Voices Behind Curtains: A Johnny Tuttle Sermon

A Sermon for Year B, Epiphany IV, February 1, 2015

at the Advocate

Johnny Tuttle

 

Grant us, Lord, the lamp of charity which never fails,

that it may burn in us and shed its light on those around us,

and that by its brightness we may have a vision of that holy City,

where dwells the true and never-failing Light, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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Wow. The first sermon I am asked to preach at The Advocate

after three years (give or take),

and I am “coincidentally” scheduled

on a text about demon possession.

Well…here we go.

I imagine we are tempted

to avoid the obvious situation in the text –

that Jesus heals a man who is demon possessed.

I imagine if you are like me, you want to read this

in some way that allows you to take it seriously

while maintaining a safe distance from these antiquated themes.

We’re Episcopalians, after all.

We don’t have to “check our brain at the door…”

I sympathize with this way of dealing with the text,

and I would probably fall into this category more often than not.

I fear, however, that oftentimes we simply check our brains

out of one close-minded way of thinking

and check right into another,

in the name of so-called “enlightened, rational thought”.

We work around, beside, and straight past stories like this

because it challenges the way we understand and perceive,

the way we see the world.

But, my dear friends, it is so very difficult to see in the dark.

This is why we must look to the light that shines in the darkness,

because the darkness has not overcome it.

So I want to try and see what the light of Christ is exposing for us

in order that we might begin to reflect

that light into the midst of our darkness.

We should be careful not to pass over

the setup for this scene in the synagogue.

In fact, it may be the catalyst for the whole series of events.

Verses 21 and 22 say, “…he entered the synagogue and taught.

They were astounded at his teaching,

for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Jesus comes into the synagogue preaching the good news –

a new teaching with authority!

Only after Jesus has unleashed the Gospel does the demonic appear.

It is in the light of the Gospel

that the covert powers in our midst are challenged and revealed.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The Gospel brings light,

the Word of God shines in our midst,

opening our eyes to see what may be lying in the shadows

of those spaces we take for granted.

And so we cannot underestimate the fact

that this unclean spirit was in the midst of the synagogue,

in the midst of the community of worshippers,

only revealed, only drawn out

when the Holy One of God comes into their midst,

bearing in his very body the Good News of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

It was there, lying dormant – no, not dormant –

silently active beneath the surface,

masking its movements and manipulations

behind the all-too familiar status quo.

Only the presence of the Body of Christ,

the Word of God, draws the demonic into the open.

I want to be clear: it would be a mistake

to ignore the scriptural presentation of the demonic

precisely because the demonic relies

on being masked by the status quo.

It relies on covert operation.

It relies on our blindness to it in our midst.

When we turn a blind eye to its presence,

we lose the way it works into our institutions, systems, and habits

until we take its presence to be normative, perhaps even welcome.

As I thought through this story, I was reminded of a song

by the Country artist, Sturgill Simpson.

The song entitled “Voices” says,

“How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away

Seems they’re always talking but they ain’t got much to say

A picture’s worth a 1000 words but a word ain’t worth a dime

And we all know they’ll go on talking til the end of time

Don’t call it a sign of the times when it’s always been this way

Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no name

They plot their wicked schemes setting fate for all mankind

With evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind

Many of you may know that I am deeply affected

by the current state of our so-called criminal “justice” system,

the Prison Industrial Complex, and the politics of the death penalty.

I am convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt,

that if we are going to name the demonic at work

in our social systems and structures,

the prison system is where we ought to start.

It would take more time than we have

to enumerate the evils of the Prison System.

There are a couple, however, that I think relate

specifically to the issues raised by the Gospel story

that might put what I’ve been saying on the ground for us.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is its relative silence.

The prison works in covert ways,

creating a barrier between those behind its walls and those outside.

The actual prison walls are the obvious part.

The bureaucratic nightmare one must go through

to enter the prison as a visitor creates a further barrier.

There is an intentional effort to hide incarcerated people

effectively cutting them off from the communal support systems.

The prisons statistically breed fear and violence,

reinforcing patterns of behavior that lead

to an extremely high rate of recidivism –

that is, people who are in prison usually go back

because of the inability to re-enter society.

And the reality of the prison system

is decidedly so far removed from our own view,

we have the luxury of forgetting

those who are daily dehumanized by it.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

The second silence is created

by what Michelle Alexander calls “colorblindness”

in her book The New Jim Crow.

There is, without a doubt, a racial bias

in the criminal justice system.

It is proven statistically by the enormous disparity

between the number of incarcerated white people

and incarcerated racial minorities,

black men and women making up the vast majority

of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

And Alexander gives a brilliant account of this social evil

by tracing its development historically,

and marking its invisibility through the rhetoric of “colorblindness”.

That is, in our legal system, if there is not explicit racism,

it cannot be contested.

