III Pentecost (Proper 9)

Trinity, JacksonvilleMark 3:20-35, Genesis 3:8-15


One of the ironies of growing older is that, the more wisdom we acquire as we age, the less time we have to apply it. Think about that! One of these bits of wisdom is that it’s usually better to take the long view, to look down the road a good long way as we make plans, and not automatically choose the quick and easy solution. But, like I said, by the time we figure this out, we may have reached a point in life when there’s no more long view to be taken!

In any case, even if this is a lesson we take to heart while we’re still young enough to do something with it, it still requires a considerable amount of personal discipline. It involves cultivating the habit of what one of my philosophy professors in college called “deferment of gratification.” It means persisting in long-term behavior that we believe to be right even when we could have a short-term reward for doing something else.

For whatever combination of reasons, I seem to be blessed with this ability—to a point, at any rate. I like to say that I have all the wet and dry ingredients of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder measured out and neatly arrayed on the counter; I just haven’t mixed them together yet.  When Brenda and I bought our home in Springfield, one end of the family room had what was obviously meant to be a built-in entertainment center. It had a spot for a television, and niches for various audio-visual components, and strategic holes in the recessed areas to accommodate wiring them all together. The problem was, it was designed before flat-screen television sets, with their proportionally wider dimensions, were on the market, so it was unusable to us. We bought a separate piece of furniture for the TV and repurposed the entertainment center for other uses. But, a year or so ago, perhaps a little longer, we decided to rearrange everything and do some surgery on the unit so we could stick a wide-screen television there. This was a major project, and I immediately deployed my OCD tendencies, and broke everything down in my cloud-based task planning software into about 18 separate actions, and then I ranked them in the order in which they would need to occur, and assigned each one a start date—something that can always be changed, but, you know, it helps to have a goal.

Over a period of months, in spare moments, I began to execute this plan. When viewed as a whole, it seemed overwhelming. But when I just looked at the next thing on the list in isolation, it was doable. Some required a bit of time and effort outside my comfort zone, but they were all doable. As of around last Christmas, the project was effectively done. There are just a few cosmetic touches that we’ll have to hire out, and a couple of other technical issues. But the furniture has all been moved, and we’re watching TV in a different direction than we did the first few years we lived in the house. Bit by bit, step by step.

There’s another, longer-term project that I’m still in the earlier stages of. I’m trying to incite and lead a mental revolution in the Diocese of Springfield. I’m trying to call the clergy and the baptized faithful of the diocese to lay aside the mental habit of thinking in terms of inducing “them out there” to walk through our doors on Sunday mornings and become part of the community of “us in here.” And I’m trying to persuade people to replace that mental map with one in which “we in here” go and meet “them out there” in their native environments and bring with us the good news of God in Christ, which we proclaim both in deed and word. I’m trying to lead a shift from an attractional to an apostolic model of mission. This is an audacious goal, and I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that, when the time comes for me to pass the crozier to the 12th Bishop of Springfield, it will still be a work in progress. But, underneath all the myriad little things I do with my time each day, this vision is the driving force. Quite frankly, it consumes me. If anything I do cannot be ultimately linked to this vision, then I probably ought not to be doing it.

But God himself has a “project” of his own that trumps all of ours, that subsumes into itself all of ours. God’s project, God’s “mission,” if you will, is the redemption of the world, the reclamation of the cosmos from the power of sin and death. God’s project is to stare down the chronic sorrow and alienation that our human souls have gotten accustomed to, and tell them, quite literally, to “Go to hell.”  …

This chronic sorrow and alienation is symbolized for us in the narrative of the early part of the Book of Genesis, in the event in the Garden of Eden that we have come to know as the Fall, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and passed on to their progeny the deadly tendency to enthrone their own egos where only God should be. The Fall is all around us all the time. It was certainly manifested in the experience and ministry of Jesus as he interacted with those spiritual creatures that the gospel authors call “demons.” In the story from the third chapter of Mark’s gospel that we encounter this morning, no actual demons make an appearance, but Jesus is, instead, accused by some of the senior leaders of the Jewish religious establishment not of merely being possessed by a demon, but of being himself Beelzebul, the prince of demons. It’s difficult for us who are children of a culture in which the scientific method is the arbiter of whether something is true or not to wrap our minds around the notion of demons. So let’s just say, for the sake of not getting too bogged down, that we can understand demons as anything in our experience that impedes, gets in the way of, human thriving, human flourishing. Without being accused of embracing a pre-scientific world view, we still use language like “he wrestles with his particular demons” and “demonic forces” that motivate this or that kind of behavior. Indeed, demons, whatever they may be, are products of and signs of the Fall. The Fall impedes and gets in the way of human thriving, human flourishing. The Fall is demonic.

