Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We are presented in both our Old Testament lesson in Job and in our Gospel lesson from Mark with that question which has haunted theology, both Christian and Jewish, for millennia–namely “how do we account for evil”? Here I mean both moral evil (our tendency to harm rather than shield the innocent) and natural evil (why even without apparent human agency, the innocent are besieged and killed by diseases and disasters at least presumably governed entirely by natural laws). You may remember me saying when these readings came up in previous years (our lessons, if you didn’t know, are on a cycle that repeat every three years), that this is what we call theodicy, it’s the trickiest question in theology, and the response to it in Job is essentially “you’re not God, so you can’t understand.” This may or may not be satisfying to you, but the older I get the more comfortable I am with the proposition that I don’t need to understand everything. A dear friend of mine, who is a scholar of one of the great Christian writers of the Twentieth Century, Flannery O’Conner, gave me a framed picture of one of O’Connor’s most famous quotes which sits above my desk, and which serves as a constant reminder and encouragment to me: “Evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” O’Connor “got it”, just like Job finally “got it”, and as I hope some day I’ll get closer to “getting it.”

So, this time around I want to focus on a particular question which may not be obvious if you’re not reading the Gospel in the original Greek. Jesus is asleep in the midst of the storm, not as the disciples feared because he didn’t care, but (this is just my wild suspicion) because sometimes getting obviously agitated over the presence of evil, which is ubiquitous, just gives it more air (how appropriate a lesson when evil takes the form of a windstorm!), and a calm and measured approach is likely to be more effective. Anyway, the disciples were in no state to get that message, if it were Jesus’ intention, so they wake him up, he rebukes the storm and it abates. A reader of the Greek will recognize that the verb translated “rebuke” here is epitimao, which is the same word used whenever Jesus casts out demons, and it’s famously the verb we find when Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for trying to tempt him to avoid the crucifixion; in that account, then Jesus quite literally demonizes Peter. Anyway, the point is that this is no ordinary storm. We are meant to understand that it is of supernatural and literally demonic origin.

So what do we do with this? We’re about to get into some spooky stuff here, about which I’m of two minds, as will become clear. On the one hand we need to grapple with the fact that despite our modern aversion to conversations about the angelic and the demonic, perhaps because we don’t want to be accused of superstition, this is a theme in scripture we need to take seriously. On the other hand, I think we need to avoid giving too much air to speculation about these matters, potentially opening ourselves up to things best ignored as if we were Jesus sleeping in the boat. So, I’m going to attempt to tread carefully here.

I worry sometimes that I fail to thread a needle in some matters, because of my natural aversion to what I take to be intellectual extremism and spiritual enthusiasm from both directions. There is a fine line, I think, between care and sobriety in theological reflection on the one hand and “wishy-washiness” on the other. The matter in which I’m most prone to this difficulty is when considering and called to comment on the nature of evil. On the one hand, I’m firmly convinced by scripture, church tradition, and experience that evil is a supernatural force, that it is not simply reducible to psychological and sociological factors. On the other hand, I admit that I find it at least creepy and at worst quite dangerous when some of our coreligionists reduce every difficulty one may experience in life to a demonic force.

Two recent experiences have highlighted this tension for me. First, I was speaking with a colleague whom I consider to be my best priest friend in this diocese. He and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to the old churchmanship divides that used to (and, thank God, mostly no longer) lead to partisanship within the church–he is firmly within the evangelical/low-church camp and I am firmly within the Anglo-Catholic/high-church camp, but we’re both orthodox and we both love Jesus, so that doesn’t matter to us. Anyway, we were discussing some challenges he’d been having in his parish and he said something like “they say the devil works harder to tear you down the more faithful you’re trying to be, but you know I’m an evangelical, so I would say that.” To this I responded, “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical to recognize that reality, only a Christian, and I’ve experienced that, too.”

On the other hand, many of you know that Annie and I frequent the weekly bible study at the county jail, which sometimes I lead and sometimes somebody else does. There are a couple of the other leaders who seem always to fall back to claims about Satan and spiritual warfare. The most uncomfortable for me, though I kept my peace for fear of not being asked to lead bible studies in the future should if I got into an argument in front of the inmates, was from a local pastor of a rather charismatic congregation. He claimed that he had performed several exorcisms, that the bible had given license to all Christians to do the same without any special education or training, and he implied that all issues a believer might have were at least potentially a result of demonic possession, the facts of the particular case being ascertainable by him after a conversation with him. If I could have responded in the moment, I would have tried to warn him and those listening to him that this approach is very dangerous, opening the way to nothing less than spiritual and emotional abuse. Just because there are supernatural forces which try to frustrate God’s designs does not mean that there aren’t also natural phenomena, including psychiatric conditions, which may be the root cause of the majority of the cases in which he is riding in, half-cocked and hell-bent for leather.

I’m grateful to be part of a tradition within Christianity that can hold these two perfectly cotenable proposition–that there are both explicable natural phenomena and inexplicable supernatural phenomena–together in such a way as to care for the whole person, body and soul, and avoid the equal risks posed by both a cold materialism and wild-eyed superstition. The truth is not always found “in the middle” but I think this is one case where it almost certainly is.

I belabor this point because I think different church bodies and different individual Christians have a tendency to err in one direction or the other–either toward scientism or superstition. The local charismatic pastor and jail bible study leader erred in one direction, but I suspect most of us within the so-called “mainline” of American Protestant Christianity err in the other direction. This, I think, was implicit in my friend’s almost apologetic tone in blaming his evangelical churchmanship for even positing the possible existence of Satan.

We would be convicted of this error, though, if we simply took the Gospel accounts seriously. It is fashionable in some quarters to try to say that all of the accounts of apparently supernatural dangers and bondage in the bible are a product of a benighted age, and if the wisdom of modern science and modern medicine were only available the issues in these stories would have been resolved by therapeutic means (in the case of accounts of possession) or accepted as naturally determined and irreparable (in the case of the purportedly demonic storm at sea).

This assumption raises a question, though, which the proponents of such a view must answer-namely, “Do you claim that Jesus was a charlatan, then, or merely that he was ignorant and superstitious?” Since I cannot believe Jesus to be either of these things, I think I am compelled by reason to say that in addition to synapses and neurotrasmitters and sociological models and meteorological patterns (Galilean or otherwise), none of which do I deny, there are also spiritual forces which seek to frustrate God’s will for us and for the world and which Jesus came to defeat, to free us, and to usher us into a more perfect life now as well as an entirely perfect life in the world to come.

And there is a second question, like unto the first. What shall we make of the fact that Jesus is said to have succeeded in freeing people from their demons, in rebuking the demonic storm, or for that matter in healing the sick without access to modern medicine, of feeding multitudes with a few meager loaves and fish, &c., &c., &c.? What of rising from the dead? Either this was all made up, and twelve dudes from an historically marginal culture and background managed to pull off the greatest con-job in human history and (stupidly) decided to be killed rather than spill the beans, or else it’s true, miracles happen, supernatural evil exists, the tide was turned by a man who also happened to be God, and despite the fact we are still assailed by powers we cannot understand, much less combat by ourselves, the final victory is very much at hand, and God in Christ will save us to enjoy him along with all the saints and all that we love with the love of God for all eternity. I think you know where I stand on that question. And (not to sound anti-intellectual, one of the very few faults I’ve never been accused of!) if it means that some things on earth are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be endured, if it means I don’t have the pithy answer to every question that’s ever occurred to one in moments of doubt and confusion, I’m a-ok with that!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.