June 12, 2022

Series: June 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




Matthew 12:43-45

          43 ‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. 44Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.’  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


            As many of you know, a number of us just returned from a pilgrimage in Tahoe called “Re-creation:  Connecting Land, Spirit, and the Human Soul.”  The underlying purpose was to reorient ourselves to each of these – to the land, that particular land, which has been the source of recreation for many of us, as well as the wider land; the Spirit, God, Christ (fitting on this Trinity Sunday); and our souls, the spiritual side of ourselves in addition to our bodies, deepening and recentering our faith.  We structured our time accordingly, beginning the day with prayer in the brisk morning air; spending the days walking through beautiful landscape, using that landscape to reconnect to our experiences with the landscapes of our lives as well as the challenges facing the earth today near and far, making time for rich conversation, before ending the day again in prayer and singing, anchoring everything in the spiritual journey.  It was a special time, sacred.  At times, it was as if we were being lifted up by angels unaware.

            Last time I lead a pilgrimage of this length, I mistakenly described it in preview as “largely flat.”  Maybe I had angels then too, smoothing out the road in my memory’s eye.  This time, there was no mistake about it, there were hills.  The thing about hills is, you don’t make it up them unless you take a step, in fact many steps, step after constant step.  You can’t just stand at the bottom and think you’ll automatically make it to the top.  That sounds obvious, but sometimes in life we assume progress is automatic, that it will just come without any effort on our part.  In life, the moment we stop taking forward steps on any given cause, not only do we stop making progress, we actually begin to backslide down the proverbial mountain.  It’s a bit like Sisyphus in that way.

            In Matthew’s gospel, we get a window into how the ancients viewed the spiritual dimension of life and the potential of things to go backwards.  For them, the world was filled with spirits.  Healing was, in part, about exorcising certain spirits—it’s the same in some shamanistic cultures today—restoring people to the right relationship with the world.  In today’s passage, Jesus talks about an unclean spirit leaving a person. It wanders through “waterless regions” – I love that notion that living things are water, water that can sustain beings.  We, then, are ecosystems that play host to clean or good spirits that cause flourishing or unclean or evil and destructive spirits.  We are habitats.  Jesus points out that the harmful spirit doesn’t automatically stay away.  It can come knocking again and it may bring friends next time. 

            I have been listening to a podcast series called “The Mayor of Maple Ave.” It chronicles the life of one of the victims of abuse from famed Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky. Tragedy for this young man was set in motion by this abuse.  Not least among them were struggles with drug abuse.  As is often the case, periods of recovery were met with relapses.  Despite the best efforts and intentions of various folks involved, the addiction comes back, sometimes fiercer than before.  In his case, the systems set up to keep the demons at bay, so to speak, had major holes in them, and so time and again they came back in force, as so often happens.

            Jesus says this is how it works. An unclean spirit will try and come back to its unsuspecting home, but the next time it will bring reinforcements, seven other evil spirits in this case.  Backsliding.  In Matthew, Jesus sees this dynamic at work in his generation, failing to grasp what the kingdom of heaven was all about, how it ordered relationships, its values, its priorities.  They are not getting it and the evil is multiplying.

            Perhaps this is not so foreign to us.  Things not only don’t go the right way, but they start to go backward.  The sickness multiplies.  All of the sudden, progress doesn’t feel so inevitable, certainly not linear, or we at least recognize that with progress there is almost always a backlash.  It turns out, according to those who study this, evil, or to use a less overtly spiritual language, dysfunction, does multiply.  I don’t know how many of you follow Adam Grant, but he has something to say on this.  Grant has become quite popular.  He’s an organizational psychologist, a New York Times bestseller, and has been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven years running.[1]

            I went searching for material from Grant on this subject, because I thought he would have something interesting to say about how dysfunction multiplies in group settings such as organizations.  What I found was a conversation Grant did with Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who has had stints at Stanford and Berkley among other universities as well as the private sector in Silicon Valley, and Bob Sutton an organizational psychologist at Stanford.  The topic of the conversation was about the kind of person we wouldn’t describe as the ancients did as “evil,” nor would we use the modern technical term “dysfunctional.” The word they used to describe this kind of person was, well…I won’t fully say it, but I’ll approximate it, and forgive me, the word is “a-hole.”  The talked about a-holes.  I believe Harvard Business Review published a whole (no pun intended) article about this. Maybe for the purpose of being in church, we’ll substitute the milder “jerk.” 

