The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 7—Year C; Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39; Video
Settle in. As they say, “God has laid some things on my heart,” and I just can’t say it in fewer words today. This sermon feels a little ragged to me, a little rough around the edges, a little raw. Orlando—49 people dead, 53 injured. Our thoughts swirl, our hearts break. We don’t know what to do, and so we do the only thing we know how to do, we come together, we come here, and we try to climb to a different place to get perspective. Goodness knows, words have been flying all week, some of them helpful, some of them not. It’s about guns, it’s about immigration, it’s about Muslims, it’s about LGBT people, it’s about hate, it’s about ideology, it’s about terrorism and mental health, it’s about security and rights and the 2nd Amendment and civil liberties and fear, and you know and I know that it’s about all of these things. But we have to get to a different place to find our way forward because as followers of Jesus a different place is where we’re called to stand.
Yes, there are actions to be taken, but before we move to action, we have to ground ourselves—we have to ground ourselves in Jesus, we have to steep ourselves in scripture, we have to double-down on our prayers and anything else that can help us quiet the cacophony of voices in our culture and in our heads—otherwise, we will not be acting with the mind of Christ, but we will be acting from our egos and our false self, and that self will never get us where our hearts long to go.
And so, we go to the text. Luke 8. The story of the Garasene demoniac it’s often called.
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. His was a living death. 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.
Don’t you see, we are that Garasene demoniac; we are that man living among the tombs. We, as a people, as a country, we have an unclean spirit. We are tormented. We keep being seized, and we are bound up, chained, and shackled in so many ways. Our life is constrained, and we keep thinking these bindings will somehow keep us safe, but these forces at play are bigger than we are, and we keep getting driven deeper and deeper into the wilds.
essential true self that is buried deep inside and who longs to be called out. He asks the man, and us, “What is your name?” The man has lost sight of who he is in his core; he only knows the demons. He said, “Legion”, my name is “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. “Legion”—we think of this word as meaning “a very large number”, but it comes from the Roman army, and it consisted of 6,826 soldiers. This man is experiencing a war within himself with thousands engaged in the battle. Boy, it feels that way in our world.
But Jesus knows that there is power in naming the demons, and that we are utterly stuck until we do so. And naming these demons is spiritual work because how we see this as people of faith is different than any of the other allegiances, affiliations, or perspectives we hold. This is all so complicated because, as one commentator noted this week, the massacre in Orlando has brought together the perfect storm of issues that have gripped our country’s consciousness as of late—LGBT people, guns, and immigration.
We have to try to name the demons if Jesus is to help us get free.
- We start with the demon of hate. Pure and simple hate that begins when we see our brothers and sisters, not as our neighbors, not as ourselves, but as “other”, and you can do awful things to the nameless, faceless “other”.
- There’s the demon of religious ideology that sees LGBT brothers and sisters as evil and therefore expendable, and all the religious traditions bear some responsibility here. The witness of countless gay people who have had to fight their way to faith in God because their religious tradition told them they were an abomination bears witness to this destructive demon. And here I have speak pastorally to those among us who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender—you bear the burden of this massacre in a very deep and personal and particular way. I cannot know what it feels like to be in your skin right now, but I want you to know that you do not bear this burden alone. This community holds you in your particular pain. Nobody is expendable in God’s sight.
- There’s the demon of simplistic and reductionistic projection. Taking an individual’s actions and projecting them across a whole population. This is always a temptation of majority culture, but when Dylan Roof opened fire in that church in Charleston a year ago, we did not attribute his actions to all Lutherans or to all southern white men. When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we did not attribute his actions to all Roman Catholics. We cannot, and should not, attribute Omar Mateen’s actions to all Muslims. What Mateen espoused is no more a reflection of Islam than Roof or McVeigh’s ideology is a reflection of the way of Jesus.
- There’s the demon that’s whispering in our collective ear that if we just have more guns, we’ll be safer. I have seen no evidence that this is so. And, in fact, more people carrying more guns makes me feel less safe. In the shooting that happened on a college campus last October in Oregon, there were students who were carrying guns but who were afraid to shoot for fear that the police would think they were the shooter and would shoot them instead. In a chaotic crisis situation, what if multiple people started responding and shooting, and then, how would anyone know who was shooting whom?
I can get my head around guns for the sake of hunting or the necessary uses that come if you farm or have livestock that you need to protect. I can get my head around the sport of target shooting—I have enjoyed shooting skeet myself. And I understand that the 2nd Amendment has been a fundamental right within our country, though I am not clear that how that right is being interpreted today is how the framers of the Bill of Rights conceived of that right in 1789, but I can get that there is much to be discussed with regards to that right.
But I can’t get my head around civilians possessing assault weapons whose only purpose is to extinguish as much life as possible as quickly as possible. I can’t understand why we can’t come to some consensus around sane gun laws. We seem to believe that if we just arm ourselves more that we will be more secure.
