Fall, Fable, or a Future Filled with Hope? Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Lent 1: (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Mark 1.12-13) Our scripture readings are an odd coupling today, though at first glance one might assume that they fit perfectly together. The gospel reading talks about Jesus in conflict with a demonic presence. The creation myth from […]
Fall, Fable, or a Future Filled with Hope?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Lent 1: (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Mark 1.12-13)
Our scripture readings are an odd coupling today, though at first glance one might assume that they fit perfectly together. The gospel reading talks about Jesus in conflict with a demonic presence. The creation myth from Genesis 2 shows a crafty snake, often called demonic, but that isn’t exactly true.
The gospel story today shows us Jesus wrestling with his demons, that is, his doubts, his lack of certainty of his calling. His fears, anxieties, and doubts are represented by the personification of deception, but Mark also tells us that he allowed his higher thoughts, his inner wisdom, “angels” to minister to him. And finally, Jesus emerges from that lonely time of struggle, from that wilderness experience, empowered and encouraged and ready to begin his important work. Throughout the remainder of Mark’s narrative then, we see Jesus in action.
The story not only shows us that Jesus summoned the better angels of his nature, to help him overcome his doubts, his fears, his devil or temptation to be less than he was capable of being, but it also shows us that such victory over self-doubt is possible for us. When we are tempted to sell out, to give up, to accept injustice, to give in to greed or malicious intent or systems of oppression, we can go to that quiet place within us, confront our demons, and allow our higher thoughts to prevail. Then, we can emerge ready to embrace our potential and live into our calling.
Now, why are we so willing to believe that we are less than brilliant, less than magnificent, less than even good enough? Where do the demons of self-doubt and self-loathing originate?
Strangely, for many of us, they originate from an ancient story birthed from pre-scientific imaginations from a time when the earth was believed to be flat.
If you grew up hearing what I grew up hearing as religious instruction, then you were taught to believe that only two people were ever created as good enough, but they chose to disobey their God (well, actually, the woman chose to disobey and then persuaded her man to join her in disobedience, so really, their “fall from perfection” was her fault, so ever thereafter, girls were said to have cooties). Anyway, they gave up their goodness and passed on their wickedness to all their descendants all the way down to us. And so it is, or so we were told, that we are each born bad. And only through religious devotion could we ever be forgiven for our innate depravity, or original sin.
And that bizarre view of innate human sinfulness comes from a pretty twisted understanding of the Genesis story we heard today. Let’s re-look at that story. We picked up ten verses or so into it, but I bet you remember the whole thing well enough. But have we really thought about it and mined it for new wisdom lately? Sometimes, it’s good to re-imagine an old tale.
(Eve & gay Adam video)
There are eight points from the story that have been too often overlooked by traditional interpretations.
God needs us. God creates a garden but then needs a gardener to tend it. God needs help. That’s us. We are the gardeners, the helpers, the co-workers. Our hands are God’s hands. We are the way that God touches and tends the world. We are that important. God needed gardeners. God needed us. God still needs us.
Snakes don’t talk. This really shouldn’t come as news to anyone, and yet people pretend to believe that one did, one time. Now, not only do snakes not talk, but people probably wouldn’t talk to snakes even if snakes were, on occasion, chatty. If I see snake, I’ll back off. If I hear a snake talking, after I soil myself, I’m checking myself into a hospital for psychiatric evaluation! Of course, in fables, animals do talk. A fable, we all remember from high school English, is a fictional tale that features animals, plants, or forces of nature that are given human qualities. The point of the fable is to teach a moral lesson. The minute we see a chatty snake, we know we are reading a fable. And once we know that, we get to engage the fable appropriately and get from it all that it really offers.
The snake is just a snake. Not a monster. Not a devil. Just an unusually verbose snake. Not even an evil snake. Serpents in many cultures represent sexuality or wisdom or power. It was a multiheaded serpent that protected Sidhartha under the Bodhi tree as he was achieving enlightenment. The serpent in garden of Eden story isn’t even dishonest. God is the one who says if you eat the fruit you’ll drop dead. The snake says, “You won’t drop dead. God just said that so you won’t eat it.” And they do eat it and they don’t drop dead. Not only is the snake not evil, he’s not even mendacious! In fact, the only character in the fable that tells the truth is the snake.
There is no fall. The word “fall” is never used in the fable. Whatever the lesson of the story is, it isn’t that people fell from perfection, never to return to it again. Yes, we make mistakes and yes, we all sometimes behave in ways that are beneath our sacred value and enormous potential. But that isn’t because are born bad, or because our ancestors fell from perfection. It’s because we are still evolving. We haven’t fallen from perfection. We just haven’t fully reached it yet. And so, we keep growing, learning, and trying. We do what we can to embrace and express more of our goodness rather than blaming our mistakes on a prehistoric fictional fall.
