While I was in Scotland I visited two churches where the
sixteenth century protestant reformer John Knox preached. In both places he
preached what was described as a “fiery sermon” which led to immediate rioting
and looting and the destruction of the church building. I hope that should I
ever find myself preaching a “fiery” sermon that you will be able to restrain
yourselves from pulling the church down around us!
Knox was preaching in a time of political as well as
religious revolution and his sermons opposed not only the Catholic Church but
also the Queen of Scotland. Watching a program on the History channel when I
was at the gym yesterday, I was struck by the similarities between Knox and
Hitler. They were both amazing orators with an outstanding ability to stir crowds
and inflame otherwise sensible people to acts of vandalism and hatred. Both of
them were able to take advantage of the human failing which we see portrayed in
today’s first reading from Genesis.
It’s a familiar story for most of us. Adam and Eve were
living an idyllic existence in the Garden of Eden but they were told not to eat
the fruit of one tree. God told them that eating the fruit will lead to death
but the serpent suggested that actually it would make them like gods. They
wanted to be like gods and it looked delicious. So they ate some of the fruit.
Their relationship with God was immediately –suddenly there was something for
them to hide from God and perhaps each other changed – they experienced shame,
noticing that they were naked. Then they each blamed someone else. “It wasn’t
me it was her; no, no it wasn’t me, it was the serpent.”
This ancient account of the entry of sin into the world has
a one-two punch. First there is the desire for something more, something that
someone else has – in this case, God – and then, after it has been taken,
blaming someone else. Blame is a very useful device in human society because it
unites us against those other people who are to blame for the situation we are
in. John Knox wanted to promote a new way of seeing the gospel, one based on
scripture and an understanding of salvation as the free gift of God not
mediated by the church; but in order to make his message more powerful he
blamed the Catholic church for its ignorance and idolatry. Hitler wanted power
and was able to make himself dictator by blaming communists for the torching of
the Reichstag – the German parliament building. He went on to falsely accuse
communists of terrible plots against ordinary people and consolidated his power
by making many arrests and outlawing any opposition – scapegoating so-called
communists - all in the name of making the people safe.
Perhaps these are extreme examples, but I want to suggest
that this underlying dynamic of human society may be the true meaning of Satan.
Satan is not a supernatural being who is locked in conflict with God but is a
description of the sin matrix which constantly calls us to envy and to blame
and thence to violence.
In the gospel reading, Jesus asks a riddle, “How can Satan
cast out Satan?”
If we think of Satan
as a person then of course Satan can’t cast out Satan. But let us think for a
moment of Hitler’s strategy; in his dedication to gaining power he colluded
with the Satan which always encourages us to get as much as we can for
ourselves; and then he also created a public Satan by declaring that communists
were to blame. Then he turned the people against the Satan that he had created.
The Satan in Hitler’s desire for power led to expelling communists from German
society - casting out the Satan it was believed they embodied. Satan cast out
Many of us in this room have come from other faith
traditions. It can be very tempting for us to find our unity in criticizing the
traditions from which we came. We are in a much better place because we are
members of St Ben’s or because we are Episcopalians. The sin matrix, aka Satan,
encourages us to blame other people for everything that ails us or to feel
superior and better than them. This has the effect of creating a kind of peace
among us because we are united against a common enemy.
But this is not the peace or the unity that Jesus preaches.
The peace and unity of the reign of God come from our connection with Spirit
and with one another, even with those who seem to be our enemies. Jesus says
that Satan’s house is divided and cannot stand. Once you take away the common
enemy, the unity that blaming brings falls apart and the underlying envy
reasserts itself. Satan’s peace is a peace which is built on violence, not on
the abundant love of God. We lost touch with that love when we chose the fruit
rather than the relationship with God, and God became a threatening figure in
the mind of humanity.
This is the message that Jesus came to bring and which is as
important today as it was then. God is walking in the cool of the evening
looking for our friendship and ready to forgive our weaknesses. The Holy Spirit
is available to work with us to turn our envy into love and our blame into
generosity. This transformation from envy and blame to love and generosity is
so deeply counter-cultural that it is the work of a lifetime and this is why we
need each other in spiritual community to keep reminding, to keep remembering,
that our safety comes in God, our peace comes from Jesus, our unity comes from
the Holy Spirit. We are not separate from God, we are not separate from one
another; we are intricately bound up in each other just as the cells of our
bodies are intricately connected whether they know it or not. We are all
equally beloved and so we have no need of envy, no need of blame.
Jesus is the one who ties up the strong man, the Satan.
Jesus is the one who takes on himself all the blame of the world. Jesus is the
ultimate scapegoat, whose death and resurrection make it possible for us to
transcend the dynamic of scapegoating and choose a different way to be human.
Which just leaves the million dollar question. What is the
ultimate sin – the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? The scribes had charged
that Jesus was himself possessed by a demon which meant that the Holy Spirit
was not holy but unclean. This is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – to
declare that the Spirit is evil. Someone who persisted in such a belief would
not be able to be forgiven because they would not be seeking forgiveness.
When we come to God we come just as we are – naked as a
jaybird. We come trusting in the love of God, the power of Christ’s death and
resurrection and the transformative creative ability of the Holy Spirit. We
come asking for forgiveness, not because we are miserable worms but because we
long to do our part to repair the relationship between humanity and God and let
go of envy, blame and violence: because we long to walk again in the cool of
the evening with our beloved.
I’m going to close with a wonderful Sufi poem I heard for
the first time this week. It’s by the poet Hafiz.
Ever since happiness
heard your name it has been running through the streets trying to find you
And several times in
the last week, God himself has even come to my door
Asking me for your
Once I said, “God, I
thought you knew everything. Why are you asking me where
And the Beloved
replied, “Indeed, Hafiz, I do know everything.
But it is fun
playing dumb once in a while. And I love intimate chat
And the warmth of
your heart’s fire.”
Maybe we should make
this poem into a song, I think it has potential!
How far does this
refrain sound, for I know it is a Truth:
Ever since happiness
heard your name, it has been running through the streets
And several times in
the last week, God himself has come to my door,
So sweetly asking me
your address, wanting the beautiful warmth of your heart’s fire.