Today is June 19, 2016, a new day from last Sunday where 49 Orlando people died, and 50 people were injured. It’s the Lord’s Day; a day to ponder and stand-up to the demons that continue to speak lies on how to fix broken lives and hardened hearts. Today, along with the words of Jesus, we will ponder how Jesus lived in a world much like ours, where violence struck out without warning; where multiple religions warred with each other, and people lived in fear that they would not have enough food, enough energy to live one more day, or show enough allegiance to the Roman leaders. And then Jesus is born into this world with a different message, “Love your God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbors as yourself.”
Jesus lived out his ministry for three years, and during those years his love for the downtrodden and hopeless resurrected hope that life could be different for all people, not just the poor or demon-filled man, as in our storyline today, but the wealthy who were heart-sick. Jesus came for all. Even us, who sit in our pews wringing our minds and hands in disbelief over the violence we witness, as we watch television or read articles nonstop to find a hint of escape or answer to the world we now live in. Because the bottom line to living in our world today is this, “We are not safe from violence.”
I believe our Gospel lesson today breaks into our world of insecurity and violence in startling ways. This story is the only time in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus deliberately goes to Gentile territory – he arrives by boat having just stilled the storm, and now encounters demons in a disheveled Gerasene man who rushes up to him. Luke paints a stark picture of acute alienation. The man is homeless among his own people; possessed by many demons, he is wild and unpredictable, naked, sometimes chained and restrained, living alone in a graveyard among the dead. This is a man everyone would fear and run from, and then there is Jesus who stands still.
Jesus doesn’t run away when a naked man falls at his feet screaming, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus stands his ground by asking the demons inside this shell of a man, “What is your name?” He said, ‘Legion’, for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” Jesus complied with the demons, and sends the demons into a herd of pigs who then run down a bank into the lake and drown.
To our modern ears this is a bewildering tale. As one commentator says, “readers who do not inhabit a first-century mental world, where demons are a regular way of accounting for unusual events and exorcism is a recognized way of attempting to deal with them, are liable to be bemused by this episode.” But, let’s not get caught up in the small details on how Jesus deals with this situation, rather, lets listen to the reactions, first, from the man who now sits calmly at the feet of Jesus, and 2nd, from Jesus himself, who tells the man he cannot be a follower of his, but must return to his home and declare how much God has done for him.
At this stage in the story we are more accustomed to hearing Jesus ask people to follow him, rather than sending the man home. This healed man cannot stay around Jesus to feel safe, but is sent home to deal with people in his neighborhood who may run from him, or doubt that he is a transformed man. The healed man’s plea is emotional, because the text says he begs Jesus to stay with him. And let’s not forget the people standing around who witnessed this act of transformation, how do they react to change in this man? They do the obvious, something we might do in church, they ask Jesus to leave because they are “seized with great fear.”
It’s time for us to enter this story. How do we handle the fear of knowing that we can no longer feel safe within the United States? It is tempting to do what the healed man does, ask to stay within the walls of St. Mark’s, praying together to feel safe, and giving ourselves permission not to act out in love toward those being abused and killed. But Jesus does not respond with apathy in this story, he tells the healed man to go out into his neighborhood to declare what God has done for him.
That’s our answer to fear and violence, folks, go out and tell the good news of Jesus. Everyone in this room has people they hang with, and you have a story to tell where violence can be silenced with love, just as Jesus did. Jesus could just as easily have walked right by this demon-possessed man, but he didn’t. He stopped and listened to the demons, and through compassion helped this man to become human.
John Philip Newell in his book, “The Rebirthing of God,” states that the word “compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection … even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.” Newell goes on to hold up Suu Kyi [Soo Chee] as a living witness of what it means to be compassionate. According Suu Kyi she says that “compassion gives us the courage to see, the courage to feel, and the courage to act” (Loc 466). Suu Kyi challenges us never to forget “that the other nation, the other community, the other family’s child is as precious as ours” (Loc 466).
Jesus stepped into the life of a tormented man, and told him to go back into a community of people he probably had no interest in or experience with, because he had been living as an exile, where his behavior was too crazy and unpredictable to be safe around people. Jesus knows that the man can only show his transformation within the midst of a community, regardless of the fear he may feel. Suu Kyi “teaches that the greatest obstacle to compassion is not hatred. It is habitual patterns of narrow self-interest (Loc 504). U.S. culture mirrors a narrow self-interest politically, socially, and often individually, as the rights of the individual or group take precedent over feeling compassion for others. When was the last time you heard someone express in the news, “We need to practice compassion?”
Paul says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” To be a Christian means that we are to support and love other people.
During the tennis season one of the parents came up with the idea that we would show our support for the team by wearing t-shirts which said, “We’ve got your back.” The team really grabbed onto this idea that we were all in this journey of playing tennis together, and started each tennis match with shouting this mantra.
Jesus practiced the idea of ‘having the back’ of the disenfranchised by showing his love through being present, sometimes healing, and sometimes reprimanding people who didn’t understand that love wins, not hatred.
I want to live the words found in I Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
But do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and
understand all mysteries, and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing …Love bears
all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things. Love never ends.
Love forces us to act. Do you love others enough to act?
Rev. Deacon Marilyn Roth+
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.