There is no body shame. The couple is naked and not ashamed. Maybe that’s because they didn’t have scales or mirrors or magazines with air brushed models on the cover, but in any case, they are naked and not ashamed. They have to learn shame. Shame isn’t their natural state. Their bodies are good. They are good. And that is their first and most natural assumption. They learn modesty, as we all do, but that is more about cultural norms than about our bodies being naughty.
No one in the story is bad, AND, no one in the story is perfect. The woman doesn’t know that snakes don’t talk. She may not be MENSA material, but she isn’t evil nor is she the cause of evil in the world. The snake, as snakes are, may be gross, but he isn’t evil. The magic fruit will make them know good from evil, but no one in the story is evil nor is anyone the cause of evil. The only mention of evil is the knowledge of it, and that knowledge comes from a tree that God made.
No one’s perfectly good, and no one’s perfectly bad. Everyone is potentially good, but makes mistakes along the way. Even God fits in that category in the story. God creates a magic tree. Didn’t really think that one through. Then God points out the magic tree, to say “leave it alone” but what God has actually done is raised awareness about the tree and piqued the infantile couple’s curiosity. God puts the magic tree in plain sight, puts no obstacles in its way, and points it out to people who are a few hours old. What a set up for failure! God can’t really be angry that they explored the fruit of the tree; God should be stunned with disbelief if they didn’t!
There is no marriage. This isn’t a story showing that only opposite gender attraction is acceptable. Hello, the story has a magic tree and a talking snake. These aren’t historic people. Yes, the imaginary characters represent men and women, but they do not represent the only way to be in relationship. In fact, we call her his woman and we call him her man and sometimes we even call them husband and wife but I defy you to find a marriage certificate in the story or even a mention of a marriage ceremony.
And finally, sin is never mentioned in the story. Not only is there no original sin, there is no sin at all. And what would the sin be? Curiosity? Could a snack really be the cause of the downfall of all humanity for all time? God makes a magic tree. God makes a talking snake. God makes a stupid couple. And God points out the tree to the stupid couple without warning them that there might be a chatty snake lurking about. God sets them up for failure, and when they take the bait, that is the ruination of humankind forever? I’m not buying it! Of course, the implied sexism of the traditional interpretation suggests that the original sin was that a woman didn’t do as she was told. I wonder who benefited most from that interpretation. Do you think that interpretation first came from a woman, or from a man who truly respected women? When considering traditional interpretations, we should always ask, “Who has benefited and who has been excluded or oppressed by this interpretation? Whose voice has been left out?”
In the story, God assaults the man. God puts the man to sleep and then extracts one of his ribs. God performs invasive surgery without the man’s permission! Why is stealing a rib OK but having a snack isn’t?!
Shortly, the woman and the man start having children. And then their children start having children. Who are they having children with? Was God pulling off another creation in another garden that nobody mentioned? If not, then the second generation must include not only Cain and Abel but some sisters, in which case, brothers and sisters then are having children together. I’m not interested in a system of morality where having a snack is evil but committing incest isn’t even questioned.
And, by chapter four, we see Cain killing Abel. Why isn’t murder the original sin? Again, when a snack is evil but fratricide is just unfortunate, then we may have missed the point of the story completely!
No, the fable of a first man and a first woman and a talking snake is not an argument against scientific discovery, nor is it an indictment against all of humanity for all time; it isn’t even an attempt to keep women submissive to men nor is it is a suggestion that heterosexuality is the only form of healthy love and attraction. Creation myths are imaginative ways of making sense of human development. We are born in innocence, the paradise of infancy, and as we grow we learn and we become curious and we eat bugs and touch hot stoves and fall off our bikes, and test limits and suffer consequences and lose our innocence. We learn modesty and caution, and good from evil. We leave the garden of blissful ignorance, and once we do, we can never go back; nor would we want to. The fable is an allegory for exactly how our lives unfold. And there isn’t anything evil or wretched or ugly about that.
Sometime after this story was first imagined, someone dared to imagine it differently. Just like the video clip where someone imagined a gayer sort of Adam, someone in antiquity imagined a more generous God and a humanity with more potential. And in that story, there is no chatty snake and there is no garden and there is no magic tree and there is no rib removal and there is no arbitrary command from God and no defiance of any such command. There is just an affirmation that we are made in God’s own image and God looked at everything that God created and called it all very good (Gen. 1.27, 31). Someone re-thought the creation story, and that re-imagining of our beginnings was also included in our scriptures. Maybe we should follow that example, and rethink it ourselves and dare to believe that we are made in God’s image and we are very good.
God looks at women and calls them very good.
God looks at people of all religions and of no religion and calls them very good.
God looks at transgender people and calls them very good.
God looks at gays and lesbians and calls them very good.
God looks at you and calls you very good.
And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I am made in God’s image.
I am part of God’s good world.
Demonic self-doubt has no place in my life.
I’m giving it up for Lent! And so it is!
