Monday, January 30, 2012

Demons? Yes, demons.

A Sermon
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
Epiphany IV, 2012

How wonderful it is that we don’t have any Big Mountains to climb this morning, now that the parish meeting is behind us.  Today we can get down to what I’ve heard Fr McClain call “just plain, ordinary B-flat church.”

We get this chance on the fourth Sunday of the Epiphany season during which, as you’ve been reminded plenty of times, the Prayer Book asks us to consider not parables or prophecies but rather the astonishing signs, the things Jesus did to back his claims—very often things which seemed to make no sense or to make sense for the first time ever but so right-up-under-your-nose they couldn’t be denied.  Today’s moment in the synagogue at Capernaum is one of those.  In the first lesson from Deuteronomy you heard Moses promising the Hebrews that, though he would not go with them into the Promised Land, God would not leave them comfortless, would send faithful prophets to lead them, prophets they could believe and trust.  And that promise, of course, eventually grew into the messianic hope into which Jesus steps in today’s Gospel.  He goes into the synagogue and teaches, and when he’s done people are impressed.  “This guy teaches with authority.  Not like the scribes.”  That should raise a question in your mind:  how was it the scribes taught if not with authority?  Well, to get a notion of that, go back and listen to Paul in today’s lesson from Corinthians, another one of those cases where this may be so or that may be so or it may even be a sin—unless it happened on Wednesday or your grandmother was a Presbyterian or if you bought it at Wal-Mart.  You know?  Those tortuous adventures in casuistry a fascination with law creates.  That’s the way the scribes taught, and Jesus had likely treated the congregation to one of those You-have-heard-it-said-but-I-tell-you teachings.  And they were impressed.  “This guy gives you the word with the bark on it.”

And that fits the pattern just right, doesn’t it?  Jesus can claim to be the prophet Moses promised.  Neat as a pin.  Hand in glove.

But when I was reading this and wondering what the Holy Spirit had to say to you today, I couldn’t find much of a sermon.  I mean, who here has an authority problem with Jesus?  We were all brought up believing that Jesus is Lord, and all of you here have believed that at least since your baptism.  We don’t have much trouble acknowledging Jesus as Messiah.

So where’s the sermon? sez I to myself.  I went back and re-read that lesson, and it came to me that the sermon here for us today is all about . . . demons.  That’s right, demons.  I mean, no sooner than Jesus finishes, there’s a stir.  Evidently a man, part of the congregation, had an “unclean spirit” which elsewhere would be called a demon, and that spirit recognized Jesus right away.  There was tumult in the man’s soul, and the demon spoke.  “What do you want with me, Jesus.  I know who you are.  Whatchoo gonna do to me?”  Jesus wastes no words—“Come out of him”—and that demon is but gone.  And what do the people standing around say?  “This is a new teaching.  Even the demons obey him.”

Teaching?  What teaching?  Go back through that passage and show me any teaching.  What I see is an act—which the crowd took as teaching in action, I suppose, but they were impressed sho nuff.  Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region.

Well.  Well, well.  Oh, dear.  Demons.  We hear that and get a little uneasy in our chair and mutter and demur.  That’s something from the past.  We know better than that now.  Oh, some people, the kind that handle snakes and holler wave their hands in the air and all that, they probably believe in demons, but . . . well.  We’re Episcopalians.  We don’t do demons.

Wanna bet?

Back when I was in seminary and knew a whole more than I know now, I couldn’t help noticing that the Bible is full of demons, front to back, so though I knew we don’t do demons, knew I sure didn’t do demons, I figured I needed to come to terms with the whole idea somehow.  I was looking for a definition.  I got one from somebody, maybe Dr. Moreau, who knew all about Greek theology, and the definition was, more or less, that a demon—the Greek daimon—is any part of a being that takes control of the whole and deforms and derails and pollutes it, misshapes it, drives it nuts.  That’s what demons do.  They usurp the driver’s seat, and once their grip closes nobody knows where they’ll steer the careening vehicle.  A part takes over the whole.

