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Cast out, Cleanse, Cure, Raise, Repeat: The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, June 14, 2020
Exodus 19:2-8a
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Pentecost began, and still exists, as a Jewish festival. Part of its significance is in that, fifty days after the Passover, it marks how the freed Hebrew people ventured out into the desert, and several weeks later ended up at the foot of Mount Sinai. And there they would be affirmed as God’s people, and Moses receive the Ten Commandments. It was a commissioning ceremony.

So it isn’t hard to see how for the early Church, when this fire from God surrounds them during this very festival, they would have seen it as a commissioning. They’ve got a job to do, and the Holy Spirit gifts them with that which they’ll need to do it.

And today we’ve heard in the readings another commissioning scene: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness…. Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” And we hear his instructions about what they’re to take (or not to take); where to stay, etc. And if things don’t work out: shake the dust from your feet.

My own view of that line is that, rather than being an aggressive, angry gesture, it’s more of an instruction NOT to become resentful when faced with opposition and resistance. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t hold on to your resentment, but let it go, shake it off, and move on. And they NEED to move on, we’re told, because Jesus says that the big event is going to happen even before they’ve gone through all the towns.

So three big, obvious commissionings: Sinai, and Pentecost [which we celebrated just two weeks ago], and the sending out of the Twelve. And the Roman Church community, too; I think that’s a commissioning. They’re the first to hear and read what would become one of the most influential Christian texts ever written.

That’s all pretty dramatic, high energy stuff. So, surely we’d be forgiven if we felt a little left out, and unsure of how all of that relates to us. Now, we might be quick to claim the lineage that connects us to that early Jesus movement. But the actual lived out ministry, the sense of purpose, and even the tangible sense of God’s presence, those things might not feel quite so real, or at least, as immediate. What do we make of ourselves, and our mission, when we’re not coming across lepers to cleanse, and demons to cast out?

For me, when I’m trying to piece things back together, I might go back to those teachers, or books, or experiences that shaped me. And as is no secret, one of my spiritual heroes is a guy named William Stringfellow. He was a lawyer and Anglican thinker in the mid-to-late 20th century, who graduated from Harvard Law School, and then went off to start a little practice in East Harlem, which at the time was a really rough part of New York City. From that very grassroots work in the city he moved on and become more of a commentator on larger national and international issues. And there’s this story about how, the night before Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, Stringfellow got up and offered an ancient Christian prayer of exorcism, directed at the President. And, at least according to him, he did this with “some trepidation” and “due humility.” He wasn’t just trying to be a jerk. Because the way he saw things wasn’t that one party was bad, and another good; one side evil, another perfect. No, he had developed this particular (though quite orthodox and traditional) way of seeing things: that we all live in a “fallen” world (which is what the myth about Adam and Eve and the serpent points to). And in this fallen world all of these different powers (he uses language from St. Paul like “principalities”), they tempt us, and claim our loyalty; loyalty that should be given only to God. He says that another word we can use for these fallen principalities and powers is to use words like “demonic,” or “death-enthralled.” So the battle we face is not against flesh and blood (I think that’s St. Paul again), but against these fallen powers, which infect us, and turn us against each other.

So for Stringfellow, protest, and advocacy was a form of intercessory prayer. It was about calling the institutional powers of our world back to their true calling. And the exorcism he wished for the President wasn’t about hating the him, or vanquishing him, but ultimately about casting out the demonic, the “power of death” that “possessed” him. And in doing this, restoring him to a life of genuine humanity, where it is possible to care for and serve others, rather than serving death, which results in the lust for power, and the subjugation of others.

So for me, this relatively unknown, fairly recent Anglican figure shows us that it’s possible to “live Biblically” today. When he used that term he didn’t mean an unthinking fundamentalism, but it meant seeing a connection between the church community in the Bible, and us. It meant perceiving the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. Some of the specifics will be different in our context, but there is still work to be done, and labourers to be called out into the harvest. The Biblical language of demonic, curing diseases, cleansing lepers might not resonate. But is it possible that those terms might be symbolic of issues that are before us: poverty, mental illness, stigmatization, and the death-enthralled institutions in which we are all caught up.

We, the Church, have been commissioned to go out into that world and represent the love of God that we see in Jesus; the peace with God through Christ, as Paul put it. At times it will mean offering some charity and kindness in a world that’s anything but. At other times the call will be to dismantle the fallen institutions, so that isolated acts of charity will be needed less. At other times, we will admit that we are ill-equipped to “fix” the world, but we can stand before whoever we encounter with the simplicity of the gospel; nothing to give but the radical and seemingly ridiculous hope that we are all loved by God, a God who brings new life out of dead things.

And this is how Stringfellow describes the Christian mission today:

In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God. Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the Word of God, expose death and all death’s works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and conscience.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

William Stringfellow references are from An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Books, 1973) and Conscience and Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming (Waco: Word Books, 1977).