Terror and the Kingdom of God: A sermon for Proper 7C

This sermon, offered at The Church of the Atonement in Fish Creek Wisconsin, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 7C in the Revised Common Lectionary. 

You can find those readings here

 

In today’s Gospel reading Luke the Evangelist drags us right into the middle of what, for the disciples and for Luke’s readers, would have been a real nightmare.

On the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in a country populated by a foreign people, people who looked different, who spoke another language, people who neither valued or observed their religious traditions and customs, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a man, bloodied and bruised by the chains used to bind him, who can’t even speak his own name because he is so tormented by the demons that afflict him.

In just a few short sentences Luke has set up a horror story better than most of the movies we’ll find on late night TV.

Now I don’t know where a boat trip across the water to a foreign land, populated by people who look different from us, people who speak a different language and worship differently than us, people who have spent time among the dead bound by chains would rank on your hierarchy of horror…

Come to think of it… I guess there are a lot of people today who do in fact find that pretty scary prospect…

But the demons, I think that the demons we encounter in this story have to rank up there pretty high on our list of scary stuff.

Now, that may be a hard line to swallow, talk about demons in church can make Episcopalians pretty squeamish, but just let’s just run with this for a few minutes.

We could spend a lot of time talking about what Jesus and his contemporaries meant when they referred to demons. And we could spend a lot of time talking about what we mean when we say a person is tormented by demons, and yes we do still use those words… but I’m not sure that either of those conversations would result in consensus or even general agreement. I am however, willing to bet that we could all agree just what those demons, whatever they are, just what the demonic, whatever that is, do to people and to communities where they manifest themselves.

Luke describes it pretty well. This man that we encounter today doesn’t live in a house. He lives in the tombs. He is separated from his family, from the community into which he was born, and is living with the dead. If the demons weren’t enough to drive him from his home, to disrupt his relationship with the people around him, his contact with the dead makes him ritually unclean and so people now want to do everything they can to avoid him. This man’s demons, the demonic within him have alienated him, driven him from his community. They have ruptured his communion with the people whom he loves and whom we may suppose once loved him. That should sound familiar to all of us. We’ve all seen that happen. And we all know that it gets worse!

When Jesus asks this man his name he can’t answer. The best that he can do is offer the number of demons that were torturing him… Legion… “Legion” was a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman Army. Those demons, the demonic, had obliterated his very identity, he no longer knew who his own name, he had lost his sense of who he was. The demons had ruptured his communion even with himself.

And now unable even to utter his own name this man is alone, in the dark, living among the dead.

 

It’s important to focus on the effect that these demons have had on this man rather than on the demons themselves because it is the person, the child of God standing before him with whom Jesus is concerned. He is much less interested in the demons than he is in the person in need… And by placing the emphasis on the effect that the demonic has on people we are better able to see just what it is that Jesus is does in the midst of a terrible nightmare like this.

Luke tells us:

“Then the people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

Sitting at Jesus’s feet. In his right mind… By casting out whatever it was that was tormenting him Jesus has called him to remember who he was, Jesus has given him back his name, identity. He has restored this man to communion with himself and, as he sits there at Jesus’s feet, with God. In so doing Jesus has given him the opportunity to be restored to communion with his family, with his community, and with the world around him.

That’s not really surprising because that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to teach us a new way of being together, a new way of being in communion with God and with one another, a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Communion, community, establishing the kingdom of God… that’s what Jesus is about. Bringing God’s vision, God’s dream for creation to fruition here and now.

Confronted with this broken community and this man who was estranged, alienated, cut off from himself and the people around him… Jesus was bound to do something to reconcile them all, to themselves, to one another, and to God.

 

So now I have to ask… What do you think? Did it work? Was Jesus able to restore this person to the life God wanted for him? Was Jesus able to bring this tormented person back into communion with himself and with his neighbors?   The Gospel leaves that question unanswered. We know that the man, having been relieved of his torment, wanted to follow Jesus and Jesus sent him home to tell people all that God had done for him… but we don’t know how he was received by the people who had cast him out. Luke leaves us to wonder…

But while Luke doesn’t tell us the conclusion of the possessed man’s story… he does tell us something about the way the people in the city and the surrounding countryside responded to what Jesus had done. And their response leaves us with some pretty profound questions…

Luke tells us:

“Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”

Why weren’t they ecstatic that one of their own had been healed of the demons that tormented him? Why weren’t they celebrating the fact that someone who had been lost was found, that someone who had been living among the dead was now restored to life? Why in the world would they be afraid and ask Jesus lo leave? Why weren’t they lining up to bring others to Jesus to be restored to the life of the community?