And here’s where being a follower of Jesus just pulls us up short. I can’t find a single place in the gospel where Jesus says to us, “Defend yourself.” In fact, what Jesus does say is “Turn the other cheek” and far from being a doormat response, Walter Wink has called this counsel Jesus’ Third Way of Nonviolent Resistance.
Some will call to mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” But in that context, Jesus is talking about the demands of “following him before all others and the call to take up our cross and how we have to lose our life for his sake to find it.” Jesus is talking about following in his way before we follow in the way of any other ideology or affiliation we hold. And Jesus’ way is the way of nonviolence. Period.
In John 18, when they come to arrest Jesus, it gets chaotic, and the disciples are afraid, and Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. The last thing Jesus tells Peter before they take Jesus into custody is this: “[Peter], put your sword back into its sheath…Peter, put your sword away.” Jesus never counsels the way of the sword; Jesus counsels this (stretch out arms cruciform). To take up our cross is to open our arms and extend them. From the cross, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus understands that we just don’t know what we’re doing.
As followers of Jesus, we are never promised the security of the sword; we are promised the cross. Crucifixion is what we are promised. Forgiveness is what we are promised. The infinite security of being held in God’s love always is what we are promised. The security of resurrection and abundant life is what we are promised. I fear we have turned security into an idol, and it is killing us.
- There is the demon that refuses to recognize our call to care for the immigrant. Of course we need sound and sane immigration policies, and we need the best minds and hearts working on it, but as people who follow Jesus and are steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, we dare not forget God’s command to care for the resident alien in our midst—Leviticus 19:34—“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
We dare not forget Jesus’ command in Matthew 25 to care for the stranger, the xenos, as in xenophobia, and that in caring for the stranger, we are caring for him. We dare not forget that caring for the stranger is one of the criteria by which Jesus will judge the nations.
- And there is the demon of our righteousness. This is not the righteous anger that we see in the prophets, or even in Jesus. This is the righteousness that is born out of our false self that is absolutely convinced of the rightness of our own small perspective. This is the righteousness that is fueled by adrenalin. You know this demon is on your tail when you just can’t get enough of the news cycle, and you are arguing back with the TV or radio or the politicians, and you just can’t settle down. Sometime during this past week, we probably have all danced with this demon.
And demons never go quietly. These things that possess us, they don’t want to let go, they don’t want to back into the abyss. They will latch on anywhere they can—even onto our grief or our holy anger, if they think they can turn that to their use. C.S. Lewis knew that when he wrote The Screwtape Letters.
Jesus asks us, “What is your name?” It’s time we answer, “Legion”, for so many demons have possessed us.
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.
You know, the swineherds weren’t happy about Jesus’ actions—they go and whip up a crowd who asks Jesus to leave. The price for getting free of the demons that had possessed the man was the loss of their herd. They had to let go of something significant for the man to be made whole. What might we need to relinquish, as a country, if we, as a country, are to be restored to our right mind?
In the end, the man was sitting at the feet of Jesus, the demons gone, clothed and in his right mind. “Right mind”—when you peel back this phrase in greek, you land with two words—“sozo” and “phren”; “sozo”—it means “to heal” and “make whole”, it’s the root word that gives us “salvation” and “phren”—it means “mind”, those “faculties that can perceive and judge”, but it also points to “the parts of the heart”. To be in one’s right mind is to be made whole, to have our heart and mind perceiving and judging rightly.
What would it look like, right now, for Jesus to grant our demons permission to leave us, individually and collectively, and to let him restore us to our right mind, for him to make us whole again, as individuals and as a people? What would it look like for him to get our hearts and minds working as his heart and mind?
The man so wants to go with Jesus because the people in his hometown are frankly afraid of him. It’s odd, but there seems to be nothing more frightening that wholeness, nothing more unsettling that someone who is calm and in their right mind. And if we truly walk in Jesus’ way, a whole lot of people are going to be afraid of us too. To keep our arms open, to embrace the way of the cross, to double-down on our commitment to nonviolence, to welcome the stranger, to put away our swords, to see our oneness across the great divides in our culture as Galatians lifts up this morning—this won’t make sense to most of the people around us. But this is the place we are called to stand, and Jesus calls us to stay and do this work in the communities in which we live.
I don’t know all the actions we can and should take. Surely there are actions to be taken, but until we let Jesus cast out these demons and put us back in our right mind, we are sunk. I named 6 demons in this sermon—that leaves 6,820 to go, and they will manifest differently in each one of us. So, search your soul, name your demons, let Jesus clear them out of your being. Do this work individually; engage in this work collectively.
And then, as Bishop Taylor reminded us this week in his weekly reflection, maybe we can find our way to that field to which the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi points—“Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
If we can meet each other in that field, then surely, clothed and once again in our right mind, we can find our way out of the abyss and into the abundant life that God has promised. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 19, 2016