June 23, 2013

Sermon for Proper 7 C



Sermon for Proper 7 C / Lectionary 12 C
June 23, 2013
Michael Coffey


In every time and place,
            there are people who live on the fringe,
            who are damaged beyond normal life,
            who no longer fit in,
                        and are often no longer welcomed in.
The Gerasene man living out in the tombs
            is just such a man,
            but he is not unique or so spectacular that we can’t listen
                        to his story and find our lives in it today.

No doubt, it is an odd story for us to hear.
            A man living naked out on the edge of town
                        where bodies are buried.
            He seems to be possessed by demons
                        and has long awaited healing and restoration to life.
There are several valid ways of hearing this story.
            We could hear it on a literal level,
                        and hear the message that Jesus has power
                                    even over unclean spirits and evil powers.
            In that sense, it affirms Jesus’ identity and authority
                        and enacts the kingdom of healing and peace
                        that Jesus is proclaiming and creating.
But, we don’t know much what to do
with demon possession stories these days,
            although we do often talk about our dark side and our struggles
                        as a kind of demon that we have.

I imagine another hearing of this story,
            one that is faithful to the text
            but not at first obvious or something we can prove.
So permit me to bring some imagination to the story.
It is not uncommon to interpret this text
            as a story of a man suffering from some mental disease.
It’s hard to say with any certainty what that disease is,
            whether schizophrenia or bipolar or something else.
I’m going with something else.
            And my clue to interpreting this text comes from the text itself:
            When Jesus confronts this man he asks him his name,
                        he asks him who he is,
                        and the man answers: legion.
            Legion is a Roman military term for a large battle unit of over 6,000 men.
            It’s like he answered: My name is brigade.

So in my thinking and imaging about this text,
            here’s where I am led:
            Who would answer a question like that with an answer like that
                        except a soldier?
            So hear the story like this:  This man is a former solider.
            He served in the Roman army , probably conscripted to fight
                        in one of the emperor’s many wars of conquest
to create Roman peace.
            He is suffering an extreme form of what we would now call
                        post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
            He probably saw and enacted all kinds of violence and suffering,
                        and when he was no longer useful to the Roman war effort,
                        he was tossed aside, and put in chains.
            His mental health and behavior have led to his rejection
                        by his community and family,
                        and he is as good as dead,
                                    which is why he escapes the guard and chains
and lives in the tombs,
                                    a powerful symbolic act of what has happened to him.

Now, if you make this interpretive move with me,
            you can immediately see how this story is relevant today:
                        We have never known what to do
                        with our soldiers returning from war
                        who are damaged and spiritually wounded
                                    by the extreme stress and moral tension
                                    of fighting in war.
            I do not pretend to know about such things personally,
                        but I have listened to numerous war veterans tell their stories,
                        and I do pay attention to the growing number
of returning soliders,
                                    whose lives have fallen apart,
                                    whose families have fallen apart,
                                    whose minds are tormented,
                                    not to mention whose bodies are permanently damaged.
                        You probably have heard the news stories
                                    about the growing number of cases of PTSD,
                                                and depression, and suicide,
                                                and drug addiction, and homelessness,
                                                            among our veterans.
            This is not new, of course,
                        be we are perhaps beginning to understand it better,
                        even if we don’t know how to handle it much better,
                                    because the cost on lives from war is enormous,
                                    and we would have to admit that fully
in order to address it fully.

But let’s return to the story
            and hear what the good news of Jesus has to do with this.
Jesus sees this suffering man
            who has been sent to the fringe of community and society,
            has been rejected by everyone,
                        and frankly, scared everyone away from him.
            Jesus probably sees him for what he is:
                        A man whose mental, physical, and spiritual life
                                    has been wounded in one way or another
                                    by an empire that uses people up for its own sake
                                                and tosses them aside.
                        He calls himself legion, and he might as well be saying:
                        It isn’t just me, it’s a whole bridage of my brothers
                                    whose lives and suffering simmer and boil inside me.
So, what Jesus brings to him is healing,
            healing that comes from an authority that isn’t Rome,
            healing that comes from a different reign on earth
                        that doesn’t come through warfare and violence,
            healing that comes from knowing someone’s story
                        and not running away from it,
            healing that comes from being treated with lovingkindness
                        not as a disease, or fear, or a shameful history,
                        but as a man in need of mercy and healing.
            However we understand Jesus’ own ability
to bring the healing power of God,
he brings this man healing through reconnection
            to human community, through divine mercy,
            and through a message of a kingdom coming
                        that does not require war for there to be peace.
            So this man has healing, hope, reconnection to people and community,
                        and a name that is not a military term for a large fighting group,
                                    but the name his mother and father gave him
when he was born as a beloved child.
And just to send the point him,
            the legion is sent off into the pigs who run off a cliff and die,
            something scholars say is a clear ironic insult to the Roman military,
                        especially for a Jewish audience
that knows that pigs are not a complement.