You know that, you can see that.  Demons come in all sizes.  Our nation has one—well, it has a good many—but at least one immediately recognizable today is the demon of anger that plagues our political discourse during these campaigns.  “The voters are angry.  So and so has identified with that anger, tapped into that anger, is making hay out of that anger.  The president needs to show some passion, get angry.”  Yeah, that.  That’s a demon.  We should know better, but we ain’t drivin’ Betsey.  The demon is.  Anger is a part of human nature.  Officially, it’s a sin, although I’m not sure anger is the sin so much as what we do with anger.  But today anger has got our political body by the tail with a downhill pull.  Much good may it do us.

Churches can get demons.  Parishes sure get them.  Years ago I was rector of a parish where they’d done pretty well from the 1870s right on up into the 1940s.  But when that war was over, all kinds of . . . well . . . new people, not exactly like us, started to move into town, and some of them, gulp, wanted to join that parish.  In 1948, the vestry—I am not making this up—the vestry voted to close membership.  The demon of pride, better-than-you-are, snobbery, had that parish in its grip.  Bishop Mason didn’t put up with it, cast that demon right out.

And they come in all sizes to you and me personally, from within and without, day and night, whispering and yelling, coaxing and coercing.  You know what yours are; I know what mine are; we’ve all got demons.  And now that you think about them this way, you’ll likely admit it:  we’re all demon possessed to a greater or lesser degree.  A lot of the time we’re so used to them we just call them bad habits; but if you’ve ever tried to kick one of those, you know they don’t go without a fight.  You can’t just say “Get thee hence” and expect cooperation.  You have to go up into the attic and rassel ‘em down two flights of stairs and out the back door and off the porch.  And before you can wipe your sweaty brow, the suckers will run right around the house and come in the front door while you’re getting your breath.  You know.  If you’re anything like me, and I think you are, you know.  Demons are real.

Another thing about demons:  they lie.  They’re part of the devilish urge to disbelieve what God has been telling us from the first, namely that He loves us.  But from the Garden of Eden up to now, the Father of Lies whispers, “Oh, he doesn’t really mean it.”  Demons make us believe our bond with God is broken.  I learned that when I was a seminarian and working right across town at All Saints Hospital as a “chaplain intern.”  Fr. Blackwell gave us about two weeks’ prep and then turned us loose on the helpless patients.  One of the first rooms I walked into held a feller who took one look at me, saw that chaplain badge, and figured I was God’s boy come to see that he was getting his punishment.  “I don’t know whut it is I done to make God put thissun on me, but I musta done sump’n.”  How many people have you heard say things like that?  If something bad happens, and lots does, it must be God sending a demon to punish us.  The people Jesus taught sure thought so:  disease means punishment by divine agency.  Lots of people, some of them maybe in this room today, find it very hard to believe that God loves them when Bad Stuff happens.  We might even just say that demons are the Bad Stuff That Happens.  Merciful Heavens, how do you fight that?

I hope this doesn’t sound too simple minded, but the answer is:  we ask God to exorcise them, to cast them out, to free us.  Now, when I say exorcism I don’t mean to strap some adolescent girl to a bed and watch her turn six different colors and growl and float up in the air and barf on the priest.  That’s rude.  You all remember that sensational movie and all the knock-offs that appear now and then.  Not that—although this church does practice ritual exorcism.  Some years back, St. Timothy’s across town was desecrated, and Bishop Barnds, once rector of this parish, exorcised the whole place.

I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about how you and I, how we, get rid of the demons that plague us, personally, right at home, very real and very ugly, dangerous often.  We can do a lot worse than pray that believer’s prayer from the old children’s hymn—Come into my heart, Lord Jesus—because that’s what it takes.

