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series-21

Deliver us from evil

Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

This morning we read in the gospel of an encounter between Jesus and a man gripped by evil. How will that speak to us? The first chapter of Mark’s gospel throws us headlong into the beginning of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, three years that literally changed the world. From his baptism by John, where the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (10), the Spirit ‘drove him out into the wilderness’ (12) where he was tempted by Satan, on to choosing his first disciples, then into a synagogue where he encounters a man with an ‘unclean spirit’.

I want to open this passage up, loose it from the corner of Mark’s gospel it is hiding in. Because it is echoing, if we have ears to hear, the early chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and it has a surprising message for us today. First, back to Genesis. It’s just worth saying that the first few chapters of the Bible are essential reading for understanding the rest of it. Here goes. The first 3 chapters of Genesis give an account of the creation of the earth, the sun, moon and stars, and all the orders of plants and animals including humanity in the form of Adam and Eve. Just so you know, I’m not inclined to treat these chapters as literal, historical truth but I am inclined to say that what they tell us about God, the world and humanity are profoundly true: that is, they are full of meaning. In Genesis 2, God places the first couple in a beautiful garden and tells them, pretty much, that they can do and eat anything they like but don’t eat from that tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3, the serpent, representing the powers of evil, Satan or the devil, worms his way into Eve’s confidence, questions what God has said, then lies to her and convinces her to try the fruit of exactly that tree. She does, and shares it with her husband, Adam. Suddenly their eyes are opened. They know that they are naked, and are immediately ashamed of their new knowledge, of what they have done. They hide, hide from God, or try to. But their nakedness is much more than physical, it is spiritual. Before, they had nothing to hide from God, now they have disobedience to hide, now they know evil as well as good where before they did not, they are confused and shamed. In the next few chapters of Genesis there is a steady degeneration into more and more evil as almost everyone chooses not the path of the good, but the path of the bad. The word for devil in Greek is diabolos, from where we get the word ‘double’. Double paths. A choice. Adam and Eve took the wrong path, the double path, the diabolos path, and it didn’t turn out well. Almost all the time, humanity has followed the same path, full of the knowledge of good and evil. It leads to violence, death, deceit, hiding. Unfortunately, it is all too true.

 

It’s often said of Jesus that he was ‘sinless’. I find that a bit of a sterile word, even boring, and anyway, defining someone by a negative – he was ‘without sin’ is odd. Better, and truer, to say that here was a man who took the right path, who lived the life intended by God, who lived life in all its fullness, who was true in the sense that he was straight, and right, and good. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he resisted the temptations and emerged the victor. Where Adam and Eve failed the test, took the other way, the double path, Jesus did not. Boring, sterile – never. The opposite. Full of life. A man who turned water into wine at a wedding party when everyone was drunk already. A man who healed the sick. A man who was angry enough to drive the money-lenders out of the temple. A man who told stories so powerful that we still talk about them today. A man unafraid to call out injustice. A man who wouldn’t countenance evil. A man everyone wanted to know. Good isn’t boring. The devil doesn’t have all of the best tunes.

 

And then, in Mark 1:21, he walks into a synagogue in Capernaum and teaches. And everyone is astonished. But this man is unlike any other. He is, as we have already said, walking straight and true, he has already faced down the powers of evil and declined the invitation to walk the path paved with what we might call ‘alternative facts’, the lies and half-truths that, if attended to, would have led him to failure and ultimately, to evil. And in the synagogue, the place of worship and prayer, of scripture reading, of community (in other words, a lot like church!) a man with an unclean spirit, seeing and hearing him, cries out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (24). I was wondering what provoked the outburst, and I thought that perhaps Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue, opened up the particular evil the man was gripped by – he named it. We don’t know what the particular form of evil the man was engaged in, but you can imagine that if you’re hiding something terrible, you might blurt out the truth if someone put his finger on it.