In every time and place,
            there are people who live on the fringe,
            who are damaged beyond normal life,
            who can no longer fit in,
                        and are often no longer welcomed in.
Except, the community of Jesus knows the healing power of Jesus
            and shares it with all those on the fringe,
            all those damaged by war and drugs and abuse and failure,
            all those pushed out of human community,
            all those who internalize all the of the external messages
                        our own empires of power and wealth put on us:
                        you are only valued if you can be a means to an end.
            No, the Jesus community lives in a different kingdom,
                        a different empire,
                        where there is so much room at the table
                        for all the people pushed to the fringe of life,
                                    that there is real, palpable, edible good news.

When I was growing up in Galesburg, Illinois
            in the 70’s and 80’s,
            there was a well-known citizen of the town
                        whom we all called Crazy Tony.
As a boy walking around town going to school or a friend’s house,
            if you saw Crazy Tony walking down the street,
                        you got scared, you crossed the street,
                        you wondered what he would do as he passed by.
He might be talking to himself.
He might swear at you.
He might just say “hi.”
            We were taught that Tony was in the war
            and was “shell shocked” as it was called.
I was thinking about him as I read this text,
            and I googled him.
            Yes, I googled “crazy tony” and “Galesburg” and I found him.
He died two years ago.
            As often happens now,
            there was an online obituary with comments.
                        There were dozens of people saying how good a man he was,
                        how misunderstood he was,
                        how much they valued talking to him
over a cup of coffee at McDonald’s,
                        how sad it was that he had served his country
and become so disabled without ever really healing.
I was heartened to read that so many had shown compassion to him
            and understood that his demons were not who he was.
He wasn’t Crazy Tony, he was Anthony Rodich,
            beloved child of his mother and father, and of God.

We have a group of people in our community
            who are in their own way shell shocked,
            suffering from dark demons,
            and living on the fringe of human community.
The street youth that hang out around Guadalupe and the campus area
            are likely suffering from a different type of PTSD,
                        maybe due to childhood trauma or abuse
                        or troubled families or their own naïve and bad choices.
            They are mostly ignored except when they get in your face
                        to try to get some attention and some money or food.
They are not unique to this area, either.
            They are all over our country:
                        Troubled and tossed out young adults,
                                    who likely never had any decent chance at a decent life.
            I was surprised to see in Santa Fe, NM a few weeks ago
                        a similar group of young adults,
                        whom I had never seen there before.
There are likely no easy or quick solutions to bring healing and hope
            to these tragic young lives.
But at least we are part of a ministry of hope and healing:
            we join with other churches in providing them a Sunday evening meal,
            a place of rest and peace,
            warm and welcoming people that care,
            acceptance of who they are whatever their story might be.
Your church council hosted this weekly meal a few weeks ago,
            and we have a chance every other month to provide a meal for them.
I don’t know how or when or why the healing power of Jesus comes
            and sends away the dark demons that trouble so many lives,
            but I do not doubt that the Sunday evening drop-in shelter
                        is showing the way to a peaceful kingdom
                        that puts an end to the warring ways of our lives.

We are always a community of damaged people
            who are living out of our own healing and hope
                        that comes to us from God in the good news of Christ.
We have somehow come to accept each other
            for our own crazy ways and our wounded souls.
We gather to share bread and wine in the name of the Lord Jesus
            who was himself sent out to the edge of town
            and rejected by an empire that had no use for him.
His very name and presence among us is healing
            and peace and balm for our wounded souls.
Any wounded soul looking to be set free from chains,
            looking to return from the tombs,
            and be among the living and the loving
            looking for new life in community and love and mercy
                        is welcome here among us in Jesus name.


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