Sunday, June 30, 2019

Following the Call: Sermon for Proper 8C, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

One of my very favorite movies of all time, one that turned my then 12-year-old world upside down when it first came out, begins with a silent black screen, and the simple words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” Sound familiar?

Then there’s a flourish of trumpets and horns, and against a starry night sky begins the story of a young man living as a farm boy in a harsh, arid, neglected corner of the universe, a boy who has been taught to keep his head down and mind his own business. He then encounters a wizened old prophet who will call him as his pupil—his disciple, as it were, even. Who will cause him to leave behind everything he has ever known in a quest to save the universe from the brutal power of empire, tyranny, and evil. 

As in all quests, the young man gains a deeper knowledge of himself and his potential, overcomes self-doubt and loss, finds exceptional inner strength through faith in a cause outside himself, and comes fully into his own independent identity as an unlikely hero. I don’t know. 

Maybe you’ve heard of it? But the movie has become so embedded in our modern culture that there’s even Episcopal jokes about it, like this one: you know you’re in a room full of Episcopalians when someone says, “May the Force be with you,” and the answer immediately that comes back from everyone is “And also with you.”

But the layout of the story was far from new, as even the writer/director of it would admit. And in today’s reading from 2 Kings, we get the end part of a story that is remarkably similar to that of the young hero named Luke. We get the story of how Elisha takes over after the great prophet Elijah, who is his mentor, is carried off into heaven and taken from Elisha, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi suddenly disappeared in his battle with Darth Vader on the Death Star.

But you may not remember how the story started, so I want to share that with you today.

Once, long ago—thousands of years ago, actually-- there was a boy out plowing in the field with 24 oxen, plodding along side by side in 12 sets of two. This was the boy’s life—staring at the butts of oxen all day, trying not to slip in their poop, trying to keep them plowing a straight path under the broiling sun, carrying water for them, trying to get them to engage in very un-oxen-like behavior by pulling a plow all day rather than finding a nice mud puddle in the shade and just chilling. This was the boy’s life—and it will tell you something about how different our world is from the world of this boy that that job was actually a pretty good one at the time.

This kid was actually pretty lucky. Unlike many kids then and even now in our world, he had a mother and father. He had a home. He had a field—which needed to be plowed and planted and harvested. But this was a good life. It was as secure as any life in the 9th century BCE could be. I mean, if worse came to worse, you at least had a field, and had oxen, and had a job.

One day, though, a crazy-looking old man came wandering up over the hill, and stood watching the boy plowing. The boy was so engrossed in his task he didn’t notice the old man until he was close enough to smell him. And--phew! The crazy old dude smelled worse than the oxen!

But there was a strange blue light in the old man’s eyes. There was a silence and stillness and power within him, and it brought that boy and his oxen to a halt as if they’d dropped anchor. The crazy old man may have had hair that stood out all over his head like a halo, but he also had on a fine mantle that stood out from the rest of his dust-stained, sweat soaked clothes, thrown over his shoulder casually. That mantle also caught the boy’s attention. As Han Solo would later remark, Who WAS this old fossil?

The man looked into the boy’s eyes, and some sort of strange shiver went through the boy as if he had just dived into a cool spring on a hot summer day. Without a word, the old man threw his mantle over the boy, and the boy knew. He just knew he had to follow this old man. Dreams danced before his eyes as that mantle touched his shoulders. Power coursed through him like a lightning strike and it was almost painful, contracting his muscles.

But he was a good boy, and wanted to not worry his parents, so he spoke first, and asked if he could kiss his parents good-bye. The old man turned, almost triumphant at this sign of what he considered to be doubt—what any of the rest of us would consider to be good common sense. I mean, this kid could have ended up side of an ancient equivalent of a milk carton!

“Do what you want. What’s it to me?” the old man hissed, and he whipped his mantle off the boy’s shoulders and turned and stalked off as if he had won a bet with someone and wanted to collect.

This response stung the boy. So he decided to show this old man he was serious. He took those oxen, still hitched to the plow, and slaughtered them, and then fed them to his dumbstruck neighbors, kind of as a parting gesture that probably made them think he had lost his mind.

