Monday, June 20, 2016

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 12C/Proper 7C] - June 19, 2016 (Luke 8:26-39)

"The Gerasene Demoniac" Sebastian Boudon (1653)
I imagine a lot of people who are already a little skeptical about the reality of some of the stories in the Bible probably hear this one from Luke’s gospel about Jesus visiting the country of the Gerasenes and it puts them right over the edge (pun intended). It contains so many factors that stretch the limits of believability that many people just say, “No way. Someone made up this craziness. There’s no way this really happened or this world really existed.”

I know that even for me, any story that includes a demon possession automatically makes me scratch my head a bit. It seems to be more like the stuff of Hollywood horror flicks---grand but dark imaginations that stray far from the world of facts—than the telling of a true story. After all, we come from a time when very few people, or so we think, receive a diagnosis of demon-possession. Things like that have been explained in terms more acceptable to us now thanks to modern medicine, Freud, and pharmaceuticals. Not only that, but these are no ordinary demons, even by Bible standards. These demons talk out loud! They even have a name, which is weird, and they shout at Jesus when he comes near, as if they know exactly who he is and that he spells danger to them.

The weirdness doesn’t stop with the demons and their voices. There’s this part about the pigs running down the hill and plunging into the sea to their deaths. I mean, what did the pigs ever do? Where is PETA when we need them? It’s a genu-swine case of scape-pigging: the poor hogs don’t have anything at all to do with the demons, but they get tagged with all the ill effects and run out of town.

To make things even harder to believe, the man, of course, is healed instantly (when does that ever happen?!?), and we hear that in the span of one moment he goes from being a man bound by chains in public, living in the tombs, and driven into the margins of society to a man freed from torment, sitting placidly at the feet of Jesus the next. Yes, it is altogether reasonable that we, from our cool, rationalist and scientific perspective, would judge this story—this event, this world these people are telling us about—as totally crazy, unbelievable, and…if real…then a terrible place to be.

And yet, I wonder what a person from first-century Gerasene would say if they could look at just one or two weeks from the 21st-century America. They’d probably say, “Look! That’s a totally unrealistic world! Somebody’s making these stories up! It looks like they’ve got demons everywhere! Practically no one is in their right mind! For one thing, a few of them, every so often, will walk into churches, schools, bars, movie theaters, and shoot people. Then everyone else has this amazing, immediate ability through this strange power they call social media to let thousands of other people know what they’re thinking as they think it. They rush to judgment about each other and drive all kinds of people to the margins of society, except they don’t use chains and shackles anymore, but labels and unfair judgments and uninformed opinions. They scape-pig, or scapegoat, like it’s going out of style, blaming everything on everyone else, especially if they look or act different. Their religious leaders are often the worst at this! They all act like they’ve become experts in every matter, and although this ability to Tweet, post, and communicate digitally with each other should be bringing them together, it more often than not causes them to retreat into like-minded camps so that all they really listen to is those who already agree with them! And…look at all the bacon they eat! They’re concerned about this one herd, but look at the conditions they raise their livestock in to support their pork habit! There is no way a world like that could exist! And if it does, it sounds terrible!”

God’s creation is broken. Whether we view it through 1st century eyes or 21st century eyes, we can pretty quickly reach the conclusion that there is a whole lot of pain and heartache in the world, that things are not as they should be, that we are separated from each other by all kinds of anger and mistrust. Yes, there is good too, but sometimes the evil is just too overwhelming. Whether it is on a global scale, like the legions of atrocities of the so-called Islamic State, Boko Haram, or the gangs of central America…or whether it’s national, like the tragedies in Orlando and last year’s Charleston shooting…or local, like the tragic death Friday night of a beloved Godwin teacher and mentor, we are stunned by its presence and terrified by our vulnerability. Whether it raises its head in specific, violent events or whether it lurks like an undertow beneath the surface of everything in currents of racism and prejudice it still does immeasurable damage to us.

The issue with the land of the Gerasenes, which was a shadowy country of non-Jews lying somewhere across Lake Galilee from the region where Jesus and his disciples grew up, is that they seem to have gotten very accustomed to the presence of evil. It terrifies them, for sure. They try to shackle it and keep it under guard, even if it keeps breaking loose and causing trouble. People who are consumed by self-destructive impulses no one can control are so feared that they are allowed to live only at the margins. However, once such people are freed from their affliction, once Jesus makes this man whole and places him in his right mind, the people of Gerasene don’t rejoice or look for more healing. They become seized with great fear. They don’t know how to handle this sudden gift of freedom and peace. They don’t all suddenly draw nearer to Jesus, amazed by his power to overthrow the evil in their midst. That’s what usually happens. No, the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston
I was recently speaking with someone who was going through a tough time. She was talking about the tendency, whenever she was dealing with difficult challenges and loss, to look at what others were going through and momentarily wish she could trade places. The grass, I suppose, is always looks less brown in someone else’s yard. But whenever she’d complain this way as a kid, this person’s mother always used to tell her that if everyone were to toss all their troubles into one pile, people would still go through and pick theirs out.

