|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
June 3, 2012
brought in something to show you this morning -- it's a little cross necklace
that was my grandmother's. When my grandmother died, my mother passed it
along to me because as a child, I thought it was the coolest thing I had
ever seen. Now, before you think I was a budding minister even at a young
age, it wasn't the cross that I thought was cool. In fact, the cross is
encrusted with fake diamonds too gaudy for my taste and I've never actually
worn the cross as as necklace which is why I lost the chain long ago. No,
what was cool about it is that it has a hole in the center and if you hold
the cross up to the light and peer into it, you can see a teeny weeny slip
of paper held in a bubble of glass, and on that teeny tiny slip of paper,
you can read the Lord's Prayer. The glass that holds the prayer acts as
a magnifying glass and even though each letter of the Lord's Prayer is virtually
molecular in size, you can not only read it clearly but you can even see
a picture of a child kneeling in prayer at the top of the page (if you can
you call a teeny tiny piece of paper a "page".)
To a child, this cross felt magical. It held a secret in its center, not visible to the naked eye but buried deep within for only those with special knowledge to call forth. It didn't matter that the special knowledge only involved holding it up to the light; I knew that it was not obvious from the outside that there was something hidden inside so the secret was mine to withhold or reveal; it was my power alone to wield. I would imagine an evil demon chasing me down but I would whip out my cross, hold it up to the sun, and direct a beam of light to pass through the heart of the Lord's Prayer transforming the beam into a laser that would incinerate the demon on the spot. A word of warning: after the service, I'll let you peer into my cross if you want to see the secret words but before you do, make that your heart is righteous or else you might be struck blind by its power!
At least, that's what was fun to pretend when I was little. It was fun to think of this necklace as a talisman that protected me, a light saber I could wield against evil. As an adult, I still think it's pretty neat that someone managed to print the Lord's Prayer on a teeny weeny piece of paper but I no longer believe there is anything magical about this cross. I don't believe there is anything magical about any cross, not even the original one that killed Jesus because I now know that faith is not magic.
Right? Wouldn't you agree with me? If someone asked you to define faith and define magic, you'd give them two completely different definitions, wouldn't you?
Just to make sure, I looked them up in a dictionary. According to the
dictionary, magic is a set of techniques or knowledge that allows human
control over supernatural powers. In the Harry Potter world, for example,
magic involves learning the right words and gestures that give you the
power to open doors without touching them, fly on broomsticks, "apparate
and disapperate", and dangle someone upside down in midair. In Star
Wars, Yoda taught Luke Skywalker magic when he explained the use of the
force. Star Wars fanatics may quibble over my calling that magic but it
fits the definition: when a person controls or manipulates supernatural
powers to do their bidding, they are using magic. They may use a wand,
they may say magic words, or they may harness the power of the Force to
do triple flips in battle or manipulate others' minds, but whatever method
they choose, they are using magic.
Now, before I go on, I want to say very clearly that this is not a sermon condemning all things magical. I love the Harry Potter books: I raced my son John to the UPS truck every time a new book was delivered. And as a child I devoured the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings and a host of other fantasy series you've probably never heard of. I know there are churches that forbid their children to read Harry Potter but I think those churches are wrong and that their kids are missing out on some of the finest books in children's literature in the past century. I am not worried about children enjoying the fun of pretend magic -- what I'm worried about is when we as adults treat our faith like magic, when we act as if faith is saying the right words and believing the right things so that we can control destiny and in effect control God.
In Ephesus, the seven sons of Sceva watched Paul preaching the gospel and saw that wherever Paul went, people crowded around him to be healed so they decided that they had to get some of that faith for themselves because they, too, wanted to be as amazing as Paul. They wanted to heal and cast out demons, not for the sake of the people but because they wanted to be Jedi Knights exercising power over the Dark Side. It's heady stuff, this magic. And so the seven sons of Sceva watched Paul carefully to try to steal his secret incantations and pretty soon they were sure they had it figured out -- Paul's power lay in the name "Jesus". They had no idea who this Jesus was but it didn't matter to them -- they believed that the name itself would unlock the powers of the cosmos.
