Sermon: Last Sunday after Epiphany 2016

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“Christ the Necromancer”

Text: Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

What we find in today’s Gospel, in the story of the transfiguration, strikes me as simultaneously trippy and mundane. Trippy because, as the text clearly indicates, this is Christ the Necromancer Sunday. Dazzling harder than Edward Cullen in a Twilight movie, Jesus is reunited with his long-dead friends: Zombie Moses the Murderer and Zombie Elijah the Rainmaker. Or maybe they’re not zombies, maybe they’re just ghosts. Either way, trippiest of all to me is Peter’s total nonchalance in witnessing this—“Hey guys, great to see you all, let me help you pitch your tents.” Conjuring is obviously no big deal for Peter.

On the flip side, I sometimes have a pretty trippy job. So reading through Luke 9 doesn’t sound all that different from what I might overhear on any Tuesday night swing shift at the low-barrier shelter between serving dinner and scrubbing toilets. I recently finished a book called Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. It’s written by Chris Hoke, a young pastor to prisoners and gang members in Skagit Valley, and it’s got a lot of overlap with my line of work. He writes,

“For some time I’ve imagined all of us having a fragile nerve inside of us, like a spiritual antenna deep within our core. Some people, I’ve thought, simply have an abnormally large antenna inside—poets, prophets, psychopaths, your slightly crazy aunt who’s drawn to the paranormal, who some days is more compassionate than anyone you know and other days is aggressive and convinced everyone including the government is conspiring against her. In my work both behind jail bars and the years I continued with homeless youth on the streets of downtown Seattle, I’ve met a number of young people with schizophrenia. I’ve wondered, when talking with them about some of the abuse and trauma they’ve survived, whether the internal antenna-nerves of some people are damaged. Maybe they could be exposed, jutting out like a bone from a broken arm, picking up way too much of the otherwise faint spiritual frequencies coursing through this world—from ‘beyond’ as well as from the person across the room. I’ve wondered whether some of these people slam heroin or meth or any street medicine they can find as a way of jamming cotton into their spiritual ears. 

It’s not a real theory; just how I’ve pictured that part inside us all.

But there are days I see this radio-antenna metaphor as somewhat compatible with the psychological definition of schizophrenia. […]

There could be some good news here as well: the schizophrenic souls I talk with don’t hear only negative voices. Sometimes they tell me about a voice that tells them they’re okay, reminds them who they are and prompts them to notice others who are suffering and to care for them. Jesus told his friends (remember the company he kept) about such a voice, said he would send them a Defender, a Counselor—the Paraclete, or one who speaks from alongside. The street youth tell me they usually don’t report this kind of voice to professionals. Because, they say, they never want to lose that voice, that presence, that visits them.”

We are pretty comfortable looking back at ancient Palestine from the twenty-first century and imposing upon it all the things we have learned since then. When we read about Jesus casting out “demons,” we’re ok with suggesting that this is probably a reference to Jesus’ healing work with epileptics and schizophrenics. Maybe it involved some rudimentary medical attention, or maybe he was just a steady, strong and soothing presence for people who had been relentlessly traumatized and psychologically broken by the violence of war and empire. These are comfortable and reasonable things for us to talk about as logical, science-minded, twenty-first century people.

We are less comfortable looking back at the scriptures and noticing what things we might have forgotten since that time. What ways of knowing we may have lost. And I think this makes us uncomfortable because these gifts—hearing voices, speaking with the dead, seeing visions, prophesying—are not actually lost at all. They have simply been pathologized. And what’s worse, in the empire of our present time, is that people who have been pathologized are also, by and large, systemically impoverished and criminalized. This is a devastating one-two punch not only for our present day visionaries but for our whole society.

Like Chris Hoke, I’m blessed to spend a lot of time with people who can see and hear and things beyond my own limited wavelength. Many of these folks did not always have their senses so sharply tuned to this frequency. Often, through compounded experiences of grief, trauma, and violence, they’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to the information-drenched world around them. And what do you do when so much of that information is painful and cruel, with you as its target? Maybe you cry out in anguish. Maybe this scares the customers stepping over you in a doorway as they exit a store. The storeowner calls the police. You are arrested for disorderly conduct and spend a few nights in the psych ward or jail, two of the most trauma-inducing institutions the world has ever seen. You are cyclically robbed of your own mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing while society is robbed of yet another Elijah, another Peter, another Christ.

But it was not always like this. And it does not have to stay like this.

Hoke writes:

“I’d been studying the Hebrew prophets. They heard more than clear, verbal oracles from the Lord. Rather, they shuddered with terrors and torment, often appearing quite unstable, maybe bipolar, swinging from jubilant praises of God to rage and even suicidal despair, all right there in our Bible’s thin pages. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, looked much like the homeless youth I’ve met: a teen making a nuisance in the city streets and locked up repeatedly by authorities. Jeremiah was put in the stocks in the public square, mocked. Ezekiel did strange things like make demonstrations with feces in the street and lie comatose for days while receiving revelations. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the prophets not so much as official spokesmen with verbatim divine pronouncements, but as humans with a severe ‘sensitivity to evil.’ To the prophets, he writes, ‘even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions,’ and the prophet’s ‘ear… is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others.’ They are so sensitive to what we overlook or have ceased to feel, they appear insane.

Heschel says the prophet is primarily burdened with the ‘pathos of God.’ An infinite vulnerability.”

There are so many ways we can and must make room for the “pathos of God” in our society. I think it probably starts with making room for the pathos of God inside our own minds. See if you can listen for it this week. You might never attain the level of receiving a vision of Zombie Moses but you could stop and visit with some kids on The Ave who have come pretty close to that. The Gospel is clear: these are God’s daughters and sons, God’s chosen. Listen to them.

[Video here.]

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About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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