Poison in the Well

August 22, 2021


“Poison in the Well”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Scripture: Matthew 12.22-32 (NSRV)

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, ‘Can this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.’ He knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

As a pastor I have some exclusive rights given to me by the denomination by the power of my ordination. Three specific places of authority where I am unquestioned, unimpeded. First, I possess the power, the ability to choose which scripture passage I will preach from on Sunday. I get to choose what is read in worship from scripture. My second unfettered freedom is that I get to choose what translation is read. NRSV, RSV, NIV, King James: I can choose whichever suits me. I can even provide my own translation, and sometimes I do.
My final right exclusive given to me from my ordination is the power, the freedom to choose the hymns we sing on Sunday. Although I have no music training, can barely carry a tune in a bucket, even though the only musical instrument I play is the radio, even though all this is true, it is my exclusive power to choose the hymns.
While true, I must confess that this last exclusive right has an asterisk next to it, a footnote, a caveat as it were. I have the freedom to choose the hymns if the choir director, organist, minister of music doesn’t make a face. I get to choose the hymns, true; [asterisk] if they are not stinkers. And we have some stinkers in our hymnal.
For the better part of the last three years Brenda has made this scrunchy face, the not a good hymn face, a few times. Not a lot. I don’t resent this or fight for the stinker. I don’t because I know the power of the asterisk. If I simply exercise my authority and demand a stinker hymn is sung, I know and trust that Brenda will make that stinker a real stinker and remind me of how this is a collaborative environment.
You may see me as all powerful, but it is not so. Yes, I stand up high and wave my arms in a large gown, but my power is actually very limited. And there is a reason for this.
We are protestants. We are born of the protest of clergy. In the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had so fully invested unlimited power in clergy, there was a bit of protest. From this protest came a tradition and legacy now 500 years old. We are this tradition and legacy. As such my power is limited to the three rights I listed, and even one of those has an asterisk.
This protest, the Protestant Reformation, was quite a moment. We may not always think of it this way, but we are the people who protested the Mass, the priest and Pope, the idea that the power of the church rested in the realm of the clergy. We are the living tradition of those who said, “that is not a good way to be a church. Better to give the power to the people than the priests.”
From this protest came a new way of worshiping. The people were called to sing, the scripture was read in the language of the people, and the pastor was there to illumine the power of the local church, the congregation. This illumination was to be made without restriction or cost or condition. You are free to follow Jesus; you are free to believe. The greatest freedom came in the form of forgiveness: you are the priesthood of all believers, which means you forgive one another; you do not need a priest’s absolution.
Many believe this protest began when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg Door. Often this is described like the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, the shot heard around the world. The hammer blows of Luther as he posted his radical ideas on the door of the cathedral sparked a revolution that continues.
As is often the case with history, this is a bit overstated. Yes, Luther nailed his thoughts to a door, but the door would have been comparable to the student bulletin board at Middlesex Community College. Public, possibly provocative, sure, but also a remote, rural part of Germany. And Luther’s radical ideas were not that radical. There were many before him as well as contemporaries who were ready to reform the church and jettison the all too powerful clergy. He was not alone or out of nowhere.
Luther’s ideas weren’t radical, but they were read by everyone. Luther’s call to reform, his declaration, “here I stand” just happened to coincide with the birth of the printing press. And with the printing press the revolution took shape. The world was shook to the core not because Luther’s ideas were yet unknown; the world changed because now everyone had a pamphlet and said, “yeah, the church is out of control.”
Luther didn’t look at his life this way. How could he? It took centuries of research and careful study to sift through the events of the Reformation, to see it as much as a consequence of technology as theology. And without this perspective Luther was tormented. He was really stressed. There were wars fought over his teachings; towns seized their churches and priests were sent packing. Lots of people died. And Martin Luther felt responsible, and this filled him with terror. What if he was wrong?
The source of his terror and unease was our reading today. The teaching of Jesus when he was accused of being evil. Jesus’ response is very cryptic with the references to strong men and plunder and tying people up. Then Jesus speaks of taking sides and houses being divided. Lastly there is the ominous notion that all sins are pardonable, save one, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This blasphemy is beyond pardon.
For Luther, the terror was a question: what if his protest, his rejection of the authority of the church, what if this was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What if? I mean he did call the pope and Rome the “whore of Babylon.” That was a bit more than a poetic flourish. What if this was the line to never be crossed? These questions tormented him.
