This sermon was preached for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Clifford, VA and Grace Episcopal Church in Massies Mill on the second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C 2022.
Photo by Ronni Kurtz on Unsplash
Galatians 3:23–29; Luke 8:26–39
“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.Luke 8:39 NRSV
I speak to you in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the tragedy that happened this past Thursday in Alabama at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Two have died and one injured by a shooter, as of the time of this writing Friday afternoon. We don’t know all of the details yet, but, we lift their community and those who have died up in prayer this morning.
This Sunday morning begins ordinary time. however, for me, over the past few weeks, this time has felt anything but ordinary.
Ordinary time is the longest season of the year; stretching from the summer all the way until Christ the King Sunday, or proper 29, which falls the last Sunday before Advent. It marks the second half of the church year, and, with all of the cultural and liturgical weight on the first half of our church year, it makes perfect sense to call this time “ordinary.”
Consider what has been going on in our world— and yes, this list is going to be a bummer. Ongoing pandemic— everyone I’ve spoken with seems to know someone who is positive right now. Ongoing gun violence— this particular type of violence in America has been on our hearts this week, yet violence of all types here and abroad are proliferating in alarming ways. Ongoing economic uncertainty, amidst the partisan blame-game. An ongoing trial of our former president and his allies, exacerbating the blames on both sides even as we struggle to find and face the truth. It is anything but an ordinary time.
This morning’s gospel reading is from Luke- a healing story where Jesus and the power of God confront a group of spirits known only as “legion.” Jesus is out of the land of the Jews— having demonstrated divine power and healing in and around Judea and Jerusalem, he now ventures into gentile territory. He is immediately confronted by this person, possessed by many demons.
Now, the people of this persons community knew this person well. They saw that he was unwell, they had addressed the problem through force, through violence. They guarded him and bound him with chains and shackles, but when their methods did not work and he burst his prison cell, the man was abandoned— a shadow, on the margins of the community, consigned to the graveyard, for he was as good as dead to them. Demons always recognize Jesus— for Jesus has power over all things in heaven and on Earth, and under the Earth; as Paul and Peter testify in their letters, as as we gather here to testify. All things, even all evil things are subject to the power of God.
Jesus commands that unclean spirit to come our of the man— but it does not work at first. The legion asks Jesus, begs of Jesus, not to torment them. Don’t send them back to the abyss. Send us into the pigs instead. They run the heard into the sea, perhaps thinking they can escape Jesus there— though we know Jesus himself commands the winds and the seas just verses earlier in Luke. The demons won’t escape God there; they won’t escape God in the abyss, where Jesus goes also to proclaim the good news. There is no place where they will not encounter the living God; the good news for them, is that Jesus does not appear to torment them. He heals the man— he exorcises the demons, respecting their own free will; and he upsets the status quo. Jesus’ power is shown to be much more so than the power of human authority and the power of evil. The townspeople ask him to leave.
There are two sides to this story that we must consider today— the side of fear, and the side of hope.
When churches, supermarkets, and schools are shot up, we are in a place of fear. Of course we are afraid. We’re terrified. What would we do if it happened here? Why is this happening? How could they, we, keep letting this happen? Any and all further responses start from this place of fear. Some move from this place of fear towards self-protection; others move towards societal and structural change. Others deny. Some give up, or go numb. We all lament.
You can apply this fear-mindset to any intractable debate, any issue of power in contemporary society. Our politics are fear motivated and fear based, as are our consumer choices. Talking about how polarizing things have become is another way of talking about fear. Keeping apart from the other, dehumanizing and despising the other side of any issue and not seeing our common humanity; this is fear talking. This is Legion. The tempter preys on our fear, and succeeds in fear. Human beings remain imprisoned, locked in chains, and banished to the tomb when we act out of fear. We will always be divided when we act out of fear.
Yet there is also hope. There is also the power of God. There is also our common humanity, rent of its division by God; neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). This is the good news— the gospel message— that Jesus tells us, and that Jesus shows us in this story.
First, Jesus makes himself vulnerable. He crosses ethnic, religious, cultural, and dare I say, political lines before this encounter even begins. When faced with evil, Jesus casts it out, yes, but it is not annihilation. Then, Jesus learns evils’ name. Jesus listens to what is behind the evil intent. Evil itself is in the grips of fear— fear of the authority Jesus carries. For what casts out fear? Perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn 4:18), and God is love— not romantic love, not love conditioned on health or prosperity, but unqualified, unlimited love of a creator for creation, of a father for his son, of a family united at long last after years of division.
It is not easy. The townspeople make that clear. When Jesus has overcome evil, they do not celebrate. They’ve gone from a power they know they can control, to encountering a greater power they do not know— and what happens? They are seized with great fear (Luke 8:37). They also fear economic loss and control— for when the power of God is involved, God’s economy overturns our human economies. The people believe the cost of healing was too high. They do not turn away from fear, but fear anew. A witness is needed— one who can guide them out of their fear, and show them a new way of life is possible— probable, even, now that God has set all things right.
We are those witnesses in our world today. It is only through the power of God that we will set things right in our country and in our communities. It is only through the healing power of Jesus Christ that we can forgive and accept one another when we’ve gone so far astray. It is only in communities empowered by the love of God, firmly set on hope, that we can ease ourselves out of fearful living and into the promised land, into Kingdom building, into the way of life God calls us into and that God calls us to proclaim to the world. Naming evil and replacing fear with hope requires a power beyond us— and thanks be to God that power has been given to us anew each time we set our hearts and our minds on the one who has done so much for each of us. Amen.