Reconcile This Durrell Watkins Ash Wednesday 2012 I want to re-read tonight’s scripture passage from a better translation, the New American Bible. And I want to expand it a bit. In address the congregation in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote: 2 Corinthians 5.17-18a, 20; 6.1-2 Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old […]
Ash Wednesday 2012
I want to re-read tonight’s scripture passage from a better translation, the New American Bible. And I want to expand it a bit. In address the congregation in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote:
2 Corinthians 5.17-18a, 20; 6.1-2 Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God. So we are ambassadors of Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Working together then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For [the prophet Isaiah] said, ‘In an acceptable time, God heard you and on the day of salvation God helped you.’ Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
Ash Wednesday has, in most churches, been a somber occasion to invite repentance, sacrifice, and to remind us of our mortality. The underlying message has always seemed to be, “Life is short; you never know when the end will come, so you better take care of business and atone for all those nasty sins you’ve been racking up for the last year or so.” But such a message is not empowering to me nor is it consistent with the good news that is the gospel as I understand it.
First of all, old fashioned notions of atonement imply a separation from God, which I just don’t believe is possible. The psalmist asked the question, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where could I go from your presence? If I ascend to the sky you are there; if I bury myself in the ground, you are there…If I were to settle on the far side of the sea, even there you would hold me” (Psalm 139). Where could we ever go beyond the divine presence indeed?
And of course, though we get it third hand, Luke tells us that Paul quotes the Greek pagan poet Epimenides to remind us that “It is in God that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28).
And John’s gospel repeats this point when he imagines Jesus showing us that we are each the face, the hands, the expression of God when he has Jesus say, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen God” (John 14). When we see what God has made, we’ve seen God. God is the artist who signs every piece of art God creates, and we are among those divine master pieces. After all, we know that God looked at all that God had made and called it very good (Genesis 1).
So atonement for me doesn’t imply bridging a gap between us and God because I will not accept that such a gap has ever existed. God looked at us and called us good – I believe that.
It is IN God that we live and from God that we have our very being…If I am in and of God, how could I ever be separated from God?
Where could we go from God’s presence? The psalmist would remind us, there is not a spot where God is not.
So atonement isn’t getting back to God, to atone is to remember that we are and always have been at-one with God. Atonement is at-one-ment…is the conscious choice to remember that we are not and could never be separated from the Source and Substance of All Life.
And so it is tonight that we are a new creation. Not the old kind religion that instills fear, guilt, or shame. We are something new, and that means we are willing to have a new attitude and to live with new purpose and new joy. Atonement with the divine presence must surely bring not guilt or shame, but unfettered joy and renewal.
This brings us to the words of Paul, “Be reconciled to God.” The Greek word that is translated as reconcile is only used a couple of times in the New Testament, and both times by Paul. The word was not a cultic or religious word, but a political or social word. That is, warring countries would try to reconcile their differences and achieve peace; or a couple whose relationship had become strained might try to reconcile and become harmonious again. The implication is that peace and harmony is the way things ought to be, and when that isn’t the experience, then reconciliation, that is, getting back to the way that is meant to be, is in order.
Paul takes that secular word and uses it in a religious context. If you feel that you are beyond the reach of God’s love, that isn’t the way you are meant to feel. So, be reconciled to God, that is, remember your at-one-ment, remember that you are made in the divine image and God has never and could never abandon you for any reason.
And the reading from Paul concludes with these beautiful words: Now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.
Now is the time to feel safe in God’s love.
Now is the time to believe that God believes in you.
Tonight isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation. Tonight is a wakeup call to feel good about who we really are and to remember our at-one-ment with God.
And yes, there are those ancient and dreary sounding words when the ashes are imposed: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or From dust you came, to dust you will return. But that isn’t scare tactic, that is a simple reminder that life is short and so we don’t want to waste our limited years with guilt, shame, and fear. We want to honor the Source of life by living our lives with joy. We want to be grateful for who we are, and we want to believe that our natural state is good. We want to use the precious gift of our earthly years in positive ways that brings joy to our spirits and hope to our world. And today is an acceptable time to start; today is the day to feel safe in God’s love.
God isn’t trying to condemn us; Paul remembers Isaiah saying, “God hears us and helps us.” That’s our relationship with God. God helps us. We help God. And our lives can just get better and better.
Now, tonight begins the Season of Lent. This is a wonderful season that calls us a period of intentional renewal and spiritual growth. That doesn’t happen by beating ourselves up. It doesn’t happen by missing meals or giving up chocolate or swearing or sodas or red meat or Facebook. I never give up anything that I truly enjoy for Lent and I certainly don’t deprive my body of nutrition. What I try to give up, and what I encourage you to give up, is pettiness, fear, regret, self-loathing, discontent, misery, gossip, complaining, blaming, selfishness, or anything else that robs us of joy, peace, and vitality. We probably have some things to relinquish, but they are probably much more damaging than snacks. The fast we are called to make is a mental fast, to get rid of those attitudes that drag us down and hold us back, so that we can live in the power of joy that is our divine birthright.
