I don’t know if I believe in demons; but after weeks like this one I’m willing to reconsider.
Between the “Don’t Say Gay” bill making its way through the Florida House, the declaration of the Texas government that gender affirming care for transgender children is child abuse, and can get children taken away from their parents, and of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there’s a lot going on that is evil and well, demonic.
Yes, evil. It’s a harsh word, one I don’t, we don’t like to use, but at times we must. I try not to call specific people evil, but rather behavior and systems- as I noted last week, no one is 100% a victim, villain, or a hero, and it was just last week that Jesus told us to judge, lest ye be judged, and well, I know that I often come up lacking. But my behavior? The systems of evil that I participate in, either God forbid willingly or much more likely unwillingly- yeah, I have a feeling those should be judged. If they are found wanting, they should be changed.
And as for the word demonic, even if there aren’t little imps with pitchfork, it’s hard not to use this word when we see what causes formerly good kids to do monstrous things. Let us remember that all the evil in world is caused by people who were once good kids. What possesses someone to target LGBTQ kids for political gain? These are kids who are already under great stress and pressure, trying to discern who they really are. Yet when politicians in Texas saw that, their response is to call any work that helps those kids out child abuse, and threaten to steal those children away from their parents.
What possesses a man not just to go to war, but to order one, to willingly and knowingly send thousands of young people to die?
Perhaps the best word for those forces that willingly cause such misery is demonic. Just as Jesus fought them, so too must we. That Jesus and the disciples almost immediately encounter these forces so soon after connecting with their history, of experiencing a transcendent glimpse of the glory of God, of a vision hope and future that awaits them and us is no mistake. Indeed, perhaps it is one of the great reasons that we worship together; to connect to our history, to catch a glimpse of God, to prepare ourselves in the fight against the evils of this world.
As we begin to talk about our Bible readings, a quick tip, a lifehack, as the kids say these days. If a story is set on a mountaintop, people are likely to encounter God. We see this in both of our readings, with Moses encountering God and the transfiguration.
Our first reading is the story Moses encountering God and, having received the Ten Commandments, giving them to the people.
When he comes back down the mountain, his face shines, having been in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights. It shines so much that he has to cover his face because the people are so afraid of him. If this seems a bit foreign, another way to think of it; have you ever seen someone who just seems to glow? Someone who just had an amazing spiritual or natural experience and just well, glows? Same thing, perhaps not as vibrant or flashy, but same principle. Yet we also know that those experiences are experiences; they never last forever.
It’s telling that after Moses has transcendent experiences with God, the real world is waiting for him back down the mountain. Before this forty day experience on the mountaintop, he previously spent a week on the mountaintop, but was called back down when the people started worshipping a Golden calf. This time, he has to organize the craftsmen who are building the tabernacle which would eventually house the Ten Commandments, which we know better as the Ark of the Covenant.
Anyone who’s organized construction projects with multiple trades involved knows how difficult that can be. From my count this project involves leatherworkers, sewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, silver and goldsmiths, so even though it’s not a campaign there is quite a bit of engineering, planning, budgeting, and building involved. As the saying goes, “everyone wants to save the world, no one wants to do the dishes”- Although I happen to know a few exceptions.
But we can see the connection to our gospel reading, the story of the transfiguration; James, Peter, John, and Jesus go on a leadership prayer retreat, I guess is the best way to put it, to the top of a local mountain. While there, Jesus transforms, his clothes become dazzling white, and he’s talking with two of the great prophets of Israel: Moses and Elijah. This is all a little hazy; almost dreamlike- Peter, James, and John are all very tired- perhaps in a half-asleep half-awake state.
In being there, Moses, Elijah and Jesus represent the continuity of past, present and future. Moses is the liberator and law giver, who led his people into freedom from slavery, and Elijah the resistor, who turned against a regime that had turned the force of its power towards cruelty and oppression. These are not only religious prophets, but also folk heroes for a Jewish people suffering under the brutality of Roman occupation. They would have been as much Abraham Lincoln as Joan of Arc for James, Peter, and John.
Peter is so dazzled that he starts to babble, about making sukkot, booths, for the three of them. His rambling is apparently a signal that it’s time for the God squad to leave, and so a cloud envelops them and out of it a voice booms, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” It’s a very 10 commandments esque scene- Almost melodramatic.
But I think the most important part of this scene isn’t necessarily the transformation that they see in Jesus or must have felt within themselves, although those things are important. It’s in the extra part of the reading that I read out loud. When they come down from the mountain, the “real world” is waiting right there for them.
There’s a boy who is possessed by an evil spirit; one apparently even Jesus’ followers are unable to get rid of. However you want to interpret Jesus’ interactions with these spirits- either as a political metaphor; remembering that Jesus literally met one named Legion, after the Roman Legions, as some sort of healing in a prescientific era that didn’t understand psychosis and disease, or as evil spirits- this was a major part of Jesus’ work.
When Jesus does his ministry work, it’s a combination of teaching, healing, and casting out spirits, side by side. Jesus’ frustrations with them are plain in our reading, and they are manifestations in one way or another of the evil present in the world, and one of Jesus’ duties is to fight it where he finds it. Thus it becomes our duty too. To name and cast out the demonic forces of homophobia, militarism, greed, wrath, and hatred.
Yet even Jesus does not do this work non-stop; we have several instances of Jesus resting, praying, and spending time alone to pray and meditate, sometimes leaving the disciples rather abruptly to do so. The work is hard, and we must be spiritually and emotionally prepared for it. It is not that we have to do it all, but we do need all of us to do some.
I hope that worship here at the church transforms and recharges us. I hope it allows us to see the face of God, to connect our past with liberation and hope for the future. Because in a world where evil exists, our work is needed. Whether its small or big, across town or across the world, our help, as individuals and as a collective is crucial.
May God be with us, and with all those fighting for their freedom to exist, to live in peace. Let us take a moment of silent prayer and meditation.