            Everybody knows a jerk.  It turns out jerks cause a lot of trouble.  According to Nunberg, the jerk (or the word they use), “is somebody whose efforts to expand and swell his own sense of privilege is hurtful to others: the other employees, whose work he takes credit for, the secretary who he has picking up his laundry, whatever.”[2]  Jerks demean, bully, and create an environment when others are on edge.  Not only is this unpleasant, for those interested in organizations, or those of us interested in building communities, they hinder functioning and productivity.  Grant sites one study done with medical teams in Israel, in which physicians and nurses were subjected to various “visiting experts,” some of whom berated them.  Those who were berated successfully diagnosed patients at a 20 percent lower rate and the procedures they conducted were 15 percent less effective.  That’s staggering, and yet how many of us have been subjected to such leadership?  Many of my coaches growing up in sports assumed that was what it meant to lead.[3] 

            In another experiment, students arrived to a room for a study only to be told were told they were in the wrong place, a professors office.  Some of the students were simply directly to the correct room, while others were insulted, “Excuse me, can’t you read?  There’s a sign on the door that tells you…but you didn’t even both to look at the door…” and then the professor would slam the door on them.  All the students were then given anagrams to solve, rearranging scrambled letters to form words.  Those who were treated rudely solved 25% fewer anagrams correctly.  It doesn’t stop there.  Then the study had the students see someone drop a bunch of books. Those who had been subjected to the verbal abuse were nine times less likely to help them pick up the books. Mistreating others not only lowers functioning, it drains the compassion from people.  As Sutton puts it, “bullying turns other people into [jerks], so it’s a contagious disease that spreads.”[4]  A contagious disease.

            Disease is an interesting word.  Herman Waetjen was a New Testament professor right here at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  In a lecture, I once heard him compare the Apostle Paul’s concept of sin to a disease. Sin isn’t just things you say or do wrong, but rather it’s like a virus loose in the world.  He said if you want the best analogy for sin, read Camus’ The Plague.  The antidote to that virus, for Paul, is Christ.  Jesus isn’t just a moral teacher to Paul, he is that which restores the proper relationship in the world between its members and with God. 

            Think of the implications of understanding evil or dysfunction or…jerkery in this way.  It has a power all its own.  I think this is why the personification of evil in a figure such as the devil or Satan has been so appealing to some at certain times.  It does seem to function like a figure with a will, a power, and even a strategy.  We’re all living in a world swimming with spirits, the ancients would say.  This is why it doesn’t hold to divide people into two easily definable camps of good people and evil people.  We can think of candidates on the extreme who may seem to fit those designations, but most of us make our way through this morass with our waters giving host to all kinds of complex spirits, not all of our own choosing.  As commentator Douglas Hare puts it, “Instead of externalizing the dualism of good and evil, faith and unfaith by dividing humanity into ‘disciples’ and ‘Pharisees,’ we must emphasize that the dualism is internal.  Inside each Christian is a ‘disciple’ and a ‘Pharisee.’  The resistance to Jesus’ ministry that brought him to the cross is a resistance each of us knows within.”[5]  We all within us have things that work to have us overlook or reject the way of the kingdom and that which yearns and efforts to embrace it.  We are called to attend to our own internal ecosystems so we create an outwardly healthy one where we exist together.

            The Christ piece is somewhat mysterious.  How does this antidote work?  I can’t give you an entirely satisfactory explanation.  I can, however, invite you to invest in inviting the Christ into your life, your ecosystem, to cultivate the ability to recognize it at work all around you, in others and beyond.  One of the joys of our pilgrimage time last week was to hone the ability to recognize the holy all around us.  We also spotted it in each other.  Conversation made the hills easier.  Walking in step made the mileage more manageable.  Sharing the path lifted our spirits.  We can be the reinforcements for one another too, the good kind, because we don’t make our treks alone, even those of us who really treasure our alone time.  There is a kind of solidarity that comes when people join in seeking to navigate this landscape in faith together.

            Do you remember how I said it seemed as though we were being lifted up by angels unaware?  It turns out that was truer than I would have originally thought.  As part of our effort in trying to show the community the types of things that happen at Westminster, I daily posted pictures on social media of our pilgrimage.  One day, I received a comment from an old summer camp counselor of mine, someone I haven’t seen in close to 30 years.  You may know that summer camp was a primary source of faith formation for me as a young person, and many of these counselors were those to whom I looked up with great affinity, my heroes as a young person.  This is what this guy, named Erv, wrote as a comment to some of our pictures about the pilgrimage:

            “Lord Jesus Christ, You call Rob and his group to follow you, and they are choosing to walk with you.  Open their eyes and heart to see their life in a new way.  With each step they take, help them to be open to change. As they walk this pilgrimage, give them the grace to become closer to you each day.  I ask this in your Most Holy Name.  Amen.”  There is an old notion that the world is being held up by those who are praying, those you may never meet.  Occasionally we are graced with the reminder of those who are doing it.  So, even as you seek to be reinforcements to others, know that there are others who are reinforcing you from afar, in prayer, lifting you up.  In that Spirit, we can invite the Christ into our lives and our world, and that will help us continue to move forward one step at a time. 







[5]Douglas R. A. Hare,  Matthew,Interpretation (Louisville:  John Knox, 1993), 144.