The prophetic message for us for Lent, I believe, comes from the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah:
What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you?…Bring no more worthless sacrifices; your incense is loathsome to me. [Here’s what I desire]: Learn to do good. Make justice your aim. Hear the orphan’s plea. Defend the widow. Come now, let us make things right…
That’s what we are trying to accomplish here at Sunshine Cathedral. We aren’t recreating the past; we’re healing from it. We aren’t following trends; we’re setting them. We aren’t hating ourselves; we are celebrating ourselves. And we aren’t making Lent a time of misery; we’re making it a time of growth.
Now is the time to believe in ourselves, to be our best selves, and to make a positive difference in our world.
Will you join me in this kind of Lent?
Will you worship weekly, attend midweek services as well, take a religious education class, pray daily with Spirit & Truth, give time, talent, and treasure, and do so with a sense of purpose and joy?
Will you dare to believe that God believes in you?
Will you try to believe a bit more in yourself?
And will you let yourself be part of this miraculous, new work of God in the world?
If so, we’ll have a powerful Lent that will lead us to Easter joy. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
Dead Guys on a Camping Trip? Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral Transfiguration Sunday 2012 The gospel story today is not particularly easy to talk about, mostly because it is just so strange. At least at first glance. I mean, as Rev. Guzman pointed out in a meeting earlier in the week, how did Peter, James and […]
Dead Guys on a Camping Trip?
Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
Transfiguration Sunday 2012
The gospel story today is not particularly easy to talk about, mostly because it is just so strange. At least at first glance.
I mean, as Rev. Guzman pointed out in a meeting earlier in the week, how did Peter, James and John know they were looking at Elijah and Moses? It’s not as if Elijah had been named Time Magazine’s Prophet of the Year, or that Moses made the cover of People magazine as the world’s sexiest liberator. There were no photos of these long gone heroes. They see some ghostly figures in the distant and just know who they are? That’s odd (and maybe a weak spot in Mark’s otherwise brilliant storytelling).
And, it could be that the story is actually misplaced. The story actually reads like a resurrection narrative. It could be that it was meant to be added to the end of the gospel, but in the process of hand copying, was accidentally placed in the middle of the story. It could be that the Transfigured Jesus was meant to be imagined as a Resurrection experience demonstrating that Jesus’ significance did not end at Golgotha.
But even if the story is misplaced in the narrative as we’ve inherited it, and even if Mark didn’t think through that people would not have been able to recognized two apparitions as Elijah and Moses whom they had never seen, it still could be that as we look at the text a little more closely, it will start to make a bit more sense to us.
In verse 1 of Mark chapter 9, Mark has Jesus say, “Some who are standing HERE will not taste death before they see that the Realm of God has come with power.”
Jesus was executed in the year 29. If he said those words and was referring to the literal end of the world or to his literal, physical return to earthly life, then quite simply, Jesus was mistaken. Obviously, there were people in the year 29 who did not live to see the world literally end or Jesus literally return from the afterlife.
However, Mark is writing in the year 70. Maybe Jesus never said those words, but Mark is saying them and putting them in Jesus’ mouth to give them more impact, more gravitas. But again, there were people alive in the year 70 that did not live to see the world literally end or Jesus literally return from the afterlife. So, if that is what Mark meant, then Mark was mistaken.
But what if none of this is about factual, literalism? What if this is about the way we choose to see things? What if Mark is saying that Jesus would have seen God in everyday life and followers of Jesus also can see God in everyday life? If that sort of imaginative, creative thinking is part of Mark’s plan, then while his words did not prove to be literally factual, they can all the same prove to be spiritually true.
As we read the bible carefully, we find that much of it isn’t factual, but neither dry facts nor creative fiction can limit the power of truth. The spiritual experience of Truth can’t be adequately communicated with mere words, but when we try to point to Truth with our words, the words that serve best are the words that are used creatively, even fictitiously. That’s why myth, fable, and parable are so often employed in spiritual teaching.
Verse 2 of Mark 9 picks up with, “Six days after that…” That is, 6 days after Mark imagines Jesus saying that the Realm of God would come powerfully before the audience he was addressing had passed from this life. He says that, and then six days later we pick up with the story we heard read today. It’s starting to come together, isn’t it?
Mark, a creative artist and storyteller, begins to weave a familiar tale. You see, in Exodus chapter 24 there is a story where Moses is told by God to take three companions, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and go to a sacred mountain.
Before Moses ascends the mountain, he builds an altar to God and performs a ritual reaffirming the covenant between God and the Israelites.
He then sets out to climb the mountain, but of course, only Moses himself can go to the peak of the mountain where he will encounter the power and presence of God. But even though only Moses can have the face to face meeting with the deity, the companions from a distance see a great cloud covering the mountain for six days. And then on the seventh, divine glory begins to shine like an enormous fire.
