5 Pentecost C—6/19/16
Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Pr. Scott Kramer
On this Father’s Day, I’d like to share with you a story about one father in particular, shared with me by a pastor friend of mine.
Over the past year, and again with the Orlando shooting last week, there have been threats against Muslims, even by Christians, so one Muslim father’s daughter was afraid. Last Sunday this father did an amazing thing: he brought her to my friend’s church because on the church’s sign were the words, “Blessed Ramadan to our Muslim friends.” Seeing that sign, the father trusted that Christian church to be a safe place—safe enough to take his daughter to calm her fears, to show her that not all Christians are full of prejudice and hate.
All of us know what it’s like to feel afraid. Often what we’re afraid of is what seems different from us—but not just different: what seems the opposite of who we are: Christian/Muslim, male/female, gay/straight, rich/poor, white/people of color.
In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples arrive in the country of the Gerasenes which, Luke tells us, is opposite Galilee. “Opposite” can mean “across from” but the root word of opposite is oppose, which suggests something like confrontation, conflict, suspicion, threat. And that’s the case here. Galilee is where Jesus is from. The Gerasenes were not simply “across the border from” –they were considered the opposite of the Jews. From the story , for example, we learn that they were pig farmers, and Jews were not pig farmers because they don’t eat pork. Jesus, a Jew, is now in this land opposite his own.
I wonder if, like that Muslim father who took his family through the door of a church, Jesus was taking those he loved across a scary boundary to confront their fears and to challenge their beliefs.
Jews were suspicious of and afraid of the Gerasenes. But the local Gerasene people were also afraid—and not just of the Jews but of one of their own! There was a man from their community who was different, and someone we might be afraid of also. He ran around naked for one thing. He had no house of his own but slept in the local graveyard. He wandered around in remote areas. The local folks said he had a demon. We might say he was mentally ill, possibly a criminal, or homeless, a troubled person, or all of the above.
What are we to do with people who seem the opposite of us “normal” people? Well, one answer is to build walls, to shut them away from us. It might be walls on borders between nations that are opposite one another. Or, it could be closer to home: walls of prisons, walls of psychiatric institutions, walls of nursing homes that separate us from what we’re overwhelmed by, or afraid of.
What to do with the “crazy man” of the Gerasenes? Well, if the problem seems too big the Gerasenes did what we do. They locked people up! Luke tells us that the man was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles—which is what we do with people who are dangerous or even merely seem to upset our sense of order. But no matter how hard they tried to control him, “he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”
This is the thing about walls and chains and locks and guns: they don’t work. They may give temporary relief from our fears but eventually… they don’t work. For example, after the Orlando shooting last weekend, as usual, there was another spike in gun sales (see this morning’s Seattle Times column by Danny Westneat). Even though we have more guns than people in this country our answer to gun tragedies is to produce and buy more guns, and to carefully guard the laws that make that possible. One harsh but unspoken question in today’s reading is: Who is crazier, the person who is troubled or the so-called “respectable people” of his society?
This series of readings early in the season of Pentecost tells the same story over and over, Sunday after Sunday. As Dianne Johnson reminded us in her sermon last Sunday, these are stories of insiders and outsiders. In response to our fears we typically treat other people as problems to be solved rather than human beings in whom we see the face of Christ, the very image of God.
What does Jesus do in such situations? When faced with what is scary or different or foreign, does he build walls? Does he buy a gun? Does he send the troubled man to a psych hospital or lock him up in a prison? We don’t know what he does but instead of locking him “out of sight, out of mind,” somehow he has restored the man to dignity by restoring him to his community.
Notice that the local people don’t treat this as good news. This man had been a “problem to be solved” and they’d solved it! They’d kept him a safe distance away (out of sight, out of mind!), and they did what we do: they hired police and the prison system to keep an eye on him.
But along comes Jesus and messes up their system. Luke tells us that when they saw the man clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid. But they were afraid way before Jesus came along! That’s why they shut the strange man away from their community. Now he was among them and they were even more afraid because they had to take responsibility. If the man had left town with Jesus and his disciples the townsfolk would have breathed a sigh of relief. But instead, Jesus left them holding the ball! Now they had to help the man find housing, employment, health care and health insurance. So much work!–Why couldn’t Jesus just leave well enough alone?
When we’re afraid or overwhelmed it is much easier to shut people out or lock people up. It’s much easier to throw money at programs. It’s much easier to buy guns, or build more prisons, or throw up more walls, or hire more police or risk the lives of young soldiers. But whenever we treat people as a problem to be solved the spiritual problem remains and we continue to be afraid.
What to do? Well, it’s the same answer as always: We look around and see that God is out ahead of us, at work right under our noses! That Muslim father, for example, represents for me the very image of Christ. Just as Jesus led his friends into the land of the Gerasenes, that father dared to lead his family across the threshold of a Christian church, confronting his fears and showing his children an alternative to indifference, suspicion, hatred, and violence.
Any courageous action, great or small, that treats those who seem to be the opposite of who we are, not as people to be pitied or problems to be solved–as worthy of dignity and love—any such work is the work of Christ. Anything that does the hard work of integrating people who are different into a community is the work of Christ!
Fear—our fear–is the enemy. As our Scriptures teach, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And as St. Paul puts it in today’s reading, in Christ there’s not that much to be afraid of, for in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer gay and straight, there is no longer foreign and native-born; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus—not just people who believe in Jesus, but all people!