Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon for Pentecost V (Proper 7)

Redeemer, Cairo--Luke 8:26-39

We have a really interesting gospel story this week—interesting as in “strange.” Jesus and his disciples make their way by boat to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is foreign territory for them. Their normal stomping grounds are west and north of that oblong lake. This is a Gentile area, not part of the land dominated by Jews like themselves. Put simply, they were in the wrong neighborhood, in what they would have considered a dangerous and unsavory neighborhood.

The minute they stepped out of the boat, not in a city or town, but in what amounted to a rural cemetery, they encountered a crazy man running around with no clothes on. It turned out he was demon-possessed—not just by one demon, but by a whole horde of demons, such that their collective name was “Legion.” The people from the nearby town were afraid of this guy and tried to keep him chained up, but he kept breaking free from the chains—as well as his clothes—and wandering off out of town into places like this cemetery, where he just hung out around the graves.

I can’t say whether Jesus was afraid of Legion—we’re not given that information—but I can say that he felt great compassion for this man. Here was a human being who, through no choice or fault of his own, was enslaved in a horrible and cruel way; his life had been effectively ruined as long as this pack of demons was in control of his body. So Jesus did what Jesus customarily did whenever he encountered human suffering, particularly Jesus as he is portrayed for us in St Luke’s gospel: He cast out the demons and restored the man to wholeness and sanity.

But then the plot takes another bizarre turn. Just before Jesus casts out the demons, they beg him not to just send them off into the ether, but to let them transfer to a nearby herd of pigs. He grants their request, whereupon the pigs immediately go berserk and run off a cliff into the lake and drown, and what we’re supposed to infer from that is that the demons all died with the pigs, so Jesus pulled a fast one on them, demonstrating his utter superiority to all the forces of Evil.

Then the people from the nearby town show up, and they see the formerly deranged man, who had for so long been such a source of heartburn to them, fully clothed and in his right mind and carrying on a conversation with Jesus. Now, we might expect that they would be relieved and grateful. That would be the logical response. But they’re not. They’re as nervous and afraid as ever, and they plead with Jesus to go back where he came from ASAP. They weren’t happy about their status quo before Jesus arrived, but at least it was familiar, and they knew what to expect. Now Jesus has completely shaken things up, and it never occurs to them that “different” in this case might actually translate into “better.”

Of course, Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and the people on that side of the Sea of Galilee were Gentiles. So there were a couple of things going on symbolically that Jews, like many of the first readers of Luke’s gospel, would have found at least interesting and probably quite encouraging, but just confused the heck out of Gentiles. The setting for this incident is a cemetery, a graveyard. And nearby is a herd of pigs. To Jewish sensibilities of the time, these were both highly offensive conditions, symbolizing every sort of four uncleanness imaginable. For us the cultural equivalent might be a sewage treatment plant next to a rat colony. So what this means is that Jesus is taking the offensive. He is going right into the belly of the beast to do battle. He’s not waiting for Evil to come to him; he’s bringing the fight to Ground Zero of Evil—a graveyard next to a herd of swine. And right there, at symbolic Ground Zero, Jesus wins. Jesus is triumphant. Jesus conquers the powers of darkness right on their own home field. The spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God—everything that we renounce when we’re baptized and when we’re confirmed—are cast out of us by Jesus just as he cast the legion of demons out of that man on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

My friends, is it too much of a stretch to understand Cairo and the surrounding area as symbolically similar to the territory of this deranged man whom Jesus delivered from horrible oppression? Cairo has been a place of great beauty; I’ve driven through some of the old neighborhoods of stately and elegant homes. Cairo has been a place of great strategic importance, and a place of great vitality. The evidence of that importance and vitality can still be seen in the Custom House museum. But, in more recent decades, that beauty and importance and vitality have all faded, and been eclipsed by the shadow of death. It has come to mean for many what that graveyard next to a herd of pigs meant for Jews 2000 years ago, a symbol of decay and despair.

Jesus’ message to the people in the “country of the Gerasenes,” as Luke refers to it, was one of hope and deliverance. The demon-possessed man wasn’t the only one oppressed by the legion of demons who inhabited his body. Through that man, the demons held the whole community hostage by enslaving them to fear. Jesus gets out of a boat and says, by his actions, “You don’t have to live this way anymore.” He offered the liberation of a demoniac as a down payment on that hope of deliverance. It was a thoroughly encouraging act. But the local people would have had to change their perspective in a number of important ways in order to see that encouragement. They were not able to do that. They recognize the mystery and the power of what Jesus has done, but they cannot make a place for it or accommodate their lives to it.  So what they do is just invite Jesus to leave. Is that not simply heartbreaking? The one who offers them hope, the one who is their only hope, they run out of town.


My beloved brothers and sisters, I know I don’t live here, so I can appreciate that some of what I might say might ring a little hollow to those of you who do. But I’m fairly certain that if God had become incarnate in southern Illinois in our time, rather than in Palestine two millennia ago, Cairo would be on his itinerary. Jesus would show up in Cairo with a message of hope and encouragement, and with some act of power that would serve as a down payment on that message. But wait: Jesus is going to show up bodily in Cairo. Not in a body with feet and hands and elbows, but, a few minutes from now, at this altar, as we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and that offering is returned to us as the Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ, present in our hands and on our lips and in our souls, infusing us and sustaining us with the very deathless life of the Holy Trinity. Jesus is showing up in Cairo this morning with a message of hope and encouragement, and our invitation is to welcome him, to not make the same mistake as the Gerasenes made and ask him to go away, but, rather, to invite him to stay for a while. And in so doing, we open ourselves to the grace that enables us to be Jesus in Cairo, to ourselves be symbols of hope and deliverance in this broken place. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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