That story is right from the Torah, and every devout person of the Jewish faith would be familiar with it. And Mark is telling this familiar story, but is modernizing it by changing the characters to people a bit closer to where Mark and his community actually live.
We’ve seen that trick ourselves dozens of times…We saw Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge in Mickey’s Christmas Carol in 1983. We also saw Vanessa Williams play the Scrooge character in A Diva’s Christmas Carol in 2000.
A carton duck, a singing superstar, changing the venue and the scenery and the names and even the gender or species of the characters doesn’t change the intent of Dickens’ story, a sort of morality play, about a miserly and miserable lonely person who values his wealth more than people, and cares more for his own success than for the empowerment of his neighbors and community. In the course of the story, Scrooge is haunted by his pettiness and learns that if he wants to be loved he must offer love, no strings attached.
If he wants to not be alone, he can’t demand people do things his way, but he must offer himself generously and accept what people can offer him without his making demands on them.
If he wants to be remembered fondly, he must be generous not only with his resources but also with his time and with his spirit.
The power of that story can be communicated whether the miser character is a Victorian English businessman, a Scottish American talking duck, or a former Miss America turned recording artist and Broadway star.
And that’s what Mark is doing. He is retelling the story of a leader entering the divine presence and allowing himself to be so changed that the world around him changes as well. Old story. New twist. We’ve been doing it for millennia.
Notice how the Moses story and Mark’s story are parallel:
In Exodus, the covenant is reaffirmed. The children of Israel are the children of God. For Mark, Jesus is affirmed as God’s child, and by extension then, the followers of Jesus are also affirmed as God’s children. The relational covenant between God and humanity is affirmed in both stories.
The cloud of God’s presence lasts 6 days in Moses’ story, Jesus encounters the cloud of God’s presence 6 days after saying the Realm of God would be almost immediately experienced.
Moses takes companions on his spiritual quest, and Jesus takes companions on his. Spirituality is most powerful as a shared, communal experience.
Moses builds an altar. Peter wants to build a shrine. Peter doesn’t really know what to do or what to say, but knows he’s experiencing something holy and he wants to acknowledge that in some way. Of course, Peter’s shrine isn’t an altar but a tent, something meant to house or contain or trap the experience. He wants to freeze time and not move beyond that moment, and that is a mistake. Mark even says that Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying.
Moses’ companions see divine light as a consuming fire. Jesus’ companions see Jesus transfigured into a being of light. In both cases, divinity is described not as things but as light…light can’t be touched or molded, but even though it isn’t a thing, it can be powerfully experienced and one is better for experiencing it. Both stories point beyond idolatry to a spiritual experience beyond any trappings whatsoever.
Now, Mark adds to the original story as well. He has people from history showing up in his revamped account. And the added characters probably represent something in particular.
Moses represents law, but Jesus has shown a tendency to be a liberal interpreter of religious law. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that religion is made for us; we were not made for religion. So, rather than being bound by ancient traditions, Jesus suggests that we should use our own creativity and intelligence to apply inherited religion in new, affirming, and life-giving ways. Moses may have been the law-giver, but Jesus is the law interpreter, and his interpretation is always on the side of helping people live with joy.
Elijah represents the prophetic tradition. But the prophets aren’t just in the past; Jesus shows that the prophetic ministry of challenging injustice is still needed and we are still called to work for peace and justice for all people.
A legend suggested that Elijah would one day return. Mark imagines that Elijah has returned in spirit on this occasion. Not to fix things, but to recognize the prophetic work that still needed to be done.
Mark adds something else. Mark imagines God saying, “this is my chosen one, listen to him.” Mark is saying that there is wisdom beyond the ancient texts. Religion isn’t a monument to history; it’s a tool for living in the present. You’ve read Moses. You’ve read Elijah. Now listen to Jesus. And to Mark. And to Paul. And to James. And to Peter. And to John. And to Thomas. And to Mary Magdalene. And to the Samaritan woman. And the Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter. Listen for the voice of God in the arts, in nature, in poetry, in your own thoughts, in the outcry of the oppressed, in the painful moaning of those who suffer. Listen for the voice of God where you actually live today. Listen to the divine voice urging you to share hope and compassion and healing in the world.
And then, they no longer saw Moses and Elijah. They were just with themselves, and Jesus, and the present moment. No more worshiping the past. It’s time to fully live in the present and make a difference in the here and now.
Maybe it’s not such a bizarre story after all. It’s not just about Jesus developing a healthy glow, nor is it about his friends holding a mountain top séance and seeing the dead return from the great beyond. It’s about remembering that we are the children of God, we, just as we are, have sacred valued, and as the children of God we have work to do to bring hope and healing to our world. That’s the truth of this retelling of an older tale, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
My hands are God’s hands.
Through me, God is touching the world.
God is blessing my life and my world.
