Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.

The gospel today is about what Jesus did for a man who was possessed by demons. Every time I baptize someone, I make sure to talk with them or their parents and godparents about the questions they will have to answer, especially the first two: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” The reason is that these evil powers, these demons, are real and they wreak havoc in our world. Contemporary people think of images of little devils with horns and tails and say, “those things don’t exist, we can just ignore all that stuff, that’s just old fashioned.” It is true, that the little superstitious creatures of horror movies don’t exist, but the demons that Jesus cast out are just as real today as ever.

Last year on Father’s Day the gospel was about Jesus stilling the storm on the lake. It ends: “He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” This year the gospel begins at the very next verse, “Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes.” Jesus was met by a man who had demons. It describes how his life was torn apart and destroyed by these evil powers: he had stopped wearing clothes and he lived in the tombs, not among the living but among the dead. And as soon as he sees Jesus, this frightening, frightened, angry and pitiful man gets right up in his face. Meanwhile, Jesus has been calling that spirit to come out of him. The man says, “Do not torment me”—but the torment is within him.

Spiritual powers that rebel against God and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God are primarily characterized by fear and hatred.  In the world that we live in, we often attribute this fear and hatred and wickedness to the individuals who we see that manifest them. The fear and hatred of individuals may feed these powers, and increase their intensity and reach, but these are demonic powers and they are not in the control of any single person. Often people are not even aware of the ways in which their actions are associated with the evil that these powers wreak on the world.

Jesus says, “What is your name?” And the man can’t even answer. The demon within him responds, “Legion.” A legion was a Roman military unit, terrifying in its power and the number of heavily armed soldiers who could overrun another army or a country. What possessed this man was not a simple fear, or a hatred of a single thing—the demon that ripped this man’s life apart and separated him from all society was a whole constellation of fears, they manifested in hatred of life itself, and even when the Life of the World invited him to life, he said, “DO NOT TORMENT ME!”

A week ago, over a hundred people were shot in Orlando, Florida. Over fifty were killed. People rightly responded in horror and pain to the awful events. But when you read the descriptions of the killer of the people in the Pulse nightclub—there are as many labels as there are fears: “terrorist,” “foreigner,” “self-hater.” Honestly—it doesn’t matter, his fears and hates were Legion, just like the man who dwelt in the tombs in Gerasa, two thousand years ago. The powers which corrupt this world are complex—simple characterizations like you see being offered by some of our politicians and those seeking political office aren’t going to solve society’s demons like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. If we use them as amplifiers for our own fears and angers—or allow others to do so in our name—we just give more power to those demons.

And Jesus, the incarnate love of God, is still calmly standing there, waiting for the demons to come out of this man. Simple anger and fear eventually just go away. Sometimes, when Jesus cast out demons, they just disappeared in the face of his love and faithfulness. But with the complexity of demons like this one—where often the fear and the anger is interwoven with other things that people care about, or once loved or hoped for, this kind of power may be cast out, but it doesn’t disappear. The fear and the hatred and the destruction take up residence somewhere else.

Perhaps that’s the symbolism of the demons taking up residence, at Legion’s request, in the herd of pigs. The demon, like the human he possesses, doesn’t want to die. We see that today, when hatred of “the other” lives and feeds on itself and shows up in many different forms—sometimes they are embodied by people who are asking us for our vote or telling us the only way we can survive is to arm ourselves—because “the other” is coming!

Jesus is focused on the healing of this man. But the demons don’t just fade away—they persist and go swineelsewhere. There is loss—the herd of pigs is destroyed. Make no mistake about it: People are scared to let go of their demons—of their anger and their hate. If they gave it up—What? They might have to see this man who was once possessed by demons, living naked in the cemetery, who they discounted as human, sitting among them. They might have to accept him as their brother, and actually see him.

The man wanted to go with Jesus. He was healed and he wanted to stay that way. But Jesus told him another way to stay healed: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” It is the blessings that we receive from God that keep us healed. I thank God for all the healing I have received in this community, through the respect and courage and joy of Trinity Church which has upheld me. When we experience hope, or compassion or generosity it becomes part of us. The love of Fr. Newman, the dedication of Fr. Roberts, the generosity and friendship of Keith Warren continue to be part of us, even as they have gone to another shore.  God has blessed this church and continues to bless us.

On this Father’s Day, we remember that we have been blessed by fathers, both our own and those we have known. Of course, fatherhood is a broad category, encompassing all manner of men. But when I think of my own father, or the blessings that others receive from fathers, I think of someone who shares what he has—his skills, or his courage, or his wisdom.

What has God done for us? God has blessed us all, particularly in the love and courage and generosity of other people. In the church we have seen faithfulness, we have received love, we have been challenged to be followers of Jesus. And then Jesus got on the boat, and told that man who he had healed from all those evil powers to tell everyone how much God had done for him.

You remember, that man had found clothes and put them on after he was healed. As St. Paul told us today:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself 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.

Please turn to page 499 in the Book of Common Prayer

Let us pray for all those who died in Orlando last week and all those who died a year ago in Charleston:

Give rest, O Christ to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

 

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