 

What is happening here? How can we understand this? One way of doing so, which is probably the literal way of understanding, is that the man was possessed by an unclean, or evil spirit. If we were living in parts of the world outside of the so-called enlightened West, that is exactly how it would be understood. Certainly, when we lived in Bangladesh, there was strong belief in evil spirits and their powers amongst all the religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Animist. That may be the way some of us here would understand it, or some might struggle with that view. So I would like to say, this man was possessed by evil. In some way, he had given in to evil, to the double path, in such a way that it had eaten him up, he was overcome by it. The non-Western way of understanding this would be to say that he had opened himself to evil so much that a spirit of evil, a demon had entered him so that he no longer had any power at all to resist. He was in the grip of evil. I’m afraid that all of us are infected by evil in some way, we all have the capacity to do wrong, to hurt or destroy – and we sometimes do – but this man was in a special category. What is evil? It’s whatever destroys or diminishes life or the creation.

 

One of they really important things to notice here is that this man was in the synagogue. In whatever way his particular involvement with evil was expressed, he sought and found cover within his religious community. This has the ring of truth. Religious communities – including the Christian church of course – have often given cover for evil and there’s a long history of that right up to the present day. We only have to think of the sexual scandals that have been uncovered in the last few decades within the church, and the ruined lives of the victims that have resulted.

 

Again, this man’s evil was hidden within the synagogue, the religious community. Evil is often hidden, covered up. Think of the way that the horrible sex scandals in the church had been hidden from view. There is another echo here of the Adam and Eve story, where they both tried to hide from God after their disobedience, their eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. But this man, or if you like the spirit of evil within him, recognised in Jesus someone who was profoundly good, deeply and truly un-evil so that when he encountered him, as he heard his teaching he couldn’t help himself from shouting and in fact outing Jesus as the person that he truly was: the Holy One of God. In fact, the evil came out of hiding because it could not hide from this man. Once the evil was revealed, its hold over the man was lost and Jesus was able to expel it and restore the man.

 

Phew. This has been a tough sermon to prepare and hard to deliver. Am I coming up against evil within me that doesn’t want to be exposed? I don’t know. But the question is now, what do we do with it? I’m not proposing that we begin hunting down evil within our church or start rehearsing scenes from the Exorcist. And we’re none of us Jesus. But, we take his name and we are his followers. There’s a lovely verse in Hebrews that says ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters’ (Heb 2:11). We too will encounter evil. There is plenty of it loose in the world. There is the institutional evil of big corporations that exploit both the environment and communities simply for profit. There is massive social injustice across the world and in our own country, suppression of human rights, discrimination against all sorts of people based on nothing more than ethnic origin, religion, educational levels, gender and sexuality. There is wholescale war going on against the environment, the created order. There is large-scale sexual abuse against women and children: trafficking, endemic rape in some cultures, the sexual abuse of children. That may seem a long way from that synagogue in Capernaum but really, it’s individual evil writ large: greed, lust, contempt for human life, treating the world like it’s a shop with a broken window waiting to be raided. It’s what happens when individual evil goes unchecked. Then there’s evil closer to home. Women and men, made in the image of God, sleeping rough in Broad Street. And then there’s individual evil. I have met a couple of people in my life who literally made my flesh creep, whose cold disdain of humanity and greed for personal gain was like a negative spiritual force field around them. These are people who have gone far down that ‘other way’, that double path, people who have chosen lives that in some way deny the fullness of life to others and ruined their own souls too.

 

What I have tried to do in this sermon is to talk about what we don’t often talk about in church, of evil. To take it out of hiding, to try and understand where it comes from and what it does. Our following of Jesus will mean both that we will become more aware of evil, and also that evil will become aware of us, just as the man in the synagogue recognised Jesus for who he was. We probably won’t be loved much for standing up for some of the things I have mentioned, for calling out evil when we encounter it. But that shouldn’t stop us doing it. In the Lord’s prayer we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’ and that is our prayer.

 

 

 

 

series-g

Beyond the Rules

Sermon Deut.30.15-end, Matt 5.21-37

If, like my mother, you were divorced and then remarried you may have been shifting in your seat at Jesus words about committing adultery with your new partner. If you found yourself aroused by a sexy photo of a favourite actor or actress you may be feeling alarmed at Jesus violent words about pulling out your offending eye. If you lost your temper with a family member this week you might be alarmed at the threat of hell fire, and so on.