Let me see if I can help you get a notion of what I’m talking about.  Jesus, the Bible tells and we believe, is The One sent from God, firstborn among the new creation, our teacher and Lord.  And what does Jesus say?  He reminds us, in the first place, that no matter what we’ve been led to believe, God is not angry with us.  He reminds us that God’s message is love.  “God your father loves you so much that he’s sent me to tell you you’re not condemned.  The way God sees you, you’re wonderful, splendid, perfect, destined for glory.”  And Jesus reminds us that we don’t need lots of rules but rather only two:  we must learn to love God the way God loves us—heart, soul, and mind—and to love each other that way, no exceptions.  He summed all that up for us in last week’s gospel:  repent and believe the gospel.  Get your eyes off your demons; turn them to God in Christ Jesus; stop believing the lies you’ve heard and hear everywhere and start living in the conviction that you are God’s beloved child in whom He is pleased beyond description.  Do that, and you’ll love everybody else that way.  Get you some Kingdom Eyes and behold the world in a new and eternal light.  That’s the way God sees the world and you and me, and when we all get that and act on it, well, the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in its splendor all about us.

Well, to that you wouldn’t be remiss to respond like Jake Barnes at the end of The Sun Also Rises:  wouldn’t it be nice if it were so?  Because you know and I know and only a fool doesn’t know that life ain’t like that.  I mean, that’s what the first two chapters of Genesis are about.  If God is good and loves us and we’re good and created to love, then why do we treat each other like Hell?  We have to live in what we call history, time and tide and circumstance.  And that’s the truth.  For reasons of His own, maybe because the school of hard knocks is the only way we can learn to love, I don’t know, we first find God in history.  It’s all part of the mystery of God, but just remember that God Himself came and lived in it, and Jesus had to put up with a whole lot more than any of us.  Never.  The.  Less . . .

Let me tell you a story.  Down in Monterrey at Sagrada Familia parish, a woman named Mary González was the apple of everybody’s eye.  She was a simple in her fifties, not very well off, but she was happy just about all the time.  Then one day she went to the doctor.  And she got some bad news.  And she got some bad doctoring.  Pretty soon she was losing control of her find motor skills, then the big ones; next she couldn’t walk, had to sit, lie, be pushed; finally she lost control of her innards and spent her life being cleaned up by a daughter who found it all very hard to justify.  But through it all to the bitter end, Mary was healed.  Happy, chirpy, worrying about others, full of prayers.  She never once listened to the demon that had crawled in bed with her.  It had the best of her in one way, to be sure, no doubt about that.  But she died in such a state of . . . well . . . joy is all I can call it . . . that we all felt her love with us with no doubt.  Still do.
Now, it’s not easy to do that.  Your life is going great, things are generally good, and one day you go to the doctor’s office.  Or someone learns something about a spouse that’s pretty awful.  Or a child.  Or a friend.  And remember, sometimes we let the demons in.  We let that drink or that drug or that pride or that greed—their name is Legion—right in the front door and nurse it to our breast like Cleopatra and her asp.  Am I asking you just to ignore what can’t be denied?  Not at all.  I’m asking you to admit it and turn it over to Jesus, because as another hymn says, “there’s no other way.”

Even the demons obey Jesus.  That’s the new teaching.  And you come to believe it by letting it happen.  Don’t ask me to explain how it happens; but just like the demon in today’s gospel, our demons know what they’re up to, and if you, if I, in desperation turn in prayer to God and say, “Lord, help me believe in your love.  Help me remember that the horrors that sometimes come after me are not your doing.  Help me remember that, whether it’s my own fault or whether I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing, nothing whatsoever can separate me from your love.”  Then do your best to act that out.  It is not easy, and we don’t always meet the test.  I’ll tell you, though, I don’t know how Jesus does it, but somehow He knows.  And He comes.  He holds your hand, and He loves you from start to finish.  I know other therapies are there, and thank God for them.  But down at the bottom of my soul, where I am umbilicaled to God for time and eternity, I know it works.  Even the demons obey Jesus.  It’s not therapy.  It’s the mystery of God’s love.  And somehow, it works.

I know because I speak from experience.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

S**t diocesan and parish communicators think, but don't say

Not that I personally have EVER thought any of these things . . .

Actually, bishop, just because you have an IT person does not mean you have a communicator on staff. It means you have an IT person on staff.

You don't "do email" or check the web site because it takes too much of your time, so you want me to stop what I'm doing to give you all the updates on what's going on in the parish/diocese? Seriously?

