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.

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