This sermon was preached on June 23, 2019 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah.
The Bible texts were Galatians 3: 23-29 and Luke 8: 26-39
Children’s sermon: Gather the children: Tell them that we are going to play a game similar to Simon Says, except they are going to walk through the sanctuary. You are going to call out directions using the phrase “Jesus says.” Examples: at first Jesus says walk ten steps forward down the middle aisle. Jesus says turn right and offer a high five, etc. Then regather them together. How did it feel not knowing what I was going to say next? It can be unsettling can’t it? We like to know what’s happening next. In our story today, Jesus goes to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. He heals a man who has been hurting a long time and the people were afraid of this man. Jesus heals him and makes the hurt go away, but the people were afraid of Jesus’ power to heal people who were very sick. So they asked Jesus to leave. He did and the man who was healed wanted to come with him. Jesus told him that he needed to stay and share and be a sign with the people of God’s power in his life and the man does. Jesus’ words in our life also have power. Jesus wants us to use Jesus’ words to share with people God’s love for them, even people not like us or people we would rather not be around, even if we’re afraid. They are all God’s beloved children. Jesus’s word in your and everyone’s life is always one of love. Can you remember that? Ok! Let’s pray:
Have you ever been asked to leave somewhere? Honestly, I don’t think I have…which is surprising simply because, well, you know, me. There are times when Mike and I voluntarily left somewhere as we knew our kids were being a problem, or I’ve left a meeting or gathering where I didn’t fit in or it was obvious the gathering/meeting was intended for someone else. Now, I have asked people to leave on rare occasion. Honestly, there have been a couple of times at some of the churches I’ve served when someone has come into the office seeking assistance and when we didn’t provide exactly what they needed, they’re behavior became unpredictable, angry or belligerent. For the safety of myself and others that I am charged to care for, I have politely asked people to leave. Most have, under their own volition, but a couple of times with assistance from law enforcement. And to be transparent, those interactions never feel good to me. I mean, we’re supposed to be CHURCH, right? We’re supposed to love everyone, give them what they need, care for them, forgive them…and often when I have asked people to leave, they bring this up to me. “This isn’t very Christian! You are not a good Christian!” And I would be lying to you if I said that doesn’t sting a bit. I feel like a big hypocrite. And I don’t like feeling threatened. Often my fear of someone’s unpredictable behavior wins out over the fear of being a hypocrite. And maybe that is ok but that tension remains because often it’s not only the threat of physical harm that leads me to exclude someone. I might simply feel uncomfortable because they don’t fit a social norm, or act in a way I don’t understand or are simply different from myself.
Our Luke story hits at the heart of this complexity of this tension. We read that Jesus goes to the opposite side of Galilee-to Gerasa. This land of the Gerasenes is one where Jesus didn’t know anyone. Based on the commerce of pig raising, we can assume that there were quite a few more Gentiles here than in Galilee and/or more Jewish people not adhering to the purity laws. Jesus was a long way from home perhaps both geographically and culturally. Sometimes you don’t have to travel far, or at all, to be the outsider.
Then a man possessed by so many demons that the name they offered was “Legion,” which in Roman culture represented 6,000 troops, basically ambushed Jesus the second he and the disciples stepped ashore. This man had been ostracized from his community due to his unpredictable and erratic behavior. The people were comfortable of escorting him out of town, locking him up, and sending him to be with the dead. They might have had some guilt about his exclusion, but he was dangerous right? But Jesus engages him and recognized that this man as a beloved child of God who needed his help. Jesus immediately commanded the demons to come out of him and the demons seemingly had no choice but to follow Jesus’ command to leave the man but wanted some agency in where they went next. Jesus surprisingly grants them their choice to enter the swine, only for the demons to discover that the swine were headed for their own demise. Now a little aside, in the ancient world it was well known that water would defeat demons. The swineherds were livid at this as their whole livelihood was destroyed by the newcomer, this outsider, this migrant man ignorant of their culture and lifestyle. They told the people in the town about the crimes committed by Jesus, first even engaging the town lunatic and second at killing their herd of pigs. This guy, Jesus, might be a bigger problem than the one who was demon possessed.
