Evan Help Us?

Psalm 43Luke 8:26-39

There is much on which to focus in today’s text: there is Jesus, the outsider, coming in to heal the demoniac. There is the treatment of the man possessed by his community, bound in chains and sent to live among the dead in the cemetery. There is the naming of the demons, “legion,” a word that, for a people living under Roman occupation, would have had clear political implications. There is the healing itself, a bizarre scene of demons cast into pigs who hurl themselves off of a cliff. There is the reaction of the community to the healing, terrified by what they have just seen, and asking Jesus to leave. And there is the man who, suddenly cured of the affliction which has haunted him, wants to join the disciples as a follower of this man Jesus.

It is the last few verses of the text, however, on which I’d like to focus this morning, where Jesus turns the man’s desire for discipleship into one of apostleship. That is, as the man asks to follow, Jesus sends him back to that same community, the one that bound him for years and gave up on his well-being, the one that saw the power at work in Jesus and asked him to leave. Jesus sends him back there to “tell them all that God has done for you.” It is on this note, a gentle but firm directive to share, to witness, to evangelize, to tell the story, where I want to focus our attention this morning.

But first, I want to tell you my own story of the past few weeks, and in so doing, to shed some light on the bizarre, sometimes surreal world we pastors inhabit. About a month ago, I received an invitation to a free screening of the new film Evan Almighty. If you’ve missed the advertising onslaught, it’s the follow up to the popular Bruce Almighty. Steve Carell is the star, a man elected by the good people of Buffalo to represent them in Congress. Not long after his arrival in Washington, DC, he is approached by God (in the form of Morgan Freeman) to build an ark because of a coming flood. Sound familiar?

I didn’t pay much attention to it myself until the last issue of Christianity Today arrived in my mailbox, with a cover proclaiming, “Evan Help Us: How a Movie and a Movement Are Teaming up with the Church to Change the World.” Curious, I leafed through the pages, looking for more on this cover story, only to discover that it wasn’t the real cover at all, but an “outsert,” an ad made to look like the cover of Christianity Today. Now I was beginning to get annoyed – and yet, I was still curious.

The next week, we received a box in the mail from a group called “Ark Almighty.” In it were buttons, t-shirts, Sunday School curriculum, a DVD, postcards, door hangers, bulletin inserts, and a full-color eight-foot banner. All of it uses images from the film, and is clearly done in cooperation with them, but Ark Almighty focuses on its own aims. I was moving from annoyed to disturbed, but still curious enough to see what this Ark Almighty thing was about, so I spent a while at the website. In short, it is the work of several Christian groups pushing a book entitled Conspiracy of Kindness which encourages congregations to get involved in their communities and do church growth by doing good deeds. Or, as a good friend of mine used to critique his perception of mainstream Christianity, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” In other words, there was nothing particularly wrong with it, certainly wholesome, but rather simplistic, and quite far from the heart of the gospel as expressed in the life and witness of Christ. I began to sense a larger conspiracy of a major Hollywood studio and a Christian publisher using the church to create two blockbusters. And I moved toward outrage at the willingness of major Christian organizations to play the role of willing co-conspirators in this grand marketing drama.

The last straw was the email that came into my inbox just a few days ago, offering sermon illustrations, free movie clip downloads for my powerpoint presentations, and sermon outlines all based on the new Hollywood movie Evan Almighty. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I had to see for myself whether this thing was really worthwhile. I read the reviews of the film, all of which panned it. Away I went anyway. But in good conscience, I could not allow myself to feel bought, and thus, to boost ticket sales of this movie being shoved down my throat. I bought a ticket for the new Fantastic Four movie and went in the theater next door to sit through Evan Almighty.

I’m not going to say much about the movie today, because there’s a part of me that simply wants to resist this onslaught of publicity all together. This scheme which forced itself on me wanted me to follow their script: get excited about the movie, talk about it from the pulpit, and send out my congregants to turn this thing into a real moneymaker. What I will say is this, for what it’s worth, recognizing that personal taste is simply that: personal. Besides, my favorite movie of all time is a comedy about the North London suburbs being overrun by zombies, so take my words with a healthy dose of salt.

So here’s what I will say: I did not enjoy the movie. I agree with the critics about the movie’s simplicity and domesticated spirituality. And so, I left the theater Friday night feeling justified in my outrage at the millions of dollars thrown at pastors and churches in order to boost ticket sales. And I hoped that the Fantastic Four had earned my $8.50.

