Colonial Galilee

For the four years of my college career I lived and went to school within a few steps of Colonial Williamsburg, which is a lovely, if somewhat unusual place.  It is unusual because although it strives to be a living museum, with a very high level of authenticity, it is still not the real thing.  Everything has been rebuilt on the foundations of a colonial town.  Yes, there was a blacksmith’s forge over there, a candle-maker down the street, a tavern around the corner, but everything you see today is a re-construction, more or less a fairy tale version of the real thing.  Even the oldest college buildings, which have been in use for 315 years have been repeatedly rebuilt after fires; and the same goes for Bruton Parish Church down the street.

Another odd aspect of Williamsburg is that it is a place sort of frozen in an uncertain time, one result being that no one is in charge.  Yes there is a Governor’s mansion, with its impressive displays of colonial arms hung on its walls, but there is no governor. Yes, the House of Burgesses met down the street in the colonial capitol building, but there is no legislature to meet there now.  Yes, the church once wielded some power, but it certainly doesn’t any longer.  There is a courthouse, but no judge to mete out justice.  There are stocks in the public square, and a gaol (spelled with a “g”) but no prisoners to lock up.  There is mock musket fire, but there are no red-coats.  There is no enemy, no villain, no foe, not even a King George III across the Atlantic.

I sometimes wonder if the church has taken on some of the characteristics of Colonial Williamsburg; if, perhaps, we are re-enacting an old story on a true foundation but in a reconstructed and somewhat artificial version of it.  We use a Prayer Book that remembers older versions, but is not the original.  We wear old vestments that link us to ancient times, but of course are highly stylized.  We worship in a building that is meant to evoke the 14th century even though it was built in the 19th.  Are we just indulging in a fairy tale version of some ancient thing, like the new Harry Potter theme park at Disney Land?  Have we chosen to freeze ourselves in a moment of beauty that allows us to escape from the realities of a less-beautiful world?

If we go to the heart of this question, I think it has to do with that same troubling aspect of Colonial Williamsburg: is anyone actually in charge?  I do not pose this question in terms of the church hierarchy.  And unlike some Anglicans these days, I do not yearn for a centralized authority within the church that would simplify and clarify power relationships.  I mean to say that there is something about our life of faith that could leave you wondering where God is; whether he hasn’t left the scene quite some time ago; what happened to the Jesus who walked and talked and healed, but who rose to heaven long ago; where is the power of the Holy Spirit that once set the church and the world on fire with possibility, but who seems remote and perhaps unavailable to us nowadays.  Who’s in charge?

If we struggle with this sense that we might be inhabiting the Colonial Williamsburg of faith – a re-enactment built on old foundations, but not quite the real thing, it might be partly because we are sophisticated 21st century Americans.    For instance, we read the story of the man with demons, and we already know that we are in the midst of a fairy tale, because, of course, we know that demons don’t exist.  We know that the man was probably schizophrenic.  We can diagnose him from our pews, and some of us could probably even fill his prescriptions from our own medicine cabinets.

Saint Luke tells us that the people who came out to see what had happened to the man with the demons were afraid, but there is nothing in this story that scares us, except of course for the loss of a herd of pigs, which spells financial disaster for the herdsmen at the very least (and nothing scares us these days like the loss of income-producing property).  To us this story might as well be played out by actors in period costumes in Colonial Galilee, or whatever.  It is a fairy tale being played out on a re-constructed version of some old religious stage.  And there is no real enemy, no villain, no foe, and therefore, no real trouble that there is no one in charge.

And because it is almost inevitable that we encounter the story this way, it is very hard for us to learn anything from it.  Because this story is not told in order to teach us about the dangers of demons, or to show how handy it can be to have a herd of swine around even if you keep kosher.  This story has a singular and unavoidable point, which is to teach us who is in charge. 

Jesus encounters this man who lives, we are told, not in a house but among the tombs, he is alive, but already doomed, living among the dead.  In his frequent rages he is restrained by the authorities, and chained up for the protection of others, and maybe for his own protection.  He is stark naked, a raving lunatic, and mad-possessed with many demons.  You can imagine that when he emerged from the tombs in his schizophrenic rages the townspeople believed quite strongly that there was an enemy that possessed him, a foe that needed to be vanquished, a villain who had taken his life from him.  They were not so ready to diagnose his problems away, and they had access to fewer pharmaceuticals, anyway.  And when he is around no one can control him, he cannot be restrained, no one is in charge.

Until now.

The demons know this before anyone else does.  They pull the man to the ground, and he cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  And the rest of the story unfolds so that everyone else may come to know what the demons saw first: that Jesus is in charge, that he has power to overcome demons, to cast out the enemy, vanquish the foe, deliver justice to the villain.

I do not think that this story begs us to disregard modern psycho-therapeutic ideas and the medical treatment of mental illness.  It does not insist on a suspension of disbelief that allows for the possibility of demons that are waiting to possess you and me.  We psychologized demons decades ago, anyway, but that has not really robbed them of their power; and indeed, it has made it easier for many of us to acknowledge our own “demons” without fearing that we shall be sent to live among the tombs, or locked up in chains.  But what we have not remembered so well is who is in charge.  And so in the spiritual landscape of our lives we inhabit a place where we can see the foundations of an old faith, but we suspect that no one has occupied the governor’s mansion for a long time, that no law has been passed in the House of Burgesses for decades, and that the church remains a pretty place with nice music, but not seat of power any more.

Sitting here with our own, more silent demons – our fears, our neuroses, our obsessions, our deep failings, our hatreds, our bad habits, etc.; you don’t need me to try to catalog them for you, lest I bore you with my rather mundane expectations of your more exotic demons – sitting here, being honest about those things, what we could use is a herd of swine, some unclean vermin onto which we could project all that plagues us, and offer them up and wait and see if Jesus will cast them over a cliff and into the sea, or at least drown them in the Schuylkill.  A demonstration would be nice; a sign that left no doubt as to who is in charge would be helpful.

Not far from Colonial Williamsburg, just a few miles down the road, there is an amusement park with roller coasters and games and rides and all kinds of entertainment.  I suppose it makes the idea of a vacation to Williamsburg palatable to kids who are skeptical of being subjected to the living classroom of the reconstructed colonial town, where the possibility, indeed the expectation of learning something is conspicuous.

And despite its unusual, reconstructed character, despite the gnawing reality that all this has been rebuilt, and now only represents a frozen timelessness where nothing is actually at stake today, the town of Williamsburg finds its identity primarily I think in this: that there is something to be learned there about an old enmity, about the foes that were to be vanquished, and about justice that looks to assert itself over villainy, even if it is not clear anymore who is in charge.

We are surrounded by the forces of a society that would dearly like to entertain us; knowing that nothing gets us to spend money like entertainment.  In the midst of all that entertainment, there is a story to be told of a man who was possessed of demons.  And a question, “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

In a world that too often makes us wonder who is really in charge, this story has been told for generation after generation, not to convince us of the existence of demons, but to help us learn the answer to that vexing question.  For each of us has our own demons.  And in each of our lives there will be enemies to fight, foes that need vanquishing, villains who need to be brought to justice – many, maybe even most of these, will be of our own making.  And we will wonder, some of us already have spent years wondering, if anyone is in charge, if there is any power in the world that can prevail, if there is any god who will come to our aid as we stand in what we have built on the ancient foundations of faith.

Who could have guessed that the question of the demons would be the question that would lead us to what we are meant to learn: What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  And that the answer is so simple:  Everything, my beloved.  Everything.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

20 June 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 23, 2010 .