Thoughts on initiation into the Christian community
Toward the end of his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff tells a wonderful anecdote about Mozart's first encounter with Bach's music. Thirty-nine years after Bach's death, at age thirty-three, Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in Leipzig and listened to a performance of one of Bach's motets. After a few measures, Mozart sat up, startled; at the close of the performance, he cried out, "This is music one can learn from!"
Many people attend worship hoping to learn about God, or, more commonly, to hear a word from God. In that respect, these persons resemble Elijah in the cave on Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah, in spite of defeating the prophets of Baal, was overwhelmed with despair and convinced that the whole world was against him. So he fled to the cave where he expected that he would die. Instead, Elijah had a powerful experience of God speaking to him that transformed his life and provided generations with a paradigm to understand how God communicates.
God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. In short, God did not speak in ways that Elijah expected. Elijah described his experience as hearing God speak in a still, small voice. Similarly, contemporary expectations about how God acts and speaks are often wrong. God acts and speaks today as in Elijah's day, i.e., in ways that are consistent, reliable, and require careful discernment on our part.
Some years ago, I came across a card that said, "When your heart speaks, take good notes." Classical Christian writings on the spiritual discipline of discernment confirm that advice. In the New Testament, the word "heart" (Greek kardia) refers not to emotions but to the very center of one's physical and spiritual life, including cognition, emotion, desire, and morality. To "listen with the ear of your heart" means to notice what God may be seeking to reveal to you through whole being.
Gospel accounts of Jesus exorcising demons occasionally trigger recollections of my experience as an exorcist. Twenty plus years ago, I was the chaplain for the Naval Surface Group, Middle Pacific, homeported at Pearl Harbor. The group commander, who happened to be Episcopalian, was also the base commander. When a Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard civilian employee committed suicide at his desk after hours, many shipyard employees refused to return to work until someone exorcised the demons from the building. The admiral asked if I could help. I adapted the liturgy for the blessing of a house from the Book of Occasional Services and then exorcised the building, using ti leaves, which native Hawaiians consider sacred, to sprinkle water in a symbolic cleansing of the office spaces. The exorcism was apparently effective: nobody else committed suicide and employees returned to work contented.
That episode illustrates the narrow view of exorcism that many Christians have. They focus on the demon possessed and the exorcist, ignoring any effects on the larger community. Like the shipyard worker who killed himself, the Gerasene demoniac, was costly to the community. Loose, he was a hazard to himself and to others. When his neighbors understandably tried to restrain him, he would break the bonds they had used. Jesus' exorcism of the demons named "Legion" also cost the community. The demons fled into a herd of swine that stampeded over a twelve-foot high cliff and drowned in the Sea of Galilee. The herd's owner(s) received no compensation or insurance settlement to cover the loss.
Few today believe in demons as supernatural evil entities who are the devil's subordinates. Instead, I hope that you interpret biblical references to demons as a personification of mental illness, addiction, and living ensnared in destructive emotions. All of these forms of demon possession have large social dimensions. For example, many homeless and suicidal persons suffer from mental illness; addicts attempting to pay for their habit commit perhaps of half of all crimes; persons living in the grip of negative emotions such as jealousy, hatred, anger, and pride destroy families, disrupt work environments, and harm communities.
Jesus' command that we love our neighbors as ourselves is not only for the neighbor's benefit but also for our benefit as well as that of the larger community. Healthy churches, and spiritually healthy individuals, seek both to hear the voice of God in the silence and to transform their communities into places in which all people can truly flourish by working for healing, reconciliation, love, and justice.
In Jesus, God created a new community. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote that in baptism a person is clothed with Christ, that is, in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This text applied directly to Holy Nativity might specify that in Christ there is no Rev. Deb supporter or opponent, no school advocate or opponent, and so forth. We are one community.
The Jews regarded water as possessing liminal qualities, "believing it had the power to transport a person or object from one state to another: from unclean to clean, from profane to holy." May Holy Baptism be for us a thin spot, a place like Elijah's cave, in which all who receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism encounter God's mysterious life-giving presence, affirm our communal identity as God's children, and renew our commitment to building heaven on earth. Amen.