Monday, June 24, 2013

We are many

I remember being a kid in grade school when the schools started having special ed classrooms and for some part of the day the kids with special needs would be in class with the rest of us. According to Wikipedia
Initially, children with disabilities were often placed in heterogeneous "special education" classrooms, making it difficult for any of their difficulties to be addressed appropriately. In the 1970s, the mainstreaming model began to be used more often as a result of the requirement to place children in the least restrictive environment (Clearinghouse, E. 2003). Students with relatively minor disabilities were integrated into regular classrooms, while students with major disabilities remained in segregated special classrooms, with the opportunity to be among normal students for up to a few hours each day. Many parents and educators favored allowing students with disabilities to be in classrooms along with their nondisabled peers.

The initial reaction to allowing the kids with disabilities in the classroom required notes sent to parents…PTA meetings where fears were vocalized…what if they hurt someone…what if they are contagious…who will protect our children???
Fear can cause an irrational reaction to something that is new or different.
The God of the New Testament does not fit our human hopes very neatly. Our Lord Jesus was not the person that religious people of the first century were expecting or looking for. Instead of being the answer to everybody’s dreams, Jesus had a tendency to upset people‘s hopes and dreams, disorientating cultural structures and pretext. Once in a while , as in today’s Gospel reading, an encounter with Jesus concluded with people pleading with Him that He might go away and leave them alone!
The story takes place in the Gadarenes or the Gerasenes, or the Gergasenes, depending on which version of which Gospel you read.

It is indeed one of the problems with this story that none of the three Gospel writers who recorded this incident - Matthew, Mark and Luke - seemed to be entirely clear about exactly where Jesus had this encounter with this shadowy character, and even the earliest copies of Luke’s Gospel that we have, are not in complete agreement as to exactly which of these three places it was.

Rev. David Smith, an Episcopal priest writes “There is a good and straightforward explanation for this I think, as whichever place it was - the Gadarenes or the Gerasenes, or the Gergasenes - they all had one thing in common. These were places outside of Israel. This was pagan country, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. No self-respecting Jew would visit any of these places, and I suspect that the reason that nobody could quite remember which of these places it was, reflects the fact that none of these Gospel writers had ever been there - neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke. Nor were they ever likely to go there!

The place where Jesus decides to travel to is somewhere out on the periphery of the civilized world. Strange people live there, who worship strange gods. They eat pigs over there, which no self-respecting Jew would do, and they have one very strange ambassador, coming out to meet Jesus - dirty, disheveled, completely naked, and moaning with some horrible guttural moan that echoes the darkness that infests his system.

It’s important to realize that this is a key point that the Gospel writer is trying to make, for it would have been clear to his original readers that Jesus is very deliberately overlooking the fact that everything he touches here is unclean!

Jesus has walked into an unclean land, full of unclean people - to hillsides covered with unclean animals, and he makes a beeline for a crazy, demon-possessed man, who lives amongst the tombs - as unclean a character as you could find!
Jesus, once again is seen stepping out of bounds.  This is yet another example of Jesus intentionally showing his followers that his ministry is for all.  Not only the Jewish community.  As Bob spoke about last week, Jesus is again walking where “No good Jewish person would go.”  Then to make matters worse he doesn’t seek out the head of the guard, the religious leader of that town, not even a provincial judge.  Where does he go??  He heads straight to the mad man.
A man so ostracized by the local community that he is put outside the walls.  A man so feared that they try to chain him, a man so strong that no chain can hold him.  This is a man so different that he runs naked all day and lives in the tombs.
See this is about the lowest of all beings in Jewish culture.  To be near a corpse is unwelcomed. The presence of a dead body is considered a source of ritual impurity. For this reason, a priest may not be in the presence of a corpse. People who have been in the presence of a body, wash their hands before entering a home. This is done to symbolically remove spiritual impurity, not physical uncleanness: it applies regardless of whether you have physically touched the body.
So you see the metaphor here, better yet do you see the truth here???  There is no shame, there is no one so unclean, that they cannot be approached. What we do know about this man is that he is homeless, naked, and not right in the head. We are told that he used to deliberately physically damage himself, and that even when he had been restrained, he had managed to burst free of the restraints!

