I remember back in middle school in the rebellious days of about 1970, that a class-mate, Sarah, picked up on a new term that was coined at the time, “busy-work.” In our school newspaper, she denounced the whole system of education she had grown up in, as full of way too much, busy-work! It was a provocative editorial. Worthless busy-work was harmful to her, and every other student, she argued, whether it was in class, or for home-work. It was an affront to her intellect, she made clear – and she was the class valedictorian. But more than that, it was a whole attitude of indoctrinated mindlessness, she claimed, instead of teaching us how to think critically for ourselves.
I respected her – though secretly I had a crush on Gina, the girl who bent the dress code rules, and was expelled for wearing, of all things, a mini-skirt, just standard fare now-a-days! But anyway, I backed Sarah’s call for an education system that taught us to think for ourselves, in a world of great challenges to come. We didn’t exactly change the system, but it occurs to me now, that she was clearly against “the devil in the details,” and getting bogged down in the minutia of mind-numbing learning and scholastic baby-sitting, and demanded that education teach us how to master the details, in all we did!
Back in Martin Luther’s day, they were copiously familiar with the devil’s work. They saw it all around them in The Plague that snuck up on you and killed, 4 out of 10, of your family and friends. There was no other explanation than, this was the devil’s work, which some believed was punishment for immorality, exactly like TV preachers who blame their favorite targets, whoever they are, today. Luther mostly stayed away from the blame game, even back in the 16th century, but he did try for a time to save himself as a young monk, through self-flagellation, that nasty exercise of repeating the blows Christ took from his torturers, to somehow, masochistically escape the punishment of death. The opposite, ironically, of how Christ came to “raise us up,” so that we might live! But, the plague made everyone a little crazy! And, that it might signal the end of the world, was in the back of everyone’s mind. So, no one doubted that the devil was at work, whatever, or whoever, the intended target was. “The devil was in the details” of every life.
If you saw “The Dark Knight,” the second movie in the Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, filmed right here in Chicago, you saw a horrifically mesmerizing picture of pure evil. Health Ledger, who played the Joker, and who died suddenly at the end of shooting the film, portrayed a perfect embodiment of chaos, a kind of arch-sadist, who derives pleasure out of doing others harm, and can’t be bargained with. He can only be defeated by, The Batman. And the Joker knows who he is and demands he take off his mask, and The Batman silences him, as best he can. At the end – and I don’t want to spoil it for you – but, in a very Christ-like way, The Batman has to almost-die – he couldn’t actually die because there’s a sequel, a third film in the works – but he, almost-dies a criminals death, to take on the sins of Gotham, and save the people.
Just so, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, has come to clean the evil spirits, out the house! He comes to die a criminals death to save us, but first he proclaims the message of good news, with authority, and when the demons recognize him, he does not permit them to speak, but casts them out. The devil has been in the details a long time, and Jesus sweeps them away everywhere he goes. To those blind to the devil in the details, the leaders of the community, it seems that Jesus is attacking them, because they have grown comfortable living within the boundaries that the evil one has bent in their favor. The boundaries that once gave life and were set-up to protect, had become exclusionary instead. ‘Do not work on the Sabbath,’ was infiltrated with hundreds of detailed sub-rules. Jesus bent, and even broke, some of those rules, based on God’s life-giving meaning behind them. So for instance, he defended his disciples’ eating grain in the fields on the Sabbath, if they were hungry, and he dismissed hand-washing before eating, saying it’s not what goes in the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth. But, this casting the devil out of the details, fundamentally threatened the whole system. And after these first few weeks of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, the leaders in Jerusalem are already plotting how to “destroy him.”
Jesus “came out” to proclaim this message and enact it in exorcisms, to change the entrenched systems of evil that had overgrown the beauty of God’s world. The devil is in the details, because he’s in hiding from Jesus, silenced and inaudible to our ears, but at work in a new, more insidious way, than ever.
In 1985, the film Shoah, a 9.5 hour documentary, came out, giving voice to the stories of survivors, perpetrators and bystanders. Without even one emotional shot of actual Holocaust footage, it exposed the crime, which we have a hard time understanding, amidst the unimaginable horror of, the 6 million murdered by a single crazy man, in endless, everyday, banal details. Three or four times longer than the average movie, the documentary engages us in such bland details as a barber telling of cutting the hair of those who don’t yet know they’re going to the gas chambers. Of villagers recalling how they saw a steady flow of trains stuffed with people going into the camps, but returning empty, never bothered enough to tell the authorities. Of conscripts in to the army, filing paper work, which sanitized and compartmentalized their individual, minute, piece of the operation, so that it seemed like no more than sending out invoices from mom and pop’s small business back home. In Shoah, the documentary, the horror of The Final Solution was, “the devil in the details.” Everything was normal; everything was slowly possessed by death, in front of their very eyes, in plain sight.
We could look at our generation, if we dare, and ask if evil is at work! We have recently wrapped up a war, founded on lies, that has needlessly destroyed much of a civilized country. A war paid for, outside of the Congressionally approved budget, straight out of the national debt, while at the same time, banks, given the green light by our elected leaders, sold toxic mortgages to get rich, even faster, knowing it wasn’t them who’d be stuck with the default. Meanwhile, more than 20% of children in America live below the poverty line, and 1% of the people own 40% of the nation’s wealth, in the midst of the deepest recession in 80 years. It’s as if the chaos of the Joker himself, has infected us! Does everything seem normal to you?
But Jesus showed us how to stand up to the devil in the details. One by one, two by two, church by church, we pray for the Holy Spirit, to organize and empower us to cast out the demons. Today we have the opportunity to participate in one tiny action – to fight hunger. It’s not all that deeply, an organized event or movement, but it is a much broader organization than just our congregation alone. The Soup-er Bowl of Caring will raise over a million dollars from hundreds of churches and faith-communities today, and all we have to do is give a dollar. It’s just one simple example of organized people and money, to stand up against the devil in the details, to make a difference.
And so, as the church, we continue to cast out the demons of hunger, and then we celebrate it, as we do every week, around the life-giving table, where Jesus feeds us with the very bread of life, and bread of and peace.