Sunday, June 23, 2013

There Is a Blessing in It

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian

Last week I was sitting in church with Sarah, my almost-8-year-old daughter, and she was reading the psalm with me. Now, last week’s psalm included these words, addressed to God: “You destroy those who speak lies.” Sarah read these words aloud, stopped short, and whispered to me, “That’s not true! God doesn’t destroy anyone!”

I was both surprised and proud. All I could whisper back was, “I think you’re right! God doesn’t destroy anyone, because God loves everyone!

So now that I’ve openly disagreed with one of the psalms and taught my daughter that she is right to do likewise, I keep coming back to it and wondering about it more deeply. I still don’t believe God destroys those who speak lies. And shouldn’t that come as a relief? I’m not always entirely truthful, yet I don’t think God wants to destroy me. 

Rather, I think what we have here are raw, human emotions, and they are abundant in the psalms and throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes the psalms are embarrassingly emotional, frequently urging God to strike down enemies or to smite the unjust. And that’s why I can relate to them. Often I feel the same way the psalmist does, whether I’m feeling angry and vengeful, or melancholy and longing, or jubilant with joy. These emotions burst out so honestly in the psalms that that can make us feel uncomfortable, especially when we find them being projected onto God as well. It isn’t theologically accurate to do so, but it is emotionally accurate, and that’s why I think the psalms are so important.

Regardless, though, I’m very pleased to see a brief phrase in today’s passage from Isaiah that seems to contradict last week’s psalm:

“Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it.” 

In the Book of Isaiah, God positively longs for us. God keeps reaching out to humankind, hoping we’ll notice, hoping we’ll pay attention. We disregard God and go after idols, those millions of other things in our lives that we think will keep us safe, loved, and prosperous. We make our sacrifices to the gods of money, security, and self-absorption. These offerings will come back to bite us, writes Isaiah. But even so, through it all, God sees the grapes on our diseased vine and says, “Wait! Stop. Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it.” 

Whenever we approach the Bible, we can expect to feel uncomfortable, and I think that’s why so few Americans read it. Its texts are not supposed to go easy on us. They were written long ago and far away, and there are aspects of them that will forever feel long ago and far away to us. But they are also steeped in meaning that is as relevant today as ever before. Different parts of the Bible speak to different people in different ways at different times. When a text feels problematic to us or just plain wrong, the answer is not to write it off, but to be patient with it, the same way God is patient with us. God does not destroy us, but keeps searching for the blessing in us. Likewise, we must be patient with God as God is revealed to us in scripture, in the sacraments, and through the other people in our lives. We need to keep looking for the blessing. 

You may notice that our Gospel story for today contains some of the same elements as the Isaiah passage: tombs, and pigs … and even some nudity thrown in. Imagine it in the ears of a first-century Jewish audience: the story reeks with uncleanness. The Greeks didn’t mind nudity as much; they famously performed athletic events naked. But Jews were very modest. According to the Torah, contact with the dead would render one ritually unclean, and pigs were unclean as well: only Gentiles would herd them. And, of course, the evil spirits in the man are the epitome of “unclean.” So Jesus has gone from the comfort and safety of home into a Gentile country of over-the-top uncleanness. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story of the Gerasene demoniac, I can’t help but think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous character from Lord of the Rings, Gollum. I can see him skulking among the tombs, pouncing on unsuspecting passers-by or going down to the beach to catch fish with his bare hands. When he meets Jesus, I imagine him hissing, “What has you to do with ussssss, Jesussssss? We are not just one, but Legion! Don’t send ussss back into the abyssss! Let preciousssss go into the pigsies, yesss, yesssssss!” 

All kidding aside, I don’t think it’s a bad comparison. Gollum, many of us know, was once something like a regular person, but after being owned and tortured for hundreds of years by his idol, the evil ring of power, he gradually becomes something twisted, broken, and relentlessly self-absorbed. The man Jesus meets in the Gentile country of the Gerasenes is a victim, and we have no idea how he got that way. Demon possession, after all, is another thing in the Bible that we think of as long ago and far away, if it ever existed at all. Perhaps it’s a disease masquerading as a malevolent force. But in this story it is very real and very threatening, whatever it is. A legion of demons is consuming this man, much the way Gollum was consumed by the ring. Perhaps it is even his own fault. 

Yet Jesus has compassion, and so he begins to hunt for the man beneath the demons. “What is your name?” This is what Jesus asks a person who is lost in uncleanness. Who are you? What is your identity? Can you remember? Gollum was once called Sméagol. When we give something scary a name, we do two things: we gain some amount of power over it, and we remind it of what it used to be. But to whom does Jesus ask the question? The demons respond, but can the question be for them? Does Jesus’ compassion extend not only to the man but even to the demons that inhabit him? Can there be hope even for them? 

When the demons come face to face with Jesus, they know the jig is up. They are overpowered merely by being in Jesus’ presence, and they must submit to his authority. We people can fool ourselves about Jesus’ authority; other created beings cannot. And so Jesus bores into the man’s soul and draws out the demons from deep within. Everyone else has thrown this man away as a threat and a lost cause. But Jesus says otherwise. “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it!” 

So intent is Jesus on restoring this man to health that he completely disregards the property rights of the pig herders. And after all, what’s a herd of unclean swine compared with even one human being’s restoration to wholeness? But the pig herders run and tell the neighbors, and soon there’s a crowd coming out to see what has happened to this man. He was naked, and now he is clothed. (I always wonder where his clothes came from.) He was insane, and now he is in his right mind. He belongs to himself again, so now, he can give himself to Jesus. 

This scares the people so much that they beg Jesus to leave. I wonder what they’re so afraid of? Losing more pigs to exorcism? Or is it that they will have to deal with the startling, disturbing reality that in Jesus’ presence, nobody—nobody is a lost cause? Who knows what other former scum they’ll have to welcome back with Jesus around? Fear of change can lead us to want to drive goodness away. 

The healed man wants to follow Jesus away from this place, but, importantly, Jesus says no. Jesus needs this man to spread the good news of his transformation to the surrounding Gentile areas. Besides, restoring the man to his own community was exactly what Jesus set out to do in the first place. 

So the man goes home and follows Jesus’ orders … well, sort of. I notice a little intriguing detail in the text. Jesus instructs him, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So what does he do? He declares how much Jesus has done for him. The man knows that in meeting Jesus, he has somehow, inexplicably, come face to face with God. He doesn’t see any difference between them. 

So let’s step back for a minute. When you heard the gospel story read this morning, did it scare you a little? Did you wonder what to do with these demons—like, oh, great, one of these readings? I mean, maybe you believe in demons, and maybe you don’t. Or maybe different people mean different things by the term. I have encountered situations in my life that I can only describe as demonic—there’s no more appropriate label. But I have also seen miraculous healing, with no better label than that. Have you? 

Can you catch a glimpse of the other layer of reality that the Bible can only hint at with its bizarre yet engaging stories? And when you do encounter a demon or a healing, what will you do with it? What mysterious goodness comes to upset your imperfect but orderly world, the world you can wrap your mind around? And when it comes, will you send goodness away? Or will you find the blessing in it? After all, that divine healing power is available to absolutely everyone. Amen.