“Light gives of itself freely, filling all available space. It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe. It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished.” ~Michael Strassfeld
Sharing the Message & Casting Out Demons Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral “And [Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message…and casting out demons.” Mark 1.39 It’s the year 70. Freedom fighters have taken up arms and rebelled against the Roman Empire. They’ve been fighting for 4 years and finally Rome strikes back with brutal […]
Sharing the Message & Casting Out Demons
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
“And [Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message…and casting out demons.” Mark 1.39
It’s the year 70. Freedom fighters have taken up arms and rebelled against the Roman Empire. They’ve been fighting for 4 years and finally Rome strikes back with brutal force. The Roman legions pour over the walls of Jerusalem and lay the city to ruins, destroying the Jewish Temple as well.
For the second time in Jewish history, the holy temple has been destroyed. And the world as it has been known and experienced for generations suddenly comes to an end for the Jewish communities, which includes followers of Jesus known as The Way, later called Christians.
In response to the world as it had been known ending, an artist-activist writes narrative which he probably performed in public markets, private gatherings, amphitheatres, and festivals. That performance piece responding to the Roman annihilation of Jerusalem and its Temple was called a gospel, and hundreds of years after it was written it would be included in a canon of scripture called the holy bible, a collection of sacred texts for Christians.
That is, I believe, what the gospel of Mark really is. As Jerusalem is still smoldering in ruins, some 40 years after the execution of Jesus, Mark’s gospel is written and performed as a means of providing hope and healing to people who are overwhelmed with grief and fear.
One of the themes that Mark uses throughout his gospel, his political performance piece speaking out against the brutality of imperialism, is the confrontation of demons.
Now, the use of a symbol can have multiple meanings. What exactly is a demon? And what could the point of confronting demons really be for Mark?
In ancient mythologies and philosophies, daemons were spirits, or ghosts, which, like people, could be good or bad. Socrates claimed to have a daemon which warned him of danger.
By the time we see demons used in Christian literature, they have evolved into mean, nasty, monstrous little troublemakers intent only on causing mischief and destruction. And this is the understanding of demons used by Mark. Mark responds to overwhelming destruction, but using a symbol of destruction: demons.
Of all the symbols Mark could have used to speak about the issues of his day, why did he choose goblins, the boogey-man, demons? Seems so odd in our 21st century, but in a world that was thought to be flat, demons were not such a strange image.
People intuitively knew that we at our best should feel whole, should have purpose, and should experience, at least on occasion, true joy. If something was preventing the experience of wholeness, hope, or joy, then that something must be at odds with the purpose of life, and therefore must be evil. And so it was assumed that mental illness was demon possession. Physical maladies might be caused by evil forces as well. So, demonic activity was blamed for dis-ease and dis-comfort and dis-placement. The medical treatment, therefore, could include the confrontation of such mischievous forces. Exorcism was a fairly common healing modality. It was the penicillin of its day!
But Mark uses the language of demonology in a way more creative than simply blaming life’s ills on malevolent forces. No, Mark seems to see injustice, oppression, and cruelty as being acts of pure evil, that injustice and oppression were themselves demonic realities. And that is the case I believe Mark is making.
The Roman Empire employs the evil, dehumanizing, torturous practice known as crucifixion. We sometimes wear crosses as pretty jewelry, but the original followers of Jesus had no warm feelings toward those instruments of unimaginable cruelty. Crosses are used to humiliate, terrorize, torture, and kill the people occupied by Roman forces.
On those instruments of torture people would be tied to a cross bar which would be affixed to a stake. Hanging from that bar on a stake, people would slowly asphyxiate. The tortured bodies hanging from those cross bars would push themselves up with their feet so they could breathe until exhaustion caused them to fall, and then they would suffocate until they pushed themselves back up, and so on. It could take days before death finally, mercifully came.
Then, to add insult to injury, bodies would be left out to be torn apart by vultures and coyotes, or thrown into an open grave with other bodies. Dignity, even in death, was denied the victims of crucifixion. No, the cross is a testament not to divine goodness, but to human cruelty, and that cruelty was known to Mark and his people.
The Roman Empire employed the dehumanizing practice of slavery.
The Roman Empire conquered territories, robbed those territories of their natural resources, and had people killed by not only crucifixion, but also by beheading, by having people fight to the death for sport in public, and by having people torn to pieces by wild animals. Mark seems to think the cruelty which Rome has elevated to an art form is evil, demonic.
And the Roman Empire now has destroyed what is to Mark and his community a holy city and a holy pilgrimage destination. Certainly, such sacrilege, such desecration is in Mark’s mind, demonic.
When churches were bombed during the struggle for civil rights, when synagogues have had swastikas painted on them, when mosques where faithful, peaceful people worship were desecrated after a few fanatics attacked the US on 9/11/01, when the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist art in Afghanistan…whenever sacred sites of worship are disrespected, we respond with horror. We agree with Mark that such senseless acts of aggression are beneath the high purpose of human dignity.
