Saturday, June 22, 2013

Legion...Madmen and Evangelists

Luke 8.26-39.  Legion…Mad Men and Evangelists

I’m sure that you have all heard this morning’s Gospel reading before.  It’s one of those well-known stories of Jesus which fixes in our imaginations very well.  We can all see the mad-man, haunting the graveyard, filled with a legion of demons.  We can all see the pigs, now filled with the demons, plunging off the cliff into the sea.  But I wonder what reactions the story produces in you.

For example, what do we think about demons?  Clearly, the belief in time of Jesus was that demons were to blame for what we today would call medical conditions.  But in the ancient world, such knowledge was not available.  Demons were believed to roam the earth, looking for any sinner who, because of his sin, would let them dwell within him.  Crucially, for this story, it was believed that demons could only live inside a human, or in the dry desert places.  For some reason, it was believed that they could not survive in water…which is why the demons at the beginning of the story beg Jesus not to throw them into the abyss (which was a word for a deep body of water).  Even today, in some cultures, houses are painted blue…the colour of the sea…as a protection against demons.  That’s something I’ve seen for myself in Ghana, where fear of demons is still very much alive.

I wonder what you think about the pigs in the story.  I’m sure you are all well aware that Jews don’t eat pork…so why is there a herd of pigs in the story?  Well, that’s because this is the one recorded incident of Jesus visiting a non-Jewish area of his country, and of preaching to non-Jews.  The ‘Country of the Gadarenes’ or sometimes the ‘Gerasenes’ comes from an ancient word Gergesenes – which is believed to refer to those who had fled from persecution or fighting…in other words, refugees.   This story, effectively, takes place in a refugee camp.

This then, is a story about how Jesus, the Jew, makes a particular and special effort to spread the news of God’s Kingdom to people who are on the very edge of society.  These were refugees; Gentiles, strangers in a strange land. And that’s not all.  By seeking out the man called Legion, Jesus heads for a man who is on the edge of the edge of society.  Not just a refugee, but a man whose mind is disturbed, and who has been cast out by his own refugee community, to live among the graves.

There’s something else as well.  Did you notice what happened to the man called Legion, after Jesus had healed him?  He first begged to be allowed to come with Jesus and his disciples.  But Jesus refused, and instead gave him a very specific commission.  “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  In other words, Jesus sent the man out to be an evangelist…to be someone who told others about the good news…the Evangelion…of what God was doing for the poor, the sick and the outcast.

What you may not know, is that this sending of a non-Jew, a Gentile, who had also been a mad-man, happened before Jesus began sending out his own disciples.  This man, this previously-outcast Gentile, is the first significant evangelist of the Gospel of Luke!

Now, I realise that the word ‘evangelism’ is a pretty scary word for many of us.  I know that it can conjure up some pretty graphic images in our minds of TV Evangelists who con lonely people out of their savings.

On the other hand it might remind you of the story about a drunk who stumbles into a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices the old drunk and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk looks back and says, "Yes, preacher, I sure am." The minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks. "Nooo, I have not, Reverend."

The preacher, in disgust, holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water, and says in a harsh tone, "My man, have you found Jesus yet?" The old drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"

After this service, as indeed I did last week, I will be conducting a baptism.  Baptism, is of course, all about water.  As the baptism service reminds us, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation.  God led the people of Israel through water out of slavery of Egypt.  Water is a constant theme of scripture.  Just before the story of Legion, Jesus calms the storm on Lake Galilee.  And then, in today’s reading, the demon-filled pigs threw themselves into the same lake.

Baptism, recalls all of these kinds of stories.  Demons cannot live in water, by tradition.  Immersion into water is therefore a way of cleansing us, symbolically and spiritually from all demonic power.  For example, in the baptism service itself, the question is asked “Do you reject the Devil and all rebellion against God?”.  Baptism, holy, symbolic washing, is all about purification, and, as with the Man called Legion whose demons were plunged into water, it’s about a commission…the giving of a new life and new purpose, to all who have been baptised.

Next Saturday, we will gather at Portsmouth Cathedral (at midday, by the way!) to participate in the ordination of Damon Draisey as a deacon and full-time minister.  That’s going to be a wonderful moment for him…an important step along his journey of faith.

But he, like all of us, has already been ordained at an earlier point in our journey.  Our baptism is a form of ordination.  Baptism is the seal of God’s favour, given to every believer.  It is the mark of Christ on our lives. It is our primary calling.  Baptism singles out the children of God, and sets each of us on a path to fully discover God’s calling on our lives.  And, baptism comes with a commission for each one of us.  At the end of the baptism service, this commission from God is given:  “You have received the light of Christ.  Walk in this light all the days of your life.  Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the father”

So, let me leave you with this thought.  Jesus called a man who was found on the edge of the edge of his society.   Jesus called him and ordained him to a new ministry of evangelism, despite his past.  Jesus sent him to shine a light into his own Gentile community.

Does he not also call us?  Me and You?    Let me ask each one of us to spend a moment in reflection as I finish this sermon.  And here is the question I invite you to pose:  how have you shone the light of Christ during this last week?  And how will you shine it in the week to come?  The question is for you alone…for you to ponder, and for you to respond to.  You and I are each called, ordained by Christ, to the sacred task of being evangelists, through our words, and our deeds.  We, who have been freed, like Legion, from the madness of sin and self, are called to be mad with desire to share the Good News with everyone…in our homes, in our schools, in our community.  It needs doing with tact, and diplomacy.  It needs doing carefully and patiently.  It needs doing respectfully and sincerely.  But it needs doing.  Take a moment now, as I will also do, to ask yourself those questions I just posed…

How have you shone the light of Christ during this last week?  And how will you shine it in the week to come?


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Women, the Poor and the Outcast

A Narrative based on Luke 7:36-8.3  for the Third Sunday After Trinity

Hello.  How do you do?  My name is Simon.  I'm one of the Rabbis of the Jewish Faith, from the time of Jesus.  In my time, I'm known as a Pharisee.  I suppose your equivalent would be something that I think you call a Bishop.  In other words, I've been studying all my life to be a teacher and leader of the Faith.  I'm a very important man!

I've actually been transported here, through time, for just this moment.  I've come to tell you a story...about the time that Jesus came to eat at my house.

I had been hearing stories about this Jesus fellow.  He was another teacher, another Rabbi, like me.  But my fellow Pharisees and I were hearing strange things about him.  We heard that he was living on the streets, or in friends' houses, telling people that the Kingdom of Heaven was near, healing people, and forgiving their sins!.  It was getting rather annoying, frankly.  All our regular worshippers at Synagogue were talking about him...this new prophet.

I decided that I had better meet the man for myself.

So, I rather reluctantly invited him for dinner.  Mind you, I wasn't going to have my friends think that I was happy about I didn't offer him the normal courtesies.  So when Jesus turned up for dinner, I just gestured to a place at the table, and he sat down.  I was just about to start questioning him about his strange teachings, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in the crowd.  (Our meals are often taken with a crowd of the common people hanging around...trying to listen to our intelligent conversation!).  Out of the commotion suddenly, a woman appeared.  I saw immediately, with horror, who it was.  "No!" I thought to myself.  "Anyone but her!".  But this woman - who, let's say, had a bit of a 'reputation' - carried on as if no-one else was in the room.  She went right over to Jesus, and started to weep all over his feet.  Worse still,  she then unwrapped her hair!  Now I don't know about your culture, but in mine, a woman should never uncover her hair.  Her hair is meant only for her husband to see.  Women who let down their hair in my culture are either mad or prostitutes!  But this woman, this brazen hussy, she unwrapped her hair, and then started to wipe her tears off Jesus's feet with it!  Incredible.

And then, to cap it all, she took out a jar of perfumed ointment, and started to anoint his feet with it!  I couldn't believe my eyes!  And it just proved to me that this Jesus was a fraud.  I said to myself "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him".

