Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jesus Casts Out Demons

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday, September 24th during morning prayer at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The office readings for Friday were as follows: Psalms 88, 91, 92; Esther 8:1-8, 15-17; Acts 19:21-41; Luke 4:31-37. The homily is based on the reading from Luke.

I have never had a hard time believing in the cross. It never seemed implausible to me that the people of Jesus’s day would want to kill him. Nothing is surprising about it. It’s the way of the world, right? The cross is the natural, logical result of a righteous man confronting a wicked world.

The cross is not the surprising part of the gospel. No, the surprise comes with the resurrection. It’s resurrection, vindication, victory, peace that surprises us. Because the authority Jesus had meant that sin and death could be done away with without more sin and death.What’s surprising to us is a life transformed—a man or woman freed from their addictions, from the sins that make their life miserable.

We’re familiar with the pain of life. In some sense, then, it’s not the demons in this story that surprise us. The other people in the synagogue aren’t surprised by them. It’s not the existence and presence of dark forces that make the news. It’s that someone has authority over them.

Because what does life teach us? It teaches us that, more often than not, the evil in the world can only be fought with more evil. You’ve got to fight fire with fire. I’ve spent some time as a pastor up at the jail in Beaver County. The men I’ve met there grew up in evil circumstances—drugs, violence, abandonment, whatever you can think of—and the choices that landed them in prison reflect that.

But their prison time doesn’t have authority over the evil in their life, it just cages them. They’re not free, and, sadly, many of them are not, so to speak, “better” when they leave. I would argue that this isn’t due to a shortcoming on the prison’s part, but due to the fact that there is evil in this world we are powerless against. So it’s not surprising that rehabilitation is so rare.

The surprising moment in our gospel reading this morning occurs when Jesus casts out the demon. It’s part of the announcement of the kingdom—the new way of doing things Jesus brings to us.

So what, then, ought we to think of the demons in our own lives? Even we who confess Jesus as Lord wrestle with untamed darkness in our lives. Not that I’m saying any of us are possessed, but rather that we live in a spiritual world. Our modern society trains us to imagine that there’s nothing more to existence than what we can see. But the bible paints a different picture. We see in the scriptures a world where evil spirits cry out in church and we are warned that some of us have entertained angels though unaware.

We can’t then, think that our struggle with sin is merely a fight against our bodies and minds. There are demonic forces who are happy to suggest and cajole and push and prod us in all the place we are naturally weak.

The Christian author C.S. Lewis once said that there are two main lies humans believe about demons. One is that they do not exist—maybe you’ve heard the saying, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people he doesn’t exist.” The second lie is that we ought to take a great interest in demons. People who buy this second lie put their faith in astrology, divination, witchcraft and so on.

Where does that leave us, then? All our thought about the darkness and the demons in this has to begin and end with the authority of Jesus. He has been raised from the dead. He is king. And he is coming back.

Jesus has the power to deliver us from our sin. To transform us so that we are not forever enslaved to our bodies and minds. We must run to him, turn to him, get on our knees before him. We’ve got to throw ourselves on his mercy—and I proclaim this morning that we can and must be confident he will be merciful. Because only Jesus, friends, has authority over the evil in this world. Only Jesus has been murdered though righteous and vindicated by the resurrection. Only Jesus can save us, only Jesus can deliver us, only Jesus can take our filthy rags and make clean and beautiful clothes from them.

Let us turn our hearts to Jesus today, receive the Father’s mercy, and be transformed by the power of the Spirit. Let us pray.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Heaping Plate of Life

It's the beginning of the semester and I'm full sprint out of the gate, you might say. Second year at seminary, and I'm feeling secure about many things that felt insecure last year. Primarily the question "What am I even doing here?" feels a great deal more settled, because of the friendships I've made at school, because of the church relationships I've built and am building in the diocese, because of the various ministry engagements I've had this summer and will continue to have this year.

