Servants of a Lesser God

Older Homilies (2009-2013)

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Preached with St. Paul’s, Carroll Street for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.

I hear that some of you have been watching Downton Abbey. For a while, I was trying to avoid it, myself. I told my friends that I didn’t need to watch another period drama about landed English aristocracy and their downstairs servants, but, in the end, I didn’t account for one massive gravitational pull that would prove futile to resist, namely Dame Maggie Smith and her one-liners. At some point last semester I found myself watching the whole first season back-to-back when I should have been writing term papers instead. If you haven’t seen it- it’s pretty easy to know what you’ve missed. It’s the same old story, a wealthy family and their estate, questions of inheritance, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, and a whole far-off universe of strange customs and social prejudices from another age. But in the second season, their whole world gets turned upside down. War strikes, and in order to help the overtaxed local hospital, Downton Abbey becomes a convalescent home for injured soldiers. All the hundred tidy routines of daily life are rearranged as the great halls fill with cots and limping men, and part of what becomes so fascinating to watch is how the characters react to the massive change they face in the overhaul. There are tiny conversions that take place. There are old norms and expectations which must be released. By the end of last week’s episode, even Maggie Smith’s character is advocating for one of the house’s former footmen injured in the trenches. The appeal of the drama is in watching the tightly wound human soul come undone in the face of crisis, not for tragic ends, but as a hopeful rise to the occasion of finding so much great need gathered at their very doors.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, a whole city gathers at the door of Simon Peter’s house, because that is where the healing may be found. It is easy to imagine that their world was also turned upside down by the occasion. Just hours before, Simon’s mother-in-law had been alone and sick in bed with fever, but at the simple touch of Jesus she is restored, and not only that but preparing her whole household to receive the masses which will follow. This house is not a convalescent home, but a trauma center. The wounded come from all across the city, and not only the injured only, but those with demons, too. A demon here is distinguished as being separate from mere illness, it is a condition that bewilders comprehension, a malady so severe it seems to possess a will of its own. In modern terms, we might think of the man screaming to himself on the subway platform, or a child who throws herself convulsing down the aisle of the grocery store. We might see conditions such as these now and know that with the right medications and the right social services and attention, these tortured human souls might be brought again into the realm of human wholeness in community. For Andrew, Simon, his mother-in-law and others of their time, there was no such comprehension or professional expertise, there were only the open doors of a house that was filling quickly with men, women and children such as these, banging on the countertops, knocking over tables, foaming, raving; all until they came into the presence of Jesus where suddenly, simply, they were whole again. In the time of Jesus, illness, possession, and sin were all closely bound, they were all symptoms of the broken world that longed for the reign of God to come, and in the presence of Jesus they were all put back together again.  This was the living presence of the kingdom of heaven, it healed the brokenhearted and bound up their wounds, and in it the demons found no place to speak. In the silence these souls became themselves again, children of the living God.

A demon, of course, is not always so easy to recognize. In the Greek, they are “daimonia”, which simply means a kind of lesser god. Those souls who are under the power of these lesser gods are “daimonizomenous” or possessed by evil spirits, little devils, servants of the Evil One. Our scripture personifies evil with many names. “Diabolos” or one who separates and scatters, the Adversary, the Tempter, the Slanderer, all ways of describing activity that lures the creation out and away from the will of its Creator, activity that disfigures the image of God, that drags his Holy Word through the dirt, and renders all, at times, unrecognizable. The Evil One has a kingdom just as God does, and sadly it is likely to be the more familiar of the two. It is the Kingdom of this world we have made, the one where some go to bed hungry because others cannot find it in their heart to share, the world where many die because a few cannot bear to part with what they are sure they alone must possess. It is the easiest of any kingdom to serve, because it requires as little as our own complicity, and serves as grand an interest as our own self-preservation.  Just as the prophets and disciples are always speaking of their desire to be servants of God’s Kingdom, the Evil One has servants, too: spirits of fear that seize our best intentions and whisper doubts about whether or not we really have enough, spirits of malice that breed suspicion of our neighbors, or spirits of pride that would exalt us above them: lesser gods of greed, worldly power and prestige, gluttony and hard-heartedness. If they do not throw us down the aisle of a grocery store or cause us to shout in public places, it may simply be because we have gotten used to them by now. It may simply be that we have let our minor maladies move in and make themselves at home in us, because the exorcising of some part of us that serves the evil kingdom would be too messy, and the convalescence take too long.

One of my favorite works of art in the Metropolitan Museum is a portrait of St. Anthony within a larger triptych that also contains St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist. In his part, Anthony is seated on a stone with his prayer book and rosary in hand, looking off to his right, while at his left side a little cadre of demons stand ready with a casual battery of weapons and menacing stares. St. Anthony was famed for having been in the company of hundreds of demons for much of his life. In the triptych, one of the demons has a pierced, bird-like nose, and is reaching up with a frail arm about to snatch St. Anthony’s prayer book out from under him. If I were still a children’s art teacher I know just what project I would pair with the painting: If you had to draw the part of you that doesn’t want to do your homework, what would it look like? If you had to draw the part of you that wants to hit your older brother sometimes, how many eyes would he have? What kind of arms?

In our modern day, we have grown accustomed to approaching the problems of our inner life with a little more integration than this, our problems are inside us only, they are our own and not to be excused as the condition of some separate exterior willfulness that we have no dominion over. The wisdom of St. Anthony and other dessert fathers sees things differently. They personified these maladies as demons that live among and between us. In one sense, the first step of personification is simply giving a name to the will for evil that acts within us. We may find this kind of naming helpful in determining what it is exactly in ourselves that Christ comes to save us from. For the first dessert monastics to live in community, the naming was essential. They were learning how to live with one another in what were essentially convalescent homes for those souls who had acknowledged that they were on a long, arduous journey of healing in Christ. Living in a community with all their maladies spread messily on the table required that they find a way to speak about the work they did not want to do and the other brothers they wanted very much to hit. One dessert father, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote of it this way: “Charity” he said “has the role of showing itself to every image of God no matter how hard the demons ply their arts to defile them.” The brothers charged themselves with the task of loving as God loves, the biggest part of which involved seeing as God sees: past the nasty bruises and behaviors which the demonic wrought within them right down the very image of God which lay hidden underneath.

This kind of charitable vision, this kind of unwarranted mercy, is precisely what brought a whole city to the doors of Simon Peter’s home, and it is the only thing which will bring anyone crowding to our own doors now. It is the godly love of Jesus which his first followers found so clearly in his presence, and preserved so faithfully in their stories of his life among them on the earth. It is the presence which we have known in this place, in Word and Sacrament, in which everything that ails may fall away and leave us only as one in the body of the Lord.  “Everyone is searching for you,” they said. We know that everyone is searching still. We are surrounded by a searching hunger for this kind of wholeness. Our streets are crowded with souls dispossessed of this kind of vision and community, with souls who may not even know what they are looking for. How will they know that they may find it here? How will they know that Jesus has set up shop within our worship for nothing less than the restoration of our brand new life together? How, unless we go forth from this place honest in the wounds which have been healed here, bearing marks of our continued convalescence in the Lord to one another and the world? Where are the cots? Where are the injured, the mad women and men raving for a chance to be whole in the gaze of the beloved once again? Let us bring them in to this house, and God may yet turn our own world upside down.

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