Yes, Mark isn’t simply blaming all unpleasantness on imaginary foes; nor is Mark generalizing all illness as being a manifestation of ghostly adversaries; no, Mark is calling oppression evil. Mark is calling injustice demonic. Mark is calling cruelty nefarious and wicked and an affront to all that is holy. With the dramatic use of demonic characters, Mark is showing that the demonic is not the natural state and can be cast out and replaced with hope, compassion, courage, and justice.
When we assassinate someone’s character, when we trivialize someone’s oppression, or participate in that oppression, or ignore it, when we care more about our comfort than about the genuine needs of others, when we care more about our privilege and position than about the dignity of others, when we participate in systems that dehumanize our sisters and brothers in the human family, when we perpetuate soul-killing lies, such as the lie that same-gender love is anything less than sacred, beautiful, and holy…when we commit violence against body or soul, we are fueling the fire of demonic activity. And Mark suggests that we can cast out those demonic practices and replace them with the life-giving work of justice and healing.
The demons of Mark’s creative writing aren’t the product of superstition; they are symbols of very real, very human brokenness, violence, and cruelty. These aren’t goblins from another world, these are the practices that rob life of its joy and fullness right here. Demons aren’t monsters, they are choices; and we can replace those choices with better choices. That’s the casting out of demons that Mark calls for. Don’t be like Rome, be like Jesus. That’s the exorcism that Mark believes in.
That’s what we are doing here today. That is what it means to be “the Church.” We aren’t here to protect privilege and the status quo, but to challenge it.
We aren’t here to secure a place for ourselves in an afterlife cosmic country club…exclusive and restricted, limited to people who believe what we believe and who hate who we hate.
We are here to follow Jesus. Not even to venerate him, but to follow his example. And Mark would have us believe that example is one of challenging violence, viciousness, cruelty, selfishness, and all forms of injustice.
We are casting out the demons of intolerance when we stand up and speak out for marriage equality.
We are casting out the demons of self-hatred when we affirm our sacred value.
We are casting out the demons xenophobia when we refuse to give into the hateful rhetoric used against migrants and immigrants looking to improve the quality of their lives.
We are casting out the demons of racism when we say with pride that Black History is American History and all Americans should know about the contributions that all kinds of Americans have made to our on-going national story.
We are casting out the demons of territorialism when we believe the Nigerian, the Jamaican, the Ugandan, and the Pakistani is our neighbor. When same-gender loving people in those other countries are targeted and tormented for being who they are, that isn’t a national concern for some other country, that is a human concern that breaks our hearts and calls us to Christian Social Action.
We saw a video a few minutes ago. A woman used the power of words to improve someone’s life.
That’s what Mark is doing. That’s what we are doing.
With our inclusive language, with our uplifting music, with our sacred texts, with our sacraments, with our religious education, with our publications, with our insistence that all people have innate dignity and sacred value, with our commitment to work for justice and peace, with our affirmation that divine love is unconditional and all-inclusive, with the spoken, sung, and written word we are working to change minds and hearts and conditions. We are casting out demons, in Jesus’ name. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2012
I’m casting out fear today.
I’m casting out regret today.
I’m casting out hatred today.
I’m casting out gloom, despair, and degradation.
And I speak the word of healing for my life and for my world.
“In the end…we are all proclaiming the same thing: That life has meaning; that we are grateful for the power that created us.” Dan Brown, Angels and Demons
Embrace Your Authority and Cast Them Out Rev. Tania Guzman, M.Div. As we have seen by our gospel readings each week, the gospel of Mark is moving very fast. We are still in the first chapter and we have already gone through John the baptizer, Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, the beginning of […]
Embrace Your Authority and Cast Them Out
Rev. Tania Guzman, M.Div.
As we have seen by our gospel readings each week, the gospel of Mark is moving very fast. We are still in the first chapter and we have already gone through John the baptizer, Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, the beginning of his ministry as he calls his first disciples, and now in today’s gospel reading we are at the launching of Jesus’ preaching and teaching ministry.
In the first section of the text, Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath day Jesus went to the synagogue to teach. And the text tells us that they were astounded at his teaching, because he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
So Jesus begins his preaching ministry in a synagogue. There were differences between the synagogues and the temple. The synagogue was primarily a place of teaching and instruction; it was more of an education institution, while the temple was the place of worship.
There was only one temple, but many synagogues. The Jewish law demanded that in any area where there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue.
The synagogues had several officials, people who were in charge of keeping the place running. But the one thing it did not have was a permanent preacher or teacher. So it was the job of one of the officials to call on a competent person during the service to preach or teach on that day.
So the synagogues were the best strategic place for Jesus’ preaching and teaching ministry. They provided him with the perfect opportunities to become an influence in the lives of many.
In today’s gospel Jesus was chosen to preach, and when he took the pulpit, the atmosphere of the placed was changed. It tells us that Jesus did not teach like the scribes, those who were called the experts of the law (the Jewish religious law, the Torah), which today are the first five books of the bible.
