SERMON 14 FEBRUARY 2016 LENT 1
I wonder how interested you are in politics. It seems to be a different world from the one most of us live in with our daily realities. It is just as well some people find the power-plays of politics appealing but I am not sure how much any of us really gets to know what goes on in the corridors of power or behind party room doors. Unfortunately it is too often whiffs of scandal that make the headlines apart from the constant mudslinging that seems to be part of what is called debate in Canberra or Macquarie St. Mind you, I am glad I don’t live in USA. We get more than enough of their extraordinary electoral process here as it is. The amount of money that is spent on these campaigns is, to my mind, quite disgraceful. But then, money is power apparently. There is that phrase “the rich and the powerful” where the two go hand in hand. It has ever been thus. And then there has been another kind of power on display recently, the sabre rattling kind, as we have watched North Korea apparently launching a long range nuclear missile, supposedly to put a satellite into space.
Much of the time we can feel very powerless when we see things happening that we feel strongly about and would try to change. Last Monday evening a large crowd gathered outside Sydney Town Hall. A Uniting Church minister who felt passionately that it is wrong to send innocent babies and children back to the suffering of Nauru called a protest. Many others joined in. It got no space at all in the news media of any kind, though it did on social media, and there has been some recognition of the fact that many churches, across denominations, display notices saying “Let them stay”. I know Muslim friends often say that they organize and participate in many positive events and inter-faith activities, frequently opening their homes and hosting meals and barbecues, but they get given almost no attention by the media. Anything controversial is seized upon however and played out in living rooms across the country. Who has the power?
I am sure that we will all have experienced many times when we have felt powerless over some issue, big or small. Sometimes it may be as trivial as not being able to see to thread a needle or have strong enough wrists to open a jar. Sometimes it may be that we need to wait for other people to do things to help us cope. Sometimes we may have to wait for someone else to make a decision, be it at work or at home, before we can act and get on with doing something. Our lives can seem to be on hold.
But we do also still have choice in many ways. We can choose to say yes or no to a whole variety of things in a practical sense. We can choose whether we are going to speak out in a kindly way or give vent to frustration. There are so many ways where we do have choice over how we behave. The trouble is we are often too tired to be able to make the effort.
Lent is about making choices and thinking about what informs those choices. It is also about power and powerlessness. It is an important time, this journey through Lent because it is an invitation to take the time to recollect who we are and to remember what it means for us to have heard the call of Jesus to follow. For most of the year I think we just keep on going along from day to day, week to week. It is hard to keep a sense of expectation about the work of God’s Spirit in our midst. Advent and Christmas, not so long ago, broke through our customary habits as we thought about the incarnation. Now, we have the opportunity, again, to stop, to turn our minds and hearts back to Christ, which is the real meaning of repentance.
I have to say I used not to like the word “repentance” very much. It conjured images of being on one’s knees, bewailing one’s sinfulness. But that misses the point. I now thin it is a rather lovely word, because it is about changing one’s mind and heart, turning around to face in God’s way again. And that means understanding what God’s power is about: the upside down kingdom where power and wealth are not what is important or what will rule the day in God’s kingdom. Repentance means deciding that one wants to live with a different set of values, where the humble, the poor and the oppressed are put first.
It’s not easy is it? It takes us rather a long way from politics. Just before I wrote this I had been reading in the Sydney Morning Herald about all the complexities of “Closing the Gap” with malnutrition such a problem in remote communities, more so than alcohol and drugs that we often think of. And there are the big issues of homelessness, mental health care, domestic violence, abuse, loneliness.
How do these things connect with our life of faith here, in Lindfield, in February 2016. Valentine’s Day actually, a celebration where lots of red roses and cards are given and received, apparently! It was never meant to be easy, because this repentance, this turning our minds and hearts back to God in Christ, is core stuff. It changes the way we look at the world. In Romans, Paul has reminded people that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Law and that now it is the faith in our hearts that is to guide our lives. “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” The belief of our hearts is what will lead us to profess Jesus as Lord. That’s a choice, a decision that is about where we believe ultimate power lies. So all this repentance talk is about our affirmation that God’s power, the power of love, is what we want to follow. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem in absolute faith in that power. It didn’t protect him from pain and hardship or from the anger and ridicule of those who did not believe in that power, who thought that what he was claiming was ridiculous, even for the religious.
But he knew that that power of love was more than enough. Had we been following the lectionary, as we do nearly all the time, we would, today, have heard the reading about the Jesus’ temptations in the desert. We thought about that a few weeks ago, when I reflected that maybe the underlying temptation was for Jesus to question that God’s power was enough and that he was strong enough in that belief to deal with what lay ahead. He did, and now we journey with him. We also remember that one of the themes of Luke’s gospel is the upside down kingdom. It is expressed right from the beginning in the Magnificat where the powerful are brought down and the humble lifted up; the hungry filled and the rich sent empty away. Again, Jesus has announced in the synagogue that Isaiah’s prophecy of good news for the poor, freedom for captives and sight for the blind has been fulfilled. This is the power we are being asked to believe in, the choice we are being asked to make as we reflect on our lives and the life of the world.
