It is amazing how often the readings for the Eucharist are what we need to hear. The gospel for today is Luke 8.26-39, the story of the casting of out of the demons from the Gerasene man. I was on the rota to preach and this is my sermon.
Jesus was in a foreign place. He’d gone across the Sea of Galilee to the far side. It was unfamiliar, foreign, outside of his comfort zone. The town he’d come to – and there’s dispute about where that actually was – was certainly a Greco-Roman community. This was not Israel, it was chiefly pagan, it was different. It was most probably a city of philosophers, where issues were debated, views expressed, truth contested. We know it’s a foreign place because there were herds of pigs around. The Jews didn’t raise them, they didn’t keep them. After all, when the Prodigal goes off to earn his fortune and live his life away from his father’s gaze he goes to a foreign land and there he ends up looking after the swine.
And arriving there, in this foreign place, Jesus is immediately faced with a man, out of his mind, who leaps from amongst the tombs and confronts him. The scene that Luke paints always reminds me of that opening scene in the 1946 film version of ‘Great Expectations’. Young Pip is in the marshes; the mist is rolling in off the sea and out from it all leaps Magwitch, like a madman and grabs the boy.
The pigs and the tombs make for an unclean environment for Jesus to be in, the pagan culture was another part of that challenging environment – yet it seems Jesus has purposefully gone there, left the security of homeland and known environment, left the familiar for the unfamiliar. It’s not as if he was lost, had strayed from the path and by accident found himself in this environment; this is where he’d come to, this is where he wanted to be.
The man is in torment, possessed by demons, many of them and Jesus asks their name. They call themselves ‘Legion’ because they are so many. And Jesus calls them from him and they leave and inhabit the swine and send them to destruction.
We’ve lived through the most terrible week. It’s amazing to think that only last Sunday we were in party mood as we were celebrating the 90th birthday of the Queen. But how quickly that mood of celebration changed.
The news from Florida, the attack on the Pulse Nightclub, the slaughter of 49 people, out with friends, out for a good night in a place in which, presumably they felt safe and able to be themselves, the injuring of so many, the traumatising of people there and those of us who’ve felt touched by the events, the pain of bereavement inflicted on parents and partners and lovers and friends is simply unimaginable.
Then we heard of football hooligans intent on fighting, intent on destroying a tournament that many had been preparing for, looking forward to. The senseless violence, the destructive power of the mob, whatever their nationality, the pressure on the French police and security forces who were trying to protect the fans from possible terrorist acts was sickening.
And then a 41 year old mother of two, an MP, newly elected, going about her duties, seeing her constituents, serving them, is stabbed and shot and killed. It’s hard to know what to say when violence like this not only takes a life but chips away at the very fabric of our society, at our hard won and precious democracy. As Bishop Christopher said here on Friday when we held an Act of Remembrance for Jo Cox, those who represent us, serve us, make themselves vulnerable in order to do so.
Jesus enters into a foreign place and a man, full of demons, leaps from amongst the tombs and confronts him and Jesus makes himself vulnerable and names those demons.
In Shakespeare’s perhaps greatest play, ‘Hamlet’, which the Globe took to the globe over these last two years, Marcellus says to Horatio
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’
There’s something rotten going on and as Christians we have to name it, we have to name the demons that are threatening our society. Jesus asks the demons their name because, as we know, in Jewish thought to know a name was to have some power over the one named. That’s why God will not let his name be known or spoken, that’s why Jacob asks the name of the one with whom he wrestles all night beside the Jabbock not far from where this tortured man meets Jesus.
St Paul writing to the Christians in Galatia makes it very clear that we’re part of a new created order.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The old demons of division were destroyed. Instead in Christ we’re a new creation and in that world we’re all one. It’s one of the most powerful lines in the New Testament for me and something that always gives me hope and encouragement and a sense of vision and purpose for this place and what we stand for together. But out there the demons are at play and they must be named before they destroy us.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about what I described as the dangerous fear of the foreigner – but that demon of fear, of xenophobia is still there and being fuelled. It’s a demon. Posters showing queues of refugees are designed to make us fearful. It’s a scandal that political debate was reduced to such a level that it uses the most vulnerable as a tool to win the argument. The Daily Mail had to retract a story at the end of last week – but by then the damage had been done.
There’s the demon of homophobia, a demon that drives a man, for whatever reason, to enter a nightclub and slaughter people simply for who they are and who God created them to be. There’s the demon of racism, the demon of sexism, that generalise, objectify, diminish the individual.
There’s the demon of abuse when social media is used to attack and denigrate and discredit and drum up hatred in a way that we could not imagine possible. We’re all fair game for the trolls out there, whether we’re being bullied at school, or bullied in the workplace, or bullied as politicians.
There’s the demon of nationalism, the demon of false identity that wants to build walls around ourselves, walls across Mexico, walls across Israel, walls to exclude Muslims, walls between us and the rest of Europe.
There’s the demon of violence in which guns are seen as a right and not a threat, a solution and not a problem, in which going out simply to fight someone because of who they support, because of who they are is seen as acceptable.
There are more demons around, they are legion, and we must name them and banish them from our societies, for the demons will consume us, they will destroy us. But the vulnerable man Jesus, the vulnerable God enters that terrifying place and, as the prophet Isaiah says, lives out those words
I will not keep silent.
But what seems obvious is not always welcome. The demons are gone, the man is clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him and the people are terrified and ask Jesus to leave.
It doesn’t make sense. You’d think they’d be delighted for the man and for their town. But they weren’t. Perhaps they’d grown too used to the demons and the madman amongst the tombs. If we do not keep silent, as the church, as this community, as I believe we cannot be, we have to realise that what we say will not be good news to all. But that shouldn’t stop us speaking the truth.
Our vulnerable God enters the dangerous territory, of that nightclub, of those streets in France, of that square in Yorkshire, of the queue of refugees, of the despised and traumatised, of the ones behind the walls and holds out his hands so that they can be nailed and nailed and nailed, and the power of the devil is destroyed.
Before we plunge further into the depths we need to look to Jesus and ask him to rid us of the demons, for ‘in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith’, in Christ we are already free – so we mustn’t allow our society to be shackled to live among the tombs where there is death but in the city where there is life.
God of peace,
call out the demons from amongst us
and give us your peace.