That’s the Gerasenes, I suppose. They’ve gotten used to living with all the brokenness in their own way. They’ve made space for it, even if that space was at the edge of society and not entirely controllable. Some biblical historians say that the Gerasenes were more concerned with the economic loss from the lost pig herd than with the healing of the man. Others say that their rejection of Jesus shows that his mission is still, at least for the moment, primarily to the sons and daughters of Israel. Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that the Gerasene people see Jesus and his ministry of restoring wholeness and placing people back into community with one another as some kind of a threat. They don’t want new struggles, even if they are positive. They like status quo. They’re quite content to keep things as they are, even if it means that some people have to bear the brunt of the world’s brokenness more than others.

And here Jesus does something we might think at first strange: he actually leaves. He turns immediately around, for he has just gotten off the boat, and goes back to Galilee. He doesn’t force himself and his viewpoints on the Gerasenes, he doesn’t tell them they’re wrong, he doesn’t talk smack about them. He shows true strength by letting go and true compassion by honoring their desires.

But he does not leave them unchanged. The man who is now in his right mind is denied the opportunity to come with Jesus and instead told to stay home. The Gerasenes may still be content to live with their status quo, but in their midst now is someone who has been set free, someone who has experienced the power of the gospel. He’s like the reverse of a scape-goat. In a scape-goat scenario you pin all the troubles to one person or one group and let them pay the price for everyone’s sin, running them out of the village or the country. Here, all the hope and joy of new life in Jesus is given to one man and he is sent back into the community with a mission to share it. He becomes an icon of hope in a land of fear, a storyteller in a land that doesn’t want to listen, a believer in a land of doubt, a lover in land of hate.

Sometimes I sense we are overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world today. It’s like everyone is dumping out all their troubles and the pile has gotten far too large. We know ours are in there, but they seem in some way connected to it all. No one seems to have any decent answers for which directions we’re supposed to take, which makes it all the easier to fall into the trap of wanting to go back to the way things were, whatever that means. But today I know I’m looking at dozens of storytellers, a hundred or so of icons of hope who have been set free by God’s grace. Today Jesus’ boat has landed once again on the shore of this strange land filled with demons and with his love and forgiveness he is putting us in our right mind. On the cross he is taking on the brokenness of the whole world, and running headlong off the cliff of despair into the abyss for us.

And now I suppose you could say we are all reverse scape goats, running off to wherever “home” may be with the task simply to talk about what God has done for us. No one can argue with that, even on Facebook! No one can argue with what you say God has done for you. We all run out into communities that are sorely divided, and talk about a Savior who gathers a community where divisions have no proper place, where folks are no longer slave or free, or Gerasene or Galilean, or male and female. It’s a place where the undertow of racism and class or gender distinctions are to be wiped away. We are sent out by Jesus into a 21st century crazy, unbelievable world that is susceptible just to make space for its legions of demons and point, insistently, but not coercively to the One who will overthrow them.

And soon and very soon we will be living in the kingdom—not of Gerasene, but the kingdom of God—belonging to Christ, heirs according to his promise. And all of creation will be like that hymn we sang, where every line and every life will end with the words, “May Jesus Christ be praised, may Jesus Christ be praised!”


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 5C/Lectionary 10C] - June 5, 2016 (Luke 11:11-17)

I was speaking recently with a Henrico County police officer about his job and he explained to me, much to my surprise, that one of the riskiest and least favorite parts of his job was escorting funeral processions. I’ve been in dozens of funeral processions before, but it had never occurred to me that from the police officers’ perspective they are complicated and dangerous to manage. There’s a lot of maneuvering and delicate choreography, if you will, that needs to happen between the different cars to pull one off. The worst part of escorting a funeral procession, he said, was managing the intersections. In order for a procession to move smoothly and continually through a stoplight or stopsign, the police have to position their own cars and lives against the flow of traffic. It’s not always a guarantee that the people coming in the perpendicular direction, or those getting to turn left against the line of cars, for example, will pay attention. That’s what this police officer found so risky. For it not to turn into a disaster, the police officer has to rely on other drivers’ alertness and other people’s compassion. It must be a bit frightening to be so vulnerable and in the midst of such confusion as the living make way for the dead.

This morning’s gospel text, there is an intersection and there is confusion, and the living have to suddenly make way for the dead. The scene unfolds at a major stoplight of the ancient world: the town gate. Each town and city in Jesus’ time would have had at least one gate. It was the breach in the protective city wall where traffic essentially bottlenecked. Commerce flowed in and out through the gate, and so often there was a lot of commotion due to trading and bartering going on. Certain people who were considered undesirable and unwelcome in the city often congregated at the city gate, looking for help. And likely, every day there would have been some sort of funeral procession through the gate since bodies would have been buried or entombed outside the city. Just as one of these funeral processions, with all of its accompanying drama of wailing and mourning, is making its way out of the city of Nain one day, Jesus and his entourage are approaching it. There’s no police officer to make sure these two groups don’t collide.

