Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It seems, sometimes, like the demons are going to win.
Last week I stood before you and preached a sermon about Brock Turner, Jesus and the unnamed and the epidemic of sexual assault. It was a hard sermon, and I was relieved when it was over. I thought I was going to get to go home, take a post-liturgical nap, and look forward to a week where current events wouldn’t make sermon-writing quite as risky.
Instead I went home and heard about the Orlando shooting.
And without warning, without my permission, I was out in the wilderness again. The demons had broken the bonds I use to try to make sense out of terrible things, and they had once again be-wildered me. How can such a terrible thing be possible?
It’s a trick question, and in our bewilderment, we leap to it too quickly. A colleague of mine observed this week that tragedy once had the effect of galvanizing this country, of forging unity in the midst of sorrow. But lately, it has polarized us. Even before we’re fully recovered from the shock of whatever terrible event has made national headlines, we must decide how we will answer that question: “How can such a terrible thing be possible?”
Which issue will you choose as the demon that drove the Orlando massacre? Homophobia? Muslim extremism? Faulty national security? Mental illness? Racism? Toxic masculinity? Lack of gun control? Or the fact that more club-goers weren’t armed?
Choose your demon. They are legion. And it seems, sometimes, like they’re going to win.
So we tell ourselves that we have to get them under control. We have to. We have the chains ready: anti-Muslim immigration movements, increased support for LGBTQ communities, universal background checks, looser concealed carry laws, better care for the mentally ill, cracking down harder on suspected terrorists—pick your demon, and choose a chain.
We all want the same thing but find ourselves working at cross-purposes, growing increasingly frustrated, until suddenly, suddenly, we’re not just battling the demons, but each other, drawing lines in the sand without realizing that the ground we’re claiming is out among the tombs.
Two thousand years ago in Gerasa, there is a man who is possessed by demons. This man once had a home in the city, and neighbors who tried to take care of him. When the demons grew too strong they chained him and stood guard over him, but a day came when the demons grew too strong even for that, and the man broke the chains and took off into the wilderness, and they let him go. No one even knows his name anymore, and when anyone asks, he responds, “Legion,” because there are so many demons in him, so many that they crowd out even his own name.
His neighbors had done their best, and they hadn’t meant to, but slowly it happened that as they tried to chain the demon, they lost the man. Out of fear of what possessed him, his community chained him down, and when they could not chain him down, they shut him out. He ceased to be their neighbor, and became interchangeable with the forces that possessed him.
And in the moment that his community accepted that, they were possessed by the most pernicious demon of all: the one that permits us to “other” a human being that was made in the image of God.
In her letter to the church this past Monday, our Presiding Bishop spoke about this othering.
“We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God’s image. All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract “others,” they are us. …We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into likeminded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization. [In Orlando], we witnessed the tragic consequences of this.”
There are two healings that cry out for attention in this week’s gospel text. One is the healing of the demoniac. The second is the healing of the body to which he had belonged—his community.
We see the completion of the first—in fact, it’s never in doubt. Jesus’ triumph over the demons who possess the man is so undeniably certain that the narrator barely bothers to record Jesus’ command to the demons to come out. It happens somewhere underneath the demons’ line, and the only way we know Jesus spoke is because the demons go from asking Jesus what he had to do with them to screaming for pity. Jesus’ ability to cast out the demons is never, for a moment, in question.
But his ability to heal the community? By the time the story moves on, we still don’t know. The community’s reaction to the first healing is one of fear and disbelief. When they go out to see if what the swineherds are saying is true, and they see the demoniac sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind, they are afraid, and they ask Jesus, please, to go away.
Sometimes our familiar demons are more comfortable than the unfamiliar reality of wholeness, and the terribly exposed feeling of hope.
But despite the fact that the city rejects Jesus, there is still hope. When the healed man asks for permission to follow Jesus, Jesus won’t give it to him. Instead, he tells him to stay. Stay in the city, and tell them what God has done for him. And that’s just what the man does.
There is no doubt that one day, Jesus will come again and make all things well. There is no doubt that one day, this wounded creation will cease groaning and God will birth something beautiful and healed and whole. There is no doubt that death has been emptied of its power, even (and especially) when it happens in a gay nightclub in Florida at 2 a.m. on Latin Night. There is no doubt that Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it, and what God purposes, God will accomplish. There is no doubt that one day, we will be dwelling in the city of God, with a tree in its center whose leaves are for the healing of everyone, of everything, of all nations.
But in the meantime, that’s not the city Jesus asks us to live in. In the meantime, we are here, and now, in the midst of a polarized country with all kinds of chains and all kinds of answers for all kinds of demons, but not nearly enough hope.
And the good news that we are given to survive on and share is that hope isn’t found in restraints, and it isn’t found in exclusion. It is found in love.
It is found in the love which asks our name when we ourselves have forgotten. The love that speaks those names as though they were the names of beloved brothers and sisters.
It is found in the love that emptied itself in order to walk among us, the love which crossed the lines we draw between ourselves at least as often as it crossed the Sea of Galilee so that it could eat with sinners and Pharisees alike.
It is found in the love that shared a drink with the “other,” at a Samaritan well two thousand years ago, and at Pulse last Sunday night.
It is found in the love that will not let us go, that refuses to leave us, even when we hang it from a cross or shoot it dead on a nightclub floor.
This is a love whose strength is revealed to us in the moments when we think it’s been beaten, and the demons are going to win.
And I trust this not only because this is the story of our faith, the story of Christ, but because of moments when the Spirit sends this truth to ding me upside the head. And the moment it happened this week….
…was the one when a little four-year-old boy who belonged to the mosque where I attended a vigil on Friday stepped up to the microphone.
It happened when the imam asked if there were any final remarks, final remarks to be made in the wake of speaker after speaker who had offered words of wisdom and power that I listened to but found myself left cold by. This Muslim boy walked up to the microphone, reached above his head to take it, and waited patiently for it to come on before saying:
“I just want to thank everyone for being here tonight, because I love you all.”
When you leave this place, it will begin again. The arguments about which demon is at fault and what should be done and how could you think that and don’t you have a lick of sense?
And when it does, remember: the God who casts out demons without question, without doubt, is sending you from this place to tell your community what God has done for you.
Begin like this: Drop your chains. Before you pick them up again, choose a different place to start from.
“Thank you for having this conversation with me. Thank for being my friend. Thank you for being here with me.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”