There was no going back to plowing now, though. He then ran off and followed that crazy old man, serving him and the God the old man served, leaving his former life behind without a backward glance. That old man was the prophet Elijah. And that boy was Elisha. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in all of Israel—which means he was also one of the most hated and most feared men in the land, because prophets tend to be bearers of bad tidings and ill portents. 

God usually doesn’t send prophets around to proclaim that everything’s rosy. Prophets are called to speak God’s word to the powerful who have shut their ears and their hearts to anything but their own desires, their own lust, their own muscle, their own bellies. Responding to God’s call to preach and prophesy like that probably would at least give most people pause. Prophets like Elijah literally gave their lives to God, which didn’t mean that things were easy for them.

Even after Elisha was at Elijah’s side, Elijah kept telling truth to power. He kept rebuking the rich and powerful for their idolatry, for their worship of other gods—gods like Baal, a local storm god. Gods like greed, and oppression, and prejudice, and malice. And Elisha was swept up with along with Elijah, spending his life staring at the back of a crazy old man, and doing the old man’s dirty work, all on the old man’s say-so.

This is the backstory for our first reading from 2 Kings today, which tells the story of Elijah leaving Elisha a few years after Elijah called Elisha away from his plow, his oxen, and his home. Elisha has given everything up to follow Elijah, and not just follow Elijah, but take up the unfinished task of ministry and truth-telling that God still needs embodied in the world. Elisha knows that Elijah is going to be taken from him. He is concerned he is not up to the task.

Elisha has been faithful—and even stubborn in following Elijah as his protégé and disciple. Three times, Elijah tried to shake off Elijah in our story—and three times he flatly refused to turn back. Yet how can he go on by himself? He betrays his worries by asking for a double share—the eldest son’s portion- of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha asks for this double portion because he is afraid he is not up to taking up Elijah’s ministry—and he knows he is going to need help.

The reading from 2 Kings closes with Elijah being taken up to heaven by a chariot of fire, even as Elisha struggles to keep his eyes on the old man as he disappears into the clouds in a dazzling display of light. When the glare wears off, Elisha looks down and sees the old man’s mantle—that same mantle Elijah had draped on his shoulders back when he was just a farm boy plowing the fields—laying at his feet. And so a final decision: should Elisha take up that mantle, and thereby also commit himself to continuing speaking truth to power?

Now, here we are living half a world away and thousands of years beyond the stories of the ancient prophets of Israel. Most of us no longer worry about whether the harvest will be good, or if an invading army will sweep in and carry our loved ones off into captivity. The only oxen most of us see are in the zoo or as a piece of meat in a really expensive bowl of soup. What have we got in common with characters like Elijah and Elisha living in their dusty backwater that literally ends up being the nowhere at the corner of three great empires—the 9th century BCE version of “flyover country?” 

Maybe nothing. But isn’t it possible, that for all our modern context, many of us still walk around in circles, staring at the ugly ends of the brutish animals in front of us, going through our daily lives, adjusting ourselves to the scenery, no matter how disgusting or appalling it might be? Isn’t it possible that some in our society go around engaged in extolling themselves to the oppression of others, and others look away rather than work for the common good? And isn’t it possible that times like these call for people who can speak those truths about justice, equality, and hope—people who can dream dreams, and point the way, and pull back the curtain on our divine spark to encourage us to act on a faith that we as a society can be better?

Times like these call for prophets. Times like these call for healers and workers of miracles, even if one of those miracles is simply loving the people others say are unlovable with everything you’ve got. Times like these call for someone who can speak God’s truth into the world, even if that truth may seem to be the last thing the world wants to hear. Dare we consider taking up that same mantle today?

And how does this relate to our gospel? It’s kind of a harsh-sounding gospel, at first. Three times someone approached Jesus and says they will follow him—only to be told that, like Elisha, they’re going to be throwing in their lot with someone who has no place to lay his head To be told that they are not even to say goodbye to their loved ones—as even Elisha got to do with those roast oxen. To be told that even the strict responsibility of a son to bury his father was to be cast aside in the name of discipleship. That doesn’t sound like good news. Can we leave everything behind for the sake of the call to follow Jesus?

