Relationships are Tricky, Sermon for Proper 7 (C) – 2016

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

Relationships are tricky. They require both well-formed individuals and a cohesive communal whole. Individuals who are too isolated, and deprived of human contact are often quite damaged. Mad and raving at the edge of society, in the tombs, in either literal or metaphorical deserts, in places where demons dwell… And people who are too group-centered, who have no boundaries, who can’t tell where they end and where anyone else begins are often equally damaged and damaging. We are built for and called into relationships by God. And this central truth about us reveals some profound paradoxes at the core of our being: We crave independence and we fear being alone. We long for togetherness and we fear being assimilated.

To hear Paul say “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,” is both a comfort and a challenge. It’s wonderful to feel like we’re not alone in the world. And it’s terrifying to lose our identity.

Assimilation to any kind of hive-mind destroys so much of what we value about human experience: uniqueness, beauty, and difference. We hold independence, identity, and free will as prized, positive values, but we also highly value, and need community, togetherness, and connection. The idea of becoming one with Christ, one with all that is, if it means losing our whole identity, can be frightening.

The demons understood this. They “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.” The abyss is that primordial “deep;” the undifferentiated soup that God’s spirit moves over in the beginning of creation. It’s the dismal mass of chaotic stuff that God creates from—that God separates and orders into the beautiful and good creation. To return to that is to disappear into murky sameness. Losing their identity is terrifying even for demons.

Learning to balance our genuine need for independence with the equally important and likewise genuine needs of our communities is a lifelong work.

The demons appear to insist on isolation; they torment this man into breaking the bonds with the community, and they drive him into the wilds alone. But the people of Gerasene are perhaps exacerbating the situation by forcibly keeping the man in relationship, in the community, by keeping him “under guard and bound with shackles.” Thus, we have an image of a person simultaneously tormented by his isolation and his chains.

Individuality and community are twin poles we are often stretched between. How many of us were raised to “stand on our own two feet” and “take care of things ourselves” and then found it hard or impossible to ask for help when we really needed it? How many of us have been taught that it’s better to “go along to get along” and “not make waves” only to occasionally be overcome with resentment because we agreed to do something for the good of the community that we really didn’t want to do? How we navigate this tension, and live with one another in relationship matters a great deal.

Finding the right blend of independence and togetherness is hard; it’s an ongoing balancing act—a kind of marriage—between independence and community. And as Christians we have a model for the kind of relationship that both guards our independence and ensures community; it’s the model of Christian marriage. Marriages and weddings are different things: a wedding is a single event on a particular day; a marriage is an ongoing relationship that lasts for years. Sadly, in the secular culture marriage is too often viewed as a kind of chaining together of two people. But Christian marriage is a sacrament. An outward and visible sign of the kind of vital relationships that God calls us into. For Christians, marriage is a symbol, an icon, a representation of all holy, covenantal relationships. Marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and Christ’s church. And as such it is a model for all Christian relationships, every one of which is to be based in mutual joy, shared help and comfort, in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity. Marriage, in other words, is a microcosm of community. And like all communities it requires well-formed individuals who are committed to the well-being of the whole.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to this understanding. In one of his letters when he writes:

“Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life, and it naturally combines the strengths and wills of two people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before…The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude… A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”[1]

Alone and naked in the tombs or chained and under guard no one was able to see the man as whole before Jesus came. Our need for both independence and community means that too often we seek to create quick commonalities by tearing down boundaries instead of loving the expanses between ourselves. We opt for the quick fix of chaining ourselves and others to an ideal of superficial sameness. We insist that others are welcome as long as they look and act just like us, and if they don’t there must be something wrong with them; something that needs to be corrected.

This is the movement of the demonic impulse that insists on isolating and universalizing experience… “My way is the right way! The only way.” The demonic drive for too much independence creates disconnected individuals that assume “my” individual or “my” group identity is THE standard, THE norm for every other group or individual. In this way, individuals are turned not into a community, but into “Legions.” And the great diversity of human experience is thus reduced to a single point of view, and held to a single (often unattainable) standard. That might make some of us feel more comfortable in the short run, but it’s deadening in the long run.

The movement of God always goes the other way. The movement of God respects diversity. It brings together and binds up diverse experience in a cohesive whole. It constantly invites into community those who are outside the cultural norms: women and men, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, us and them. And that’s often frightening.

When the demons had left and the man was sitting at the foot of Jesus “clothed in his right mind” the people were afraid. Yes, real relationships are scary. Especially those that strive to be icons of the relationship between Christ and those who sit at his feet—the Church.

Relationships often feel safer when we’re around people who are similar to us. People who like us, and whom we like. Yet, the walk with Jesus is constantly asking us to open up that circle and to accept, and even love, people who aren’t like us. Not by chaining them to us, but by allowing and loving the expanses between us. God is constantly moving us from “even them?” Even the Greeks? Even the slaves? Even the ones who live in the tombs? Even them? To: Yes. Even them.