And the demonic continues to fester

unnoticed beneath the surface.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And because we participate in and benefit

from the social and political systems

that perpetuate the unnamed evils,

we are complicit in them.

Often we pray, “Forgive us the evil we have done,

and the evil done son our behalf.”

This is evil done on our behalf.

Bishop Scott Benhase of the Diocese of Georgia

recently wrote an article about the recent execution

of a man on death row named Warren Lee Hill.

Bishop Benhase condemns the execution

as State-sanctioned murder, saying,

“This murder was done in…my name,

and in your name. Every citizen of this State,

whether we want to own it or not,

is complicit in the murder of Warren Lee Hill.

No, we did not strap him to the executioner’s table,

nor did we inject him with poisonous drugs,

but we cannot deny our complicity.”

Covert, unnoticed, yet in our midst.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And it is perhaps most ironic

that it is these very institutions and systems of oppression

that inform a social imagination around the demonic.

That is, these very institutions teach us

to demonize incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

We are taught by the demonic how to think about what is demonic.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

Dear friends, this is precisely what Jesus does here.

Jesus draws it into the open, silences it, and drives it away.

The silencing oppressor is silenced by the Word made Flesh,

and the voiceless is given back a voice by means of that same Word.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!

We look to the body of Jesus, and in his presence,

that which oppresses God’s beloved creatures

is exposed, silenced, and driven away.

The church, as the community of people

called the Body of Christ,

is empowered by the Spirit to participate in this work

of exposing, silencing, and driving out.

We are given the strange, terrifying gift

of binding ourselves to the life and work of this Jesus,

the “outside agitator”, the seditionist,

the one who was executed by the State.

As promised in Deuteronomy,

it seems that God has indeed raised up a prophet.

While I believe Jesus was certainly prophetic,

Jesus is much more than a prophet.

Jesus is God with us.

Jesus is the Word of God in our midst,

dwelling among, with, and in us.

And this Jesus is the Word that has been put into our mouths

for speaking the Gospel of God’s Kingdom,

bearing witness to its in-breaking in our midst.

The church is called to be the prophetic bearer of God’s Word.

But we should not speak where we are unwilling to act.

In a sermon preached to the first year class at orientation,

my fellow seminarian, Racquel Gill, put it this way:

“Don’t speak for people you don’t speak to.”

“You’ve got to put your body where your mouth is.”

If the church is to be the prophetic witness,

raised up from within the community,

we the church must be willing to put ourselves

in places where both our words and our presence

reflects that light that shines in the darkness,

exposes the demonic, silencing the voices of oppression

and restoring a voice to the silenced and oppressed.

What does this look like?

I am convinced that it looks like the church going into the prison,

visiting incarcerated people, creating networks of support,

love and trust that give voice to those

who have been demonized and silenced.

I think it looks like creating a space in our congregations

for those who are re-entering society,

committing to come alongside them in compassion,

bearing with them the incredible burden

placed on them by the carceral system.

It means seeking a restorative and compassionate justice

over against the retributive calculations of the State.

I think it looks like joining alongside

People of Faith Against the Death Penalty,

holding vigils when the State exercises

its usurped power over life and death,

coming alongside families of the incarcerated people

and those on Death Row to hear their stories,

and bear with them their burdens.

If you are an employer, it looks like hiring those

who have been incarcerated,

those who are forced to secure a job while identifying as “criminal”

on their applications.

It means coming together as a community

of shared and redistributed resources,

bringing what we have to the neighborhoods around us.

But the temptation will be to rely only

on the systems in place to effect these changes.

For example, we may be tempted to think voting

is the pinnacle of our Christian social witness.

Voting may be serviceable in our Christian witness,

but it too is caught in the systems of oppression.

Voter I.D. laws and politicians that offer nothing more

than a lesser of two evils reveal its grave limitation.

So, we must go beyond this.

We, the church, are called to create an alternative space,

a space that challenges our empires,

that draws out and silences that which oppresses God’s creatures,

and bears witness to the Kingdom of God

Our witness and prophetic voice is ultimately,

fundamentally bound to the Gospel

whereby we hear the Word of God in the Spirit of Christ.

In the words of Walter Bruegemann,

Being a prophetic witness means,

“evoking cries that expect answers,

learning to address them where they will be taken seriously,

and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire

that never intended to answer in the first place.”

As the church, we instead look to this table –

We are invited here to receive the Body of Christ,

drawing near to the Light that has scattered the darkness.

Here, we behold what we are,

and we pray that we might become what we receive.

As we come to this table, we receive Christ, the Word of God

and we are transformed as a community into the Body of Christ,

May we who bear the name of Christ,

who carry his presence with us,

expose, silence, and scatter the darkness

as we go forth in the light of Christ.

Amen.