I ask myself that question as much as I ask it of you, because Saturday is the 2nd anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, alongside my friends and companions Maria Evans and Andrew Suitter—we’re known as the Littermates, in case you hadn’t heard. And I awoke yesterday morning to see greetings from my friends Andrew and Maria, and it sent me back into looking at the photos of that warm June night 2 years ago almost right exactly at the time of the 505.

We were blessed to have the Rev. Becca Stevens as the preacher for our ordination. She, too, is an Episcopal priest, and a role model—the founder of Thistle Farms, which is the model for a St. Louis branch of this social enterprise called Bravely, formerly known as Magdalene St. Louis. Thistle Farms and her sister organizations across the country seek to help women escape life on the streets by empowering them, by giving them a home for two years while they live in community, have access to medical care and support and eventually job training, selling home and beauty products which are themselves natural and made by women all over the world.

For twenty years Becca has worked to fulfill this ministry while being the chaplain at Vanderbilt University and raising a family. She was named one of 10 CNN Heroes of the year in 2016 for her work—you can search Youtube for CNN Hero Becca Stevens to see their tribute to her.

I was listening to her sermon again this morning at our ordination—grateful my husband recorded it for me. Once you get past my mom’s Big Hair looming like an apricot boulder in the foreground (she’s a Big Hayered Oklahoma Lady-- if you’ve met her you know what I mean) this recording isa great gift. The sermon was funny and loving and down to earth and wise, just as Becca herself is.

Becca talked about the readings we had chosen for the night, and characterized them this way: Lay down your life, and be happy about it. She told a story about how her mother used to tell her to wash the dishes, but be happy about it, and she felt like responding that she could ether do the dishes or be happy, but not both at the same time. She called this kind of call, which we see reflected in our reading from Luke today too, the "oxymoronical good news."

She talked about how the stoles we would wear as priests would be the way that God would take a hold of us and lead us—where exactly? We didn’t know. And I thought about how happy I was as she preached, and as I knelt there with Andrew and Maria and also how very scared, not knowing where we were going to end up or what we were going to do, as the hands of numerous priests of this diocese pressed down on us one after another and felt my head buzz. I felt like I was toeing the edge of a cliff, exhilarated and daring and a bit or maybe a whole lot stupid and foolish all at once.

I had no idea at that time that two years later, I would be here with you. And I have promised to lay down my life alongside you all in service together, pulling together as a team not for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of the truly good news of Jesus, and for the sake of the world that begins right inside our hearts and right outside these doors. But I will tell you this—I certainly AM happy about it.

Because another thing we have to remember when we hear this gospel today: we are never alone in laying down our lives in this way that Jesus calls us to walk in. We have each other. Just like Jesus, just like Elisha, just like Luke Skywalker, we are not alone in our calling, but have each other gathered around us, supporting each other, in this communion of saints known as the Church writ large with a capital C.

May we have faith enough in the promise of God to be with us, and put our feet on the warm dry ground of that pilgrim path. Take up your power. Step out in faith and hope, knowing that God’s call to us to take our part in the salvation story is a sign of God’s amazing faith and trust in us, even more than our sometimes wobbly faith in God. Sing out the glory of God’s loving-kindness that walks alongside us even when we feel most alone. Take up your mantle. It’s laying at your feet for a reason. 


Preached at the 505 on June 29, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on June 30 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Prayer 2344: Third Sunday After Pentecost

(Pride Sunday)
Most Merciful One,
we gather before your altar
to sing out our praise to You: 
lory and honor be yours forever!

Grant us the courage
to walk in love alongside You, O Savior,
holding aloft the banner of reconciliation
for all creation.

Let us proclaim the gospel of Christ in all we do,
and put our hand to the plow of justice,
never turning back from preparing the field for seed.

