The Reverend Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor, St Paul's Cathedral
There was in England a Victorian bishop who wrote a very unusual will. It was short and written in verse and he asked that it be read out to all of his clergy on his death. It simply said: 'Tell my priests when I am gone, o'er me to shed no tears. For I shall be no deader then, than they have been for years.' Now it is no secret that not all clergy are exactly fireflies in the dark night of the world. There is actually one priest in the London diocese who told me his motto in life is 'Start each day with a smile. Get it over with'. And another in the north of London used all his vivid imagination for a whacking big billboard in florescent green outside his church to capture public attention. 'Tired of sin?' it said. 'Then come in'. To which somebody had scribbled underneath 'and if not, telephone 636354'.
Compare all this with our second reading just now, with what must have been an excited if not a bit baffled bunch of disciples as Jesus gathered them round and told them they had work to do. It meant travel, only taking enough to keep mobile and not enough to get comfortable somewhere, it meant being prepared to face opposition, about being wise but staying innocent, and even when their lives are at risk, as they will be says Jesus, they are not to be anxious but trusting. He gives them a sermon text: 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand'. Like many of Jesus' teachings it doesn't make easy sense. It's probably not meant to as his teachings were rather designed not to make sense but to make you. They are not informative but formative. His stories and teachings have their resolution only in what you do with them and how they change your values and decisions. They don't so much answer all your questions as question all your answers, asking who you have become in your life and then teasing you with the truth that God loves you just as you are but loves you so much he doesn't want you to stay like that. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, that is, God is in the world as poetry is in the poem.
But at the very beginning of this commission St Matthew is clear as to the ultimate brief for his own: 'he called to him his 12 and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to heal'. Now whatever they meant in Jesus' day by unclean spirits, it was obviously something that took over and controlled human lives in some way: maybe what we would call mental illness or a physical disability. Today we can hear this charge to the first Christians to cast out unclean spirits and think it's not really relevant to us here in our century as he's probably referring to something now done better be in hospital. But what if unclean spirits were still alive and kicking today? What if there were demons that took control of our lives? Well, I think there are many such spirits at the moment and, just as Jesus often named them in order to take control of them, perhaps we need to, in case we just don't notice them or their power over us? So here a few unclean spirits I have come to know in our day…
The first is called Gloss, the spirit of beauty and surfaces—a fickle being, incarnated in paper and adverts, almost a god so big she makes us all feel small and ugly. We are drawn by her siren voice but her perfection is impossible even for those who anoint themselves with her many sensuous creams and labels. She is cunning too—she makes humans confuse their wants for their needs and this leads to many tears. She teaches that life is survival of the fittest. Fit for what she never reveals. She makes objects into people and people into objects so in her adverts you can never work out if the man is having an affair with the woman or with the car. Gloss desecrates human beings and this quickly leads to them doing the same.
Obese is the spirit of gathering, of acquiring, who is never satisfied: happiness for him is having what you want not wanting what you have. And he always wants more even when bloated. Although people say he is seen on earth at the moment in the form of bankers, in fact he is found in most hearts that have forgotten that the best things in life are not things and that there is a price to pay when everything has a price. He is related to that contagious spirit who makes us buy things we dont need called Ikea (mainly worshipped on a Saturday).Together they magic us into spending money we don't have on things we don't want in order to impress people we don't like. And because customers and consumers are always right, everything touched by his commercialism is changed in character and the values that have governed the meaning and purpose of goods are eroded all in the hope that storing up is the path to happiness. How Obese laughs as he magically allows money to turn us into people we would prefer not to be without us noticing. Instantaneous is the spirit of now. She cannot wait. She must have fast cars, fast food, fast money, fast death. She is blind, never having the time to stop and see anything. She often gets into a mess too because she never has the patience to listen to anyone either. She beckons people to live full lives but strangely leaves them feeling empty. She is afraid of people meeting face to face in case they discover the joys of wasting time together, and so she invents screens and devices that trick us into thinking we are communicating but which actually add to our loneliness. She seduces with easy answers, and hates ambiguity, relationship, poetry, faith, art. She likes literalism and quick clarity.
And finally there is Punch, the god of violence and division. If hate can be escalated he'll have a go—if they don't agree with you, lash out. If they're different, slap them down. If they're not in the majority, don't invite them. When in doubt, just punch them. Now obviously Punch is the creator of some computer games, street gangs, film directors and state leaders. Religious leaders are often drawn to his clarifying power too. But also, Punch can be a subtle god and can hide in the consensus of the middle classes, and his punch can be made, not of a fist but of plausible, respectable, articulate words. Punch can be very charming as he drives around in his bandwagon. He can make you feel better even as society fragments around you. And he loves to play a little trick—he likes to make people yawn whenever the conversation turns to human responsibilities, refugees, the poor and marginalised, the environment and an endangered creation, equality, the danger of the market being its own morality—in fact, anything that Christians believe are very close to God's heart.
Let's not pretend, then, that we live in a time of no unclean spirits that need some casting out. We are in a pandemonium. The question will always be which spirit you have chosen to follow or maybe which spirit in the air of the day has taken hold of you.
God loves us just the way we are. But he loves us so much he doesn't want us to stay like that. We have all been given a gift, it is our being. God asks for a gift in response: our becoming, who we become. And who we become will depend on the spirits we allow to possess us because we begin to reflect what or who we worship.
I was very moved by the recent Battle of Britain service held here. I was brought up by my grandparents and my grandfather had flown in the Royal Air Force in World War 2 and he was a bit of a hero to me but he never spoke about his experiences, except one day mentioning 'Dresden' and weeping. I didn't understand then as a young boy but I grew up and learned why. He has since died but two years ago I was asked to preach in the reconstructed Frauenkirche in Dresden. He was very much in my mind. On the way to the train station at the end of my visit the taxi driver asked me why I was in Dresden and I told him I had always wanted to come. 'Why?' he asked. I took a deep breath. 'because my grandfather was a navigator of a Lancaster bomber and on 14 Feb 1945 I know he flew here as part of the bombing raid and he could never talk about it'. The man was quiet and then said 'ah, that was the night my mother was killed'. He pulled over the car and turned the engine off. He then turned round to me, put out his arm out to me and said 'and now we shake hands'.
That man, like me, knew the facts. He knew the horrors of that night, he had lived his loss, learned about the thousands dead. But he knew more. He had become wise. He knew how to make a full stop into a comma, how to interrupt revenge into something more true. He taught me something that day: that we rightly ask what it might mean to be loyal to the past, but the more urgent question is how can we be loyal to the future? And that is over to you and to who you become, to the things that you believe matter. And it will mean taking authority for yourself and casting out some very powerful unclean spirits of our times, like that taxi driver, if hope is be restored and we preach not just in our words but in our lives that the spirits are seen for what they are and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.