In our church calendar we are starting to gear up towards Lent and the readings set for today reflect that. In Mathew’s gospel we are part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew pictures Jesus sitting on a mountain, like Moses, and teaching his followers. In our OT reading Moses is instructing the Israelites. His aim is to get them to ‘choose life’, to live according to those commandments given to them in the desert – the 10 commandments; God’s rules for life giving relatedness to himself, to others and to the earth. Jesus is pictured as another Moses. He wants his followers to choose life. They are to lead the way for others, just as God had intended Israel to do. Just before this he’s been telling them that they are like salt and light for others. They have a high calling. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty.

For myself as I sat with this passage of scripture I was disturbed on two counts. First because the talk of cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye sounds like the worst aspects of Sharia law. Secondly, this week especially, because this kind of language can encourage the kind of abuse that was reported in the media of a Christian leader who saw it as his task to beat the wickedness out of young boys. I want us as followers of Christ to grapple with what looks like harsh teaching. So today, I won’t be doing the equivalent of tucking you up in bed with your teddies (if I ever do that!).

You are probably all aware that there is good religion and bad religion. The line between the two is often very fine. It’s easy to distort aspects of any faith, twisting them ever so slightly so that they then skew the whole. And we all do this to some extent because we home in on those aspects of our faith that best please us or fit in with our politics or temperament. We can’t be totally objective when we come to scripture; we see it through the eyes of the person we are. Having said that, we are encouraged to develop alertness, to have eyes that see and ears that hear, to use bible language.

Jesus teaching here is partly about developing this alertness. The violent language is a way of getting across the importance of what he is saying. Exaggeration of this kind was characteristic of the teaching style of rabbis in Jesus time. When elsewhere Jesus speaks of hanging a millstone round the neck of someone who leads astray children or the vulnerable we don’t take it literally, we understand that he’s making a point. Here, too, he’s not advocating literal amputation of offending limbs but underlining the importance of what he’s saying. This is not Sharia law.

So what is he saying? It’s here that distortions come in. The probably small distortions you and I make and the much bigger ones that abusers make. Part of the problem is that we think small. We just want to get by. But sitting on the mountain side with Jesus is to be drawn into a bigger picture. It’s rather as though he’s saying that being human is a heavenly calling, far grander than anything we had imagined, and now is the time to enter into that calling fully. The disciples had their rules for life – the 10 commandments –and doubtless many of them, like the rich young man, could say that they had kept them from their youth, so what more is there? Jesus is saying that they have to inhabit the rules fully. Only that way can they see the glory of God’s intentions for humanity. His example of divorce illustrates that. Divorce was easy in those times. It was something only a man could do, and for the most trivial of reasons. A wife was one of a man’s possessions. The implication of what Jesus says here is that marriage confers a higher status on the woman and requires a correspondingly higher standard of behaviour from the man.

The act of murder doesn’t come from nowhere, it starts with murderous intentions inside us, anger very often. This is where alertness comes in. Follow the trail; stop it at source and be ruthless about stopping it. If being unfaithful to our partner starts with lustful thoughts about another, then be ruthless about stopping these thoughts at source. Let’s notice that this is something we do ourselves – it’s not something that Jesus is asking others to do to us. Unfortunately a distortion the church can make and has made is to act as a moral policeman for others. Remember Jesus saying that we deal with the plank lodged in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

That still, however, leaves another distortion. Jesus is asking us to be ruthless with harmful thought patterns. Where does being kind to ourselves fit in with that? From the very early days of Christianity there were those who inflicted physical discomfort or pain on themselves as a way of letting their bodies know that they were subject to a higher authority than their physical needs. St Aidan, one of the Celtic saints, was said to have stood waist high in the waters of the north sea in winter for hours as part of his monastic discipline. Aidan is one of my heroes in the faith, but I wouldn’t be copying this particular habit. St Benedict, the founder of the dominant model for monastic life in the west, counselled against excesses of this kind, emphasising instead the importance of balance in the practice of our faith.