In your mercy, give us boldness of Spirit
and strength of heart, O Savior,
to follow You in welcoming all under your tent.
Grant your blessing to all who call upon You, O God,
and pour out your peace upon those we now name.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Prayer 2343: On the second anniversary of our ordination

Almighty One,
we praise You and bless You,
our hearts full with the knowledge
of all You have done for us,
and all that You are doing in us.

May we make ourselves instruments of your grace
and coworkers toward building the peace
You call us to establish for all.

Give us the compassion to comfort the afflicted,
the wisdom to inspire empathy in the comfortable,
until all live in safety, justice, and ease.

We remember your mercy and reconciliation
as you walked and healed among us, Blessed Jesus:
may we imitate You in all we do.

Grant us your blessing, O God,
and anoint us with your Holy Spirit
as we seek to deepen our wisdom and kindness.
Extend the awning of your mercy, Lord Christ,
over all who offer you their thanks or their needs.


Friday, June 28, 2019

Prayer 2342

Holy One,
let our prayers rise to you
on the wings of hope,
and may we listen to your voice
as we seek your wisdom.

Blessed Savior,
draw us into an attitude of humble service
joyfully seeking the good of others
as we minister in your Name.
May we reflect your tender love
and embody your grace and mercy, Almighty God.

Make us helpers and healers, O Creator,
walking gently upon this good earth
as companions and kindred with all creation,
remembering you have hallowed
all you have made.

Spirit of the Living God,
lift us up by your blessing, 
and grant your benediction and peace
to all whose needs we lift to You.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Prayer 2341

Most Merciful God,
we thank You for the protection of your holy angels
through the watches of the night.

O Comforter,
shelter and shield all those who are in distress,
and grant them strength and perseverance.
Enfold us like little children in your mercy, Lord Christ,
and forgive us our sins and offenses,
we humbly beseech you.

Make us gentle and faithful caretakers and friends,
seeking to serve others as we serve You.
Grant us wisdom and patience, O Holy One,
that we may replace our hearts of stone 
or hearts of tenderness and grace.

Guide us in pathways of peace,
and give us the humility and compassion to follow, we pray.
Send forth your Spirit of healing and comfort
over all who call upon You, O God,
especially those we now name.


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Camera Obscura: Speaking to the Soul, June 26, 2019

When I was a kid, I once saw a pinhole camera, otherwise known as a camera obscura. There was a lightproof, small room. We seated ourselves on the floor facing a wall, and in the wall behind us there was a tiny hole. The activity outside the room was projected upside down onto the wall in front of us. The tiny hole, or aperture, reflected that scene beyond our room quite clearly. But because the image was upside down, it was still hard to fully comprehend the images. Our orientation was wrong, and it took a while to adjust to the different perspective and make sense of what we were being shown.

I had wanted to see one of these pinhole cameras since I had read a description of one in a book, maybe Cannery Row or Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck, and he describes one of the main characters dancing across the wall upside down of the protagonist's laboratory. So here I was with the chance to see a camera obscura and experience this for myself.

At first, when we sat down, we were just in the dark in a small room. But once the aperture was revealed, and our eyes adjusted to the dark so that we could see, we could see something new, something outside and beyond us, a new truth, dancing just as Steinbeck described, upside down. Stare at the images long enough, and eventually I was the one who felt like I was upside down. I almost felt like I was about to fall on my head, like I was a bat hanging from the roof of a cave, like when my elementary gym teacher had us compete with each other to see who could hold a headstand the longest.

Perhaps Jesus is like the aperture in a camera obscura. He is the opening between two worlds and two truths. He shows us things that are outside our perception, things which we have walled ourselves off from. He is the means through which we can see that which is eternal. But what he describes, what he projects, makes us feel disoriented, since it literally turns the world and the world's workings upside down. He is God incarnate (a paradox to our cynical minds), the Son of Man who moves between heaven and Earth and tries to translate to our limited understanding what we are called to be and how we are called to live.

Look how he sets us on our heads in this observation: "As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

This line in our gospel for this coming Sunday reveals the very real fears a rational person would have, either then in Jesus’s time or now, about following Jesus. We want to follow him enough that we get the benefits of eternal life. We don’t want to have to lose anything as precious to us as our homes or our families or friends. Who would?