Relationships are tricky, and these are the kinds of relationships we as Christians are called to. Neither a radical isolation nor an undifferentiated togetherness, both of which lead to madness and the breaking of community. We are called to relationships where a marvelous living side by side takes place. We’re called to love the expanses between all of us, and to seeing ourselves and all of God’s children as whole, and complete and gathered together before an immense sky.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 7C. 

Written by The Rev. Richard Burden, PhD

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.  


[1] Letter 24, to Emanuel von Bodman, 1901, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke – Vol I: 1892-1910, ed. Jane Bannard Greene, Read Books, 2007, ISBN 1406729655

The nature of miracles, 5 Pentecost, Proper 7 (C) – 2013

June 23, 2013

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

If Elijah and Jezebel were after me, I’d run, too! Elijah was so afraid, he wished he might just die, but God had other plans for him as God often does for us. This is a wonderful story from today’s reading from First Kings about one of the great prophets who is so human in his fears, yet a model for us of what we can accomplish if we listen to the voice of God.

First Kings tells the story of how God’s people have turned their back on the Lord. How sad – they are missing out on the amazing gift of knowing God’s love. For even in their sin, God desires their repentance and return.

But they are noisy people. Previously in First Kings, we’ve already seen the prophets of Baal dancing and shouting and slashing themselves with their knives in their frenzy to call their impotent gods down on their sacrifice. Elijah showed them a different God – a God who can do miraculous things, but who also can listen to the small voice of his creature.

Isn’t it unfortunate that Jezebel, who could have repented and turned to this all-merciful God, instead felt her authority so threatened that she put out a death warrant for Elijah?

Now in his hiding place, Elijah hears God’s voice and answers honestly. “I’m afraid – I can do no more.”

In today’s language, God says, “Hang on, I’m coming. Here’s where you’ll find me.”

Elijah experiences winds that tear rocks loose from mountains and an earthquake – the mighty force of nature’s power – but he finds God, finally, in the gentle breeze, in silence. In a similar text from Isaiah, God even calls out to the people, “Here I am, here I am!” They do not hear the pleading voice. And yet, God does not destroy them all. Yes, there will be punishment, but there will also be redemption and much more to show the limitless abundance of God’s mercy.

So often we experience a sense of desperate need in our hearts, but we forget where we can turn. There is a beautifully plaintive song sung by the character Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado.” She has been jilted by the man she loves, and sings: “Oh, living I!
Come, tell me why,
when hope is gone,
dost thou stay on?
Why linger here, where all is drear?”

It’s one of the most beautiful songs written by Gilbert and Sullivan – both text and melody tear at the listener’s heart. We might imagine God’s heart being as torn by the frenzied noise and deliberate ignorance of God’s own people who choose evil over love, today as well as several centuries ago. If God were human, God just might have said, “Why do I stay here where all is drear and when hope is gone?”

Thankfully though, even as we try to put God in our small boxes, God is eternal and beyond our sad manipulations. Instead, God continues to call, “Here I am, here I am!”

When will we answer?

In our gospel reading, Jesus might have been feeling that same emotion when he healed a sick man and yet the people begged him to leave them alone. In his book “Miracles,” C. S. Lewis writes: “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.”

“Oh, really?” the Gerasenes in today’s gospel reading would probably ask. “How about the one where Jesus sends the demons into our flock of pigs and they run off the cliff to drown in the sea?”

It sounds like the start of a lame joke, but it was no joke to the swineherds who made their livelihood from the pigs. So, what do we do about this? What was Jesus thinking when he gave the demons what they wanted?

St. Augustine, on the other hand has said, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

Well, that’s a little better. Maybe we don’t know everything about pigs after all. Maybe the thought of living with something evil inside was too much for the pigs, who, after all, are very sensitive animals. But that, too, flies in the face of our perception of Jesus as caring about all people, gentile swineherds included.

So, which is right? Do we try to figure out why Jesus sent Legion into a herd of pigs? Do we just rejoice that a man, and a gentile at that, was healed? Do we castigate the Geresenes for sort of being like the false prophets in First Kings, who said, in effect, “Get out of here, you’re more trouble than you’re worth!”

One way to look at it is to realize that the pigs are not the point. Jesus’ authority over demons is the point. Jesus caring about people with terrible difficulties is the point. And probably Jesus extending his ministry to gentiles is a point. The pigs – maybe it wasn’t like that at all. We truly just don’t know.

What was Luke’s focus at this point in his gospel? What did he want to get across about Jesus to his own hearers? That’s something we have to struggle with when we read the gospels. They were all written for another century’s hearers, and we have to consider that when we read them now. We need to look for the underlying message and not worry about whether Jesus sent something calling itself Legion into a herd of pigs. It may not have happened exactly like that.

Jesus truly cared for the poor and hurt of the world. Jesus was showing that God’s love included outsiders, like the gentiles. Jesus showed that God’s power was mightier than the power of evil – just like Elijah had done many centuries before. C. S. Lewis reminds us that we can’t understand everything about miracles.