Jesus himself did not inflict pain on others or on himself. It’s clear, though, that he faced internal battles (temptations in the desert, Gethsemane) and that his followers would too. It’s also the case that he was tortured to death on a cross and that in our baptism we are invited to die with Christ before rising to new life with him. We may expect suffering as we follow Christ but he doesn’t invite us to go looking for it.

So, there are several distortions that can emerge from our interpretation of scripture, all leading to bad religion; one is that we take an unhealthy interest in the shortcomings of others and set out to correct them. Another is that we may unduly punish ourselves for our own shortcomings. Or we seek the most difficult and painful path for ourselves, seeing that as the way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the cross. Some signs of bad religion are excesses, secrecy and blocking our relatedness to others.

Like all distortions they keep us from recognising who we are in God’s eyes – beloved, heavenly(!) human beings. They keep us living in a shed when our true home is in the light and space and warmth we see as we sit next to Christ on the mountain side.

Of course there will always be times when we have angry feelings, or lustful feelings or the desire to harm others, or any number of other destructive thoughts. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to be alert to this. So we say, ‘Ah yes, I can recognise you and I’m not following you.’ Rather like one of those computer games where you have to thwart the enemy intruder at every point. This may involve some concrete action, like sorting out a disagreement we have with someone before matters can get out of hand (v23-24). Or not visiting certain sites on our computer.

At this point we may throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be on 24 hour alert to all those impulses driving my behaviour. Jesus sets the bar too high.’ You’re right. The call is an upward call and we soon realise we can’t manage it alone. Even Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ won’t get us there. Good religion is when we look at that landscape in front of us with Jesus next to us and see more and more that it is grace and mercy. It cannot be earned, manipulated or consumed like a product. It can only be received as a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge, Feb 2017

Know your enemy – sermon given on Sunday February 14th 2016 by Richard Croft

Despite a moderately busy day on call on Friday at Tilehurst Surgery, I found myself responding to an inner call – perhaps even a temptation – to cash in on the ‘Valentine’s day £20 meal for 2’ offer at a supermarket on Oxford Road. Finding 20 minutes, I headed in to a foyer positively blooming with pink and red roses, wove past the special offers of chocolate, wine, heart-shaped coasters and joined the happy throng choosing their 3-course ready-made dinner plus bottle of plonk. And came away triumphantly with a very nice selection of starter, main, 2 sides, dessert and a bottle of Rioja. And jolly good it was too.

What on earth was I doing? Why did I feel such a compulsion to plunge in to the cultural tide that is St Valentine’s Day and happily just go with the flow, a sucker to smart advertising? Was it wrong? I think probably not and at least I was aware of just letting go and happily doing what everybody else was. Hold that thought, we’re coming back to it.

Who exactly was St Valentine? Well, we’re not quite sure. There are several legends about him and I have unashamedly chosen the one that fits best with the day’s sentiment. Although most of the legends do have a common thread so it may not be far from the truth. According to one legend, he was Bishop of Terni, in Italy, in the third century. He performed marriages for Christian couples at a time when it was still illegal to help Christians, and was arrested by the Emperor, Claudius II. He and Claudius seemed to get on well, but Valentinus refused to stop his ministry to Christians and so was clubbed and beheaded on February 14th, 270AD, thus permanently ending the friendship. His unflinching support for Christian couples wishing to marry is why he has become the patron saint of love. In addition, he is patron saint of epilepsy, bubonic plague and beekeeping (seriously). One thing all the legends about him agree on: he was martyred for his faith in Christ and that at least should give us pause for thought in the midst of the sentimentality of the modern festival.

In the liturgical calendar, this year the festival of St Valentine falls on the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a season of penitence, of reflection as we prepare for Easter. The two themes of St Valentine and penitence seem rather clashing but I’m going to try and trace a line between them.

Our gospel reading today from Luke 4 was about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I want to connect this with the sermon that Vince delivered a couple of weeks ago about the gospel. That we have here in this book 4 gospels, texts written by 4 people – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Recording as they do the story of Jesus – his life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection, it becomes gospel for us as it is read out in the body of the church, in this event of worship and holy communion, as we stand and turn towards it, as we honour it. How is this gospel for us here, now? How does this story speak to us?

