There are some things you experience, and you immediately think, “Yea, and verily! This shall be a sermon!” (And then, you immediately vow to stop watching so much Downton Abbey, because it’s making you talk funny.)
For me, Into the Woods was one of those experiences, and I’m only amazed it took me ten (!) years to write a sermon about it.
Here is the sermon:
January 29, 2012
Epiphany 4, Year B
The musical “Into the Woods” tells the familiar fairy tale stories of
Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and her prince, Jack and his
beanstalk, and a baker in search of a child. All mixed together and put to
Sonheim’s music. Everyone pursues their wishes into the woods, crossing
paths as they go, their stories faithfully narrated by a trusty narrator, until,
as expected, everyone gets their happily ever after ending.
And hooray! Everyone sings and dances as they celebrate the fairy-tale
truism that the good have been rewarded, the naughty have been
punished, and those who sought their wishes have gotten what they
wanted, and the story is over.
The only hint that this might not actually be the end of the story, is the sight
of a beanstalk rising up into the sky, a figure of a giant descending, and the
narrator shouting, “to be continued!” as the curtain falls.
On the end of act 1.
Apparently, this was not enough of a hint for one preview audience, and this group
of senior citizens departed, all excited over this delightful, but short, new
show they had seen, before the director chased them to the parking lot and
brought them back so they could see the second Act.
Which is where it really gets good. The first act is about familiar stories of
getting what you want: the second act is about the consequences to
everything and everyone around you when you get what you want.
And that’s the part that we have the most trouble dealing with. Whether it’s
fairy tales, politics, sports, or whatever it is, we have a hard time
comprehending that the world is constructed like a pond, and actions ripple
outward– they don’t stay magically confined to one person or place. Throw
a rock into the pond, and the ripples extend on and on. The consequences
ripple out in all directions. You, me, rock, pond, water…
The world, as it turns out, is profoundly interconnected.
And so, when Jesus comes along, and starts talking to demons, like in
Mark tonight, remember that rock thrown in the water, and remember the
beanstalk rising in the sky. Because the reality that the world is in fact
interconnected and intertwined is something we tend to struggle with on a
good day, never mind when we are also trying to wrap our heads around
the good vs. evil stuff.
Jesus has come into Capernaum, which is sort of his home base in the
Galilee. He heads into the synagogue and starts teaching. In response to
his teaching, a man who is described as “demon-infected” comes in, and
the demons start yelling at Jesus.
“what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to
destroy us? I know who you are– the son of the Most High.”
Its this weird quirk in Mark that the demons always recognize Jesus, when
no one else does, and also that Jesus himself really doesn’t want people to
know who he is– it’s the messianic secret.
It’s also this weird quirk, that upon recognizing him, the demon asks “Are
you here to destroy us?”
Now, there are a lot of ways to parse these stories of exorcisms in the
gospels. First century schizophrenia, some sort of mental illness, actual
demonic possession, or an elaborate metaphor that the writer of Mark
thinks is instructive. All of those explanations Work, sort of, more or less,
but as is usually the case when you start worrying about factual accuracy
over truth in story, they miss the big picture. All tree bark, and no woods.
But ultimately, there are two things at work here– big picture. The idea that
evil exists, and that evil is systemic, and can’t be so easily isolated.
And we know that evil exists. I doubt hearing me say that is a surprise to
anyone. Evil exists when people are made to suffer, when humans are
abused, when the goodness of creation is destroyed and shamed, when
the hope that is born in each of us is snuffed out by what we experience.
Evil exists– evil is what works against the will of God for a good and whole
And that’s tricky, because that’s not something that can be personified,
isolated, and easily eliminated. Hitler was evil, but Hitler didn’t pull off the
Holocaust by himself. Slavery was evil, but who, particularly, should we
blame for that? The slave owners, or the rest of the country who bought
the goods produced by the slaves so cheaply?
Whenever we start to believe that we can destroy all evil, just utterly
destroy this one person, group of people, this one idea, and it will all be
fine, and we’ll all be safe forever, then we have forgotten that the line between good
and evil runs not between people, not between political parties, or
ideologies, but straight through every human heart. And Jesus alone is in
charge of all that.
And in fact, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus in these stories, confronts the
demons. He names them, he calls them what they are– evil that afflicts the
creatures of God.
But he always heals the person. These are as much healing stories as
they are exorcisms. Jesus always sees the child of God within and
Because ultimately, no evil is so bad that it can withstand God. No evil is
so bad that it cannot be redeemed by Christ. The demons always lose.
Always. They always get cast out in the end.
When we call out the evil we see, when we confront it, we are taking part in
the work of God that’s already been accomplished and done.
So no, we are never able to save the world, we’re never able to destroy all
evil, but we don’t have to– God’s done that bit. All we have to do is shine
the light of Christ.
And when we do that, as small as it may seem, and as insignificant as it
may feel, we’ve begun to participate in God’s own story in the world. And nothing on heaven and nothing on earth, changes the way that story ends.