June 23, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 8:26-39

Unfortunately, the fourth-grade orchestra at Colerain Elementary school isn’t much different than the rest of the world.  For sure, the music and the work to learn an instrument connected us.  But there was also the one kid that no one liked.  We ostracized him.  We hid his books.  We laughed about him.  But he played a very important role.  He bonded us together.  He made us feel like friends because we talked about him.  We had a group project because we played tricks on him.  And, as we got older, we just talked about him. For someone so despised, he was absolutely central to the life of our little orchestra.  We could look at him and list the legion of things that were wrong with him.

I still feel bad about the way we chained him into that role, never allowing him to emerge as a person in his own right.  Our own childhood insecurity needed him so desperately to give us the feeling of friendship and community, probably because we felt like outsiders inside.

Rene’ Girard, a literary critic and social philosopher, writes about today’s gospel story.  He said about the man with the legion of demons: “The Gerasenes needed this man, an agreed-upon “bad guy,” to represent evil—he was someone out there, someone the social structure could cast out. This is how the system of the world maintains order; the community is unified by defining itself over against an other. In this case, the Gerasenes seize and bind the demoniac, but he keeps getting loose. This is actually convenient—perhaps the chains are purposefully made weak because the Gerasenes need his escape and recapture to maintain the system.”  [1]

We do that in so many ways.  We take all the parts of ourselves that we don’t like or that frighten us, and we look for them in someone who is different than us, or in someone we don’t like so that we can say, “Thank God I’m not like him.”  And then we chain them up with words and stereotypes that strip them of personhood. We call them “evil” and we’re sure they threaten the very existence of our community or our nation by their very existence.

There have been legions of rulers and leaders who have used this deep human impulse to create community by demonizing the “other.”  Sometimes it’s not even below the surface, it’s on full view at political rallies or in family conversations down the street.  It’s under this week’s threats of deportation, then cancellation, then promise to come again, and it’s in the first ever conversation in the nation’s capitol about reparations to African American because of slavery. .  In first century, it was expressed between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.  In America, it’s expressed most often in the ways we understand race and national identity.

When Luke tells his story of Jesus and the man among the tombs, he makes an interesting decision as he talks about the man who among the tombs. When the story begins, Luke calls him a “man of the city.”  He is Gentile.  He is “other.”  When Jesus casts out the demons and they come out of him, the word for “human being” is used. Something radically shifts between the start of the story and the almost-comical herd of swine rushing over the cliff.  He is now a person, apart from the world’s assumptions and projections.   The arrival of Jesus on the shore changes the game.  The demons know immediately that the rules have changed

Jesus interjects himself into the way we do things.  He says “No” to scapegoating.  He says “No” to patterns that delineate usand them.  He refuses to address the man by his label, or to define him the same way everyone else does.  He’s also unafraid in the face of darkness and he’s willing to risk being in the presence of this wild and wounded man.

Jesus lives his life with two powerful assumptions:  God is stronger than our demons, and every life can be saved.

It’s hard for us to relate to casting out demons.  We imagine it to be something like “The Exorcist”, a priest yelling at the girl while her head turns all the way around.  In a strange way, my mother taught me to be an exorcist when said, “Can you see it from his side?”  Luther teaches us to be exorcists when he tells us in the explanation to the eighth commandment to “interpret out neighbors actions in the most charitable way.”

It sounds so simple.  Understand one another.  Don’t label.  Assume redemption, not damnation.  Expect people to change, rather than consign them to their demons.  Live with the belief that the future is open and abundant, filled with mercy and justice.

The whole story ends with the man eager to tell what’s happened to him.  Jesus sends him back into the city that had labeled him, and ostracized him, and chained him to tombs, to witness in his own spirit that the game has changed. This is our work, church.  No matter how hard it seems right now.

It’s, of course, what we proclaim; that in Christ the rules for human life have changed.  No longer do we need to find a scapegoat to connect us because Christ has become the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. His own life makes us into a community. His body and his blood bind us together. We need nothing other than the love of God to connect us to one another and to feel safe about our future.  We, too, have been carried across the baptismal sea, and we now stand on the other side, along with Jesus, ready to join the orchestra, playing a song of grace and mercy, compassion and peace.  And Jesus say, “Play!  Play!”

 

 

 

[1]Thank you to Pastor Debbie Blue for putting me onto this Girardian connection.