At this point it’s important to realize that there are really two dead people in this funeral procession. There is the son, who is lying on the bier, which would have been similar in function to a hearse. He has just died a physical death and is on his way to disappearing into the ground. The second dead person is his mother, and in many ways she is the one worse off. She is in the process of dying a social death and is disappearing into poverty and obscurity.

It is never easy to suffer the death of a spouse. It leaves a gaping hole that can never be filled. And in ancient times in Jesus’ culture it was especially difficult for women who survived their husbands. They had no property rights and if they had no male heir who agreed to care for them and bring them into their house, they were utterly vulnerable in society. Their existence was entirely dependent on hand-outs from others, and people tended to treat them pretty poorly, especially if they were of a younger age. In fact, the Hebrew word for “widow” was associated with the term “one who is silent” or “unable to speak.”

That tells us something about what kind of future this woman would be contemplating as she weeps over the death of her son. Without a family she’d have no community. Without a name she’d have no identity. And without an heir she’d have no future.

There at the gate they run into the other procession that is making its way into the town. This procession is basically just a crowd of people following a new fascinating teacher. And there as they intersect compassion becomes the force that transforms the scene. Hundreds of funeral processions had passed that way before. Countless widows had walked those steps, fearing the danger that would come once the crowd put the body into the ground and went back to their lives. But on this day the Lord is there, touching that which is said to be unclean. On this day the Lord and his compassion is present, and we see the living make way for the dead.

So, just as there are two dead people in the funeral procession, there are also two restorations to life. The young man on the bier sits up once Jesus addresses him and returns to life, and the first thing he does is speak. I wonder who is the first person he speaks with? Wouldn’t it be cool if were his mother, who until that moment, as a widow, was bearing this label of “one who is unable to speak”? Even if the son doesn’t speak first to his mother, Jesus brings about such a transforming experience by immediately giving him to his mother.

That is the second instance of new life in this story by the gate, in this place where people are coming and going, changing directions, doing trade. Jesus’ compassion does not just resuscitate this young man. It restores this woman to life. It makes her visible again, and gives her a voice, a place, a future.

Christians talk a lot about being raised to new life. We throw that phrase around all over the place—in our weekly worship, in our prayers and hymns, when we baptize.

Jesus raises us to new life…but what does that mean? Surely when we use the phrase “raised to new life,” one thing we mean is that after our own death, we too, shall be raised to eternal life. That is the power of the cross and the promise of our baptism. Jesus, by his death, makes way for the living. He conquers sin, he places his own body at the intersection of evil, into the traffic of all that goes against God, and dies that we might live.

But before that occurs for us, before that day we are taking part in our own funeral procession, we say Jesus raises us to new life elsewhere, and that is what we see happening at the gate of Nain. When we say we’re raised to new life it means is that we hear we have worth again. It means we hear the news that we are not meant to be invisible, meaningless. It means the brokenness of what came before can give way to something better, that the labels the world applies to us or we apply to ourselves matter less than the dignity the Word of God gives us. It means we are re-dedicated in service to our neighbor, able to see that our life can and does make a difference in this universe. It means that, like the son in this story, we are given to one another, over and over.

New life in Christ is no end unto itself. Jesus does not enter Nain or any life, for that matter, as some kind of “Zen” experience, as if inner balance or peace is his goal. Jesus comes that we may rise from whatever death we’re in so that we may be given to others in service and love. The reorientation of compassion towards the world that Christ gives us—towards each individual human being, especially the most vulnerable among us—is one of the most truly life-changing parts of this new life.

Phillip Sossou
There was a remarkable story out of Boston this week about high school senior named Phillip Sossou who gave himself to others by taking the time to draw a portrait of every single person in his graduating class, all 411 of them. He worked on them during every moment of his spare time beginning in February, and this week he snuck into the school to hang them on the walls. It was an especially moving gesture of love given that the school, Boston Latin, has had a rough year regarding racial tension. When the students came in this week to see them a kind of new life was breathed into the community. Many were moved to tears. As one of his classmates put it, his portraits (which were beautiful, by the way) kind of made them all realize that each one of them was noticed.

That’s one way to think about what worship is in a congregation each Sunday morning. Here Jesus, amidst all the confusing tension of the world, is entering the intersection. He is entering and stopping dozens or hundreds of different funeral processions of meaninglessness and pain, division and discord. They are the funeral processions of those who file in here broken or lost by what life has handed them, unsure of what their next step will be and whether anyone will notice it.

And it is Jesus, in his compassion, noticing every single one us, giving the painstaking time to restore each of us to life…rendering us again beautiful as we are…handing each of us a piece of his own broken body and blood and reminding us we have a place, bestowing on us true dignity, and giving us to one another again.

And we witness this with joy, knowing God has once again looked favorably upon his people.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.