Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sermon--Year C, Pentecost 4

Before I get into the sermon, let me just explain something about the context. The congregation this is meant to be preached at is one that I have a relatively good relationship with, otherwise I would not preach such a political message. This is a once-farming community, but now in a suburban context.

Luke 8:26-39 

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 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.

Year C: Pentecost 4

In several states in the mid-Atlantic region, the quest for coal has reached new heights, quite literally, as the purple mountains majesty of Appalachia are de-crowned in a process called Mountain Top Removal Mining, in which entire tops of mountains are blasted away in order to find seams of coal buried in the rocks contained hidden away in the heart of the mountains. First, this process requires that the top of the mountain is deforested, as if the mountain, once green and full of life, is shaved and balded, naked. Then, the tops of mountains are blasted off, and the rock and earth and soil are dumped into a valley, which often blocks streams and destroys even more forest.

After the few strips of coal are removed from where the hallowed massive mighty living mountain once stood, now nothing more than a large hollowed, naked, exposed piece of rock, the space is reclaimed with the intention of slowly reforesting the land. But the fact remains, the mighty mountain is gone forever.

The environmental impact of Mountain Top Removal Mining is, needless to say, overwhelmingly negative. Entire ecosystems are destroyed, streams are blocked, and water is contaminated with high levels of minerals, which are not only poisonous to fish and wildlife, but also poisonous to the many people who get their water supply from these now polluted streams. Not to mention that these mountains, a part of the natural beauty of this world, these mountains which so many grew up with, are now gone forever, lost to all future generations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 1.4 million square miles--or, about the size of the state of Delaware--of Appalachian mountaintops and forests will have been cleared by this process over the past thirty years.

You may be asking, why hasn’t this been stopped? Why isn’t there legislation to protect these mountains? Well, the issue is complicated. Mountain Top Removal Mining provides income for many people in a place where frankly, there are not many other options for employment available, especially during this time of economic turmoil. The United States receives over fifty-percent of its electricity from coal, and so the demand is high. To stop Mountain Top Removal Mining would be to force hundreds, perhaps thousands of families, out of work and, perhaps, even change the life styles of hundreds of thousands of families who rely on coal power for their electricity.

Is the health of the environment, not to mention the health of the few hundred families who have unsafe drinking water worth the stability of the hundreds of thousands of people who receive electricity from coal and the thousands of families who receive their sole income from this process? Are the few who are currently being largely ignored by the greater community worth enough to make change which will adversely effect a larger population?

In the gospel today, Jesus is faced with a similar decision. Imagine, if you will, that you are one of the swineherds, observing this interaction between the demoniac and this person you’ve never met before, someone called Jesus. Sure, you have heard about Jesus before, and his healings in Galilee, but as a gentile living in a gentile nation, Jesus’ life and ministry seem to you to be more of a Jewish phenomenon and nothing of any importance to you. Jesus is just one of the many self-proclaimed prophets who wonders through Judea, and you could hardly be concerned with him. What makes this one so special? you might ask.

So here you are with several other swineherds, tending your large herd of pigs. And you see this man step out of his boat with a few of the followers. That’s a little odd, because they seem to have made it across the sea of Galilee during the storm last night without capsizing, but here they are. Almost immediately after stepping out of the boat, you hear the all-too-familiar loud shrieks of the demoniac from behind you. You turn around just to see him run past--naked, dirty, covered in bruises and scratches. He runs past you and up to Jesus and bows down at his feet, grabbing onto Jesus’ robes and pleading with him, falling down on the ground. You can hear bits of the conversation from where you stand. You share a glance with some of the other swineherds, a glance of disapproval.

You see, you know this man, this demoniac. He would become so violent towards himself and others that he would need to be kept in chains and guarded so as not to hurt anyone. This man was not just a noisy nuisance, or an unpleasant sight as he ran around naked, but this man was full of evil, almost out of control as he would bring harm to other people and himself. You debate going down there to grab this man and take him away before he acts out against Jesus or one of his followers, but before you can shout any warnings down to Jesus you realize that it seems Jesus already has the situation under control.

You watch as the conversation unfolds, the demoniac asking for healing, for release from his demons. And Jesus agrees, attempting to cast these demons out. But then the man shouts “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” Jesus looks at the man with kindness and simply asks “What is your name?” The man replies “Legion!” as if he were full of many of these demons. And then the man begged Jesus not to send them into the abyss, into the darkness, and instead to enter into the pigs.

You look around at the other swineherds to see if they are getting any of this. They smile that knowing smile, like this is some sort of comedy. And it is--this crazy, demon possessed man first of all having a conversation with Jesus, and now asking Jesus to cast the demons into the pigs, as if Jesus had some sort of power to do that. I mean, you’ve heard about deviled ham, but this?