Lent is about the choice we make about what guides and controls our lives. In the gospel reading we heard today, we find things that open that up for us. The passage comes just after that one we heard two weeks ago where Jesus had preached in Nazareth, being acclaimed and then vilified and threatened with death for suggesting that these, his own people in Nazareth, and indeed all the Chosen People, did not have sole claim to God’s work amongst them. Again, the perceived order of things is being overthrown, widened out.
Here in this passage from Luke, we learn more about power and authority. It is set out as a confrontation between good and evil. Jesus had moved away from Nazareth where he was rejected and gone on to Capernaum. Here the people were amazed at his teaching and his authority. But, we are told, a demon recognizes this authority too and shouts out against Jesus. Note that Jesus doesn’t either ignore or shut up the demon. He doesn’t respond to the demon’s challenge. He merely says “Be quiet!” The man falls to the ground and is thrown around in a last action of the demon who then leaves.
Such an account can be quite challenging for us nowadays. I know, working in mental health, how terrifying it was for someone to think of themselves as demon possessed. We understand more about what goes wrong in the brain and why, though certainly not all of it. But we do talk more often, more readily, about our inner demons - the fears and flaws that beset us and seem to direct people’s lives. Often these hurts are the result of hurts and abuse. Psychologists and psychiatrists see the effects too often. Of course it is not always such hurt and abuse that causes people deep problems. There are many things that diminish a person’s self-esteem and create anxiety, particularly in a world where power and wealth are valued so highly. There are many who know that they can never fit into that mold; who know that the most they can hope for is to have enough to lead a quiet life and not to be judged.
There are many ways in which people seek to exorcise themselves of their inner demons of low self-esteem and scarred emotional lives: self-help books have a big market; there are people who make their living as life-coaches. It seems as if we are trying to banish parts of ourselves that we wish we didn’t have. The more we try to shut these inner demons up the more they seem to act out. These are unhealed sufferings. People come to fear intimacy; they can’t trust others, so they tend to hurt others before they are hurt themselves, or they harm themselves in secret. It takes a lot of courage to bring these things into the light, a lot of hard work and risk taking, which needs support and understanding. Jesus stood there as someone who was unafraid, who knew the power of love and who could form a relationship. He reached beyond the control of that man’s demon. The healing came as the demon recognised Jesus’ power and authority, although it did not give up without a last dramatic fling. It takes courage for people to begin to trust that these inner demons need not rule their lives, to believe that there is a healing power of love that will respect them for who they are behind all the scar tissue and defence. When we repent, whoever we are, we make a choice to believe in that power of love, and little by little to step out knowing that others alongside believe in this possibility defying the voice of society around. Is not this what the Church is about? Is not this what that other loaded word “salvation” means?
There are a lot of demons around in society as well: demons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and nationalism. There are demons of religious intolerance and superiority, of pride and control and many, many other things as well. That’s why churches are proclaiming “Let them stay” and offering sanctuary in the face of a powerful law which says otherwise.
There are countless stories of individuals and groups that live out the meaning of repentance, of turning back to and affirming the upside down power of God’s kingdom in ways that speak of love. It was heart-warming to read that villagers, farmers, fishermen, grandmothers, ex-soldiers, people of all ages in the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Leros have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The petition states “On remote Greek islands, grandmothers have sung terrified little babies to sleep, while teachers, pensioners and students have spent months offering food, shelter, clothing and comfort to refugees who have risked their lives to flee war and terror.”
Then there are those like Tara, an apparently successful business woman who constantly felt she was living a lie, hiding behind a carefully cultivated mask while underneath she knew an emptiness that was only eased by alcohol. When she was 5 years old her older brother had been killed in an accident. Her parents never really recovered and Tara always knew she could never match up to what her brother had been. She tried hard, did well at school but that success didn’t make a difference. She never felt loved. So she had sought love in a series of relationships that never worked out. Finally it became too much to hold together and she was admitted to hospital, where, for the first time, she began to discover that these inner demons which had taken control of her life did not have to remain the most powerful factor. With help, she was able to understand her life and choose a different way of being. She found a vocabulary of faith and became part of a community of faith and worship that gave expression to her longings and proclaimed hope. She discovered what repentance means, not by grovelling in mistakes she had made but in understanding that she could turn around, know that in Christ she was held in love, and set out again to walk in the way, even as it led through further probable darkness. She knew that she was in good company.
On Ash Wednesday, when we recognised our failings, our human weakness, our mortality and our pain, we moved to affirming the faith into which we were baptised and turned back to commit ourselves to walk in the way of Christ, bearing a cross of ash, a symbol of repentance. Now we are all embarked on the journey through Lent when we try to remember the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God, and live in that Kingdom’s way. We do this as individuals and we do it together. May we all learn more of the nature of God’s healing love along the way.