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Pentecost 5 June 19, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 | Pentecost V | Proper 7
Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, WA
Sunday, June 19, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
With this story from Luke’s gospel, we enter a strange and astonishing world. I say “strange,” since most of us, and this is an assumption on my part, do not deal with demons, exorcisms, and stampeding herds of pigs on a daily basis [I mean, if you do: let’s have a chat after the liturgy]. But, then, the world we inhabit, so deeply shaped by modern science and the reasonable explanation for all phenomena, stands in sharp contrast to the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived, a world in which everyone believed that good and evil spirits were a constant presence in life. If spouse or child or friend is behaving oddly, we might ask, “Does your health plan include psychiatric benefits? Should you see a therapist?” The notion that anyone other than a character in a horror film or a Harry Potter novel could experience demon possession seems strange, does it not? But, then, I wonder about the man who walked into a nightclub last Sunday and murdered 49 people, wounded 53 people. I wonder: what possessed him, what possessed him to seek out and kill so many innocent people: the sons and daughters, the siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, now cut off from the community of the living? Maybe being possessed by an evil spirit that fragments and destroys life is not such a strange thing after all.
Jesus and his disciples have now made their way to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and have thus entered [we need to remember this] a region under Roman military occupation and a non-Jewish territory where kosher laws did not exist and pork could be eaten all the time. There they encounter this astonishing thing: a naked man, living outside the city (the ancient symbol of life and community), living among the tombs (the ancient symbol of death and isolation), a man possessed of more than one unholy spirit and thus frequently placed under chains, a man shouting at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” It might be helpful for us to remember that everyone in the culture of Jesus believed in and lived in a spiritual universe marked by stratification. At the top was the one God, the Most High; below the one God were archangels and the sons of God; below them, the angels and demons, good and evil spirits; then humankind; and below humans, other creatures: you know, a talking serpent in a garden, flames of Pentecostal fire, and pigs that rush into water. Thus when this afflicted human being shouts out, “Jesus, son of the Most High God,” he is actually invoking the entire spiritual cosmos: the Most High God, and Jesus the son of God in whom dwells a holy spirit, and the evil spirits who afflict this troubled human, and then those other creatures – in this case, the poor pigs. Maybe there is more to this narrative than first imagined.
To be sure, this story is about the life giving spirit Jesus freely shares with the afflicted. It is about his power to draw this man from isolation into the community of the living. To be sure, it is about the healing of body, mind, or spirit that each of us can receive through the sacraments of healing, the medical arts, spiritual direction, friendship, and our life together in this community. But there is more than the healing of one person: for when he cries out, “Jesus, what do you have to do with us?” he is asking a question: Whose Way of Life ought to hold sway throughout the cosmos, in the heavens and on earth? The story reveals more. For this strange episode is about the powers alive in this world, then and today.
Here is how I see that struggle between Two Ways of Living playing out. To the evil spirits who afflict this man – Jesus asks the question, “What is your name?” And we hear this response, “Legion,” in that ancient land occupied by Rome’s 6,000 soldiers, those 6,000 constituting a legion of the Roman army. We hear this response, Legion, in a land ruled by the Roman Way of Life, a way of life marked daily by the constant threat of violence, marked by no legal rights for the many who were not citizens, marked by intolerance for those who did not conform to Rome’s highly restricted view of sexuality: a Way of Life so different than the one proposed by Jesus.
Perhaps it is good to remember that Rome’s lust for more fertile land, for its violent expansion and control throughout the known world, was symbolized either by a wild and ravaging boar or a white pig, a sow, surrounded by many piglets, the sow and her piglets signifying the desire for more land to feed the voracious appetite of Rome’s elite, their 1%. Indeed, the army that occupied the land of Jesus had as its animal symbol the wild boar. And thus when Jesus, filled with a life giving spirit, sends “Legion,” the demonic, destructive, and life-fragmenting spirits into a horde of pigs who rush into the water, he is, in effect, offering a different Way of Life, a liberation from the Roman Way and thus a healing, life sustaining alternative to the unholy power, the bitter ideology, the tortured prejudice that would distort his world and ours with violence, intolerance, and hate speech.
No, dear friends, this strange story is not an odd episode from a world long gone. Rather, it is about our world and our nation that continues to experience the eruption of a life-fragmenting ideology, a bitter ideology born of fear and fundamentalisms that animates violent acts and violent speech, that sanctions nativism, suspicion of Muslims and Mexicans, and hatred for gays and lesbians, bi-sexual and transgender people. This is Rome’s Way of Living alive in our nation.
But this strange story blessedly, blessedly, reveals another Way of Living in this world, one marked by the very thing we celebrate in this sacred liturgy: the presence among us, and with us, and for this wounded world of the Prince of Peace, the Son of Justice, the Lover of All Souls, the Healer of Wounds. For it is the wounded and risen One who shares his peace, his justice, his love, his healing with you and me here: in his sacred Body and Blood.  But to receive this bread and this wine cup, to say “Amen” as bread is placed in hand and chalice is offered, asks you and me: Will we receive as our own his commitment to peace-building and his love for all souls? Will our common prayer here lead us to act out there as witnesses to this other Way of Living? No wonder this strange but wondrous story ends with these words: “Go out and declare how much God has done for you.” Yes, let us go out. Amen.