For the 500th time to a reporter "No, it's not the Episcopalian Church, It's the Episcopal Church. And people who go there are Episcopalians, not Episcopals."

Yes, all that information was in the most recent E-Newsletter, to which you subscribe, and no, I don't have time to read it to you.

Seriously. How long can it take the bishop/rector/senior warden to write a 300-word piece for the newsletter?

No, I didn't post the information about your organization's yard sale because you didn't send it to me. I am good, but reading minds is something I haven't yet mastered.

Yes, I DO want to know who was elected to the vestry at the annual parish meeting. That's why I sent you an email that said, "Please send me the names of those elected to the vestry at the annual parish meeting."

Yes, I know your son is not included in the video of the youth activities at convention.That's because he wasn't there. Yes, I'm sure of that. And no, I don't have any idea why he would tell you he was there if he really wasn't. (But I can guess.)

No, I wasn't at your parish's recent men's chili cook off because I was with the bishop at his visitation to St. Swithin's. I'm sorry but I have not yet mastered bilocation.

Yes, I did see the story on the web site about the bishop's recent trip to your parish. I wrote it.

Where do you find the bishop's schedule on the web site? Click on the tab that says "bishop's schedule."

Yes, I saw the front page story in the newspaper about the Presbyterians who went on a mission trip to Haiti and got trapped in a landslide and had to dig themselves out with spoons, and while I love our parish's ministry to the food bank, no, I cannot make the newspaper do a similar story about it.

No, you are not required to give me your email address, but if you want me to sign you up for emailed news updates from the diocese, it would be very helpful.

Yes, I will be glad to create all that delightful new content for the web site as soon as I dig myself out from under the last pile of work you put on my desk.

Where on the web site do you find the report on diocesan convention? Click on the tab that says "Report on diocesan convention."

Tell me you are not seriously suggesting we buy an ad in the Yellow Pages.

Yes, I really do believe that if our church can't be Googled, we don't exist.

Yes, you do need to update your parish web site. It's January. Most people aren't looking for the Vacation Bible School schedule right now.

Yes, I see you have a smart phone. I'm still not going to give you administrative rights to the diocesan Facebook page.

No, we will not live Tweet your annual parish meeting.

Yes, if you put titles in front of all the names of clergy, you have to put titles in front of all the names of laypeople. Yes. You do.

Yes, I did change the story you submttted. It's called "editing."

I know I can count on my sister and brother communicators to add to this.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

So here is another wonderful offering from the Rev. Bruce Coggin, good  friend and now interim at Trinity, Fort Worth. Read and enjoy.


A Sermon Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
Holy Name 2012

Happy New Year!  I’m mighty proud of you for coming to church on New Year’s Day in a year when the calendar has us all about two bubbles off plumb.  And I’m also particularly happy to see you this day, since it’s my first “official” day as . . . well, doorkeeper, I guess, until Trinity has a new rector, something your Succession Commission is working hard on.

I’m also particularly happy to see you this morning, because today we’re doing something really rare in terms of our liturgical life.  Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, the day Jesus got his name, one week after Christmas, and usually it’s kept—if it’s kept at all—at a weekday Mass with the celebrant and the altar guild and the Four Sainted Dames who go to weekday Mass.

But this time Christmas came on Sunday, something that happens only about every time the dragon flies, so this year instead of celebrating Christmas I, we get Holy Name today; and all over the world, liturgical churches like ours get the opportunity to pray and think about and respond to that moment in the Lord’s life.  The lessons are about naming—God blesses and thus marks his people, Jesus gets his name (almost in a footnote!), and Paul assures us that we are God’s children and bear his name.  In that light, then, I want us to spend some time this morning pondering Jesus’ holy name, then names and naming in general, and I want us to think about God’s notions about the names you and I bear, about the name he’s given us, and what that means in the way we live the rest of this and every new year.