But God, from the very beginning, has resolved not to let the Fall have the last word. God has resolved to “do something” about it. In our first reading in today’s liturgy, we encounter our first parents in the Garden of Eden at the very moment when they are made to face the fact of the Fall, when the consequences of their idolatrous behavior, of putting themselves in the place of God, are made known to them. It’s grim, but the grimness has a mitigating edge, the cloud has a silver lining. In veritably the same breath in which God pronounces sentence upon the man and the woman—and upon their offspring, including us—he offers this cryptic oracle, speaking to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Like I said, it’s cryptic! But, trust me, this is a really huge deal. The offspring of the serpent is Satan, and the offspring of the woman is Jesus. Jesus does battle with Satan in the Judean wilderness right after his baptism, and he does final battle with Satan as he hangs on the cross, taking onto himself the aggregate sum of human sorrow and alienation, the full effect of the Fall, and bringing it to the grave with him, and leaving it there. The Christian tradition calls this oracle of salvation uttered in the Garden of Eden the protoevangelium, the first proclamation of the Good News. In that moment, God checks off the first completion box of the longest and most complex project ever in anyone’s task management system.

It’s a very long project indeed. It includes the covenant with Noah, symbolized by the rainbow, and the promise that God would never again hit the Reset button in his dealings with humankind, but would always play the hand that he’s dealt. It includes the covenant with Abraham, wherein God focused his attention on a particular people, a particular nation, in and through whom his redemptive purposes would be accomplished. It includes the covenant with Moses and the people of Israel at Mt Sinai, wherein God teaches his chosen people how to live as human beings were created to live, how to live in ways that—you guessed it—encourage human thriving and human flourishing. It includes the covenant with David, the Anointed One, the proto-Messiah, in whose lineage the Savior himself would, in the fullness of time, be born. Finally, it includes the covenant made through Jesus, who deals with all manner of “demons,” however one understands them, in his ministry. This covenant is consummated on the cross, and manifested in the days after Easter, when some believed in the risen Jesus because they saw him, and others believed by faith rather than by sight. In fact, you and I live in that very time, in the days after Easter, and we who walk by faith are called by Jesus more blessed than those who walk by sight.

In Jesus’ dispute with the scribes that we read about today, after they accuse him of being Beelzebul, he offers them a parable about a burglar who wants to rob a strong man, but finds that strong man at home ready to defend his property. So the burglar first figures out a way to subdue to homeowner, and tie him up. Then he cleans the place out in peace. In this parable, Jesus is the burglar, and the forces of the Fall, the demonic powers of the universe, are the owner of the house that Jesus intends to rob and clean out through his death and resurrection. Today’s good news is that, in Christ, God demonstrates his power to defeat evil. We know how the story ends: God wins. Love and justice win. Human flourishing wins. The details are still being pursued to their pre-ordained conclusion, but the outcome has been decided. And that is our reality.

As the gospel evangelists relate his ministry to us, Jesus deals with “demons” and those whom demons “possess” quite individually, on a case by case basis, as they come to him. And this tempts us, especially in our hyper-individualistic culture—to let that form the pattern of our thinking. We get all obsessed with questions like “will I go to heaven when I die?” But it’s actually much bigger than that, much bigger than any of us in our solitary individuality. We are reminded today of the cosmic scope of God’s redemptive actions, and we would do well to think of our own destiny as in the context of that immense project of redeeming and reclaiming the cosmos. In his epistle to the Romans, St Paul talks about how the “whole creation groans” in expectation of the fruition of God work of salvation. The best we might do, in the meantime, is to live in such a way that we put ourselves in the path of that great project.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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