Facing Grave Dangers

Exorcism, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860)

Epiphany 4B 
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
January 31, 2021
Deuteronomy 18:15–22, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Mark 1:21-28

O God, you know that we are set in the midst of many grave dangers, and because of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant that your strength and protection may support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Timing is Everything.

He was a non-descript man, in a non-descript suit, carrying a non-descript suitcase. He sat, non-descriptly, in the last row of the Boeing 727 aircraft, in the aisle seat, sipping his pre- flight bourbon and soda… But before the plane had even left the tarmac for Seattle-Tacoma Airport from Portland on November 24th, 1971, Oregon, DB Cooper became the least nondescript person in the Northwest of America.

The story has become something of a legend. Cooper passed a note to the flight attendant, indicating he had a bomb in his briefcase, and was hijacking die aircraft. His demands were simple: $200,000 in cash, equivalent to SI.3 million in today’s dollars, four parachutes, and a fuel truck at the airport in Seattle. No political statements, no flying off to Cuba for a new life in a socialist paradise or demands for the release of political dissidents. Just money, parachutes and fuel. After landing, Cooper was given the $200k and parachutes, refueled 727, and released his fellow passengers and all but one of the flight attendants. Cooper told the pilots to take off, and set a heading towards Mexico City, and a set flight configuration: low speed, low altitude, and an unpressurized cabin.

What happened in the next half hour has entered into American criminal history. At approximately 8pm, twenty minutes after takeoff, the crew of the 727 felt the air pressure in the aircraft change abruptly. Now, some of you may remember a unique feature of the Boeing 727… the rear air-stair. Through a bulkhead door in the tail of the aircraft, crew could lower stairs that, in flight, were set flush into the tail section. These stairs allowed passengers and crew to enter the aircraft without the gatebridge or movable stairs at smaller, regional airports. But most importantly, they were gravity-operated. You simply released the door, and the stairs would drop to the ground. And in 1971, you could lower that airstair mid-flight.

The abrupt air pressure change signaled to the pilots and crew that the airstairs were open. The vertical lurch a few minutes later indicated something more startling. The crew opened the cockpit door and through the swirling air and debris of the cabin… DB Cooper was gone. So were the parachutes and the $200,000, into the dark forests of the Pacific Northwest. Cooper, and the money, were never seen again. Cooper had parachuted out of the back of the aircraft, and into mystery. The DB Cooper hijacking remains he one and only unsolved case of air piracy in American history.

Now, you would think an air pirate would be met with near universal condemnation.

Cooper put the crew, passengers, people on the ground in serious danger. And yet, in the Pacific Northwest, DB Cooper became something of a folk hero. Ballads, episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and a character arc on late ’90s sitcomNewsRadio, a Cooper Day celebrated by the town of Ariel, Oregon, one of Cooper’s possible landing sites. Even Disney+- has caught DB Cooper fever: a recent ad for a new series feature Marvel Universe villain Loki, dressed as Cooper, leaping from the airstairs of a Boeing 727. Americans love the one-who-gets away with it, so long as certain conditions are met. We love watching Keyser Soze escape the law in Usual Suspects. We cheered the dark heroics of Walter White as he escaped the law and drug cartels in breaking Bad. We like seeing the self- proud and self-reverential get their comeuppance by the trickster, the rogue.

In the Cooper hijacking, the people of the Pacific Northwest had a particularly personal reason for cheering him on. Beginning in 1969, Boeing had fallen on hard times; the US Gov’t had cut support for the company’s Supersonic Transport development, aircraft sales slowed, and by 1971, Boeing had laid off nearly 60% of its workforce, mostly centered in Portland and Seattle. A famous billboard of the time read: “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn off the lights?” 40 years later, it’s difficult to imagine Seattle/Portland as anything but the bustling metropolis of today, but it’s safe to say that many people in 1971’s Pacific Northwest saw Boeing as the villain, not Dan Cooper, who relied on his wits and coolness to outsmart the aircraft company using the aircraft’s own design against itself.

Sometimes, things just fall together; things just work when there’s every opportunity and every reason for them not to work. For Dan Cooper to become sealed into the American consciousness as a hero, everything had to go right. The weather had to be right. The FBI and local police had to be right. The pilots and crew and passengers, all had to be right. The parachutes had to be right. The cultural conditions in Seattle/Portland… Had to be right.

Today we have a collision of two things that seem to be somewhat at odds with themselves: we actually have two things to celebrate. We have, on one side, our Sunday celebration of Epiphany IV. We continue the ongoing theme of our Savior Jesus revealing his Lordship across nature, time, space and spirit. More specifically, we have Jesus exercising his Lordship over fallen spirits; they recognize who he is, and he commands them to leave. A sign of his Lordship that is unmissable by those in attendance. Our Old Testament reading and Pauline Epistle both testify to the centrality of Jesus’ Lordship over the spiritual forces at work in our world. Think about where this falls in the Gospel of Mark; in the first chapter. It’s the first miracle, the first demonstration of Jesus’s Lordship, and it sets the stage fro the rest of the chapter. This messiah, this Christ, this Jesus… He’s the one in charge.

