Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sermon for June 20, 2010

What Has God Done for You?
[Jesus and the disciples] arrived in the region of the Gerasenes, across the lake from Galilee. As Jesus was climbing out of the boat, a man who was possessed by demons came out to meet him. For a long time he had been homeless and naked, living in a cemetery outside the town. As soon as he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down in front of him. Then he screamed, “Why are you interfering with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Please, I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had already commanded the evil spirit to come out of him. This spirit had often taken control of the man. Even when he was placed under guard and put in chains and shackles, he simply broke them and rushed out into the wilderness, completely under the demon’s power. Jesus demanded, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, for he was filled with many demons. The demons kept begging Jesus not to send them into the bottomless pit. There happened to be a large herd of pigs feeding on the hillside nearby, and the demons begged him to let them enter into the pigs. So Jesus gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the entire herd plunged down the steep hillside into the lake and drowned. When the herdsmen saw it, they fled to the nearby town and the surrounding countryside, spreading the news as they ran. People rushed out to see what had happened.

A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been freed from the demons. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and perfectly sane, and they were all afraid. Then those who had seen what happened told the others how the demon-possessed man had been healed. And all the people in the region of the Gerasenes begged Jesus to go away and leave them alone, for a great wave of fear swept over them. So Jesus returned to the boat and left, crossing back to the other side of the lake. The man who had been freed from the demons begged to go with him. But Jesus sent him home, saying, “No, go back to your family, and tell them everything God has done for you.” So he went all through the town proclaiming the great things Jesus had done for him. -- Luke 8:26-39
One Sunday morning, everyone in one bright, beautiful, tiny town got up early and went to the local church. Before the services started, the townspeople were sitting in their pews and talking about their lives and their families. Suddenly, Satan appeared at the front of the church. Everyone started screaming and running for the front entrance, trampling each other in a frantic effort to get away from evil incarnate.

Soon everyone was evacuated from the church, except for one elderly gentleman who sat calmly in his pew, not moving, seemingly oblivious to the fact that God's ultimate enemy was in a church. This confused Satan a bit, so he walked up to the man and said, "Don't you know who I am?"

The man replied, "Yep, sure do."
Satan asked, "Aren't you afraid of me?"
"Nope, sure ain't," said the man.
Satan was a little perturbed at this and queried, "Why aren't you afraid of me?"
The man calmly replied, "Been married to your sister for over 48 years."

This man had obviously met evil. I know. We don’t like to talk about demons. Many of us wonder if there really is such a thing as a demon, or a devil for that matter. For me, any force that prevents even a single one of us from experiencing the full humanity God intends for all humanity is demonic. I think of demon possession as an unhealthy way of relating to God, our fellow human beings, and even our selves. Something unholy takes root in us, forms a life of its own, and threatens to take us over completely. I was once looking over some recovery literature and saw a piece called “A Letter From Your Addiction.” The beginning of the letter says,
I've come to visit once again. I love to see you suffer mentally physically spiritually and socially. I want to have you restless so you can never relax. I want you jumpy and nervous and anxious. I want to make you agitated and irritable so everything and everybody makes you uncomfortable. I want you to be depressed and confused so that you can’t think clearly or positively. I want to make you hate everything and everybody-especially yourself. I want you to feel guilty and remorseful for the things you have done in the past that you’ll never be able to let go. I want to make you angry and hateful toward the world for the way it is and the way you are. I want you to feel sorry for yourself and blame everything but your addiction for the way things are. I want you to be deceitful and untrustworthy, and to manipulate and con as many people as possible. I want to make you fearful and paranoid for no reason at all and I want you to wake up during all hours of the night screaming for me. You know you can’t sleep without me; I’m even in your dreams.
Those are the words of evil. Addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and unhealthy relationships destroy constellations of lives. The evils of racism, sexism, and homophobia haunt our communities through generations. The evils of poverty enslave millions around the world, keeping them uneducated, unemployed, homeless, hungry, and hopeless despite an overabundance of resources.

Today we hear about a man who was tortured by evil. Imagine the sight: a naked man, quite insane, living among the dead. I wonder, was it demons or a mental illness? Might he have suffered from schizophrenia or a form of bipolar disorder? What social condition might have driven him insane? Might it have been unspeakable abuse as a child? Might it have been the horrors of war? Did something happen to someone he knew and loved that was more horrifying than his mind could bear?

We know some of the stories of some of the people who are among the “walking dead.” You will usually see them walking city streets; people who mutter to themselves as they push their grocery cart filled with all of their earthly belongings, who live under bridges and highway overpasses or deep in the bowels of the subway system where they might escape the unforgiving winds of winter or the blazing, burning rays of the summer sun. I’ve seen them in Trumbull, too -- people who wander the streets, muddled and confused, directing traffic and screaming at litterers as they collect trash off the ground.