I've only recently completed my clinical hours at my summer internship at the Beaver County Jail. What an experience it has been. I found myself running from the responsibility the first part of the summer, maybe afraid that I would realize I wasn't up to the task of full-schedule pastoral ministry. It came to the point, however, where I had to decide whether my trepidation outweighed my desire to complete the internship successfully and I had to say to myself, "Do whatever it takes." That in itself was formational moment.

I began leading morning prayer with a group of inmates in the "toughest" of the housing units, including one man facing murder charges. Their response to my availability and persistence became both blessing and motivation, and I was able to grow into the notion of other men identifying me and relating to me as a pastor. I had to push through those days I didn't want to be there, to get out of bed and go represent Christ to these incarcerated men. I think I learned, in a way I hadn't fully before, how to "just do it" whether my internal psycho-emotional-spiritual composition was conducive to the task. I will continuing spending several hours a week at the jail as part of my mentored ministry class for school, but it will be a significant reduction from the number of days I was present there during July and August.

In addition the life at the jail, my other major development has been at the parish level. This past year I have been attending Church of the Ascension and have loved participating in their worship services and receiving the benefits of their Christian education program (I attended confirmation classes there and was confirmed this past May). It's a great church, and I hope to stay involved in the prayer ministry there as much as I can. But the combination of spending time with the "down and out" at the jail and several spiritual direction meetings with the rector of a homeless church in Pittsburgh lead me to wonder whether a charismatic church for the poor wouldn't be a better fit for my home parish as well as my potential ordination discernment process. So, as of the past month, Shepherd's Heart Fellowship has become my home church.

My friend Justin and I will be serving there on Friday mornings, taking turns officiating morning prayer and delivering homilies (he is serving for his mentored ministry), and attending/serving on Sunday evenings (yesterday we helped set the altar and administer the Eucharist as chalice bearers). My service there is my way of really serving the body that will more than likely sponsor me for ordination, which I am glad to do. And beyond that, I am excited to be spending my energies on ministry commitments to the poor--both the homeless and the incarcerated--because I really get life from doing it and I believe God has called me to it.

The other place I know God has called me to, prayer, prompted my volunteering to be the Middler class representative for Trinity Healing Fellowship, the campus group that organizes prayer teams for Wednesday morning Eucharist as well as a monthly healing service. I am excited to continue praying for people in this way, and I hope to, as much as I can, continue serving in prayer with the teams at Church of the Ascension, at Shepherd's Heart, and attend the House of His Presence Friday prayer meetings at Shepherd's Heart as often as my sanity and gas tank allow.

Academically, this will be a language heavy semester, as half of my classes are deal with either grammar or exegesis in the biblical languages. My other class (besides Mentored Ministry) is homiletics, a subject I am eager to learn more of since I so enjoy writing and delivering sermons as many of my friends acquainted with my tendency to pontificate could have told me.

That's my heaping plate, then: Pastoring the poor, prayer, doing language work and preaching. Maybe this adds some context to the homily I gave last week: Lord, help me not forget Jesus in all of this!!


"The language of modernity has emphasized the factual, and in doing so, theological imagination has greatly suffered. Indeed, modernity's language can be understood as anti-mythopoeic because modernity disconnects itself from ancient and patristic thought. In the quest for knowledge, truth has come to be defined as something that has been proven to be factual. Contrarily, the ancients used imagination and story to convey truth and meaning. The Church Fathers, with their many interpretive lenses of Holy Scripture, used theological imagination to express biblical truth, for their language oftentimes stirs the entire makeup of the reader: mind, soul and spirit. Modernity's loss of theological imagination, therefore, is an attempt to present facts that appease the cognitive dimension of the mind rather than the holistic makeup of the human being. In recapturing the essence of mythopoeia, theological imagination can once again emerge, conveying truth and meaning to the complete ontological makeup of humanity."

~Scott Seely, "Aslan's Song: The Mythopoeic Dimensions of the Narnian Creation Account" (Ambridge, PA: Trinity School for Ministry, 2010), 5.

Monday, September 13, 2010

You Always Have the Poor With You

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Monday, September 13th in chapel at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. The office readings for Monday were as follows: Psalms 56, 57, 58; Job 40:1-24; John 11:55-12:8. The sermon refers to the reading from John.