Maybe, maybe it was that herd of swine that rushed down the steep slope and was drowned. Maybe the financial cost of saving someone, of rescuing them from the demons that tormented them, of restoring them to communion with themselves, with God, and with the community was just to high. Maybe they weren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice for someone else’s sake.

Maybe they were afraid of the way that restoring this person to the life of the community might change the dynamics of the community itself. How would he fit in? What would he expect from them? Would his presence in their midst call them to change? How were they supposed to relate to this person whom they had so recently tried to bind with chains?

And speaking of those chains… If this person were restored to the community how would they live with the fact that they had, for years, tried to imprison and chain him? If it was actually possible to restore someone like this to communion with the community… why didn’t they seek help for him, why didn’t they do all in their own power to heal him? Why did they compound his misery by tossing him out and locking him away?

They were seized by fear and asked Jesus to leave. It seems pretty clear that the demons in this story were having an impact far beyond the individual person they were inhabiting. They asked Jesus to leave them.

 

Let’s be clear.

The threat posed by someone who is tormented by demons is real. That person may be a Gerasene who lives among the tombs or they may be a tortured, self loathing, hate filled person with an assault rifle. Either way, the immediate danger that person poses to us is real.

But the story of the people of Gerasene’s response to Jesus healing, Jesus restoring, Jesus reconciling someone who had been identified as a threat reveals an even greater danger.

God calls us to communion with God and with one another; a communion founded on the willingness to take care of, to sacrifice for one another; a communion that grows out of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like and that’s what Jesus came to bring.

The real danger in outbursts of the demonic and the terror they cause is that we will all become infected.

That rather than work for reconciliation and communion we will build walls that further divide us.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will hold tight to what we believe is ours, refusing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect ourselves and our children because we deem the cost too high. The danger is that we will pull back into our entrenched positions, allowing the status quo to continue to consume the innocent.

The real danger in a moment like this is that we will find ourselves too afraid to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves because someone has labeled that neighbor a threat.

The real danger in moments like this is that we will become so fearful and defensive that we refuse to examine our own culpability in our failure to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

If we succumb to these dangers then the Demons, the terrorists, have won. Demons and terrorists aren’t nearly as concerned with their immediate victims as they are with the ripple effect of their deeds. Their real goal is to infect entire communities with terror, fear, anger, and hatred; to disrupt our communion with one another and with God. To make us forget who, and whose, we are.

 

We have to remember who we are and whose we are. We have to remember why Jesus came among us and what he taught us. We have to remember the promises we make every time we renew our baptismal vows. We have to fight to keep loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves because…

Because the greatest danger of all,

in a moment like this

is that we will be so seized with fear

that we ask Jesus to leave…

 

Amen

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If this Man were a Prophet: A sermon for Proper 6 C

This sermon offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on June 12, 2016, is built on the readings for Proper 6 in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

 

I remember sitting with Suzanne and her family at her Grandmother’s house one day when someone went to the coat closet in the front hallway and pulled down a large square package. Inside was a beautiful old bible bound in tooled leather, with a metal clasp that clipped into the cover to hold the book closed. That bible, deposited in my lap must have weighed at least ten pounds and I am sure it cost a small fortune when it was new.

Gently opening the cover we discovered an ornately ornamented announcing the date the Bible was given, the presenters and the recipients. There were pages that allowed you to keep track of important family dates: births and baptisms, marriages and grandchildren, and the deaths of members of the family. Having been printed by a Methodist press the family record and genealogy pages were followed by a page that offered the family the opportunity to sign a temperance pledge… interestingly blank in this bible… and then a piece of thin tissue paper, protecting the first full page illustration in the volume…

There he was. Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian of Semitic origin, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob and Rachel, staring back at me with beautiful blue eyes and a head of long wavy blonde hair that would make any high fashion model proud!

I am sure that we have all seen this image of Jesus. He may be sitting peacefully under a tree with his hands in his lap looking at directly at us. He may be coming towards us with the newly recovered lamb on his shoulders. Or he may be standing there with his arms outstretched in welcome, a heavenly backlight ensuring that we know exactly who this attractive and welcoming figure is.

 

While Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph, in first century Palestine, in a town called Bethlehem, almost certainly didn’t look like the model in the shampoo ad that seems to adorn so many of the bibles on our bookshelves it’s really not surprising that we would portray him this way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us as one of us, belongs to all people, for all time, and his identity as the Son of God transcends any boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, or country.

Google “faces of Jesus” and you will find representations of the one we call the Christ with the physical and cultural characteristics of pretty much every people in the world.

How do we experience Jesus today? It is only natural, and I might argue appropriate, that we would experience and depict him as one of us.