There are some things we have to give over to faith and the presence of mystery in our human lives, and that’s OK. We should allow awe and wonder to fill our souls and direct our gaze toward the Almighty, who thankfully, loves us with an unconquerable love.

So, what do we do?

Maybe we should look for a place that is our sacred place, a place where we can listen for God’s voice in the silence and in the gentle breeze. The voice will be there. We can imitate Jesus and open our eyes and hearts to the needs of those who are right there beside us – those we don’t see even as we step around them. And we can pray that we will live out the pronouncement of Paul: “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.”

All of us are one!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Love stronger than anything, Pentecost 4, Proper 7 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Psalm 42 and 43 (Track 2: Isaiah 65:1-9 and Psalm 22:18-27); Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

[NOTE TO READER: Gerasene demoniac is pronounced “JER-uh-seen  de-MON-ee-ak”]
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.

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Written by the Rev. James Liggett
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.

Restored to Unity, Pentecost 4, Proper 7 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a or Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 42-43 or 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Last December, after a Fort Worth, Texas, policeman was killed in the line of duty, his family spent a gut-wrenching week, planning and attending the funeral and having many conversations with those whose lives had crossed that of their loved one. When all was said and done, this young officer’s mother realized that one story moved her more than any other. Two days after his death, one of her son’s colleagues working his old beat arrested a crack-using, trouble-making, small-time crook who was well-known by all of the police who patrolled there. Cuffed and standing in front of a patrol car, the arrested man said he had heard that one of them had been killed and asked who it was. After learning his name, the man fell to his knees sobbing. After he finally regained control of himself and was in the car, the officer asked what was wrong with him. He cried, “That cop was the only one who ever showed me any respect.”

The character of this police officer mirrors the value of respect for all others to which St. Paul points in today’s Epistle reading. “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.”

We are saved and freed by God’s love, graciously poured out to us, despite our being sinful and undeserving. It is God’s gracious love that unites us with Christ. It is our union with Christ that unites us to all other human beings. It is this union that dissolves the potential divisiveness of human distinctions. It is this union with Christ that breaks down whatever walls of separation we arbitrarily create among people.

The young police officer knew that the distinction between law enforcers and law breakers did not prevent the power of God from uniting them as human beings, each with respect one for the other. He knew what Paul teaches us – that living in Christ, united with Christ, makes us a different kind of people, joined in an understanding of humanity that can destroy the natural tendency to separate.

The early church was not exempt from distinctions. That is why Paul addressed the Christians in Galatia so forcefully. He knew that divisions had to stop if Christ were truly to be followed. He illustrated our union with and through Christ by playing off a common prayer of Jewish men of his day: “Thank you Lord, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman.” Paul rejected and reversed this view by declaring that these distinctions amounted to nothing in the eyes of God and those who would follow Jesus.

Paul’s words surely affronted first-century Jews steeped in a religion that fostered exclusion as a way of maintaining purity of faith and protection from outsiders. Looking at their history, it is no wonder they feared those who were different. But Jesus had something more expansive in mind. And Paul followed him by undercutting natural tendencies, cultural prejudices, inherited temptations – forces that divide people.

We suffer these tendencies still. Too often we separate from others out of fear. Superficial comfort can result from surrounding ourselves with the familiar, from disdaining and avoiding those who are unfamiliar and different. In our confusing and complicated world, it is tempting to try to define ourselves by what we are not, rather than what we are, and to attempt to remain separate from those who are different. But such behavior leaves us diminished and fails to fulfill our potential.

The young police officer knew what we avow in confessing that the “mission of the church is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.” What is at work in understanding and applying the principles of today’s Epistle is this task of reconciling. It is the work we have inherited as ones united with Christ and one another through Christ.

The meaning of today’s Epistle is not that there can be or should be no distinctions among us, but that there can be no superiority of one over another or exclusion of one by the other. We do not submit to others, but only to God.

Differences bear no ultimate significance in the values of God. Male or female; rich or poor; young or old; married or single; educated or unschooled; leader or follower; black, white, brown, red, or yellow; white-collar or blue-collar worker; gay or straight — racism, culturalism, sexism, and nationalism have no place among the values of God.

The power of God’s love, freely given, when used by us is sufficient to overcome the human tendency to separate as a result of our distinctions and differences. Through this love we can have a collective unity – a single identity as children of God. It is the power of God’s love that can give us courage to move beyond fear and separation into integration, cooperation, interdependence, and mutual respect.

This truth is rooted in the fact that each individual has been restored to unity with God by the loving, self-giving action of Christ. In so being restored to God, we can be restored to unity with one another in Christ.

It is this truth that the young police officer lived out as he respected the dignity of every human being. He knew, as did St. Paul, that respect does not begin with a conclusion that the other is worthy or deserving or similar enough to get the respect. His life helps us remember that respect begins with each of us who does the respecting. We treat others with respect because this is how our Lord teaches us to behave toward others, simply because they are human beings and because we are united to them through God’s love.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, TX. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.