As I read this story and prepared this sermon, I was fascinated by what happens after the man is healed. Scripture says, “A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been freed from the demons. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and perfectly sane, and they were all afraid.” I’m sure they were afraid of the man when he was insane. But why are they now so afraid that they beg Jesus to leave the town? The demons are gone. The man sits, clothed and quiet, at the feet of Jesus. And yet, we are told that the townspeople are afraid. Why? Why now? After the healing? Once the demons had gone?

Were they mad that Jesus sent a herd of pigs over a cliff and ruined the local economy? Did they realize that they cared more about their livelihoods than the healed man? Where they scared of Jesus' power over the powers of darkness? Were they afraid of the unknown? Scared of change? Worried that Jesus might confront the demons in their lives? Sounds silly doesn't it? If one's life is bound by fear, or addiction, or illness, you'd think one would want to find freedom. But that's not always the case. Some people prefer to remain prisoners. The fear of what a new life might look like is greater than the pain of staying the same. More accurately, perhaps, people are not afraid of healing. They are afraid of pain. They count the cost and finding it too much.

I think Jesus exposes our woundedness. He sees people like the Gerasene Demoniac and says, "Show me your wounds." He offers the same healing to everyone. "Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."

"Are you crazy, Jesus? I've spent a lifetime trying to hide my wounds. I'm trying to ignore that pain, to move my mind AWAY from the places where evil lurks. I need to function, and keep on living, keep on doing what I do, one day after the next."

"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"You really don't understand, Jesus, my body is evolutionary conditioned to back away from things that cause me pain. It’s a matter of survival."

"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"I can't."
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"I don't want to look."
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"I don't want to think about it."
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"I can't stand the thought."
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"The pain is unbearable."
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
I don't want to go where it hurts.
"Show me your wounds, and I will heal them."
"I am afraid."

I get it. Jesus presents people with new information. They've never seen such a sight before. They try to make sense of this new experience. Perhaps they realize the possibilities. Maybe they are challenged to learn, and grow, and heal. Maybe they are not ready. Sometimes I'm afraid of that, too.

What can we do when we see evil in us and evil around us? What do we do when we are afraid of the pain of healing yet also afraid to stay the same?

1. Acceptance.
Don't ignore the darkness in you. Don't ignore the darkness around you. We know people whose lives have been destroyed by their demons. We don't call them demons. We call them addictions. We call them emotional disorders. We call them disturbances. Sometimes we call them hobbies. But when they destroy people, wouldn't it be more accurate to call them demonic?

I really believe that acceptance is the beginning of healing. Acceptance is the answer to all our problems. “When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation---some fact of my life---unacceptable to me. I want to change it. I can find no peace until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God's world by mistake . . ." (AA Big Book).

Anthony Mello was a Jesuit priest, author, and teacher. He writes about a man he met who was trapped by the demons of hatred. The man was really having trouble with a few people in his life. He decided that, for a couple of hours, he was going to get in touch with how badly he felt toward these people. As he confronted his pain, he admitted that he really hated those people. Then I said, "Jesus, what can you do about all that?" A little while later he began to cry, because he realized that Jesus lived and died for those very people and they couldn't help how they were, anyway.

Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you're living in an illusion. There's something seriously wrong with you. Something inside of YOU has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? "He is to blame, she is to blame. She's got to change.” No! Just leave the world alone. The one who has to change is YOU.

So, we accept our faults. We can even love them. That man who felt hatred learned it somewhere. I'm sure it served its purpose at one point in his life. Imagine him speaking to his feelings of hatred. Imagine him saying, “Hatred, you and I have been together for a long time. You have helped me feel protected. You have taught me to feel right when others are wrong. You have motivated me towards action. But now you are draining my emotions and my spirit, and we need to part ways. You see, I used you like you used me. Hatred, I have used you to avoid looking at the deeper, darker part of myself and focus on how bad other people are. I love you, but I need to find some other ways to handle my problems. I need to change. Christ calls me to love.”

As psychologist Erich Fromm said, your main task in life is to give birth to a self, to become what you potentially are. Don't ignore the darkness. Find it. Expose it. Show it to the Christ. He wants to help you change and be the YOU that you were created to be.

2. Go and tell what God has done
I understand that some of you may be shy or anxious to share your faith with others. Don’t worry! Jesus didn’t say that every person has to approach strangers and explain the most difficult theology of the church. To the man from the Gerasenes he said, “Tell them everything God has done for you.” I think that's an invitation for us, today. Tell others the good things Christ has done for you personally. Mother Teresa would say to her sisters, “Just go and offer God’s love to someone else. Smile at someone. Show them the joy that God has given you in your life. Don’t let anyone ever come to you without leaving better and happier.” In this way, we share the good news. And don't people need some good news?

God, free us from all that binds and enslaves us. All that concerns us from freely following you. Free us from merely respectable, polite religion so that we may more boldly, courageously, and exuberantly be the disciples you deserve. Free us to step over our go where you are in the world of human need. Free us that we might be bound only to you.

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