June 23, 2019 - Rev'd. Kevin Corbin Smith
SERMON FOR THE 23RD OF JUNE 2019
THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – PROPER 7 C
THE REVEREND KEVIN CORBIN SMITH RECTOR, ST. CLEMENT’S CHURCH, SEATTLE
THE GOSPEL: LUKE 8:26-39
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 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. 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" -- 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.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
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. 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.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 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. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 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. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "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.
We all live with demons. I’m not talking about supernatural evil beings that invade our being and do nasty things. I don’t believe in those kind of demons. In ages past, demons got blamed for a whole host of things from medical problems to mental health issues. Through the miracle of modern science, we now know that such conditions have physiological origins and are curable or at least the symptoms manageable. In some cases these problems can be severe and repair or cure isn’t possible not even for the medical community.
But we all live with our own demons. We live with self-doubt. We live with our medical issues. We live with the process of aging which, as I get older, becomes more of an issue. Our culture and even our religions set demons upon us. We are only human yet each of these – which also include our families and our friends – set expectations upon us which our Blessed Lord himself couldn’t meet. We have ideals of perfection foisted upon us and when we don’t live up to those ideals, we’re blamed for our imperfections. We become riddled with guilt and remorse for things over which we have no control. We begin to believe that we truly are demons themselves, that we have no worth, that there is no hope for us, that we are stuck in the mire of our own making and it’s all our fault.
These are the demons with which we humans live – well, with which we exist. Jesus says that he came to bring us life abundant. Yet that life abundant is rarely realized. It gets short circuited. Life becomes drudgery living one moment to the next. As Auntie Mame once said, “Life’s a banquet yet most poor people are starving to death.”
But let me remind us all of how I started out this sermon: demons are not real. Demons are mythological creatures. They don’t really exist. They are figments of our cultural and religious imaginations created to give others control over us. Even though they may be figments of imagination, their damage can be devastating to say the least. And they are legion!
Jesus and the disciples had crossed the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes which we know as the Golan Heights. It’s about half way between Jerusalem and Beirut, Lebanon on the top of the Sea of Galilee. And as soon as Jesus’ feet touch the shore, this man “possessed by demons” runs into him. It’s obvious by how the man is dressed, or lack thereof, as well as his general look that the poor guy isn’t all there. Something is drastically wrong. And Jesus’ heart naturally goes out to him. He wants this poor fellow to be whole. So, Jesus asks him his name. He replies, “Legion, for we are many!” In other words, there were lots of demons possessing this man from the abyss which was a mythological place containing a raging river under the earth thought to be the dwelling place of demons and evil spirits. And the demons had no desire to return to their former dwelling place. Instead, in departing this poor fellow, they beg Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs grazing nearby. Now, we all know the Jewish opinion of pigs, so Jesus was more than happy to oblige them. Once in the swineherd, the demons and the pigs go over the embankment into the Sea of Galilee. And that’s the end of them. And Legion is restored to his right mind.
Now, while this story may be a literary device to make a point and not the account of an actual historical event, it is none the less filled with great truth. This is a story of grace. It’s a story about the truth of the love of God made known to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
All of us can relate to poor Legion. As I said earlier, we all have our own demons that leave us in sad shape living among the tombs – among the charred remains of our very being – the guilt and self-loathing and remorse foisted upon us by culture, religion or family. And Jesus, the Risen Christ, is ever present, ever available, ever at our side offering us release for only one reason: because of God’s total love for us, a love with no strings attached, a love that is so complete and alive that we can never truly understand it.
The Catechism in the back of the Prayer Book tells us that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” While well intentioned, the Catechism is playing into the demonic forces that infect our lives. Telling us that Grace is “unearned and undeserved” just underscores the idea that we as human beings are lacking in any intrinsic value. And by emphasizing God’s forgiveness, the Catechism again underscores the idea that our human condition is somehow of our own doing. However, where the Catechism is absolutely correct is in saying that Grace is God’s favor towards us. The entire message of Jesus is this: that in the midst of our human condition – in the midst of our brokenness as a result of being physically and spiritually detached from the very source of our being and the demons that such a state releases, God’s love for us, God’s acceptance of each of us as individuals and as the entire human community has never been in doubt because such doubt defies the very nature of the Being of God. God knows of what we are made and how we got that way. And yet, God’s love for us all is a given. It just is. And there’s nothing we can do about it, nothing we can do to change that fact, nothing which can stop God’s love for us from being the defining meaning of the entire universe.
Grace happens to us the moment we turn to Christ and see God for who God really is. Grace happens and our demons reveal themselves as what they really are – nothing! – when the light bulb clicks on that the expectations we’ve been trying to meet are not of God in the first place. Grace happens the moment when we understand that God love us in the midst of our imperfections and flaws and sometimes abysmal behavior not because God is doing us a favor but because such is the very nature of the Being of God. Grace is the moment when we know that we are loved and loveable no matter what, just because. And at that very moment, our lives are transformed. We begin living that abundant life God intends for us. We no longer live in guilt and shame and fear which cause us untold grief as well as cause us to do unspeakable things to ourselves and each other. This is the moment when the demons inhabit the pigs who take our shame and guilt and fear and self-loathing over the cliff with them never to be seen again.
Because we are indeed human, even once we’ve come to know and experience and even live Grace, we forget or even doubt it at times. And so that we might remember and be renewed in this Grace on a regular basis, God gives us a community of people who also live in the light of Grace to support each other. God provides means of Grace – the Sacraments, sacred story, glorious music and the witness of those who’ve gone before us who were released from their demons, whose lives were transformed and renewed.
This is what the Christian faith and message are all about. The Christian faith isn’t about guilt and sin and judgment. And the only way the Christian faith is about forgiveness isn’t about the idea that God forgives us. In God’s eye, there is nothing to forgive. But we need to hear that word of forgiveness to release us from the demons that entrap us. We need to know that Grace is the ultimate reality in all things. Our hearts need to be warmed on a regular basis because the demons – though they may not be real – follow us and sometimes even capture us on a regular basis. We need to know Grace intimately so we can be present to those trapped by their demons and be Grace to them so that their demons can go over the cliff with the pigs never to be seen again.
Take a moment. Put down your bulletin or your purse or whatever. Put your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Place your hands in your lap, palms up. Close your eyes. And conjure up your demons. They’ll be different for each of us though the themes will be similar: themes of self-doubt, of “I’m not good enough,” of “I’m not loveable,” of “What I’ve done can never be forgiven.” Observe them. Listen to them snarl at you if you need to. Then smile at them and remember who and what God is. Remember Grace. Send them into the pigs and watch as they jump off the cliff to their doom. Then, as did Legion, sit peacefully and in your right mind at the feet of the one who is the Incarnation of Grace itself – the only one who can defeat our demons with the divine and perfect love of God, that one we know as Jesus Christ our Lord.