Saturday, July 9, 2016

Promote the dignity and freedom of every person

A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino
at St. Bernard's Episcopal Church in Bernardsville, NJ,
on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016

Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 8:26-39
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "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.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
We hear this anointing story in all four of our gospels. This story of the woman anointing Jesus's feet or his head. In Mark and Matthew, the woman - a stranger or disciple? - anoints Jesus' head in a prophetic action. She anoints Jesus, the Messiah, which itself means the anointed one. In the other three gospels, this story is placed shortly before Jesus' execution. Jesus frames the woman's gift as a service, preparation for burial. In Luke, we find the story earlier in the gospels, linked to the parable about two debtors. Luke's choices about context emphasize the theme of hospitality. In Luke's version, Simon, a Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner. Is Simon hostile, sympathetic, intrigued? We don't know.
When I first read the gospel for today I didn't want to deal with it. I'm not interested in debating the reality of demons. I'm not interested in going off on a tangent about the herd of swine. We seem to gravitate to the swine forgetting how unclean they were for a 1st century Jewish audience. We wonder, why did the pigs have to die? Despite my resistance to preaching on the gospel at the beginning of the week my eyes were opened to the layered messages of the story as I read various biblical commentaries and listened to lectionary podcasts. God is still speaking to us, particularly at this time in the life of our country. And as it turns out, God can speak to us through a story about demons and pigs. Especially when Jesus is in the mix.
Context always helps, and it's easy for us to miss the contextual clues Luke has placed in this story, since we are almost 2000 years out of sync with Jesus' world. Jesus travels to Gentile territory in this passage - he crosses the Sea of Galilee. The location mentioned, the country of the Gerasenes, would have evoked something in the minds of 1st century listeners. It's where a "Jewish revolt [was] brutally put down by the Roman Army." A thousand rebels were killed; the city and surrounding villages were destroyed.[1] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus only does one healing in Gentile territory, and it's here.[2] In this place of shadows and pain, lost hope and destruction. Jesus travels by water for this healing, returning after the townspeople are afraid of his power to cast out a Legion of demons from man who has lost his identity to them. Legion of course is also a reference to Roman occupiers - a Legion was made up of 6,000 soldiers.[3] Consider being occupied by so many demons.
One of the commentators I read provides a helpful way for us to set aside our very different worldview, so that we can decrease the distance created by our different ways of understanding the world. This commentator writes, "all the 'demons' Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle."[4] This sounds familiar to most of us, right? Addiction, abuse, abandonment, loss, grief, sorrow, oppression, mental illness, anxiety and more impact our lives and those of our neighbors.
But what is Jesus' reaction to the Legion of demons occupying this ostracized, dehumanized man? How does Jesus respond? I was thinking about all this in light of this past week. We began the week with a massacre of mostly Latino and African American people at an Orlando gay nightclub many of whom were gay or lesbian and ended it by observing the first anniversary of another massacre. That of nine Christians, ordained and lay, African American leaders, killed during bible study in their own church, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, SC. Children of God killed in a gay club on Latin night or in their church, places that brought them hope, joy, and connection, and fueled their activism for justice, peace, and love. In this election year, such tragedies of public safety get immediately pulled in political directions.
In response to the similarly horrendous killing of a British MP, Jo Cox, by someone citing the contentious Brexit vote, the UK suspended campaigning for both sides. They halted their shouting about staying in the European Union or exiting this political relationship. And raised concerns that such vitriol influenced the killer. In Britain, they're not as acclimated to gun violence as we are in America.
I attended two ordinations to the priesthood over the past two days. Lorraine Harris was ordained at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Camden on Friday night followed by Ann Urinoski (who is serving at St Mark's, Basking Ridge), ordained Saturday morning in the church she grew up in, Church of the Holy Cross in North Plainfield. Both preachers mentioned the days in which we are living, the losses to already oppressed communities be they LGBTQI or Latino and African American, and the need to stand up for justice and demand change in a world that is failing so many. I was particularly struck during the Litany for Ordinations yesterday, struck by the words of one of our chanted petitions that evokes our Baptismal Covenant:
For those in positions of public trust, especially Barack, our President, that they may serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.[5]
As you know, I'm pleased that our Christian community includes independents and Republicans and Democrats. I'm not trying to make a political statement regarding who I think should be the next president. But I trust that we can agree that in these troubled times our next president must be someone whose leadership, in foresight even more so than in hindsight, can help an intractably partisan Congress and country so that our leaders together will "serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every human being."
Because that's what Jesus does for this man. Who knows if he was first occupied by the demons and then ostracized to the unclean tombs, or if he was ostracized and then driven to the state in which Jesus encounters him by his exclusion and demonization, his solitary confinement. I don't know. As is the likely the case for the mass shooter in Orlando there are many facets at work. The media suggests that it's possible internalized oppression or self-hatred for his own sexual orientation is among them. Perhaps cultural prejudice occupying his own sense of identity and self-worth. But Jesus' response, had he encountered this troubled young man before this tragedy would not have been with a gun or with jail or more suspensions, but with love. A love that has the power to release and restore. One commentator quoted from biblical scholar Jeffrey John, "The miracle story is not just about a personal exorcism. It is about the promise of God's ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict individuals and communities."[6] Disordered powers that afflict individuals and communities. Our world is full of disordered powers.
It's enough for Jesus to heal this one person, to travel a great distance across a sea to deliver him from all that disordered and disturbed him. The townspeople "found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." And they are afraid. If Jesus has the power to release this man, restore this man, reorder the world in God's terms - how might Jesus change their lives? Their fear gets the better of them and they ask him to leave, not because of the pigs in the sea but because of the transformation of the man from subhuman to equally human. We see that sort of fear hold people back today as well, hold us back. We resist extending personhood to another person.
Jesus does one healing in Gentile territory in the Gospel of Luke. Just one. This one. This man becomes the first proclaimer and acclaimer in a Gentile region of God's transforming love. He shares the vision he has caught from Jesus, an embodied vision writ large on his own person.
The story continues. At the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus' twelve friends are sent out. Jesus "gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal." And then in chapter 10 Jesus sends out seventy others in pairs, to share God's peace, receive hospitality, cure the sick, and proclaim the kingdom.
So when we pray for those in positions of public trust, we are also praying for courage for ourselves. Because we are entrusted by Jesus who saves us from ourselves and others, by the Holy Spirit who guides us, and by God who created each person in God's image, "to serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person."
We have work to do. We have to take off the oppressive cloak of fear and inaction, the chains that bind us to the tombs of the status quo, even as we shift into scary territory, territory in which we've lost count of how many lives have been cut short by gun violence. We heard from Paul in the Letter to the Galatians,
"As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; there is no longer white or black, Latino, Asian, or indigenous; there is no longer cisgender or transgender; there is no longer straight, gay or bisexual; there is no longer rich or poor, advantaged or oppressed; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise."
Clothed in Christ, heirs of Abraham's promise, it's time to act and transform the world in God's image, God's vision. As Lin-Manuel Miranda put it so eloquently in his acceptance sonnet at the Tonys, "And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.... Now fill the world with music, love, and pride."[7]  Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Rauen Sciaino.