Just then, while I was muttering to myself, Jesus looked up...straight into my eyes.  "Simon", he said, "I have something to say".

Between my gritted teeth, I replied "Teacher, speak".

And that was when it happened.  That was when Jesus of Nazareth got through to me.  He started by telling a story about a man who forgave the debts of two other people.  And then, he began to systematically shame me about my total failure of hospitality.  Point by point, he walked me through all the ways I had failed to live up to my responsibilities as a host...the way I didn't have his feet washed, nor did I kiss him, nor did I anoint him.  But this woman, this lost soul, had done all of that...with her own tears and hair.  I was ashamed.  In front of all my friends I felt stupid and embarrassed.  I remembered all those teachings from the Hebrew Bible about how we should greet strangers, and welcome them.  I remembered the story about how the people of Sodom had failed in their solemn duty of hospitality...and how they had been punished for it.

And then, to cap it all, Jesus looked down at the poor woman on the floor, and forgave her for her sins.  He took her gift of love, and gave it back to her a thousand times.

My friends and I were stunned.  We began to look at each other in wonder.  "Who is this, who even forgives sins?".  We realised then, that we were in the presence of someone truly extraordinary.

But more than that, Jesus helped us to think about so many things in different ways.  He had taught us, by his very presence, that we should not judge a book by its cover.  He arrived at my house looking dirty, disheveled, and frankly he could have done with a bath.  But once he opened his mouth, we knew that we were in the presence of Royalty.  I wonder whether you have ever made that mistake?  I wonder if you have ever judged another person to be worth-less because of what they wear, or how they look.  I know I did.  And I'm ashamed.

Another thing that Jesus really challenged us about was the place of women in society, and indeed in our religion.  Not only did Jesus let this odd woman come and wash his feet with her tears and hair, he also let women travel about with him and his disciples.  That was very hard for me to accept, let me tell you.  We believe that a woman's only place is in the home...looking after the children.  But here was this extra-ordinary man, who let women touch him, and even let them travel with him and his disciples!

I came to understand that Jesus' primary mission was to all those who are cast out by the society in which we live.  He wanted to include everyone in the new Kingdom that he was announcing.  Just a quick look at his disciples told us that.  There were fishermen and tax collectors, women, the sick, and even political extremists, like Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.  Everyone whom polite society would have nothing to do with...Jesus wanted to include them.

He was amazing.  And he blew my mind!

I you ever make the same mistakes as my society?  I'm sure you don't.  After all, you are a Christian country, aren't you?  I'm sure that you now treat women with exactly the same equality as men?  I'm sure, by now, that you must have female Pharisees...or what is it you call them...Bishops?

I'm sure that you don't allow the poorest members of your society to have to live on the bread line.  I'm sure that by now you don't have wealthy money-lenders who lend money at extortionate rates of interest.  Do you?  I'm sure you live by what Jesus taught... "Blessed are the poor - for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven".  I'm sure that if any Government in your day tried to reduce the support it gives to the poorest members of society - while the rich evade taxes and line their pockets -  the members of the church would rise up and protest?  Wouldn't you?  I'm sure you would write to your MP, and protest wherever possible at any such reductions in basic living standards.

Oh, I'm sure that your society must be much fairer, much more just than mine.  I'm sure there must be much more justice and mercy.

And what is more, I'm sure that, as followers of Jesus Christ, you must have learned something about the power of forgiveness.  In my day, we just lock people up when they do something wrong.  I'm sure that you have learned by now that that doesn't work.  I'm sure you now do as Jesus did to that sinful woman: forgive them, and help them to get their life back on track.

What a wonderful world you must live in, if it truly is a Christian world.  I can only dream of a world in which the poor are helped, where foreigners and strangers are welcomed, where sinners are forgiven and restored, and where there is equality between the sexes.

But now, I'm afraid, I have to leave travel back to my own time, to begin the work of building such a wonderful, Godly kingdom.  That's my task.  That's my calling.

Perhaps you still have some work to do in your time, in Jesus' name, too.