At the same time, I’m not sure that holy self-righteousness is all that admirable of a place to spend one’s spiritual time. And I do have to admit that the experience doesn’t wrap up as neatly as all that for me. There are pieces that still hang unresolved, moments of challenge – not so much from the film itself, but from the bigger picture of promotion and servant evangelism – that I continue to mull over. I want to share two with you this morning.

The first is that there is this sense of integrity at work for the filmmakers. Tom Shadyac, the director, is a Christian. He is part of the Hollywood mainstream, having directed a number of hit comedies in his career. And the more clout he carries, the more he is concerned that his films carry a message, that they have something positive to say. Can we really say that about the Fantastic Four? Not only that, Shadyac is concerned about the adverse impacts that making a film can have on the world around; he is particularly concerned about environmental stewardship in his filmmaking, and has initiated some ways to be offer conservation in the midst of production.

In other words, Shadyac is a Christian who believes that his faith should influence all that he does. For him, it’s not something to be segmented off, a faith that is carried around like a family heirloom in a box, locked up and protected from the world. It’s not something restricted to Sunday mornings in worship or moments of community involvement, but something that has an impact on all that he has and all that he is. It affects relationships with family and friends; it shapes his career – not changing it, necessarily, but rather shaping it in ways that offer some sense of integrity and witness to all that God has done for him.

Does that resonate with us? Or are we able to turn this faith thing on or off like a light switch? Do we pick it up on our way to church and set it down somewhere by the side of the road on the way home? Do we find it again just in time for Saturday mornings at Habitat or in our volunteering in the community? Or do we make it part of our commutes, our home life? Does it shape our careers, our interactions with colleagues and co-workers? Does it occupy our thoughts as we shop, purchase, consume, dispose? In short, whether we are pastors or bankers, homemakers or filmmakers, does our weekly proclamation that God is Lord of all see the light of day in our daily lives? It could be the sort of challenge that lasts with us for just a week, walking through that week with new eyes. At the same time, it could be the sort of challenge that causes us to live more reflectively and self-aware from day to day in our spiritual journeys.

And the second challenge is related to it. Let’s assume that our lives begin to reflect that character of the God in whom we believe. What do we know definitively about that character?

Again, I find the theology at work in Evan Almighty and in the whole Ark Almighty movement to be overly simplistic. God is domesticated, easily digestible. Christianity is boiled down not to life-altering relationships, but to a series of good deeds. In other words, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. Instead, I see it as woefully incomplete in the fuller light of the gospel. And yet, there is this unabashed willingness to get out there and share this vision of the Church, of Christianity, of the Spiritual life lived in faith in God. Are we so bold?

All of which brings me back to the New Testament lesson of Jesus healing the man possessed by demons. Whatever we can say about it, it is not a story about nice Jesus being nice to the nice. The man is on the edges, forgotten, neglected, chained and banished by his community. It is him with whom Jesus speaks. He engages the demons in conversation and he heals the one whom his community had given up on.

Whatever we might say of Jesus’ act here, it is not a particularly effective method of church growth. He alienates the whole town, except for the young man. They kick him out. And the one “convert” he gets who wants to follow him, Jesus sends away.

There is, in the end, something deeply disruptive about what Jesus does here. He upsets a status quo and then, rather than free the man from the community that had rejected him for so long, sends him back there to tell them what has happened. He is to stay in their hearts and minds, to show them that he is no longer the one whom they thought they knew, but a transformed person. His role is not what he expected it to be. Instead, it is his place to bring that same community into a new way of seeing the world.

What about us? Who are the ones we see as demon-possessed? What are the chains in which society binds them? Where are the graveyards to which they have been banished? What are the demons that take hold? Would we be willing to talk with them and listen to them? Do we offer a hand of healing and restoration? Are we willing to upset the status quo for the sake of that faith which we hold dear?

Or are we ourselves part of that community, driven to fear in such a way that we have willingly allowed ourselves to be blinded to see God at work? Do we take part in sending away those who are most like Jesus as they challenge our assumptions and shake us up? Or is it that we, too, are possessed by our own demons, know ourselves cast aside, at the margins, standing in our own graveyards of living death?

There is, for each of us here today, who claims Christ as Lord, who seeks God’s face and presence in our lives, this one word from the story which should shake us to our foundations: “Declare how much God has done for you.” Can we do that? May heaven help us.