Saturday, June 22, 2013

5th Sunday after Pentecost

For most of this last week I have been at the Clergy Conference in Busselton, a once-every-two-years opportunity to spend some time with colleagues, to renew relationships and spend some time reflecting together on the mission of the Church and on our own vocation as deacons, priests and bishops.  It just happens that the venue for this is the Bayview Geographe Resort – fairly chilly this time of year but gloriously situated on one of the most beautiful beaches of the South-West – so one of the ways we are invited to reflect is by walking along the edge of the water or watching the sunset over the bay.

This year we were spoiled by having Archbishop Thabo from Capetown, South Africa, delivering the keynote addresses.  Archbishop Thabo took as his theme one of the verses from the readings from St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, which was set for evening prayer: indeed we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards: for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human but they have the power to destroy strongholds. [1] The military language, Archbishop Thabo acknowledged, causes many Christians to read this in a particular way, and even a paranoid way – but then he spent the next few days unpacking his theme that the strongholds of our lives are whatever locks us up: forcefully and unhealthfully disconnecting us from the divine source of our lives and from our true vocation.  Our strongholds can be internal or external – which is to say the stronghold which needs to be destroyed might be some false or seductive image of myself; or it might be some external circumstance by which I am oppressed.  And Archbishop Thabo suggested that as men and women in the business of speaking truthfully about God and the world, before we ever get around to naming and opposing the structural, political or economic as well as spiritual realities that oppress people in our world, we might want to take a long hard look at ourselves.  What, he asked us, are some of the ways in which – by a negative self-image, or by the desire to appear competent or in control or even very, very holy – as a priest I might actually find myself getting in the way of what God wants to do here?  What things in myself do I need to let go of in order that my life can be more open to the leading of God's Holy Spirit?  Depression, Thabo reminded us, is a besetting stronghold for clergy who have insufficient support or encouragement.  As clergy we need prayer - our own discipline of prayer, and the prayers of those around us.

But then, he said, before we as the Church can ever presume to storm the strongholds of the world around us, hadn't we better also have a good long look at ourselves and speak honestly about the structural ills of our own life?  Problems like factionalism, and competition for power in the Church, and the gaping breach of trust exposed by the sexual abuse of children.  How well do we as the Church put into practice Jesus' law of love?  What do we need to repent of, and to pray about and open up to the cleansing discipline of God's promise Holy Spirit, before we can really be the hands and feet of Christ in the world?  And only then, Archbishop Thabo suggested, might we see clearly enough to name and oppose the strongholds that limit the lives of men and women in the world around us – in the week that Nelson Mandela lay in hospital, apparently hovering between life and death, Archbishop Thabo named apartheid as one such stronghold, and suggested that in our own country strongholds might include the intertwined tentacles of alcoholism and poverty and domestic violence that ravage Aboriginal communities might be a stronghold that needs to be overcome, or the failure of our country to complete the work of reconciliation which actually is the only way - as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians - we can realise our true identity and work together for a shared future.

Luke's gospel tells the story today of Jesus' trip across the Sea of Galilee into what Jewish people would have seen as the moral and spiritual darkness of Gentile territory - where he deals with a bad case of demon possession.  It's one of those stories where we need to take into account the difference between our own worldview and the worldview of the first century, where demons and good as well as evil spirits were thought to take possession of people fairly routinely.  Certainly, a lot of what passes for demonic possession in the Bible we would probably think of today as mental illness, and so this story of Jesus having compassion on this unfortunate man and expelling his unwelcome psychological tenants can be a real word of hope for people who suffer from strongholds of depression or anxiety.  God's intention is for human beings to be whole and free.  The authority that Jesus shows over the evil spirits reminds us that what is sometimes too hard for us is never too hard for God.  The self-defeating habits of mind, ways in which human beings limit their own potential through negative self-talk, the unwanted baggage of failure or rejection or shame left over from some ancient episode that we mistakenly believe is who we really are – these things are demonic in the true sense of the word because they rob us of our true selves.  And so the first thing Jesus does is to force the demons to name themselves – the identity of the man in this story is so submerged that he can no longer even give himself a real name – he can only name himself as the mob battling for control within and over him. 