This is a very hard teaching to most of us. We are attached to the two lives most of us have, to the lives we have built, and to the lives we plan for ourselves. We have PLANS, Jesus! Can we get back to you later about that taking up our cross stuff? And yet Jesus asks us to give these up to follow him, to be his true disciples rather than merely his fans or friends or hangers-on. Of course we want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer derisively called "cheap grace"-- Jesus has saved me, the gift is freely given, so let's just go about our business with that nifty little "get out of jail" card in our wallets, keeping our hearts and minds and souls and actions safely insulated from any sacrifice of WHAT WE WANT and WHAT WE HAVE PLANNED. Like Peter, we want Jesus to be who WE want. We want our life in Christ to be able to be fit easily into our schedule.

Then some of us interpret this teaching as an "either-or" proposition. Are we walled into that little room forever? Or can we supposed to DO something with this knowledge right here where we are? Could it be that Jesus is calling us to live our lives, yes, but grounded in something more eternal, more true than either a monastic denial of the world or a callous embrace of the world's principles while claiming that lifeline of salvation. The image of salvation that Jesus projects before us is of course rooted in this world but focused on bringing the eternal Love into a world that sometimes we have made so broken? Calling us to reorient ourselves on the compass of what is good and what is true and what is beautiful, to see that we live in the midst of God's kingdom?

We see through Jesus what is real and what is eternal. There is a reason why he refers to himself in John’s gospel as "the Way, and the Truth, and the Life." Yes, he shows us how to live partly though his death-- a further paradox. If we spend enough time changing contemplation into action, we can open the door of that camera obscura that we usually spend most of our lives in and carry our new, reoriented understanding of what the place we are called to inhabit in the kingdom of heaven right here where we are.

This was first published at The Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on June 26, 2019.

Prayer 2340: In Remembrance of Jesus

Lord Jesus Christ,
we praise and bless
You, knowing your encompassing embrace around us.
Draw us into the joy of the Holy Trinity,
that we may make community and empathy
the heart of our expression of our devotion to You.

You offered yourself to us as a model and a teacher,
and you feed us body and soul
that we may be strengthened and heartened
to do your healing work whereever there is need.

In remembrance of You, O Savior,
let us welcome the refugee and the outcast
as You broke bread with all people.
In remembrance of You, O Savior,
let us denounce hatred and cruelty,
defying tyranny as You did,
and boldly embody the law of mercy and compassion You taught.
In remembrance of You, O Savior,
may we be builders of community,
proclaiming our kinship with the least of all
in the eyes of the world,
knowing that all are beloved in your sight.

Abundant One, Source of All Goodness,
create within us clean hearts and steadfast devotion
to be your people in the world.
Spread the mantle of your mercy
over all who call upon You, O God,
and pour out your blessing on those we now name.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Prayer 2339

The north shore of Iona, Scotland.

Merciful God,
we give You thanks and praise,
and center our hearts within your grace,
breathing out our gratitude to You.

We rejoice that we have been given this day
to proclaim the glory of the Living God,
our Advocate and Shield,
our Savior and Redeemer,
our Fortress and our Comfort.
May all we do testify to You,
and your boundless mercy and forgiveness,
O Holy and Life-giving One.
We resolve to place our feet firmly
upon the path of reconciliation
that we may embody Christ's healing ways
and make present his love wherever we are.

Pour out your Spirit of wisdom and peace upon us today, O God of grace:
comfort the sorrowful
and soothe the anxious or suffering,
and strengthen those who turn to You in hope and trust as we pray.


Monday, June 24, 2019

Prayer 2338: Inspired by Psalm 42

As a deer longs for the laughing brook,
so my soul longs for You, O God,
my Shield and my Shepherd,
my Source of all good.

Your steadfast love restores my soul, Lord Jesus,
and you knit together my spirit when weary,
allowing me to be at peace
while your angels guard me in my rest.

Take me by the hand this day, O Spirit of Truth,
and grant me the wisdom to serve You
by serving those around me
without calculation or judgment.

