Brookmans Park 23 June 2013 (Luke 8:26-39 on the occasion of a baptism): Wrestling with demons

We’re all familiar with the phrase “wrestling with our inner demons”. It speaks of the experience many of us have had of feeling compelled to do something we know is either wrong, or bad for us or often both. This feeling can have a very wide range of manifestations, from the fairly harmless, the impulse buy of a bar of chocolate or a cake, to the extremely destructive, like the inability to resist excessive drinking that can destroy the life of a whole family. We all know that not everything we do or say conforms to who and what we want to be. We have ideals and images of ourselves that we do not live up to.

 

At their worst and at their most long lasting these are the kinds of things we call “inner demons” with which people wrestle. Feelings, often of dislike or even contempt, directed at ourselves and the things we feel that drive us to follow courses of action or behave in ways we would rather not. The lonely person who repels friendship out of fear of rejection. The depressed person who reaches for a drink even though they know it will only make things worse. These are people, we say, haunted and persecuted by inner demons.

 

This may not seem like an appropriate or a happy start to a sermon on the occasion of a baptism, but I think all parents worry about the future happiness of their children. We can protect and care for them while they are small but they grow up, they leave home, they move beyond the sphere where we can prevent harm. They have to be ready to stand alone and apart from us and we fret that they may not be strong enough, or fortunate enough, to thrive.

 

The good news of the gospel, expressed in a particular way by today’s reading from Luke, is that we don’t have to take responsibility with wresting with our own demons, nor those of our children, indeed if we try to we will only make trouble for ourselves. There is another power that is no more part of us than the impulses that drive us from the way we would like to follow. Another power that can and will make us whole and healthy, if we just let it. A power greater than us and greater than any demon, the power that creates and sustains, that is pure life and love.

 

When we see Tegan baptised in a short while it will not be me that does it, although I am the one authorised by our church to preside over it. She will not be baptised by me, or by the Church, or by her parents, or by her own will. Baptism is not ultimately an act of human beings it is an act of God, which we participate in and witness. She will be joined to Christ through the work of the Spirit. That is what baptism is, a becoming part of the body of Christ, as it says in the baptism service, and that joining is the work of God in the Spirit, not any mere deed of ours.

 

The story we have heard reminds us that he, Jesus, has power over the demons that distort and destroy lives. As soon as they saw him the legion of demons that were driving that poor man out of all contact with humanity into a wild and desperate life in the domain of the dead knew their power over him was coming to an end. They could only beg that they be allowed to continue their career of destruction elsewhere and when they went where they met no resistance they perished along with their victims.

 

In the ceremony of baptism we express our faith that Tegan will be protected and supported by God. She will, like us all, be accompanied through life by one who loves her like her parents love her. She will be able at any time to turn to him for help and receive it. We express our faith, too, that Christ’s body on earth, the Church, will also be available to her whenever she wants or needs to turn to it. The Church, wherever she may go, whatever she may do, whoever she may become, will always be waiting to hear her call and to reach out to her in love, as it does to each of us.

 

In seeing her baptised we are reminded of the gifts we have been given, of faith, of fellowship, of hope and of joy, above all the gift of the promise of eternal life and communion with God, symbolised in the other great sacrament of our church, the sharing of the Lord’s Supper in which shortly we will be brought into the very presence, we say, of Jesus, raised and ascended to life with God.

 

So as we see this child baptised and as we make the promises that are asked of us as witnesses and as participants let’s remember with thanks all the gifts we have received through the Church. The assurance we have received of God’s love for us. The reminder of the promises God has made to us. The fellowship and support of those given to us as travellers along the way. Let’s celebrate again the good news of God’s coming to us in Jesus.

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Potters Bar 16 June 2013 – The absence of God (Hebrews 11:1-16)

We all know what it’s like to miss someone. When somebody dear to us is gone and is not coming back it hurts. We are constantly reminded by all kinds of things that their presence in our lives has ended and that we are now more alone, less cared for, less known than we were before. The more they mattered to us the more we feel their absence.

What, then, about God? We looked last week at God’s presence with us but how many of us, I wonder share Mother Teresa’s terrible sense of God’s absence, as she wrote about it the book Come be my light. In one of these she says “Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God”.

This woman who worked so tirelessly and selflessly for the poor on the basis of her faith in God lost her sense of the closeness of God shortly after she arrived in Calcutta and for the 50 years of her ministry there continued to mourn that it never returned to her. As a young woman her prayer life had been illuminated by a feeling that she was accompanied and embraced. This was lost to her and she suffered from its going.

I suspect that most of us have both a less vivid sense of God’s presence than the young nun did before she went to India and correspondingly a less agonising grief over God’s absence than she did. What you have never known you don’t miss, as they say. Most of us don’t know that we’re missing God most of the time because we don’t know what it is to be with God in this fuller, richer way.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we aren’t missing him at all, just that we interpret the pain we feel in a different way. I want to suggest that, in the same way that one can see the presence of God in all that is life-affirming and joy-giving, one can detect the his absence in all that is life-denying and pain-giving. All our anxieties and all our doubts, all our fear and our loneliness, all of it amounts to missing God, to wishing God were with us, to mourning God’s absence. All of this is a form of the desire for God.

It can be hard to relate this feeling, with its pain and lack, to faith. Faith, after all, is steadfast and loyal while this unfulfilled desire, this missing and longing, sounds as if it might bring with it anger, doubt, weakness and distance. What brings desire and faith together is hope.