This story comes just after Jesus’ baptism by John, a high point when he was affirmed in his role by the coming of the Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ . And right before the start of Jesus’ public ministry of preaching. It is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke although Mark gives very little detail. All 3 agree that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and testing. We might imagine then that this was something Jesus needed to do, had to do. What he did was to face the enemy.

Firstly, this was a period of withdrawal from normal life for 6 weeks. That puts a person in a completely different headspace. 4 years ago Rosemary and I spent 6 weeks walking the Camino de Santiago on a sabbatical. Now I wouldn’t draw any parallel with what Jesus went through, for us it was a very joyful experience, but the experience of withdrawal from normal life was quite profound and helped us to see ourselves and our lives in a different way, unencumbered by our normal responsibilities. Even more so for Jesus, alone, deliberately fasting, apart from his family and friends, his work, the Roman occupiers. It would have given him time to reflect, to understand his mission, to see and identify what it was he must face in order to fulfill his calling to be Messiah, Christ, the anointed one. And to have a clear sense that there would be no short cuts.

His first temptation came through his body, through hunger: turn these stones into bread! Go on, you can do it! What fast track to success and fame that would have been when he got back: ‘Want something to eat? Watch those stones, guys!’ And the second, an appeal to his spirit: ‘Worship me and all this will be yours!’ So give in to the spirit of the age, don’t choose the hard path, prioritise material gain, popularity, license: anything but the worship and service of God. And wow you’ll be great! And the third – interesting one. ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’ What was that? A temptation to overreach himself? To be absolutely sure, one way or the other, of who he was? Or was it the temptation to commit suicide? Was the magnitude of what was facing him so immense that he almost couldn’t face it, so end it now? It’s an intriguing thought.

How did Jesus face these 3 temptations, these appeals to follow an easier path, or to prove beyond doubt who he was, or perhaps even to end it all? Jesus had a clear sense of mission, grounded in a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the OT. Three times he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy records the law as given to Moses during the period when the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, before they were able to enter the promised land. Just as Jesus in the wilderness was a ‘between time’, after his calling but before his public ministry, so this was a ‘between time’ for the new nation of Israel. Deuteronomy tells how the people are to behave, how they are to act in relation to one another, and to God, and lists the promises given to them. It is from this book, the ‘wilderness book’ if you like, that Jesus finds wisdom to face down the enemy. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ , in answer to ‘turn stones into bread’. (Matthew adds that bit about ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ that isn’t in Luke but is in Deuteronomy.) He refuses the appeal to become a showman, a performer, gaining short-term popularity but failing in every other respect. ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ to push back the appeal to worship satan, the spirit of the age. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ in reply to the temptation – backed up by scripture – to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.

How does this speak to us? I think a lot of the time we don’t see – or perhaps don’t want to see – what it is that compromises us, that leads us away from perhaps the best that we can be. I mentioned the sense of almost compulsion I felt about the special offer on a Valentine’s day dinner because on a trivial level, that’s the kind of thing I mean. The influences on us that pull us this way and that that often we just give in to and go with the flow. A lot of that is neither here nor there, like buying a ready meal from the supermarket, just like a load of other people. But even that might be the thin end of the wedge: the appeal of advertising, the sense of wanting to be like everyone else, to have and buy more than I actually need ‘just because I can and it feels good’. To count my worth in possessions. The classic temptations are these: money, sex and power. Cast your eye around politicians, celebrities, judges and all the rest and it won’t take long to see how easily men and women of talent and promise fall victim to one or all of these. How does it happen? The opportunity, the sense of being invincible, no-one will find out…until they do. And then we should look at ourselves. There is no-one in this place who has not felt the pull to compromise, or who has not given in in some way to the attraction of money, sex or power. Then there are more subtle, or not-so subtle ways that we fall in with the crowd without even noticing: holding a grudge, bitching, thinking the worst of others, blaming others, gossiping.

I’m not going to go on. The challenge of Lent is to take time out and reflect on what it is that tests us, that tempts us, what our enemy is. To be aware is more than half of the battle. I’m going to ask us now to keep silence for a minute or two to reflect: where is your battle?

Richard Croft