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”[1]

This verse has become, in some circles, an excuse to brush off the poor—to brush off attempts to point out the social radicalism essential to gospel announcement that was and is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why bother with the homeless? The disadvantaged? Those people on the other side of the tracks? Jesus said they’ll always be with us, shouldn’t we just focus on getting people saved?

We, as seminarians, may or may not hold this view. We ought, though, as bible students to already know of God’s preference for the poor which runs straight through the heart of scripture and the gospel. The announcement of a king who lives among and serves the very outcasts of society. A message of grace that has little room for CV’s, resumes and other catalogues of human achievement. Even at Trinity, as some of your own poets have said, C equals Mdiv.

We, as kingdom servants in training, will always have the poor with us. We will be called, no doubt, to many different offices, peoples and locations, but everywhere we go we will encounter the poverty and barrenness of this world. Some will be called to the materially poor directly, others indirectly. All of us, though, will somehow be affected by their plight. As Paul reported of the church leaders in Jerusalem, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”[2]

In another sense, however, the poor is anyone and everyone. All of us fated to live and die in this cursed world and suffer the consequences. Our future gospel ministries will take us face to face with the spiritually, emotionally, relationally and psychologically poor. A question will then press upon us: in the midst of serving the poor, will we forget Jesus? Like this homily’s content so far, will Jesus be lost in the fray of worrying about the broken?

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”[1]

But how can this be relevant to us? Jesus promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[3] I’m afraid I must venture to something somewhat mystical to answer—my apologies to any intuitive thinkers in the room. There is a kind of being present with Christ which goes beyond acknowledging the fact of his omnipresence, an ineffable experience of spiritual immediacy familiar to charismatics and contemplatives alike. I think of it when I read Christ’s words about abiding in him, or when the psalmist obtusely commends me to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”[4] Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely learn about it.”[5]

But, how can pouring oil on the feet of a man about to die be relevant to us? I take the oil to represent resources—the text emphasizes its costliness—and being present with Christ in this way requires our most coveted asset: time. It takes minutes, hours and days to be alone, quiet and prayerful before God. To comprehend the word not only as narrative, theology and instruction, but also as the word of God which the Holy Spirit illumines in our hearts, “like fire… and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”[6] Practices like lectio divina help us encounter the Bible as a living text, and we hear not only the textual reconstruction of ancient kerygma but also the living God speaking to us today.

Spiritual disciplines such as these are not so-called “works of the law” by which we accrue merit before God. But, rather, these are practices experientially verified by a long history of church testimony. As Richard Foster has written, “The path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur.”[7] We earn no new status before God, but the healing presence of Christ restores and redeems our selves to become the divinely fashioned images we were always intended to be. As Paul has written, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”[8]

How then is Judas’s protest relevant to us? Because we will commit our resources to serving those in need and forget cultivating a life of spiritual immediacy with Christ. Because we will commit our resources to being trained to serve those in need above a life of intimacy with Christ. When our minds, hearts and bodies are cluttered with chaos and sin, we experience a temporal distancing from God where there is less love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. I should point out that these are the final measure of Christ’s closeness, not gently electrifying experiences of the transcendent (however rapturous they may be).

And if nothing I have said here was compelling or convincing to you, set aside time for divine solitude just for the sheer glory of God. To honor our creator and redeemer. Because the answer to the question “How do I love God with all my heart?” is not “By loving my neighbor as myself.” Because just as Paul says the worship of creation dehumanizes us in Romans one, the worship of, contemplation of, praise of, supplication to and tangible experience of the creator re-humanizes us. As the apostle says, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”[9]

concluding prayer:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."[10]

[1] John 12:8.
[2] Galatians 2:10.
[3] Matthew 28:20.
[4] Psalm 34:8.
[5] Quoted in Thomas Dubay, Fire Within (Ignatius, 1989), 212.
[6] Jeremiah 23:29.
[7] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (1998), 8.
[8] Ephesians 2:10.
[9] 2 Corinthians 3:18.
[10] Ephesians 3:16-19.