When teaching, preaching or giving advice, the scribes never gave an independent opinion. They would always quote from the Torah and did not give an independent interpretation. Their law was their authority.
But Jesus was different. He had his own voice, his own opinion. He spoke with independence and needed no authority beyond himself. This was very significant to those receiving his message; Jesus’ teaching brought to them a new revelation. His teachings were relevant to people’s day to day life experience and not limited to what others wrote hundreds of years before.
And just when we are getting into this story, the gospel writer interjects with another story. It’s like he had ADD or something. And he tells us of an incident of a man with an unclean spirit who was in the synagogue. This to me sounds a little odd since people who were known to be possessed by spirits were not allowed in the synagogue. But it’s his story not mine.
Also by the way, if any of us here were asked what was Jesus’ first miracle, I believe most of us would not hesitate to say, turning water into wine. But the gospel writer here says it was an exorcism. I personally prefer the turning water into wine, but then again, is not my story.
Although I prefer a story about wine than a story about spirits possessing people, it just so happens that one of my favorite movies is BettleJuice. And my favorite clip from that movie is when the family and friends are sitting at the table during dinner and the spirit of the dead young couple who use to live in that house, in a very comical way, take possession of their bodies in an attempt to scare them and make them leave the house. (Play the clip)
To understand what is happening, or what the gospel writer wants us to think that is happening in today’s text, we need to be aware of the beliefs of the people in New Testament time regarding evil spirits and demon possession.
The entire ancient world believed in evil spirits and demon possession:
Some believe that the demons existed since the world was created.
Some believed that they were spirit of the wicked people who had died.
Most Jews connected the demons with an old story in the book of Genesis and so they believed that these evil spirits were the offspring of human women and angels who had rebelled against God.
They believed that these demons could eat, drink and have children. And that the demons were the ones that inflicted humans with all the illnesses and diseases in the world. To them, all these evil spirits and demon possession stuff were very real. Of course they also believed that the world was flat.
Today through science we can explain these so called “demon possessions” as simply a mental illness.
But the gospel writer did not have the scientific and medical information we have today, so he wrote from his understanding and perspective. And also very important is the fact that the gospel writer’s mission was to present Jesus to the readers as the Christ, the son of God. So he manipulated the story to do just that.
All other exorcists in ancient time used elaborate incantations, spells and rituals to cast out the demons. But here Jesus is just saying the words and the demons obey him, and so in this way, with this supernatural power attributed to him, Jesus is presented as the son of God.
So what does today’s gospel have to do with us? How can this text be meaningful to us today?
I believe that it encourages us to claim our authority as we express ourselves and voice our understanding of God and life, just as Jesus did.
That is why MCC is so great; because we believe in the value and power of our own voices. We use our independent interpretations and opinions to bring the world a new revelation, the positive message of God’s unconditional love to all humanity, that regardless of who we are, what we are, who we love, what we look like and where we come from, we are all equally important and loved by God.
Here at the Sunshine Cathedral we do value and use the bible. But we also know that our lives are not meant to be bound by what strangers wrote in a land far away a long time ago.
So here we deconstruct and reconstruct the scripture, to make it relevant to our lives today. Not using it for condemnation but using it to build community with God, the Divine, the Universe or whatever you want to call it. This is teaching with authority.
Through his teachings Jesus brought liberation to those in the synagogue from whatever their oppressions were. Today is our responsibility to do the same for ourselves and for others.
Today, with the knowledge of science, we do not concern ourselves with demon possession as it was known in the primitive ancient world.
For people of the 21st century, what evil spirits represent is a feeling of despair, of being separated from the Source and Substance of life.
By the way, the word demon means “one who does harm”.
It is those things that do us harm and that we allow into our lives that become our demons, these are the things that separate us from God and from each other.
Low self stem
Certain religious beliefs and traditions
Contribution to any kind of oppression
One particular demon we allow into our lives is the wrong image of God. The image of God as an angry judge ready to punish us, a punitive God that controls our existence, a God that required someone to die in order for us to be ok with that God. That God is an oppressor.
Today’s text encourages us to set ourselves free from all these things. To cast out all that separates us from God and from each other. To dispel the fear, to cast out the submission and enslavement to religious traditions that keep us from living our lives with dignity. And to cast out the oppressor God that keep us from the true God.
Because the true God is a loving God. A God of diversity, freedom, and inclusion. A God with whom we are all invited to be in community with; a community that gives us wholeness and takes away any feeling of despair.
If we want to, we can do it. We have the authority to cast out of our lives all these things that do us harm, all these demons. Because the love of God can overcome all the demons in the world. And that is the good news.
I cast out of my life all that is unlike God’s goodness.
I cast out fear, bitterness.
I cast out resentment and regret.
I cast out low self-esteem and condemnation.
I cast out gossip and bigotry.
I cast out exploitation and hatred.
The love of God heals and removes my demons now.
And so it is!
“Just can’t live that negative way…make way for the positive day.” Bob Marley