"Abracadabra, open sesame, Jesus Christ!" -- magic words. I can imagine Sceva's seven sons closeted in their treehouse at night practicing the words over and over again in the candlelight, making sure that they had the pronunciation just right. Finally, confident in their new found skill, the seven sons take to the streets of Ephesus and track down a victim on whom to demonstrate their power. They find a poor soul who is possessed by a demon and after they call a crowd together to witness the miracle they are about to perform, the seven sons circle the possessed man, puff out their chests, raise their hands, and bellow in confident unison, "Evil demon, in the name of Jesus whom Paul declares, we command you leave this man!" They wait for the spirit to shriek in terror and flee from the magnificence of their power but instead, the evil spirit sneers at them and laughs.
"Really?" it says. "Who do you guys think you are? I know
Jesus and I know Paul, but I've never heard of you!" And with a cackle,
the evil spirit leaps on the seven sons, beats them badly, and even tears
off their clothes so that the whole crowd can see them for the naked fools
that they are.
Or we think that if we believe the right things and do the right things, our faith will ensure that the cancer will be healed and the cells of our bodies repaired against all medical prediction. But isn't that really magic?
Or we think that if we just go to church every Sunday, read the Bible, and do good deeds on a regular basis, God will steer the drunk driver out of our way, our children will love us and never give us any trouble, our job will be secure, our retirement fund will double, and good things will always come our way. If we just believe. Faith as magic.
But faith isn't magic. Magic is about controlling supernatural powers to do our bidding; faith is about letting God use us to do God's will. As Paul goes about Ephesus, people are healed but the Bible says clearly that it is God who is doing the miracles through the hands of Paul -- Paul is the instrument of God's power, not the other way around. If I go back to my grandmother's cross for a minute, the difference between faith and magic is that in magic, I use the cross to point its power wherever I want. In faith, I am the cross, letting God's light pass through me so that it can come to shine on others. When I am attentive to others and their needs, and allow God to use me to sit with them in prayer, to give to others generously, to love with strength and courage, God can bring healing and peace and wholeness to the world, but I am not in charge of the outcome. I am only the conduit.
The problem is that most of us would much rather have magic than faith. With magic, I get to feel a sense of control over my life and bring good things my way. With faith, I have to give up control and trust that God will use me to bring good things to others. What's in it for me?
Why would anyone choose faith?
I've thought a lot about that question over my lifetime because the easy answer has never worked for me. The easy answer is, "Follow Christ so that you won't end up in hell," but I don't believe in hell. I don't believe that God would burn anyone for eternity and I don't believe that God is so stupid as to think that fear is a good motivator. Who would want a bunch of people to listen to you just because they were scared out of their wits? That would make God and Hitler too close for comfort.
But when you take away the easy answer of hell for "Why faith?"
you have to come up with another answer. Why would you allow God to use
you to bring love to others? Why not just live selfishly and without God,
doing whatever you feel like doing when you feel like doing it?
I can only tell you what it means to me.
When I was young, the age our youth are now, faith meant that I needed to believe that I could make a difference, that there was something larger than what I could see and something beyond the limiting concerns of teenager tribulations that I could be a part of it. God gave me the chance to mean more than just tests and grades and popularity. God gave me the chance to believe that I could be a vessel for a love so much bigger than I was that I would be more with God than I could ever be without God.
As I've gotten older, faith has also meant a place to find the peace I need when my limited strength falters, when my own courage ebbs, and when my heart just doesn't feel up to the task of everyday living let alone anything greater. God knits my tattered soul back together, chases away the demons of despair and doubt, and helps me to feel whole again.
Faith means believing that the universe is not cold and ultimately empty, but that it is woven through with love and purpose. The demon in Ephesus said to the sons of Sceva, "Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who the heck are you?" Even the demon recognized that faith is about relationship -- Paul knew Jesus and knew that Jesus loved him and loved the world so much that he gave his life for us, and in bringing that love to bear for others, Paul too became known. The sons of Sceva remained nobodies, separated from others by their desire to control rather than love.
Faith means that when I come to know Christ and allow myself to be known by Christ, when I dedicate my life to becoming a person of love and purpose, I will become the person that I was created to be. I'm not able to live in the pureness of faith all of the time, but I will give witness that in the moments in my life when I have been able to live in real faith and love, the sense of rightness about who I am is a blessing beyond words. To be loved by Christ and to be Christ's love for others is simply the person I most need to be.
I invite all of you to the Table to receive the love of Christ and dedicate yourself to share that love with others in blessing.