Natural and appropriate, that is of course, as long as we don’t try to claim that our representation is the only one that is valid and deny other people’s representations… as long as we don’t find ourselves feeling indignant or offended by portrayals of Jesus as black, and Hispanic, as Hmong… That is a real danger against which we need to be vigilant and aware.

 

I think that there is another danger though, one that is highlighted in our gospel reading from Luke today but in order to see it we need a quick review of Jesus’s ministry up to this point in the story.

At twelve years old Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem while his family headed for home. Three days later when his panicked parents finally found teaching the teachers his response to their distress was, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

After his baptism in the river Jordan and temptation in the wilderness Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth where he proclaims that in him, Isaiah’s prophecy describing the restoration of the kingdom, the year of jubilee is fulfilled. His people are understandably excited and proud.

But when Jesus points out that the people of Nazareth don’t have any special claim on him, and that God’s grace, mercy, and love extend beyond the people of Israel his hometown crowd tries to throw him off a cliff!

During his ministry in the Galilee Jesus regularly comes into contact and interacts with lepers defying the purity laws and risking being declared ritually unclean.

Word that Jesus is in town healing people, and the crush of the crowd to see him, leads a group of folks to tear the roof off a house in their efforts to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus and in healing him Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins.

Jesus eats with tax collectors, Israelites who are collaborating with Rome and calls one of them as a disciple.

Jesus defends his followers for plucking grain on the Sabbath and claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus heals the servant of the ultimate outsider, a Roman Centurion, and holds the centurion up as a paragon of faith.

And he offers harsh critiques of the people of Israel and their lack of faith.

 

Jesus has been pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging people to examine themselves and their beliefs. He has been defying convention, disregarding tradition, and creating conflict between the people and the authorities.

I am sure that people were struggling with this man. Who is he? By what authority does he do and say these things?

I would guess that these were the questions on the mind of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner today. He invited Jesus to his home so that he could see for himself, so he could question and examine this troublemaker who was gaining such a following among the people.

Given Jesus’s history to this point the Pharisee shouldn’t have been too surprised that Jesus’s presence at his dinner table caused a ruckus: allowing a woman to touch him in a public place, a woman who was notorious in her community. If Jesus was a true prophet he would have known all of that and rejected her.

But Jesus didn’t send her away. His actions made the Pharisee and his friends uncomfortable, he rocked the boat, he pushed them to, and eventually beyond their limits… He kept pushing them right up to the moment that they abandoned and crucified him. How could Jesus be a prophet, the Messiah?

 

Some two thousand years later, we are here today affirming Jesus as “The Prophet.” We are here today affirming Jesus as The Messiah: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”

So here’s the danger in our blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus.

Do the blonde hair and blue eyes of a Jesus who looks like “us” mean that we have domesticated him, taken away the rough edges, anything that might be threatening?

Have we made him so beautiful and benign because we are afraid of a prophet who pushes the envelope, breaks the rules, challenges us to examine ourselves and our beliefs? Are we ready to embrace a Messiah who defies convention, disregards tradition, and creates conflict between the people and the authorities?

What if the full-page color illustrations in our bibles depicted Jesus wearing a hoodie with six inches of his boxers showing above his jeans? What if they depicted Jesus with tattoos on his arms and a mohawk, hanging out on the street corner talking to the homeless and the unemployed? What if those illustrations in our bible depicted Jesus in dirty ragged clothes eating at a soup kitchen, washing the feet of people who were in danger of losing hope…

If that’s the way our bibles depicted him would we be less likely to embrace the words of our creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father.”

If Jesus didn’t look like “us,” but instead looked like “them” might we be quoting the Pharisee… “If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what kind of people he is associating with… He would have known that they are people who make us uncomfortable, who aren’t like us, who don’t get invited to dinner parties…”

 

Do we come to this table to be affirmed as we are and loved by a God who looks just like us, a God who just wants to fit in…? Or are we prepared to come to this table to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, to have our boat rocked, to be changed and to be driven into the wilderness, called to live out our faith in the public arena; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

 

Ok. So maybe I have a bigger problem with the blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus than I realized. Because if that’s the Jesus we had our hearts set on when we came here this morning then I am afraid we are going to be sorely disappointed.

If, however, we have our hearts set on the Jesus who walked the earth in first century Palestine, the Jesus whose presence calls to us through the Holy Spirit today, the Jesus who is still out there pushing the envelope, breaking the rules, challenging our understanding of ourselves and of God, and working to touch all of us, all of us, especially the lost and the broken, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, the marginalized and the oppressed… Then our hopes today will be met.

Because that Jesus, the first century Palestinian Jew shoes life, death, and resurrection changed the world is here, calling us to follow him into the neighborhood where we can ask folk who don’t look like us what Jesus looks like to them.

Amen