Legend has it that Luther was always tormented. Before his thoughts were printed and disseminated across the continent fomenting change and protest, before he was a married pastor drinking beer and writing gutsy hymns, he was a monk filled with guilt and self-doubt.
The legend is that Luther was obsessed with the idea of being unforgiven; he was afraid of the possibility that his sins would be counted before he confessed. Each monk has a confessor and the story is that Luther kept his confessor up all night and busy all day trying to find freedom from all his impure thoughts and sins. He was always confessing; he was always trying to be sure he was okay with God. Thus he was a tormented person long before he met with the possibility of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Scholars are befuddled with this teaching of Jesus just as Luther was: what does this mean? What is this blasphemy? Part of the befuddlement, I believe, is that we tend to look at grace from a legal, judgment, throne of God sort of perspective. Luther certainly did.
His theology, born of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, was this: the power of forgiveness is the victory of Jesus on the cross; all is accomplished, and all is for him to pardon. Hence there is no need for the priest. This belief stopped his fears and his tormenting of the confessor; it stopped when he could see that Jesus covered his sins; it was paid in full. This was key to the protestant reformation because if Jesus forgave you and you could then forgive each other, you didn’t need to pay for your sins. The bill was paid; the time was served. Pardoned.
And this worked except for the unpardonable sin. There seemed to be an asterisk here, and this haunted Luther. What if his theology had gone too far?
This question befuddled me as well. How is that God forgives everything but this? And what is it? The answer I have come to through the many years of exegesis is this: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the unpardonable sin is the destruction of ourselves. It is the how we ruin ourselves. God cannot forgive it, pardon it, because only we can.
Through the years what I have come to see is that most of our theology, Reformed Theology, is all too focused on the legal, judgment, courtroom perspective which we gain from the Apostle Paul. Our theology of sin and grace and the cross and the resurrection are all defined by the cosmic verdict of atonement, Jesus pays for our sins, he is the sacrificial lamb appeasing the angry God. Through the years I have come to believe this is not what Jesus taught his disciples, nor what we should teach each other.
Jesus taught that we are filled with darkness and this darkness destroys us. He spoke of anger and desire and delusion in the same way Buddha did: these are what poison us, ruin us. In our ruin and darkness we can do terrible things to each other. We are quite violent and abusive and greedy. And for this there is need of repentance and change and the reality of consequence. But what Jesus taught his disciples most of all is that all of this is born of our self-destruction. We forget the glory of God; we have no power to do what is right even though we know what is right.
This is the strong man Jesus speaks of, the one we must bind in us. This is the division we must overcome, this light and darkness in us. We must choose one or the other. A divided house cannot stand. But mostly though we cannot expect God to magically change us, to fix, or as he says, pardon, our self-destruction. God cannot do that for us. We must free ourselves.
We all make terrible choices in our lives. Skeletons in closets are not a rarity. For this reason we must be ready with grace for each other. Not the grace that ignores the wrong or discounts it, but ready with an honest mercy, a truthful forgiveness.
Too often we are not helpful when it comes to forgiving each other. Our grace is based upon the level of contrition someone feels. Often we simply discard people if they offend or hurt us. We especially do this if someone disappoints us. Much of this is born of the bad theology and a misunderstanding of what justice really is. We want people to pay for what they did. This is not helpful.
Jesus teaches us again and again, that we must set aside anger, and desire, and delusion so to be free. He calls us the light of the world and the salt of the earth. In our reading today we are shown the way to find power, the power that heals. The Pharisees thought this power came from evil. Jesus says, no. Only in overcoming evil do you begin to heal. First you must bind the strong man; in other words, you must subdue the evil in us; next, you must choose to be light not darkness. But mostly, and most importantly, we cannot wait for God to magically transform our soul. God doesn’t do that. We must stop poisoning ourselves.
We are protestants of the Reformed kind. We believe power is with the people, not the priests. Yet, we need another reformation as it were. We need to set aside the shackle of our cosmic theology where we are appeasing the angry God. In the same way we need to set aside the fallacy that God’s love magically changes us. The theology of the cross helped Luther; he was set free from guilt and shame believing his sins were atoned for. This helped him, but it also incarcerated him just as much. For the cross doesn’t free us from darkness; the cross simply makes the darkness all too clear. Only we can free ourselves from the darkness within, change bitter water to sweet. Amen.

Bible References

  • Exodus 15:22 - 27
  • Matthew 12:22 - 32