Thursday, June 30, 2016

False gods

Today we offer thoughts and prayers for those killed and wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, their families, friends and loved ones. We pray especially for GLBT, those who question their sexual or gender identity, inter-sexed people, allies and friends. May God protect them and all people. May the ministers of the gospel respect and honor the image of God in which all persons are created.
         This week’s news put violence and terror in my mind. Our readings also bring to mind the man healed by Jesus of a legion destructive compulsions - they called them demons - and the power of Elijah to overcome false, illusory gods.
         Let me say a word about false gods. Carrie Doehring is a Presbyterian pastor in Canada and worked with trauma survivors. She saw very clearly how traumatic experiences can color what we think and feel about God. She found that severe trauma can deeply affect people’s gods - what she also calls God representations. In her study called Internal Desecration: Traumatization and Representations of God, “In the aftermath of violence, when the inner sanctum of being has been desecrated, we may be blessed with the presence of companions, who venture with us into the innermost sanctum, empowering us, so that we can take on the gods who reign there, cast them out, and consecrate again this holiest of places, God within us.
         False gods are interior representations of an absolute supposed good or reality that captivate the persons and take them far from themselves.
         Elijah’s ministry was to cast out of his people false gods, liberating them from an interior captivity.
         Jesus was a companion to the man living in isolation, locked in chains, captive to a legion of gods and liberated him so as to consecrate his inner sanctum so that he lives and finds freedom, becomes able to choose among different possibilities for his life, able listen to and accept others. No one thought it was possible to restore him to this right mind but he was - but they only recognized him as a terrible and violent man.
The largely Latino GLBT community took a terrible hit from a violent man in the Orlando shooting where the Pulse nightclub was known as a safe place. Some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons are not safe in their family. For some, the local society rejects them. Latino communities are like non-Latino communities: some people are open to accepting them and some are not. There are religious communities that reject GLBT persons. Sexual identity is woven into the story of the man’s act of terror.
Wendy Farley - a theologian concerned about human sexuality - wrote, “It pierces me like a knife to know that some Christians insist that desire obscures the divine image: it renders lovers of Christ unable to minister, unable to parent, unable to share Communion, unable to be people of faith. The heart that is led to love and desire outside heterosexual marriage is understood to be uniquely unsuited to love and desire Christ.” She’s referring to theological beliefs that human desire in the area of human sexuality distort and effectively destroy human beings. In her mind human sexuality cannot deface the sacred in people, that we are made in the image of God. “We humans are free only to be what we are: bearers of the divine image.” (Gathering Those Driven Away, pp. 2-3)
We are made in the image and likeness of God and gay or straight we can praise and show God’s glory. It is also true that image can be desecrated. We didn’t have to be in New York on 9-11 to be changed and we don’t need to be in Orlando to be affected. Anyone can be affected even children hearing the news or the reports of parents or friends. What sort of god allows this to happen? People of all ages find all sorts of gods - or to be precise God representations. And representations of god have effect because the gods in us anticipate the life we live.  
Kenneth Pargament, a researcher in spirituality, (Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred, p. 55f) tells about a woman named Cindy and her god representations. She looked back to when she was four or five, “I was sitting in a field behind our house and the sun was going down, and I just felt God had his arms around me.” From the perspective she gained years after that she described this memory as “a present, a gift, something to hold, to keep, because I think He knew...that I would need that to carry me through some of the hard times.”  Then she told about her mother and father. “Mother didn’t talk to any of us - my siblings or me - about religion and didn’t want us to go to church. My father was bitter and felt rejected by his church. He’d ridicule me when I went to church. I came to think that God was sitting up on a throne someplace, and all He ever really did was throw fire balls down on people...because my dad was like that.”  From pretty early she had two god representations - one was a gentle god in the light of a sunset who held her and made her feel safe; and another god who is threatening and didn’t make her feel safe at all.
While still young Cindy kept going to a church where she learned about sin. “The whole concept of sin really hit me between the eyes. And I felt very, very convicted of that, very guilty, and didn’t really know what I felt bad about. I was all upset and crying. It was the first time I realized about sin, and that I was a sinner, and that somehow I was separate from God. And that bothered me. I didn’t want separateness. I wanted to be close to Him.” At the same time she wasn’t close to either of her parents or any adults. “I didn’t have anybody to give me any kind of training. I didn’t have any idea of where to go for a church, and I thought that when I became a Christian, when I asked the Lord into my heart, that I just wouldn’t do anything wrong again...And so the first time I screwed up, I thought, ‘that’s it,’ I blew it, and had nobody to tell me any different. What happened after that was my life really took a downward spiral.”
Cindy married four times, had children, became addicted to drugs, left her children. Her god representations affected her and were tied up with her relationships with her family and other people. God was as empty and unkind as her mother and father were to her. Eventually Cindy found her way back from the desolate place she landed in and learned to talk about her experience.
This sort of journey is what Wendy Farley describes and tries to clarify and bring clear headedness to so that GLBT and others are not further cast out of their true inheritance as children of God, people made in the image of God but put down, rejected and desecrated by society and religion. Farley is hoping to do for a community of people what Jesus did for the Gerasene man: recovering and revealing the identity of people as children of God.
Our world is a terrible and wonderful place. It is indeed full of gods - dangerous and destructive gods, that drag and pull at us, captivating and ruining. Our true God is above that and deeper within us. God surpasses all boundaries: loves this creation, all people, Christians and non-Christians, atheists, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhists...Africans, Malaysians. Floridians and Nebraskans. Intellectuals and Cowboys. But God’s spirit is not a force compelling - God’s spirit is gentle, always kind and full of love.

Let us pray, “In the aftermath of violence, when the inner sanctum of being has been desecrated, may we and all wounded be blessed with the presence of companions, who venture into the innermost sanctum, empowering, in order to take on the cruel and distorting gods who reign there, cast them out, and consecrate again the holiest of places, God within us.
Sermon by Rev Mark Diebel Sunday June 19, 2016 Christ Church Greenville, NY. 
Permission granted to post.
Readings referred to in sermon: