June 23, 2019, Charles D. Mayer
I have always found this particular Sunday in the church year to be a very interesting one. We have just concluded the six months of the year that are devoted to festivals: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. And now we have entered the six months of Ordinary Time, devoted not to the high points of the story of Jesus and the Church, but to the story of Jesus’ ministry: his teaching, his healing, his preaching, and his interactions with the people he encounters along the way. As you know, our lectionary covers a three-year cycle; each of the three years uses one of the synoptic gospels. This year is Year C, so our gospel text each week is taken from Luke. Going forward now, we will move in quite a straightforward way each week through the gospel, and experience as we go the story of Jesus as told through the lens of this particular writer. And even though Ordinary Time began technically the day after Pentecost, it is really today that we begin our journey through Jesus’ ministry as told by Luke.
Here’s why I find this day to be of such particular interest: it’s that now, having just been through all the great festivals, we are dropped back into the story of Jesus before Easter and Pentecost have happened, and before the people encountering Jesus have any sense of Christmas or Epiphany or Lent, either. We are with people meeting Jesus for the first time. In a way, to really enter these texts, we need to suspend some of what we know and believe, and try to imagine encountering Jesus on these terms.
So here he is today, having just arrived in Gerasa, a grand city from Alexander’s time (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, p. 311), and most significantly, Gentile territory. As you know, Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, which is all about the mission to the Gentiles, but we are not there yet! Here comes a wandering Jewish teacher and his motley band of Jewish followers, and immediately upon his arrival in the city he exorcises a demon-possessed man, the demons enter a herd of pigs, and the pigs hurtle over a cliff and perish in the sea. He meets with a very negative response, quite understandably. The city has managed this man for years, binding him in chains to protect him from himself. He is one of their own, and they have done their best to contain him. And as for the pigs, of course, they are a major part of the economic livelihood of the place, now suddenly and devastatingly gone. It is a highly disturbing and disruptive episode, to say the least.
The man who has been exorcised, of course, wants to stay with Jesus. We find him, very touchingly, “clothed and in his right mind,” “sitting at the feet of Jesus” (Luke 8:35). But those who found him were afraid. And as word spreads throughout the surrounding country, the people are “seized with great fear,” (Luke 8:37), and ask Jesus to leave. So Jesus does. And despite the pleas of the exorcised man, Jesus sends him away, instructing him to return to his home “and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39).
And then there is an interesting detail, before the story ends, that is easy to miss. The healed man does not do exactly as he was instructed. Instead of just going home and telling his family what God had done – which was Jesus’ instruction – he goes away, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39 – emphasis mine). This one person, at least, is not afraid to recognize and name what he has experienced to be true: that this wandering Jewish healer is himself divine.
I think he’s the one for us to pay attention to. It is widely pointed out, and very correctly, that the societies comprising the so-called First World – the United States, Canada and Europe, Australia and New Zealand – are increasingly post-religious. Our society is much more like Gerasa – whose population had no idea who Jesus was and were frightened of him and threatened by him – than say Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Our own personal experience as people of faith may quite often be like that of the newly-healed man in our gospel today: we are the only person in the room, unless we are here in our church community, who knows who Jesus is. And very often the people around us are uncomfortable hearing about our faith.
If they’re even uncomfortable. You know, wearing a clerical collar in public is quite interesting from a sociological point of view. Thirty-five years ago, when I was newly ordained, I sometimes felt respected, I sometimes felt like people felt comforted or reassured when they saw me, I not infrequently felt like there had just been an interesting conversation going on in the room until I walked in and it stopped … but I never felt like no-one knew what a clerical collar was, or what it represented.
I must tell you, in all honesty, I don’t think this is true anymore. I am quite sure that it is rarely the case that my Starbuck’s barista is effected in any way by my collar, other than perhaps to wonder why that strange old dude is wearing his shirt inside out.
It is sometimes truly humorous. And I’m certainly glad to be offered my “Grande Dark Roast for Charlie.” But it also really does say something about the state of our society. We people of faith are often starting from scratch if we are trying to share our faith outside an ecclesiastical setting.
Think about it, though: Jesus” situation walking into Gerasa was very much like this. And he certainly knew what he was walking into. He reached one person, and got back into his boat. But that one person went through the streets of the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.
For the next six months, we’ll be walking with Jesus through the ordinary times of his life. They are full of experiences like the one we’ve explored today. He was often misunderstood, rejected, mocked, grilled, and sent away. Yet always, some saw his divinity.
This is the reminder we need. However small our impact may sometimes seem to be, through our witness in the world some will see Jesus’ divinity. As we Ossining Episcopalians enjoy this wonderful joint celebration today, and our picnic in a little while, let us commit to pray for one another, that each of us may remember that our witness is not in vain. The love we share here is God’s own love. Some will see it, know it’s source, and be changed forever.