20 June 2010

Pentecost IV - Trinity III

The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
The Third Sunday after Trinity
Proper 7

The Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Collect: O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Let’s look for a minute at the story of the Gerasene demoniac; it’s about time somebody did. The story doesn’t get a lot of attention in preaching these days, and that’s a shame. There’s some really good stuff here, and it’s pretty funny if you come at it from the right angle. Also, it’s very handy to have it coupled with Paul’s words in Galatians. The two readings help each other.
First of all, let’s look at the issue that seems to get in the way of engaging it the most these last few centuries – those poor doomed demons. The fact is, the New Testament world had a different way of seeing reality than we do, or than the 10th century did, or than the 17th century did. And I’m confident that in just a handful of decades there will be a still different way of seeing the world – different categories, different ways of naming and organizing the stuff we experience. And so on. That changing never changes.
These days, we don’t do demons, at least not much. We don’t have a category for that. But it’s not a big deal; and it’s sure not worth all the effort folks put into trying to force this square peg into the round hole of our current categories. Instead of that, let’s see what’s going on here; and let’s see where the gospel is.
On one really important level, the story is a hoot – it’s somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. All in gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.
The folks who first heard this story must have loved it. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry.
What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the gentiles on the other side of the lake really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end.
Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves “Legion” after the famous and feared Roman legions, or that pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun. And most Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get this part.
But as delightful as all this is, this is much more than a mildly comic interlude in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It’s really good news, and it’s good news about power – all sorts of power. The Gerasene demoniac appears just after the more familiar account of Jesus calming the storm on the lake. In fact, the storm was on the very same trip that took Jesus and the disciples to Gerasene. Both of these accounts are part of Luke’s run-up to the big question Jesus asks his disciples in the next chapter: “Who do you say that I am?” In fact, all of these stories are hints about what the right answer is; so they all are not so much stories about what Jesus did, but about who he is.
And who Jesus is has to do with power. It has to do with which, of all the powers in the universe, regardless of what categories we use to talk about them, are the strongest, which powers will have the last word.
You see, there are a lot of powers out there, powers that can, and do, hurt and isolate and torment and destroy – in all sorts of ways. The categories we use to describe them don’t really matter that much. Whether we live in a world full of demons or schizophrenics, of storm-gods or indifferent natural laws, of illness or of possession – regardless of the categories we use, we live in a dangerous world, a frightening world, a world that seems at both first and second glance to be pretty much against us. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care about us or our pain. We know this all too well.
And the story of the Gerasene demoniac, like the story of the calming of the sea, like so many of the other stories about what Jesus did, and about who Jesus is, these are ways of saying that all of those powers out there, regardless of how we name them or organize them, regardless of how real they are, and regardless of how awful they are – none of them is ultimately powerful, none of them has or will have the last word, none of them will prevail, ultimately. In the end, when all is said and done, we are safe. And the power that Jesus brings, the power of love, the power we see most clearly on the cross, that power will prevail. And this victory is ours by gift.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what is lined up against us. Look, the Gerasene demoniac had more to worry about than his demons. He was also a pariah, cut off from family, friends, community, relationships – from all those connections that together weave the fabric of our humanity. That isolation, that apart-ness, was also the victory of powers, perhaps powers we humans create, powers that can destroy as effectively, and as completely, as madness or storms.
Still, by the time Jesus got through with him, our demoniac was on the other side of those as well. He was not only in his right mind, but he was, as they say, dressed appropriately; and Jesus told him to go to his home, a home he didn’t have when our story began. He was given the fullness of his life back. Remember, there are all sorts of powers out there; and all sorts of victories.
This is part of what Paul is talking about when he insists that, in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Paul is saying that these distinctions, and others, these powers of the social, economic, ecclesiastical, and political structures – as ancient, hallowed, destructive, and potent as they were, and as they are – these are powers that will fall, and that have fallen, before Jesus. Their voices are not the strongest voices, and they will not have the last word. It is our vocation to oppose them, and by God’s grace they should not, and ultimately they cannot, separate, isolate, define, or destroy us.
Because the love that Jesus is, and the love that Jesus brings, is stronger than anything, even the worst, the very worst, that the world can throw at us. That’s who Jesus is – that’s what these stories are all about, that’s the metanarrative or “big story,” regardless of the categories and the worldviews we use to talk about them.
And that is good news.
-- The Rev. James Liggett is Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.