It would be tempting here to spend some time talking about the weird-er side of this story, about how demons and fallen spirits work in the 21st century and in Anglicanism broadly, what the Lordship of Christ means in the spiritual conflicts we experience as believers. A strong, disciplined cleric would steer you towards Professor Michael Heiser’s work on this subject. A strong, disciplined cleric would steer you back towards Jesus in this passage and away from the weirdness, away from prurience of exorcisms and demon possession.

Unfortunately, I am not that cleric.

Anglicanism has traditionally eschewed from what the Reformers and the divines of the 17th and 18th century have referred to as “enthusiasm,” that is, a kind of fanaticism about political or religious positions or extremes. The sort of ministries that we associate with spiritual warfare today (deliverance, exorcisms) required a license from the local bishop to perform, and from 1662 to the 1960s in England, not a single license was granted. A high level of skepticism towards such activities was encouraged, even if, on a popular level, individual clerks and lay people engaged with a folk religion approach to such things. Anglicanism’s unique anointing in those days was a focus on the local, ordinary life of the Christian, the day-in-day out of daily prayer, of living according to the Summary of the Law, and in health and well-being with neighbors. This was the ordinary spirituality of Anglicanism, the spirituality of the “every day holy.” The Good News is that we don’t live in a world where demons and spirits are necessarily hiding behind every bad event in our lives, or every instance of bad conduct of ourselves or others. As a Calvin and Hobbes strip once pointed out, there is a serious question of whether we need the help from demons to be bad. Even today, when the ministry of exorcism is required, the bishop is still the one to give the go-ahead; quietly, and without fuss or… enthusiasm.

And it’s through this lens that we understand the other thing we celebrate today: what our calender calls a “Renewer of Society:” Rev. Samuel Shoemaker.

You may not know Rev. Sam. He was rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, running a program called Calvary Rescue Mission. It was there in 1934 that Rev. Sam became a friend of Bill W, an alcoholic, though there was no word for what we call alcohol addiction back then. Bill W and Rev. Sam struck up an unlikely friendship: the priest and the drunk. But other drunks got together with Bill W, and their “drunks group” at Calvary Rescue Mission grew larger. And out of that friendship and Rev. Sam’s spiritual leadership that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous was born in 1939.

As Christians, we have to be honest about the spiritual realities that we are surrounded by; demons are real. They seek to destroy lives, kill and maim. They prowl and hunt and stalk; but we call them different, safer, clinical names in a world defined by unspoken agreement of a culturally-conditioned, baseline materialism. I am, in my lack of ‘enthusiasm’ for spiritual warfare, quite happy that we are no longer doing trepenations to relieve us of the spirits in our heads… that is, drilling holes into our skulls to relieve headaches. I’m glad that we do not treat the mentally ill as demoniacs, and we have treatments and therapies for those who suffer from mental illness.

And yet…

As as this world awaits its Lord, we will still be a demon-haunted world. But our faith and our tradition drives us towards seeing exorcisms and spiritual warfare not as the culmination of a Lordship that belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ… but in the everyday, mundane world. The spiritual formation that Rev. Sam gave to Bill W and to the Anonymous groups across the globe bears a striking familiarity to the Anglican ethos: seek spiritual awakening through a conversion of life, through prayer and meditation on God’s purposes and will, and reflection on our relationship with others.

The good news of Rev. Sam and the self-revelation of Christ in Mark 1 is this: the power over our personal demons and the demons that stalk our world is not found in ourselves, but in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are powerless over our lives, that only a spiritual rebirth can restore us, and we turn “will and our lives over to the care of God.” Our role is to simply live and live simply. To walk and wonder at God’s creation, to seek him out for restoration when we need restoration, to seek others out when we need restoration with them. That is what makes Christians extraordinary: the ordinary, day-in-day-out of experiencing the love of God, and the experience of sharing that Love with others. Nondescript Christians, doing the extraordinary Gospel of being ordinary followers of Christ. That’s how we declare our faith in a risen Lord who can command demons to flee and the waters to be still and death to be destroyed: day by day, instant by instant, loving God and the children of God extraordinarily in every ordinary encounter by ordinary encounter by ordinary encounter. That’s how we defeat demons: by loving one another.

It is likely that when Dan Cooper jumped from that aircraft that he did not survive his jump. In February of 1980, two 100-bill stacks of $20 bills washed up on the Columbia River; the two stacks were from Cooper’s ransom money. A month later, Mount St. Helens erupted less than 10 miles from DB Cooper’s supposed landing site. Any trace of the mysterious air pirate is likely buried under the ash and tephra of the volcano.

There is one, final, extraordinary wrinkle in the DB Cooper story: the plane itself. The plane re-entered service with its airline, sold several times before finding a final home with the US Air Force civilian charter fleet. It was used as a shuttle to move workers between Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas to an installation on the edge of a dry lakebed in the Nevada desert: a spot you know as Area 51. Just a non-descript plane, with non-descript people doing ordinary things, and becoming extraordinary.

Amen.

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