First, there’s the name of Jesus.  The story says that Gabriel revealed it to Mary at the Annunciation, so God evidently had some notions about the child the virgin would conceive and bear.  He gets it exactly one week after his birth like the law requires, since the evangelists insisted he met every requirement to be messiah.  And notice this about the name Jesus:  it’s mighty rare in the Bible.  Hardly shows up anywhere else.  I mean there are Samuels and Nathans and Jacobs and Johns and all the rest—but hardly another Jesus anywhere.  There’s Jesus ben Sirach in the apocrypha, but you just don’t find many Jesuses in the Bible.  The angel also talked of some of God’s notions about the child.  Jesus would be great and bring great good to God’s people, which is a considerable notion in itself—and about as much a glimpse of the Father’s mind as we get.

Among us, here in Fort Worth today, the name of Jesus is certainly . . . well . . . holy.  We know, we’re taught at our mother’s knees and everywhere else, that Jesus is something special, a name we don’t use lightly.  Or better not.  I can tell you, when I was maybe ten, eleven years old and learning to express myself . . . colorfully? . . . I got slapped right away from the table at my Grandmother Coggin’s house for using it flippantly.  She was a Tennessee Methodist and not prepared to put up with a bit of that.  Of course, in Mexico that didn’t work.  I mean there are men—and women—named Jesús all over the place.  But it comes right home to you north of the border.  I live over on the east side of town where a lot of people came from Mexico, and one day I was driving down Ayers to the grocery store and saw a sign in a yard:  House for sale.  Dial 817 dit dot dit dot dit.  Ask for Jesus.  Well, now!  That’ll catch your eye.  At least around here, though a lot of us profane it, most folks have a very acute notion that Jesus is a holy name, a name set apart, connected straight with God.  Don’t mess with it.

How about our names, my name, your names?  We don’t get to choose them, you know, unless we do it as adults.  Somebody else names us, and usually the names we get include notions, like God’s notions about his son.  I know my parents named me Bruce for my mother’s first cousin who died horribly.  Aunt Ada asked my mother to name her first son Bruce, so I got that.  And I’m Wayne after my father.  It didn’t occur to me for decades that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s name, for Pete’s sake.  My students in Mexico all called me Doctor Batmán!  A little gift with my name fifty years in the coming.  But from time to time, I recall the notions my name includes.

We don’t get to choose our family names either, at least men don’t ordinarily, and they carry a load too.  Bishop Pope said his mother always cautioned him to “remember who you are” and by that meant the family’s Good Name.  There are times I wish he’d remembered it a little less!  But you get the point.  The family name has content.  We say, “Oh, that’s just the way those Ledbetters are!” or “That’s just the Randolph in him.”  Names have baggage.

What about naming?  If you’ve ever named a child—even a pet—you know what I mean.  When I was an undergraduate in Austin—I didn’t go to this little four-year college across the street; you’ll just have to forgive me—I had a friend with a girlfriend named Ginna.  Ginna.  I just loved that name, liked the way it sounded in my head, swore if I ever had a daughter, she’d be Ginna.  As it turned out the mother of my children had a best friend named Virginia, so my daughter is Virginia for that friend and Kathryn for my mother-in-law—but to me she’s Ginna.  I had notions about her when she was tiny, and as often happens, they haven’t exactly turned out.  She’s made her own life and has the usual woes and wonders, but she’s still my Ginna and I love her so much I can hardly stand it, always will.  Just say Ginna, and my heart fills up.  My other kids’ names are just as loaded.

It’s also important that names be right.  Sometimes things, even people, get the wrong name.  I teach a Faulkner story in which a family has lived in the same great white plantation house for over a century, and the men heirs are named John and Bayard and John and Bayard from generation to generation until the last Bayard married a dadgummed Yankee carpetbagger girl whose maiden name was Benbow, and that woman named the heir to the place Benbow.  Benbow!  Everybody called him that except the ninety year old grande dame who lived in a wheelchair in the library, and she called him Johnny.  She knew what his name should have been.  In that connection I think of Abram and Sarai getting their names changed to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.  Evidently it wouldn’t do for them to have Arabic names, so they got retrofitted with proper Hebrew monikers.