But you hear from your vantage point Jesus agree, and before you know it, you hear your pigs start squealing as if something had scared them. You and your peers try in vain to corral them, but the pigs begin to stampede, rushing towards the end of the cliff. And before they could be stopped, your entire herd of pigs leap off the edge of the cliff and into the foaming sea below. At first you stand in disbelief, peering over the edge of the cliff and into the waters where your large herd of swine just drowned. And then, you turn around, angry at this Jesus. He just killed your entire herd of swine! This was your income, your job. How will you be able to put food on the table for your family? How will you be able pay the tax collectors? Not just that, but these pigs were your own, you raised them, you loved them, and sat long nights with them, protecting them. And now they are gone. Your anger quickly turns to fear as you think about this power Jesus has, a power to kill an entire herd of swine.

You and your companions run back to the city to tell everyone about the horror that had just taken place. People don’t believe you at first, but soon, a large crowd appears and follows you back to the area by the sea where it had all taken place. And there they see it--Jesus and his disciples, and the man--the demoniac--now clothed and in his right mind, and having a casual conversation with Jesus.

The crowd from the city is just as afraid as you are, and so they begin to shout at Jesus, and you join. “Leave here! We don’t want you! You disturb the peace! You are helping these freeloaders like the demoniac! We work hard for our money and our community and our well-being, and you would help this evil man at our expense?”

Jesus does not argue but heads back towards the boat, his disciples follow. Before he leaves, the demoniac once more throws himself at Jesus’ feet. You can’t hear what is said over the loud shouts of the crowd, but Jesus speaks to him, embraces him, and then leaves. The man gets up, turns around, and races towards you shouting “Jesus has healed me! Look at all God has done for me!”

Jesus had to make the choice: is this one man’s spiritual and physical health worth more than the economic well-being of the farmers and the community? Jesus chooses here the reconciliation of one at the expense of many.

This seems to be a central theme of Luke’s telling of the gospel story. Over and over again we see Jesus heal people who were cast out of the community, bringing them back into full relationship with the larger community even if it comes at the community’s expense. His many parables are full of stories where those who have must give up what they have in order to stand in solidarity with those who have not. Right from the beginning of this gospel we hear the song of Mary, proclaiming before Jesus is even born the type of things he will do on behalf of his Parent, the Lord God. Yes, Jesus’ message and ministry is the kind that rips the mighty down from their thrones in exchange for the rising up of the humble, feeds the hungry and leaves the fed no part.

Leave no doubt about it: Jesus’ ministry is a radical one, one that brings both good and bad news. The good news is whenever you are cast out from society, the power of the gospel will bring you back in no matter what the cost is to those who cast you out. The bad news is that this community comes at the expense of us who have much and are unwilling to share.

In contemporary times we are faced with these difficult decisions. Health care reform, the ELCA Human Sexuality Statements and decisions, and Mountain Top Removal Mining are just a few examples. We have entire communities at stake on either side of the issue. And, the majority’s lifestyle is often what is at stake. The haves not wanting to give up their hold to let the have nots in. Our elected officials in the church and the country make difficult decisions all the time, having often to weigh the pros and cons on both sides. I am not going to pretend I know what is best for this country or this church.

But, what I will say is that the gospel consistently shows that Jesus will help those in need in spite of those who already have everything and more, and often at their expense. The gospel should rattle us in our current lifestyles and force us to look outside of ourselves. For instance, is it not our responsibility to find sustainable employment for the miners that is not poisonous to the environment and local communities? Is that not our call as community? As family?

The gospel calls us to true reconciliation and community. And when we discriminate or bar people from this table, from this fellowship, from this man who is God, the gospel will work around us, and yes, in spite of us.

No matter who you are, or where you are in life’s journey, this gospel also shows us the good news. Jesus goes out of his way to help us when we are excluded by the community. Just as Jesus not only showed compassion to the man who was kicked out of the community for being possessed, but also to the very demons who possessed him, Jesus shows compassion to the oppressed, the excluded, the last, lonely, lifeless, lost. Whether you are excluded because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, creed, social status, culture, or even because you are struggling with your own inner demons, whatever forms they may come in, the gospel brings you into full community.

And yes, evil exists in this world. That is why we are faced with these hard decisions about health care and environmental problems, and that same evil rejoices, rejoices when we bar people from community based on sexual orientation, gender, age, race, health care or not, democrat or republican, rich or poor, social status, sick or in perfect health, even those possessed by the worst of demons. But Jesus stands up against that evil, the one man against the legion, against the many, almost as if it were an epic show off. And Jesus shows us that that fighting that evil and doing the right thing almost always comes at a cost. It cost the swineherds their flock, the community their food and commerce. It often costs us today our comfortable “hard-earned” lifestyles. And it ultimately cost Jesus his life. Amen.


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