13 Pentecost—Proper 16-B
August 23, 2015
1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Did you see the 1973 movie “The Exorcist”, with Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn? It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning 2. It was rated R mainly for its horror in depicting a possessed 12 year old girl. I don’t like horror movies but at the time I was thinking about going to seminary so I was touched by the two Roman Catholic priests: the younger, brooding priest and psychiatrist beset by doubts, and the older, faithful priest and archeologist who is an exorcist approved by the bishop.
Near the end of the exorcism, after the older priest has succumbed to a bad heart, the younger priest attacks the demon in the possessed girl screaming “take me, take me.” And then you see the demon leave the girl, enter the priest, launching him out the window to his death.
Of course this is Hollywood and it was pointed out that this was not a successful exorcism because the demon wasn’t cast out but just transferred from one host to another. Yet, the girl was healed, so to my mind the priest gave his life to save the girl and is therefore an image of Jesus Christ, who gives his life for us by taking our illnesses into himself, destroying them on the cross.
In modern terms we could describe demons as thought patterns that have a powerful influence on us. Jealousy in its full-fledged green eyed monster form, or a rage that makes us crazy, or an inferiority complex that makes it difficult for a person to live within her own skin, are powerful forces we are all familiar with in one form or another.
I remember the first time I experienced jealousy: I was a senior in high school and my first real girlfriend said she would be attending our playoff soccer game in downtown Atlanta and would ride the team bus home with me. But she didn’t ride the bus and I didn’t know what had happened to her until as I waited at school for my mother to pick me up a car full of the cool kids pulls up with her in the backseat laughing.
I, however, was not laughing. Instead I was being introduced to inner forces I had never experienced before. At 17, I had little defense against what was happening in my mind.
It would be years before I learned that is possible to work with such overwhelming experiences. The first step is to recognize and acknowledge when we are in its grip. When I was 17 I didn’t think I was in the grip of something, I thought those emotions were who I was at that moment. I had no ability to see from the perspective of my True Self that these forces were like thunder storms rolling across the landscape blocking out the sun and the sky. When they are gone the sun comes out and the sky is still blue. When we can say, “I’m feeling anger” instead of saying “I am anger”, we’ve taken a huge first step.
Even if all we can say to ourselves is, “Man, this emotion is really strong right now”, we’re waking up and growing in awareness.
You don’t have to be a follower of Jesus to take this step. In fact, some American Buddhists like Pema Chodron and Ezra Bayda, whose books I recommend, teach us how to work with powerful emotions. Some of us grew up with parents, teachers, and clergy who shamed us for feeling our emotions, so we ended up repressing them, which makes us numb… until the volcano erupts again.
But if we are a follower of Jesus Christ, we are also able to cry out for help and say, “Lord Jesus, help me with these mindstorms. Breathe your light, peace, hope, faith and love into my overwhelmed mind.”
As we do this we find that Jesus answers our prayer. We may not go from 60 to 0 in three minutes but our foot is off the gas and we start to slow down. We notice space and peace gently rising in our hearts. Healing has begun and we are heading back into our right mind.
But it is not enough to just get well from this attack, because we know we are just one-button-being-pushed away from going over the cliff again.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 12:43?
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
In other words, we practice habits of faith, like prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and loving our neighbors in order to keep our hearts protected. Otherwise we are like a person recovering from food poisoning who gets up in the morning and has rotten eggs for breakfast.
After Jesus heals the local rabbi’s 12 year old daughter who others thought was dead, he says to her parents “give her something to eat.”
Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.” Eat this bread, take me into your life if you want to grow in light, peace, faith, hope and love in your daily living. Our prayer becomes: “feed me, Lord, with your presence which is light and love.”
If Jesus is a theological abstraction then there is no divine person to call on when we are being overwhelmed. If our faith is just a bunch of ideas bouncing around in our heads, then we are defenseless against the power of these complexes when they assault us.
Richard Rohr in his book What the Mystics Know says that for many Westerners, because of our egocentric society, “God is nothing more than a projected image of themselves: a God that they desire, fear, or culturally need. The encounter with the Totally Other, with the Not-I, does not take place for most people.” …”The old masters and spiritual guides wanted people to acknowledge their blockages and prejudices, or their mode of perception—that is, their habitual way of viewing and shaping life from an egocentric viewpoint.” Until we overcome these blockages “we will mistake my limited perspective for the whole”. He says “we must be capable of meeting someone other than ourselves.” Page 32-33
Of course for Paul Jesus is no abstraction, but the incarnate Lord; and faith is not a bunch of ideas about Christ, but trust in the faithfulness of Christ. As I hope to keep saying in every sermon, faith is not faith in myself or in my right ideas, but faith in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who is with us and for us.
So Paul tells us today to exercise our faith. He says:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God…and with truth, justice, and peace “take the shield of faith”, faith in the faithfulness of Christ “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one….” Ephesians 6: 10ff
So when Jesus asks the apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter gets it right for once when he says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”