Sermon, 19 June 2016

Sermon preached by the Revd Eleanor Rance in Orcheston St Mary’s

The passage in Luke 8 (below) is also found in the gospel of Matthew and of Mark. And so we know it is one of those accounts that is universally recalled, or has a significant point that each of the evangelists really wants to underscore. The poor chap in the account is beset by this evil possession. That’s the point where most of us begin to get twitchy. This naked man living among the tombs, near the pigs- which are unclean- so nothing to do with the Jewish people….With ‘an unclean spirit’. Well, this isn’t very easy to listen to is it?

What do we picture I wonder, as we listen?

Perhaps we are trying to explain who this man was – someone with a medical condition? Probably.

Perhaps we are trying to understand how we manage this account with 21st century understanding.

Well just before we get sidetracked by a nice sanitised version of this account- the one that says Jesus healed a man who had mental health problems, and at the same time made use of an expendable commodity- the pigs- let’s stop and think about bringing that story completely up to date.

Just let’s suppose that man is living in Sainsbury’s car park in Salisbury. Maybe he’s clothed, but has an unfortunate habit of exposing himself. Or maybe he’s in some sort of accommodation, but he smears the walls with faeces, and eats out of rubbish bins. Maybe he goes round shouting obscenities and picking fights. Maybe he has been in prison and out of prison and just can’t sort out his life.

Now think about you. In this account, where are you? The chances are, just like the Jewish people, that you are not often going into the Sainsbury’s car park in Salisbury. You might visit in prison, or have cared for people with mental health problems. But just like the Jewish people, and the man who was ‘possessed’, we and people who are similarly afflicted, both fit into separate slots.

So the question we should be trying to grapple with, is not- what was wrong with this man, or do I believe in evil spirits, or even what about the poor pigs. Instead it should be what was Jesus doing there and what does that mean for us?

Jesus went where ‘good Jewish rabbis’ wouldn’t normally go. But he went there for a very particular purpose. He saved the man, and he removed the swine. He made an unclean, untouchable person and space, clean again. The swine are used to make the whole story very clear cut- all the unclean and undesirable things gathered together, the man, the human spirit, snatched back and set back into normal human society ‘clothed and in his right mind’.

It should be no surprise to us that Jesus, rather than standing at a distance shaking his head, steps into the mess. He effects change from within the situation. Just as he touches the blind, and the funeral bier. His ‘clean’ cannot be tainted or marked by their ‘unclean’. He transforms rather than being stained.

So what does that tell us about our place in society? What does it challenge us about the way we approach others? So often we keep away in order that we are not dragged in to their mess, marked by their behaviour, embarrassed by being associated. But surely this account challenges that behaviour? Surely it tells us that our interest, our compassion, our commitment coming from our Father through us, cannot be tainted by encounter with those who- for whatever reason- have ended up in the ‘wrong’ place?

The passage in Isaiah approaches all this from a different place. It looks at those of us who have freely chosen to jump into and become immersed in the ‘unclean’, ‘tainted’ part of society. I will translate for a moment, some of the images that are used:

Sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks- well that’s shorthand for following the religious/spiritual culture of the day. I guess for us that’s probably like visiting mediums, or doing tarot, or making interaction on social media a higher priority than talking with our children and our partners.

Sitting inside tombs & eating swines’ flesh- well that’s those who are dismissing the laws of God. Why? Because they are intentionally making themselves unclean before God. They are choosing to dismiss his priorities and physically cutting themselves off from society. Who are they? Those who laugh at people of faith, who dismiss us as naïve. But it is also those who feel that they can choose how to follow God, and dismiss the bits that they don’t like. Who fit worship around their other commitments. Who think that going to church is the same as being the church.

‘keep to yourself, and don’t come near me, for I am too holy for you’. Oh. Well, this is where Isaiah is foreshadowing Christ. Because as we’ve just read, Christ does not show himself as too holy, too vulnerable to taint. He walks right in there, and lives with and among.

And what about us?

Sometimes, people can say the most cruel things about someone else. They think they are being kind, and Christian, while all the while they are being judgmental and spiteful. Sometimes we do things because we should, because people would expect it of us, because – dare we admit it- it looks right.

This passage in the book of Isaiah is basically saying ‘sort yourselves out’. But it says something else too. How does God relate to us? Well, at the beginning and the end of the passage is says this: I said ‘here I am, here I am’ to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people’…’As the wine is found in the cluster and they say ‘do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servant’s sake, and not destroy them all.’

Just as Christ goes into the unclean places to transform, so also our heavenly father reaches out his hands to us and calls us back to himself. Whether we have kicked over the traces and got into the wrong thing, or whether we have placed ourselves in a holy huddle or upon a pedestal. God seeks us out, and he – I believe- also challenges us to go and do likewise.

Gospel reading – Luke 8, 26-39

Jesus Calms the Storm

22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man

26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes,[b] which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.