Mold my heart, O Holy One
into a basin of blessing,
that it may overflow with grace and mercy,
and open my eyes to see your wonders
wherever my gaze may rest.

Blessed Savior,
consecrate me to your service,
and grant your peace
to those we lift before you for comfort and strength.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Restoring Community: Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost C

One of the happy pieces of news I was greeted with on my return from vacation was that one of my favorite poets, Joy Harjo, was named the latest poet laureate of the United States. She is the first Native American to hold that post—she is a Muscogee, or member of the Creek Nation from my hometown of Tulsa. Her work is beautiful, rooted in Native imagery and yet relatable to anyone.

As I was thinking about today’s gospel, I thought in particular of one of her poems, called “Once the World Was Perfect”:

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn't know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you. (1)

I think the word in this poem that first suggested itself to me in light of this morning’s gospel was the word “demon,” since our gospel story is one that we may, at first glance, have a hard time relating to. We are modern people, and most of us no longer believe in demons, or so we think.

So I started thinking about other mentions of demons in popular culture, besides those scary movies like Constantine or The Exorcist, whose situation in the realm of horror/fantasy provides some distance between taking the concept seriously as a modern issue. Then I remembered a song by one of my kids’ favorite groups, a group called Imagine Dragons. Their songs contain thoughtful if sometimes bleak lyrics that nonetheless are not afraid to address some of the anxieties of our current age: pollution and inequality, the sense of alienation within ourselves that many of us have felt at times in our lives, and so on.
One of their songs, which actually was named alternative song of the year when it came out, is called “Demons.” In it, the singer warns his friends of the masks we wear in even some of our closest relationships. The first part of the song goes like this:

When the days are cold and the cards all fold
And the saints we see are all made of gold
When your dreams all fail and the ones we hail
Are the worst of all and the blood's run stale

I want to hide the truth, I want to shelter you
But with the beast inside there's nowhere we can hide
No matter what we breed we still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come; This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat, look into my eyes
It's where my demons hide; it's where my demons hide
Don't get too close--it's dark inside
It's where my demons hide; it's where my demons hide.... (2)

As modern people, we think we don’t believe in demons. Or do we? And we certainly don’t think of demons as a religious issue. At least not literally. However, during Holy Week of 2016, Fox Television Network broadcast a lavish modern production of the Passion story set in New Orleans; it was an adaptation of similar Dutch and British programs. The idea was to use popular music within the Passion story, and Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” was slightly reworked to be a pivotal exchange between Jesus and Judas Iscariot.

The implication was that Judas Iscariot’s personal demons—a demand for Jesus to be a political leader of a rebellion, it is now speculated, rather than a religious figure—drove him to betray Jesus, first, and the community of Jesus followers second. And if you re-imagine the lyrics that way, they become even more expressive of a truth with which we are confronted: that there are hurtful forces storming throughout the world, dividing us, blinding us, tormenting us and those around us.

In both Joy Harjo’s poem and in the Imagine Dragons song, there is a deeper truth that leads us into our gospel today: demons are those things that destroy our relationships with each other, and the power that can overcome our modern demons is the power of love, the power of empathy, the power of community in action.

In our gospel today, Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat, crossing over from the Jewish side to the gentile side. In crossing this boundary, Jesus and his disciples are expanding the work of their community into areas that previously would have been considered unclean. So maybe it’s no surprise that Luke records their boat as going through a terrible storm out there on the water, on the boundary between the familiar and the foreign. During the storm, Jesus had freaked out the disciples by sleeping through it. Finally, terrified, they had awakened him. With mere words he had commanded the wind and the waves to be still.

With a mere wave of his hand, Jesus had calmed the storm that swirled around them so that they could continue breaking through the social and physical barriers that they were crossing. There’s an implication within that for the modern Church as well, if you think of it. Our work as disciples will sometimes cause us to persevere through storms, as well, as we break through barriers to community that society has erected contrary to the dream God has for humanity.

