESV)  Evil is like a parasite.  It needs somewhere to live - it needs a host - but it doesn’t care about the host. This legion of demons, as we see in a moment, is even self destructive.  They beg Jesus to let them hide in this herd of pigs.  As soon as they are safe in the pigs though, what happens?  The pigs rush into the water to drown.  The demons seem to destroy their own place of safety.  On the face of it, this makes no sense.  The thing is, even when we think about, and analyze it, it still doesn’t make any sense.   Because there is a kind of evil that just doesn’t.  This is the kind of evil that we can only describe as demonic.
 In recent times, we have all heard more than our share about demonic evil. The kind of evil that drives a person into a crowded theater or an elementary school with a loaded gun, to shoot innocent people for no reason.  This kind of evil seems to gain nothing for the person who commits it - most of the time, it ends with the person destroying himself, and even committing suicide.  I remember a few months ago watching newscasters, right after the Sandy Hook shooting, desperately groping for a way to explain what had happened, a way to make sense of the motives of this man who had committed a senseless crime.  we want an explanation, some neat psychological category that can let us understand evil, to make it seem less terrible and more safe.  We can say that a gunman must be crazy, but often I think that is just a label, a shorthand way of saying what he did made no sense.  
There are plenty of elaborate attempts at explaining away evil, attempts that fill volumes of the theology and philosophy.  Some philosophers argue that this is all part of the big sweep of history, that there has to be conflict and suffering, and that it’s all part of our evolution toward some greater good that will eventually make it all worthwhile.  Some Christian thinkers argue that evil is all part of God’s plan, that God needs evil as a sort of contrast to his own goodness, or so that he can prove to us how good he is by punishing evil. These are all ways of trying to make evil somehow less terrible, to get it to make some kind of sense. In the end I think they all fail.
The theologian David Hart sums up the problem with this theology with a question “if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?”  My own answer is a clear no.  As Christians, our hope is not in some theory about how history will work itself out.  It is not that God is muddling through, making calculated sacrifices to bring about some abstract greater good.   Our hope is that God will save us.  
Yesterday, some of us had the chance to spend a quiet day together in our chapel reflecting on the book of revelation, including some of the visions of God’s final judgment.  God’s judgment is usually thought of as terrifying, but I believe that it is actually very good news.  
In the same book I already quoted, David Hart goes on to say:
“As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy...God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable... rather than showing us how the tears of [small children] suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.””
Our God is a God of order, of truth, beauty and goodness - and evil is the enemy of all these things.  We are free to name evil for what it is, to grieve over it, because God hates evil as much as we do - in fact he hates it more, and he will judge it, and consign all evil and sorrow to the dustbin of history.  That is good news for the future.  
But this Gospel reading points to even better news.  God’s judgment and God’s victory have already begun.  When Jesus confronted this legion of demons they knew immediately who he was, and their response was not to fight him, but to beg. They knew that he had come to judge them, to cast them out, and they were terrified, because they knew they were no match for him. In Jesus Christ, God has appeared in our midst, and his judgment has already begun.  Demons are being cast out, sickness is being healed.  In Jesus, who has died, and is risen and lives forever, God has overcome all evil, even the evil of death.  In him, we too are strong.  Now, we only wait for the time when the judgment will be completed and revealed in our own lives and in history;  but we wait in the knowledge that God has already won, and that evil cannot stand against Christ and his cross. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.  That is our hope.  Amen.  

Oh, and our marvelous guest choir sang some stuff by this guy.  Not this piece, but it's awesome, so  I'm posting it.