Sunday, June 23, 2013

5 Pentecost

June 23, 2013

Galatians 3.23-29;Luke 8.26-39

+ I think most of you see me as a pretty rational priest. I hope you do, anyway. I hope no one thinks I’m too flakey or “out there” about some things. Though, you know what? I probably am about some things.  Honestly, though, I think my problem sometimes is that I’m almost too rational at times. I have no problem questioning anything. As many of you know firsthand.
As a priest, very early on in my career, I was called in to do a house blessing. Nothing too out there, right? Well, I wish…

The reason I was asked to do the house blessing was because the family who lived in that particular house felt their house was haunted. More specifically, the people thought their house was “possessed.” Several family members in the house experienced very strange phenomena: disembodied voices, slamming doors, the sound of footsteps. And, most disturbing of all, crucifixes kept getting smashed.

I didn’t know what to think about such things. Nowhere, in my training to be a priest up to that point, prepared me for such things. But, being rational, I was skeptical. Yes, these people were normal people. I knew them. And I knew they wouldn’t make stories like this up. But still…possessions? Hauntings?

Still, of course, I couldn’t necessarily turn these people down. I knew them and I knew them to pretty rational as well.

So, I went to Bishop John Thornton. Bishop, Thorton, the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho, was serving at this time as the sabbatical Dean of Gethsemane Cathedral while the current Deans were on sabbatical. I got to know Bishop Thornton very well during this time and we developed a close personal relationship. I knew I could go to him about anything without any judgment. So, I went to him about this situation.

I said, “Bishop, these people want me to cast out whatever it is they think is in their house.”

“What’s the problem?” the Bishop asked.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know if I even believe in ghosts, or demons.”

The Bishop leaned back in his chair, and with a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “Who cares what you believe?”

Wow! OK. Not the answer I was expecting.

He then smiled and said, “Jamie, these people need you to be their priest. Be their priest. This not about what you believe or disbelieve. This about what they think is happening to them. Your job is go help them. If they believe it’s ghosts, then when you’re in that house, doing the blessing, believe in ghosts. If they believe it’s demons, then while you’re there, believe in demons. If they need you to be an exorcist, be their exorcist. And then, once you’re back in your car afterward, you can go back to believing or not believing whatever you want.”

I can say, in all honesty, that is was the best pastoral advice I have ever received. I have been able to use that advice in many, many situations throughout my priestly career.

As for the blessing, I went to the house, I did the blessing and guess what happening? Nothing happened. Nothing happened while I was there (though I do have to admit, it got weird and a bit spooky at times), and afterward, the family said that whatever had been happening, stopped after the blessing.

I can’t say I am any closer to believing in actual supernatural demons. But, the fact remains, whether we believe in actual demons or nor not, whether we believe in possession or not, what we all must believe in is the presence of evil in this world.

Whether that evil is natural or supernatural, the fact is, there is evil.  Even good rational people know that!

And those of us who are followers of Jesus have promised that we must turn away from evil again and again, in whatever way we encounter it.  Whenever we are confronted with evil, we must resist it.

In our Baptismal service, these questions are asked of the person being baptized (or their sponsors):

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”


“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

And, as our Baptismal Covenant asks us asks us:

“Do you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Evil is something we must stand up against however we encounter it. Whether we encounter it as a spiritual force, or whether we encounter it in other forms, such as racism, sexism or homophobia, or even by contributing to various forms of violence, we, as followers of Jesus, must stand up against evil and say no to it. In a sense, what we are being asked to do is what Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel.  We are being compelled, again and again, to cast out the evil in our midst, to send it away from us. This is not easy thing to do.  It is not easy to look long and hard at the evil that exists in the world, and in our very midst. And it is definitely not easy to look long and hard at the evil we may harbor within ourselves.

But, even in those moments, when evil is not something outside ourselves but something within us, we know that ultimately, it too can be defeated. It too can be cast away. It too can be sent reeling from us.

The story of Jesus is clear: good always defeats evil ultimately. Again and again.

Jesus, as we heard in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians today, breaks down the boundaries evil in its various forms sets up. In Jesus, there are no distinctions. In Jesus, all those things that divide us and allow the seeds of evil to flower are done away with—those issue of sex, and social status and nationality and race are essentially erased. And we, as followers of Jesus, so prone at times to get nitpicky and self-righteous and hypocritical and divide ourselves into camps of us versus them, are told in no uncertain terms that those boundaries, in Jesus, cannot exist among us. Those boundaries, those distinctions, only lead to more evil. To less love.

But even then, even when evil does seem to win out, there’s no real need to despair. Even in those moments when evil seems to triumph, we know that those moments of triumph are always, always short-lived.  Good will always defeat evil ultimately.

Yes, we find the premise of good versus evil  in every popular movie and book we encounter. This is the essence of conflict that we find in all popular culture.  Good versus evil—and good always wins.

But, for us, as followers of Jesus, this is not fiction. That is not a fairy tale or wishful thinking. It is the basis on which our faith lies. When confronted with those spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, we must renounce them and move on.

And what are those spiritual forces of wickedness in our lives? What are those forces that divide us and cause conflict among us? What are the legion of demons we find in our midst? Those spiritual forces of wickedness are those forces that destroy that basic tenant of love of God and love of each other. Those spiritual forces of wickedness drive us apart from each other and divide us.

They harden our hearts and kill love within us. When that happens in us, when we allow that happen, we cannot be followers of Jesus anymore. When that happens our faith in God and our love for each other dies and we are left barren and empty.

We become like the demoniac in today’s Gospel. We become tormented by God and all the forces of goodness. We wander about in the tombs and the wastelands of our lives.  And we find ourselves living in fear—fear of the unknown, fear of that dark abyss of hopelessness that lies before us.

But when we turn from evil, we are able to carry out what Jesus commands of the demoniac.  We are able to return from those moments to our homes and to proclaim the goodness that God does for us. That’s what good does. That’s what God’s goodness does to us. That is what turning away from evil—in whatever form we experience evil—does for us.

So, let us do just that. Let us proclaim all that Jesus has done for us.  Let us choose good and resist evil. Let us love—and love fully and completely, without barriers. Let us cast off whatever dark forces there are that kills love within us. And let us sit at the feet of Jesus, “clothed in and in our right mind,” freed of fear and hatred and violence and filled instead with joy and hope and love.


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