Some of these symptoms seem familiar to those of us who have worked with persons with either illness or severe disabilities hurting themselves out of frustration, or to distract from other pain. This man was a highly fragmented personality, getting into fits of rage such that no one was able to control them or willing to try.
When Jesus starts to approach this man, in his tantrum, in the Midst of his Illness he can see who Jesus is and falls to his Knees proclaiming it loudly. That Christ is the “Only begotten of the highest God.”  I always find it odd that those who were the most ill…usually described as possessed (though not always sometimes it was those who believed the most), can clearly see who Christ is and proclaim it then they are usually quieted or asked to keep it quiet.
Jesus asks what is your name and the man answers legion.  It is often described that he is called legion for he represents many demons.  I would put forth he is called legion for he represents many oppressions, the many ways humanity mistreats humanity.  He is the homeless, he is the disabled, he is the mentally ill, and he is the unclean. He is called unclean as those with Aids, those who have substance abuse problems have been so named.  He is cast out, out of the town, out of the community, out of sight where none have to deal with him…out of sight out of mind.
As the interaction develops we are told that the many “Legion” ask not to be returned to the abyss but be allowed to dwell in the local pig heard.  So Jesus casts out the unworthiness and into the pigs that then drown themselves.  It’s kind of funny the impurity asks “Cast us over there”. Jesus does just that and the impurity drives the lowest of creatures, in Jewish culture’s perception, into madness so painful that these creatures can’t stand it and drown themselves.
Can you imagine the pain this man felt? He was so ostracized, to be believed to be so unworthy that when these emotions, demons, these bad judgments that he has been labeled with, that has been placed upon him, were cast out, it caused the lowest creature to kill itself because the pain, the shame, and the isolation was so great.
Now the men who tended this flock witnessed all that had happened and they run into town to tell the story and not just the town but all the country side as well.  When the people came to see for themselves they found the man they once knew as insane, as an outcast, perhaps even as a scapegoat who was probably blamed for some or many mishaps in the town.  They find him dressed sitting at Jesus’ feet and fully in his right mind.
So here is the brunt of your anger…here is where you can justify all the reasons you were unjust, uncompassionate, cruel, prejudice... just plain mean.  This man who represents all that and had all the signs to justify it, is now fully clothed in his right mind and probably remembers all you did…or even worse all you did not do for him.
This man now seated at Christ’s feet full of joy, health and gratitude represents, to the town’s people, all they had done wrong.  They have missed the mark.  They had missed the opportunity to be compassionate people…and now when they see him they know it.  This triggers their anger.
Not so much anger for losing a heard of pigs…their food for that is easily replenished over time.  What makes them angry is they are faced with their own wrong doing, their own misjudgments and their own guilt.  But pay attention to this…Jesus said nothing.  Jesus was sitting with a healthy, happy clothed man, a man clothed by Jesus. The guilt, the anger, the shame that the people experience is their own…it is nothing that Jesus said to them.  They know they have done wrong and the presence of the Healthy mad men is accusation enough for them…so much so they ask Jesus to leave.
This is where the story takes an odd turn.  You see most stories of Jesus’ healings never tell us what happened afterwards. They generally end with Jesus saying, “Go in peace” or “your faith has made you well” or some go make the offering that is prescribed.  But in this case he commissions the mad man. Jesus tells him to go home and tell of what God has done for you.  The story says that he does just that he tells of Jesus encounter with him and the compassion of Christ that healed him.
These people have an encounter with Jesus, and the result is that their world has been turned upside down. The man who has been healed is full of joy, but Jesus very deliberately leaves him there, in a town where he will face an uncertain future amongst people who won’t know what to do with him.  They can’t blame him for anything, they can’t cast him out all his maladies are gone.

In this case, as in so many instances in the Gospels, people do not know what to do with Jesus. They are scared by his awesome, life-changing power. They do not want to have their lives turned upside-down. They do not want to stand that close to the fire!  They do not want to face who they have been and what they had done and yet Jesus leaves the biggest reminder of their past and the opportunity to heal.
I say by this man staying behind.  By the madman preaching what Jesus did for him.  He gives permission for others to do the same.  This is a lesson in compassion and an opportunity for the townspeople not just to forgive themselves, but make an effort to make their community better.
To following Jesus is to choose not to follow the easy path in life. It is the road less travelled, and it is a road that is guaranteed to lead us to places where we do not want to go - places on the edge of society, places where strange people live with strange beliefs, and people who are not like us and who suffer from problems that we do not understand.
We are called to be a prophetic voice and this does not mean words.  St Francis “wherever you go, preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”  This man was living Gospel.  He became the word of Christ through being healed by him.  We are called to do the same.  We are called to action.
There are many forms action can take.  It can be joining in the feeding of the homeless once a month. It can be tending to the Garden and providing care for the earth.  You can bring you old meds here and we will get them to the hospice in Tijuana who are desperate need of everyday medication, aspirin, pain killers, ointments, and HIV medication.
You can get involved with immigration reform and the fight for equality for all people.  One can join in after school programs as a volunteer. Perhaps you know someone who has a hard time getting around, a neighbor or an acquaintance…just stop by, check in and see how they are doing.
I worked with the developmentally disabled population for 15 years and they are always looking for volunteers at the Special Olympics.  As a kid I used to go to the nursing home and I would read mail to a gentleman who had gone blind.  There are programs at the library or childrens hospital where you can do the same.
You see Jesus is calling us to the region of the Garasenes.  He is calling us to a strange place one we would not normally go on our own.  Jesus is asking us to reach out to the most disenfranchised and do what we can.  Often time our response to such a request is fear.
You see this is one of the greatest thing that holds people back from following Jesus, and that so often holds us back from truly giving ourselves to Him, is fear - the same fear that those villagers had: fear of economic loss, fear of change, fear of being taken places where we do not want to go, fear of confronting our own prejudices or concepts of reality.
We must give that fear up. Now I am not saying all fear for some fear and trepidation is good otherwise we end up putting ourselves in harm’s way.  By giving fear up I mean offering it up to God.  Asking that we may be fearless in the opportunity to reach out and care as Jesus has called us too.  To fearlessly seek out the far away unfamiliar place and meet the Madmen and help make whim whole, healthy and clothed.
We are not going to solve all the world’s problems.  Jesus himself said we will always have poor and hungry, the ill and the homeless.  But he also lived, walked and acted upon a simple message…look you can do something.  Yes Jesus was a great teacher but his greatest lessons are in his actions, not his stories, his actions.
Go out from here today and seek out the wrong person and break bread.  Seek out the injured and offer Gods’ loving comfort.  Seek the lonely and walk with them and offer friendship.  Even if it is just for a moment, a fearless moment, you are walking as Jesus did.
And God will say…
I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’
I pray for the day that the world can live without fear and only know compassion and love. Amen.

[1] David Smith, Esus v Legion: a hellish stoush! (A sermon on Luke 8:26-39), (accessed June 18, 2013).

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