The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2016
I have spent many hours considering this sermon. How can one speak in the aftermath of such unspeakable anguish that occurred in Orlando? Yet this has not stopped us from speaking. Our political leaders have spoken, the news outlets have spoken, our family and friends have spoken. So now, I believe, is the time for the church to speak; to create space to allow Jesus to speak to us. For when it comes down to it, the only words that matter are the words of God.
First, I refuse to be trapped into the superficial dichotomies that our culture has created. I refuse to be told that we cannot politicize such events, and I also refuse to act rashly upon my basest emotions. I refuse to buy what the leaders of this world are selling. Now this horror, this atrocity, it touches all three lightning rods of American society: guns, Islam, and sexual orientation. In spite of that, I refuse to succumb to the dominant narratives of this week.
Rather, we must turn to where Christians always turn, to our Lord himself. His ministry, his words, his deeds of power. And it is there that we will find the diagnosis to our illness, whether we like it or not. And it is with Jesus that we will find the way forward, whether we like it or not.
Our Lord Jesus comes upon the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the far shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a country of Gentiles; of people who are not Jewish. There is a man there, naked, living among the dead, possessed by demons. The man is shackled, ostracized, a loner. And like all the loners of thew world, Jesus loves him; and shows him that love by restoring him to the fullness of heath. The demons are cast out, sent into the herd of swine and driven into the sea. The man is reclaimed by God. He is clothed. He sits no longer with the dead but with the living. He has been healed.
But for the people of the town this is not good news. They are afraid. So afraid, in fact, that they ask Jesus to leave. The people of the town could not handle it. They had been perfectly content with this man, living among the dead, naked, shackled, ostracized. His chaos had become the community’s normalcy. When Jesus healed the man, he was transformed, the chaos had been put into order. And this simply will not do. The community at large cannot take the change. As Matthew’s gospel puts it, the people of the town beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
The truth of the matter, is that Jesus has come into our midst, and we have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood. And I’m not talking about prayer in schools or moments of silence at football games. Those are superficial scapegoats for a much deeper spiritual malaise. We have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood, when corporate executives give themselves raises and stock options, while laying off employees because “things are tight.” We have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood, when a father can tell a judge that his son, who is a rapist, should not be punished harshly because that would be hard on him. We have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood, when our money says “In God We Trust,” but it’s really in the money itself that we trust. We have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood, when we refuse to acknowledge that all people – all people – are created in the image of God; no asterisks, parentheses, buts, or hyphens about it. We have begged Jesus to leave our neighborhood, when the highest selling video games for our young boys, are games in which the sole purpose is to shoot and kill.
We, as a society, are perfectly content with this chaos. When Jesus comes to us and offers us ways of healing and peace, we would rather him leave the neighborhood than be transformed. We would rather stick to our old ways than to be transformed by Jesus. We are all too content with our hearts of stone when God so desperately wishes to give us hearts of flesh.
And herein lies the great truth of the story. Everybody needs healing. Everybody needs a heart transplant. Clearly, the man living in the tombs, shackled, ostracized, and possessed needs healing. But so do the people of the town who are afraid of Jesus. They are afraid of transformation. They are afraid that Jesus is going to turn their worlds upside down. The people of town need to be restored just as the man who was possessed by demons needed to be restored. In a way, everybody is possessed by some demon or another. And it is moments like last weekend that reveal this awful truth to us. We are the ones who need the healing. We are the ones who desperately need Jesus to stick around though we beg him to leave.
Now, make no mistake about it. There are people in this world that wish to do us harm. That wish to inflict terror upon us. That wish us dead. We cannot be so naive as to think that we are safe. If this century has taught us anything, it is that we are vulnerable in a movie theater, at an elementary school, in a night club. The immediate response to this is to lock down. To protect ourselves. But there again, we are tempted to beg Jesus to leave our neighborhood. We must listen back to those difficult teachings from our Lord. Jesus says, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Jesus says, when somebody strikes on the cheek, turn the other cheek also (Matthew 5:39). Jesus says, those who seek to make their life secure will lose their life (Luke 17:33). A life with Jesus is not a promise of safety, it is a promise of love.
What this requires of us is a radical and unwavering trust in God. We have all made this promise. At our confirmation we make solemn vows to the Almighty, promising to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love. Not some of our trust. Not part of our trust. Not just when it’s convenient. Not just when it means we’re safe from bodily harm. We put our whole trust in God’s grace and love.
Now some of you will accuse me of being too liberal, others will accuse me of being too conservative. Be that as it may. Being in relationship with Jesus means that you’re in a dysfunctional relationship with the world. So I refuse to be defined by the sad and paltry ideologies of our day. I choose to be defined by Jesus.
The way forward for us, as individuals, as the church, as a society, is nothing less than wholesale transformation. To be cleansed and healed just as the Gerasene demoniac so desperately. And for that to happen, Jesus has to stay in our neighborhood. Jesus has to stay in our neighborhood. Because only God can work the transformation for which we are crying out, for which our church is crying out, for which our society is crying out. Yes, when God transforms us, our friends and our neighbors who knew us before might shake their head. They might afraid of what has happened. They might scoff at us. They might be concerned that we’ve changed, that we’ve stepped out of the world’s chaos into God’s normalcy. Be that as it may. Please, for the sake of your souls, for the sake of the church, for the sake of our country, please ask Jesus to stay in the neighborhood.
Do not let the charlatans and the pundits of the day have their voice be heard over the voice of Jesus. Our world is crying out to hear the all-inclusive, all-powerful, all-transformative love of Jesus. Think of it – after the man with demons has been restored, Jesus tells him to go and tell his neighborhood how much God has done for him. So now that directive is turned to us. We now leave this place to do the same. To tell the world that healing and grace and love is available. To tell the world that transformation is possible. That we are not bound by the strife and hatred of this world. As the great hymn puts it: “Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease, when hatred and division give way to love and peace.”
Do not be afraid. Jesus is with you, Jesus is in the neighborhood. And whatever you do, do not ask him to leave. In times of darkness, in times of despair, in times of anguish and hatred and violence, stay close to Jesus.