Faith, our reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us, is “confidence in what we hope for”. Our faith looks forward to something as yet unseen. After reminding us of the great exemplars of faith to be found in the Old Testament it concludes: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one”.

In the country of exile the generations of exile have on the one hand a memory of the lost country they never knew and on the other a hope of return. This lost and anticipated country is defined by relationship with God.

Our estrangement is long-standing and deep in our natures. Each of us grows up in a society in which radical openness and obedience to God, expressed as loving with all our hearts and minds and souls, is a way of such danger and such difficulty that it is impossible for us to walk it. We cannot be as Jesus was and as he told us to be, it is beyond us. But that is what we need and want to be. We are made to be God’s image and to be in connection with him. We need to love and to be loved unconditionally. The only way this need can be met is through re-union, reconciliation with the God who made us.

This problem, that we are made to be in a relationship with God that we can’t have, is the deepest source of all that troubles us. All our fear, all our anxiety, all our loneliness and despair, all of this is, at root, our mourning of the absent God, who is not absent from us but rather is invisible to us. We can’t see him because we can’t love him in the way that would make him apparent to us.

We have all seen examples of people who love one another but because of pride or of misunderstanding can’t express their love. Families broken apart by rivalries between those who need one another too much to allow themselves to feel it. Lovers whose mutual mistrust destroys a real and shared love. We all know that sometimes people can’t take the risk of love.

What we don’t see, most of the time, is that we are all in that position with God. Our need for God’s love is so great that we can’t let ourselves feel it. We miss God so much that we can’t admit that we’re missing him in case we find, like Mother Teresa, that his presence eludes us.

God’s absence is the pain at the heart of faith but only by admitting that can we begin to repair the damage. We have to allow ourselves to imagine what it would be like to be one with God, even though that imagination, by reminding us of what we’re missing might make our pain worse for a time. We have to because the alternative is to settle in this land of exile and to give up on return to the land of promise.

Faith is hope in things unseen. Let’s hope, let’s hope for love, for peace, for unbroken joy and for life everlasting with the one who loves us more than anyone else can love.

Potters Bar 9 June 2013

 

God says to Moses: “no one can see my face and live”.

 

Jesus says to his disciples: “I am with you always to the end of the age”.

 

Paul writes to the church in Rome: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”

 

We have talked a little this morning about how and whether we have each experienced the presence of the God whom we proclaim. Different people will have different feelings about this depending on who and what they think God is. For some of us God is more an idea than a person. For others Jesus is a friend and companion, a constant living presence with whom they converse. Both of these are widespread and perfectly good ways of being a Christian.

 

Today, though, I want to talk about another way of seeking a relationship with God, or rather of being sought by God, a way that centres not on the distant and authoritative creator God, to meet whom is death, nor on the human person of Jesus, but rather on the third person of the Trinity, on the Holy Spirit.

 

The story told by the Bible, as I understand it, goes, in outline, like this: God created the world and put human beings into it as his representatives, we were to be God’s agents in creation; we turned away from this task and from God, seeking autonomy a bit like regional governors who want to rule their domain unchecked by anything; this separated us from God and this separation damaged us so much that we couldn’t bear the sight of God’s perfection (reflected in our Exodus reading); God tried to repair the broken relationship through Abraham and the people of Israel but that didn’t work; so God came in person, in Jesus, to meet us where we were and to lead us back to our proper being. In the Spirit God remains with us while we await the full realisation of God’s plan of salvation.

 

That’s it, the Bible in a minute and a half, including creation, incarnation and the Trinity!

 

So to go back to our theme of God’s presence the situation is a little bit complicated It is the Spirit who is most directly and straightforwardly present to us. The Spirit, who has no direct physical or visual manifestation. The Spirit, who, as Paul says, lives in us. Some Christians, in speaking about the Spirit, concentrate on the dramatic “gifts of the Spirit” described elsewhere in the New Testament, on speaking in tongues or miraculous healing Without these signs they deny that the Spirit is present.

 

I don’t think that’s right. I was taught, some years ago, a prayer discipline called the Spiritual Exercises. In this form of prayer you learn to pay close attention to inner promptings that can come as feelings or as thoughts, and to recognise or at least to see them as the work of the Spirit. This had a profound effect on me. I now believe strongly that the Spirit does dwell in us but also that we need to see the Spirit’s work as subtle, as quiet, as often easy to overlook.

 

The Spirit’s presence is known to us in everyday things and people that become special, become holy, because the Spirit makes them so. What is difficult is the discernment of that work of the Spirit, that is what requires training and development.

 

Which brings me to the Church, the site of the Spirit’s most easily recognisable works of sanctification. God is present to us, in the Spirit, in the Word and in the Sacraments. When we hear the Bible read and the Word preached, even by me, the Spirit works to make God’s presence known to us. When we eat of the Lord’s Supper, Christ is with us, feeding us and accompanying us, in the Spirit.

 

This is what the Church is for, above all, to provide the site, the place, where the world can know God’s presence. Here we try to be the image, the representation, of God. That, in all its simplicity and all it’s difficulty is the Christian vocation, to be the presence of God.

 

In a few moments we will be welcoming Angela into membership of this congregation. We will ask that we may be built up into the Body of Christ, to the glory of God. In this we rely on the guiding presence of the Spirit.

 

If we want to know about God’s presence, God’s closeness, then it is to the Spirit we should first of all look, to God’s quiet presence within us. Then we should remember our calling to be God’s presence in the world.

 

God is here, God is now, all around us, within and between us. God is closer than we can know, closer even than we are ourselves, as Psalm 139 says:

 

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.