Sunday, February 05, 2006

Epiphany 5 - Year B

“Do you reject sin, the devil, and all the forces of evil that defy God?” That’s the question we ask each baptismal candidate, parent, sponsor, and confirmand. Every time I ask the question my mind wanders the cousin who just arrived in town to watch the baptism but hasn’t had much experience of church. I wander what that person thinks when she hears that question.

Does she hear it as further confirmation that Christians are stuck in a medieval mindset? A throwback to the superstitions of centuries past. Quaint, but entirely irrelevant to our well-educated, scientific society.

Because, if you haven’t hung around the church, that language could sound downright strange or weird, or even scary. Where else do you hear people talk about the Devil, evil, or even “sin?” Maybe in movies like “Stigmata” or “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Enticing diversions perhaps, but not to be taken seriously.

The fact is, demons are still possessing people. And, they are still being cast out by those who invoke the name of Jesus. You don’t need to flip through the 300 channel universe or cruise the internet to hear about demonic possession. You simply need to open your eyes and ears to see and hear people who surround you.

A woman with a marriage and family counseling practice once said that she received tones of folks who were in helplessly confused states. She could, as she put it, discern that there was a deep spiritual dimension to their problems. In some cases, without any other training than that she received from reading the gospel stories, she invoked Jesus’ name and demanded that the demons depart. And, to her eyes, the demons fled. Her patients’ eyes cleared. Their minds became lucid again. (Willimon, Pulipit Resource)

People who hear her story either roll their eyes or shudder with chills running down their spines. Often, at the same time.

Foreign missionaries often tell similar stories; harrowing tales of extraordinary encounters with evil. And the responses to their stories are often filled with revulsion, tinged with fascination, with a smattering of skepticism thrown in for good measure.

I know when I was in seminary I certainly didn’t learn how to cast out a demon. It wasn’t part of the curriculum. We had classes in pastoral care and counseling. But exorcism? Not so much. For most pastors, the specter of demon-possessed people is enough to get us running back into the safety and security of our offices or studies. Or we refer them to the nearest mental health professional.

But still, there is evil in the world and the devil can be too easy a target, a simple explanation for evil, letting us off the hook. The Devil, that wonderful catch-all for all the pain and hardship in the world.

Yet, there IS evil in the world. And the name of Jesus still has authority over it.

And what about healing? Today’s gospel reading says that people brought all sorts of sick folks to Jesus to be cured. And the story says he did what was asked from him. The blind saw. The deaf heard. The lame walked. Good news for anyone struggling with disease.

Maybe I have a more skeptical nature than others, but since I was a little boy I’ve wondered: what about those who were not healed? What about those who, after mountains of prayers said through torrents of tears, their loved ones still died? We certainly saw that happen this past week when we lost Merley Emerson. Did we miss an important piece, a vital ingredient to our prayers that would have made God’s power “work” in her?

Some TV preachers make it look so easy. A quick prayer, a slap on the forehead, and Grandma Nellie’s rheumatism goes the way of the Doe-Doe Bird. When I watch those TV preachers, I wonder How do they do that? Is it real? What do they have that I don’t have?

Over-confident TV preachers aside, we do and will always pray for our friends and loved ones. We pray for healing. Some times it works. Spots disappear from x-rays. Arthritic knee joints move like well-oiled hinges. Closed ears open and flood with sound. And we offer to God praise and thanksgiving.

But other times, we pray and pray and pray. And instead of dancing at a wedding, we find ourselves across the desk from a funeral director wondering what went wrong.

I don’t why this happens, but it does. All the time. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that God’s power cannot be controlled, bottled. That God is not at our beck and call. As much as we would love to be able to produce a vial of God’s healing power and inject it whenever a friend or loved one gets sick, we learn that God doesn’t always work that way.

Sometimes healing comes in other ways, like in the sisters who finally start talking to each other after so many years, even if it is while planning their dad’s funeral. At least it’s a start. Maybe healing comes from the hope we receive from the witness of a peaceful death. Maybe healing comes from the support of God’s people as we grief together.

Or maybe healing comes when eyes close in death and open again in resurrection and we see Jesus face to face.

Some may dismiss that as escapist; a little lie we tell ourselves to get through tough times because the alternative is too unbearable even to think about.

But for those of us who trust God’s promise of the resurrection to eternal life; that is a hope we cling to, because sometimes, that is all we have left.

Yet, the truth is, we still live in a fallen world. Evil still triumphs. Relationships still break down. Loved ones still die.

But the prophet Isaiah says, “those who wait on the Lord, those who trust that God is the God of history, those people shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

As God made that promise to Israel while they were slaves in Babylon, that promise is for us as well: that we don’t walk this journey alone. God is with us. God is with us in the loving church family that surrounds us, God is with us when healing does come, God is with is when our eyelids close in death and we see Jesus face to face.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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