The second thing is to notice that Jesus sees the whole person underneath the seething conflict of the forces pulling him apart.  However we think about the demons who have taken up residence in him, it is clear that this man is alienated and split off from his own centre.  It sounds like a very modern condition, the divided and distracted self that has lost its moorings in the divine, pulled this way and that by forces it has no control over.  In expelling the demons, Jesus reminds us of the divine will for wholeness that is always at work in us, whatever our circumstances, if only we are prepared to take notice.  Maybe this morning's story of Elijah tells us how to do that: we recover our equilibrium, and remember our connection to God, not in the busyness of life, not by listening to the loudest voices around us or by watching the most impressive displays but by attending to the stillness and the silence of God, and by reflecting on the question we hear in it: 'what's actually important?  what are you actually doing here?'

But I think we can take the story a bit further than that.  There's another aspect of the demonic that it tells us about.  Because Bible scholars tell us that this story, the way Mark and Luke hand it down to us, has got a few not so subtle clues built in that Jewish Christians especially would have noticed.  This foray of Jesus into Gentile territory, the backdrop of a cemetery which Jewish people thought of as the abode of spirits and a source of ritual uncleanness, the comic image of demons sent packing firstly into a herd of pigs – regarded by Jews as unclean – and then stampeding into the deep waters of the lake which in Jewish folklore represented the forces of chaos – Jewish Christians would see this as an epic tale of the holiness of Jesus coming into contact with a whole range of potent symbols of unholiness, which promptly self-destruct.  The fact that the ancient town of Gerasne was actually about 60km from the Sea of Galilee tips us off that there's been a bit of poetic licence in the retelling.  Or else that the pigs had a mighty long run.  But here's the underlying joke – the name the demons give themselves - Legion – isn't a numerical reference, it's actually the name for one of the armies of ancient Rome – the army stationed in Palestine, in fact, which carried on its standard a picture of a wild boar.  It's as if the story is reminding us that the external circumstances that control peoples' lives can be every bit as demonic as the internal ones – certainly Jews in the first century would have had no trouble seeing the presence of Roman troops in the same terms as the madness of demonic possession. 

This I think is the second really important thing about the truly demonic – which you'll have realised by now I'm carefully distinguishing from the superstitious variety – as well as being that which robs human beings of their God-given identity, the power of the demonic is that it has a life of its own.  It overwhelms human life because it is bigger than the individual.  Which is why, for example, we used to talk about the demon drink.  In the tragedy of remote Aboriginal communities the demonic takes the form of drug and alcohol abuse, addiction to pornography and glue-sniffing, the smouldering mood of resentment and boredom that spills over into violence and sexual abuse.  We have to be careful when we name these things as demonic because what we have to be clear about, always, is where the responsibility for evil really lies.  Naming social evils as demonic doesn't take away the responsibility from perpetrators.  But the advantage of naming these things as demonic is that we begin to recognise the structural sources of evil in the external circumstances, and the political and historical forces that have power over peoples' lives.

So, what's to be done about it?  If the truly demonic is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the first, where's the good news in this story?  Is it just meant to impress us as part of the general miraculousness of Jesus' career?  Or are we actually claiming that Jesus still brings about a confrontation with the powers that hold people captive?  As Christians we claim nothing less than that Jesus in some way can defeat the strongholds, or the demonic circumstances of our own lives and the lives of other people in the world we live in.  But it begs the question – how?  And how does it involve us?

I think the answer lies in partly in the point so gently made by Archbishop Thabo at the Clergy Conference - we start with ourselves, and in prayer.  The initiative is God's who creates us in his image and whose will it is that all humans should be free.  As the body of Christ in this world the role of the Church is to articulate - and to embody - the meaning and value of human life.    Ultimately we confront the strongholds of the world around us by confronting them within ourselves and then working outwards - in repentance, in service and prayer, and in love.

[1] 2 Cor 10.4