When Jesus and his disciples land on the opposite shore, they immediately encounter a man who has a storm of demons inside him. If we understand this story as being about an exorcism, it may make many of us uncomfortable. However, if we understand this story as being about the love and compassion of Jesus seeing our needs and healing our deepest, most alienating wounds within even the outcast among us, perhaps that could make a bit more sense to us.

Jesus’s healing of the Gerasene man possessed by demons restores this man from the multiple oppressions and isolations under which he suffers. He is naked, superhumanly strong yet mute, and homeless. He is completely captive to the forces that have seized him. Perhaps it would be more helpful to name them in terms we do use today: he is naked, he is homeless, and he is profoundly disabled and yet disturbingly unpredictable and frightening. Those are some “demons” that we DO recognize, and they too rob people of their agency, their voice, and their acknowledged place within community.

Notice who is speaking to Jesus, for instance. It is NOT the man speaking, but the demons within him. The man himself is incapable of asking for what he needs, but Jesus’s healing love sees what is there in that man, struggling to be freed and restored to wholeness. This man’s demons begin complaining and bargaining with Jesus—and if anyone has ever struggled with one of our modern demons of addiction, this should sound all too familiar. 

Jesus gives them what they want—but even then, they can’t stop themselves from causing suffering and destruction even to themselves. So it is with many of the demons we encounter in our world today.

Ultimately, much of chapter 8 of Luke is not just about Jesus healing people, but about Jesus knowing us deeply, and healing us of what holds us captive. This is the first of three healings in this section of Luke that take place without the sufferer being able to ask for healing themselves. Right after this, Jesus will encounter the synagogue leader who begs Jesus to heal his little 12 year old daughter lying at the edge of death in his house. Even while the synagogue leader is speaking, a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years—for as long as the synagogue leader’s daughter has been alive. She touches the fringe of Jesus’s cloak and is made well. Just after that, word comes that the little girl has died—and yet still Jesus restores her to her family and to life.

Framed this way, we can perhaps see why these stories would matter for us today. This healing, and all the ones afterward that Jesus accomplishes, provide more than simple healing. The healings of Jesus are a restoration of freedom. They are political acts, in the best sense of that word because the true purpose of politics is the preservation and enhancement of community, of that vital notion known as “the common good.”

Our gospel adds another layer as Jesus converses with the demons and asks them their name. Because this poor man is possessed by so many spirits, they are called “Legion.”

And that’s an important word in this story. Those hearing this story from Luke’s gospel at the time of its writing would probably have been interested in hearing another healing story about Jesus, but at that word, I imagine their ears pricked up and they suddenly became very alert. Jesus and his contemporaries KNEW what a legion was. Most of the people in the known world two thousand years ago from Scotland to Egypt knew what a legion was. A legion was an invading army—a force of six thousand Roman soldiers, shock troops who would roll over a weaker people and place them ruthlessly under Roman authority and keep them subjugated. Jesus himself would die at the hands of the Roman authorities who held the leashes of the legions. Suddenly there is another element mixed into this story rather than simple uncleanliness or simple illness. Oppression. By naming the forces holding that man captive as “Legion,” the point is driven home as to the helplessness he exhibited in the face of the occupying forces that had seized control of him, body, mind, and spirit and had rendered him mute and cut him off from all that he held dear.

In the ancient world, knowing something's name gave the namer power over that thing. That may be helpful for us to remember today-- as the words we use for object reveals concepts within our thinking, shaped by language.

So let's name it: Our demons too, are legion. Our demons, too, are forces of oppression, chaos, and division. Just as Jesus demands their name before casting them out, it is important for us, too, to name them as such—to name them, so that we may rebuke them in the name of love and community.

What if we understood our modern demons as those dysfunctions, illnesses, and delusions that destroy community? The names we use for these demons may be different; but they are, indeed legion:

alcoholism, drug addiction—meth, heroin, oxycontin being just the latest scourges, or mental illness, which remains stigmatized even as we struggle still to recognize it as a medical condition rather than a personal failure.