And then they go and find that the man who had been excluded, ostracized and isolated sitting with Jesus. Through Jesus’s words of power over this man’s demons (whatever they might have been) and by going where everyone else feared to trod, into the tombs, this man, whose identity had been one not of his own choosing , was clothed and as clear minded as any of them. And it was too much, it was too frightening, Jesus had come too close, trespassing into territory where he didn’t belong, it was none of his business what happened to this man and clearly Jesus had to go. I doubt it was a polite invitation to leave. I’m sure that there were angry, venomous words hurled at Jesus, name calling, ethnic slurs and worse. Jesus hadn’t come to make them angry, he had come to heal and to proclaim what God can do and is doing in the world for all people. God is crossing borders even if it is for the sake of the healing of one person. God trespassed on their sense of security, good order and safety to reveal that every person is worthy of community, love and freedom from what binds them. In Jesus, God comes uncomfortably close and that will turn lives upside down and make people at the very least uncomfortable, if not angry. If Jesus’ word could make a detour in this life of this man, what would Jesus’ word do in their lives?
As Americans in the 21st century we’ve domesticated Jesus into a guy who makes us feel good about ourselves, forgetting that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The townspeople in this story were comfortable with the order they had created. If some people have to leave so that the rest can feel safe and secure, then so be it. And I know I am more like the townspeople in this story than I would like to admit. I want to know that I can ask people who make me uncomfortable or want to turn my world upside down, to leave. I want to ask people to leave who don’t look like me, act like me, talk like me, like the same things, or hold the same convictions I do. Worse yet is when my silence makes my intentions clear that I want someone to leave.
And then I am afflicted, by Jesus, for my words and actions. Afflicted that whomever I want to leave is really Christ. Jesus’ word in my life reveals that I, and us all, are to see Christ in all whom we encounter and love them. We are to see Christ in the man possessed by demons, in the women, children and babies, some premature, being held in what we are euphemistically calling detention centers but are closer to concentration camps, in conditions that many of us wouldn’t put our cat or dog in. We are to see Christ in the people who come seeking asylum, freedom, a better life. We are to see Christ in people who think differently, want different paths for their lives, and we are to create spaces for them in our lives, churches, and hearts. Undocumented people are people: people who want to work, be a part of a community and have the right to be treated as fully human. People-who are different from you and me, and yet not. They are made in God’s holy image and Jesus is clear in Matthew 25 that whatever we do or don’t do for our neighbor we are doing or not doing to Christ himself. This isn’t a partisan political issue, it’s a theological and a humanitarian one. God’s political agenda is that we live together as the one loving people God created us to be, with no distinction as Paul writes in Galatians 3, that in Christ, neither free or slave, Jew or Greek, male and female, black or white, gay or straight, pro-life or pro-choice, democrat or republican, refugee or natural citizen, ill or well. Just as Jesus clothed the man whom the townspeople tried to deport to the tombs, Jesus clothes us all in God’s love and grace.
Jesus’ word in my life detours me from a path of excluding those who make me uncomfortable, to a path of walking with those whom I never imagined, to standing in solidarity demanding loving justice for my neighbor. A colleague on the ELCA Clergy FB page reminded us of our ordination vows yesterday: “Every ordained minister shall speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” And we all responded, “I ask God to help and guide me.” This is not only my vow, but it is our baptismal vow when we promise to seek justice and peace. Even though the townspeople ask Jesus to leave and again surprisingly he does, Jesus doesn’t leave them alone. He sends the now healed and whole man back to them to be a sign, a witness to the town of what God’s trespassing into our lives looks like-a sign of reconciliation in community, a sign of astonishing grace that can reach us anywhere we may go. Even when we try and send Jesus away, Jesus’ word of love in our lives has the power to stay with us and to detour us for the sake of our neighbor, to clothe us in love and grace and send us out to speak out, be in solidarity with our neighbor and to be this sign of God’s healing, hope justice and solidarity with those in need. Thanks be to God.