Reflections after a week of violence

Fr David’s sermon 19 June 2016, St Thomas’

“… they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

Have you ever felt that you are not living the life you really want to live? Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by life’s challenges, perhaps the way things seem beyond your control to the extent that you feel like a prisoner in your own life? If so – then you have met the Gerasene Demoniac; the man in today’s Gospel. He used to have a house and a role in the city – now he lives rough among the tombs with the dead. He used to be free – now he is shackled in chains. He used to have family and friends – now he has armed guards. He used to live a dignified life like everyone else – now he is naked and shouts and screams at the top of his voice.

It is not, however, simply a description of the man’s physical life and environment. If that is all it were about then some clothes, a homeless shelter, some medication, and a pair of bolt cutters would fix his life. End of story. You and I both know that the real challenges of life are not that easily fixed. The real challenges of life are, more often than not, emotional and spiritual rather than physical. The tombs, chains, demons, and nakedness are descriptive of this man’s interior life. They point to a life separated from God, from others, and self. They reveal a soul in need of healing, in need of a new life not just a new environment.

We do not know how this man of the city came to live in the tombs. We do not know what keeps him chained to the dead. We do not know what has left him exposed and vulnerable, having lived without clothes for a long time. We do not know what demons haunted and possessed his life. We cannot tell the story of his life. We do not have to. But we can relate to his story.

This last week, has been a terrible week for humanity. It began with 50 people shot dead and many more badly wounded in a night club in Orlando, Florida. It ended, with the cold-blooded murder, in Yorkshire, of a young MP, who had committed her life to working for the poor and those for whom justice was denied. This last week, communities and individuals, the world over, have cried out in despair, feeling more dead than alive; naked, exposed, and vulnerable than ever before. We have a refugee crisis, which it seems impossible to respond to in any appropriate way owing to the sheer numbers of innocent people who have fled Syria, Iraq and other middle eastern lands which have been painfully ripped apart by war.

And then we have this Referendum. It’s not the outcome: that’s the job of the democratic process. It is the language and images used. Things seem to have gone so badly wrong, that the bishops of the Church in Wales issued a statement on Friday:

“It is a matter of great concern to us that the debate is frequently couched in the emotive language of fear. We note with particular concern that the divisive issue of immigration, with the demonisation of immigrants, is being used in a way that is in danger of overwhelming sensible debate. This ignores the facts that immigration has been of benefit to the nation, and that immigrants still make up only a very small percentage of the population.

The debate has also tended to concentrate on the crude economic calculation of how much is paid to the European Union, without measuring the benefits of peace, economic partnership and cultural interchange that flow from British participation in Europe.

On the basis of their own reflections, the bishops, meeting in St David’s, this week, have agreed that they are happy to make it known that they will all be voting in favour of remaining in the European Union.”

Religion and politics are completely welded together. Politics is how we organise our society; religion is what we base that organisation upon. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “I honestly don’t know what Bible people are reading if they say religion and politics do not mix!”

As Christian disciples, we ought to be concerned that the rhetoric used by both sides of the EU debates, here in the UK, and by Donald Trump, in the USA, is not Christian. It can’t be. It demonises certain people; excludes certain people; judges certain people; sets one group against another. The language is destructive and selfish. It is all about what is in it for me – not what can be given to others in love and service and compassion. As Christians, we are called to build bridges that connect, not walls that divide. We must listen to those words of St Paul:

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.

A week which began with 50 innocent people shot dead; a week which ended with an MP killed. God help us! God, indeed, help us!

This last week, it has seemed as though we have become either prisoners in our own society, or refugees from the civilisation we thought we were part of. This week, we have seen and heard humanity scream and shout like the mad man chained and raving in the grave yard.

But it does not have to be that way. A meeting with Jesus and today will be a different day for the distressed man and for us. The demons themselves testify to the power of God. “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me.” They beg, negotiate, and seek permission from Jesus. These once life controlling demons are powerless against the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life . God in Christ has ultimate power. Death knows this. Sin knows this. The natural world knows this. The demons know this. Sometimes, it seems, we are the only ones who do not know this.

For some time now St. Luke has been reminding us that only Jesus has ultimate power over our life. Two weeks ago, we witnessed the power of Jesus to restore that which is dead to life, as he raised the dead son of the widow of Nain to life. Death is not the ultimate reality for the Christian; the ultimate reality is that we live the life of the Resurrection – that we are active in building God’s kingdom of love.

Last week, we saw how the woman who had been labelled and judged was given peace and freedom through the power of Jesus’ love and mercy. Our true identity lies not in the opinions of others, but in the limitless love of God has shown to us by Jesus.

Just before today’s Gospel story, Luke tells us of Jesus’ power to calm the storms of life, to still the rough waters and strong winds that swamp and batter our life and the world around us. The power of Jesus’ love declares that the circumstances of the world we live in do not have the last word or the ability to overwhelm us, if we have Faith – if we live Our Faith.

The Love of God respects diversity. It brings together and binds up diverse experience in a cohesive whole. It constantly invites into community those who are outside the cultural norms: women and men, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, us and them. And that is challenging.
When the demons had left and the man was sitting at the foot of Jesus “clothed in his right mind” the people were afraid. Yes, real relationships are uncomfortable. Especially those that strive to be icons of the relationship between Christ and those who sit at his feet—the Church.
Relationships often feel safer when we’re around people who are similar to us. People who like us, and whom we like. Yet, the walk with Jesus is constantly asking us to open up that circle and to accept, and even love, people who aren’t like us. Not by chaining them to us, but by allowing and loving the expanses between us. Even the Greeks? Even the slaves? Even the ones who live in the tombs? Even them? Even those we disagree with? Yes. Even them.
Relationships are tricky, and these are the kinds of relationships we as Christians are called to be involved with. Neither a radical isolation nor an undifferentiated togetherness, both of which lead to madness and the breaking of community. We are called to relationships where a marvellous living side by side takes place. We’re called to love the expanses between all of us, and to seeing ourselves and all of God’s children as whole, and complete and gathered together.

There is nothing we encounter in life or death, nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus: the power to restore life, to forgive, to love, to heal, and to carry us through times we cannot bear on our own. In Christ chains are broken, nakedness is clothed, tombs are vacated, and demons are powerless.

S. Seraphim of Sarov:

“Find peace within yourself and a thousand will find peace around you.” Amen.