But it goes on. Our modern demons also include the institutional demons of gun violence, homelessness, indifference to the suffering of others, especially when it is inflicted in our name. Then there’s grinding poverty and demonization of the poor, racism, xenophobia, dehumanizing or even “demonizing” those who are different from us—and I would argue that another demon is our tolerance or claimed helplessness in the face of those demons.

There is one thing all these demons have in common: they destroy community. And putting back on our lens as disciples of Jesus, community is one of the holiest works and tasks that we are called to embody.

For Christians, community does not just mean the group of insiders in each parish or denomination. Christian community is understood as being OUTWARDLY focused. Each group of Christians is tasked with not existing for its own sake, but for the life of the world, to draw all the world into the radical idea that we are all God’s children, all beloved, all worthy of dignity and respect and peace and wholeness—what our Jewish friends encompass in a beautiful and often misunderstood word when we use it: shalom. Another name for God.

This man has been not just healed, but saved. He has been restored to his right mind, and to right relationships with his family and community. He who was notorious for being frighteningly uncontrollable, is now encountered completely at peace, grateful for having been healed by Jesus, who does what the community understood only God could do.

But notice that the possessed man has no such trouble understanding exactly who Jesus his, for after his healing he himself addresses Jesus as the “Son of the Most High God.” A huge part of his healing is being given the understanding of who exactly Jesus is. Jesus then commissions the now healed man as a missionary to his family and his people by telling or witnessing to his story of God’s redemptive, healing, saving power.

The good news in this gospel is the power of Jesus to restore us to wholeness, to well-being, to peace and healing, even when we ourselves are unable to ask for it ourselves. The good news of this gospel is that we are empowered and commissioned by Jesus to name and repel all our own demons that divide us from each other.

You know, many people wonder about how to pray—and it’s made worse by the current attempt in some quarters to claim that all we can do in the face of the demons that plague is to send thoughts and prayers to those who have been brutalized by the modern demons of our world. What these healing stories suggest to us, however, is that when we need healing, prayer is a call, a demand for ACTION. 

The words don’t matter, as long as they strengthen us to act against the demons of our world. Jesus sees our needs and is willing to break through any barriers we may put up to remind us of the power of love and compassion in the world. And the most important way he does that is by empowering us as his disciples, as those who work in the world in his place today. So in this story, we may be the Gerasene man—but we also are called to be Jesus, to act where we see need, where we see forces of malevolence and to cast them out by our love, by our compassion, by our actions.

We live in a time of division, of fear, of alienation from each other. We live in a time when some are too prone to use Jesus as a divider rather than a unifier. As Joy Harjo noted in her poem, sometimes it feels like "we have no place to live, since we don't know how to live with each other."

Jesus show us a better way—a way of love, community, peace, compassion, and wholeness, a way of shalom. The Gerasene man is restored to shalom even when he can’t ask for it. How much more so can we too be restored, if we are willing to ask, and put ourselves into the healing hands of Jesus, and then walk in his way to ourselves do his healing work in the world—the healing work not of division, but of common cause with the oppressed, the isolated, the suffering?

The take-away from our gospel story today is good news, indeed, even to our modern sensibility: through the healing, compassionate love that Jesus embodies that we are called to heal and to love, to seek to break through barriers that divide so that all of us, individuals and communities, can be restored to our right minds and right hearts, molded in the image of our creator to renounce all that divides us and holds us captive, even if it does it in the name of freedom. The call of love is the call of relationship and community. The love we are called to embody as Christians calls us outside of ourselves to defeat the forces of disunity that plague us—to care for others, even those like that Gerasene man, as much as we care for ourselves.

May we too, like that healed man, proclaim exactly who Jesus is and what he has done for us—but even more what he calls us to do too: to be restored to light and hope through the love of Christ, and ourselves seek to embody that light for others. That’s real freedom, and real healing from the demons of our time.

Preached at the 505 on June 22 and at the 8:00 and 10:15 services on June 23 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a
Psalm 42
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

References/Links for more information:
1) Joy Harjo, US poet laureate 2019- , "Once the World Was Perfect," from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, 2015.
2) "Demons," written by Imagine Dragons and Alex da Kid, from the album Night Visions, 2013.