Sometimes people reject their names.  I teach another story, Flannery O’Connor, in which a mother, an optimistic woman named Hopewell, has notions about her daughter and names her Joy.  Well, Joy grows up and goes to college and studies philosophy and learns that life is meaningless and horrible, so she goes to court and changes her name to Hulga.  Hulga!  The ugliest name she could think of.  She knew who she thought she was.  It was mighty hard on that mother, though.  All her notions right out the window.

What about calling names?  At times we use names as weapons.  There are a good many names I’m familiar with that can get your teeth knocked down your throat if you use them wrong.  Oh, we have many, many of those in our arsenal.  Even my youngest grandson Danny spots them.  When he’s at some family gathering, and one of the adults uses some vivid language, his eyes pop right open:  “That’s a ba-a-a-ad word!”  Even little children know.  Names are not just handles.  They’re complex engines of emotion and power.

Well, enough about the way we name.  Let’s think about God’s notions about you and your name, because I think he’s got some.  I figure just about everybody in the house was baptized at some point in the past.  Some of us can remember our baptisms.  I remember mine.  I was eight or nine and already had my names.  Others were baptized as infants and, depending on where that happened, you got the Fred or the Mary or the George or the Linda you go by at the very least.  If you were baptized Roman Catholic or in some fine High Church parish of ours, you also might have gotten a saint’s name—St. Kentigern or St. Etheldreda or some other worthy—and that saint’s day is your name day.  The Freds and Marys are about your parents’ notions, the saints’ names about some priest’s notions.  Have you forgotten that, along with parents and ministers, you were ushered through those waters of baptism by none other than God?  God parented you then just as much as any of the others, and God gave you a name too:  Jesus.  You are born, after all into Christ—let’s call him Jesus—and you bear his sign and name the rest of your life and forever.  Consider that.  You’re named Jesus.

Another thing from Mexico.  People with the same name—two men named Juan, two women named María—have a word for each other:  tocayo, tocaya.  That way they avoid having to use their own names with each other.  Well, every one of us is tocayo with Jesus, because that’s our name too.  Think of it.  God has notions about you, and they are a whole lot like the notions he has about Jesus.  God also knew that, unlike Jesus who alone ever fulfilled his heavenly father’s notions entirely, you and I are not up to living into those notions a lot of the time.  Children often don’t meet their parents’ cherished notions.  You know.  If you’re anything like me, and I think you are, you drop the ball all the time.  I sure do.  That’s why God gave us Jesus when he renamed us.  He knew we’d need help.

Consider this about your Jesus name.  One of the promises we make—and will repeat right here next Sunday—is to seek and serve Jesus in everyone we meet.  That means serving ourselves in a way, and I know I find Christ in you and others all the time.  Maybe you don’t need my service.  Maybe we just need to recognize each other and strenthen and encourage.  But when we see the needy, rejected, despised, outcast Jesus in others, we had best get cracking to fulfill those Matthew Twenty-Five notions—feed, clothe, comfort, love, all that.  And what about people seeing Jesus in us?  In you?  Do your fellow Jesus tocayos recognize you as one of the family?  Likely they do.  I mean, you’re here.  But what about people who have heard of Jesus and don’t like what they hear?  What about people who have no notions about Jesus at all?  Do they see something in you, your Jesus, that somehow stops them, makes them wonder, “Who is that who seems somehow . . . different, blessed?”  Do I, do you, do we, does Trinity Church remember day in and day out that we who bear the name of Jesus are the light God’s notions have set for the rest of the world?  Do we bear that light?  Each of us, all of us?

Well, those are some things to think about the rest of the year.  You may be a little surprised to think of yourself as Jesus, but that’s exactly God’s notion about you and me and all God’s chillen.  We’re all in that family the way God see us, his notion.  Our job this day and every day is to remember who we are, whose name we claim, whose name saves us, and then to find ourselves, yourself, myself, in everybody we meet.  I mean, God’s notion is that we’re all one blessed family.  It’s our destiny to pray and work to make that a living reality.

Happy New Year!  Happy Name Day!