Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 4 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9
Galatians 3:23-end
Luke 8:26-39

“They found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”
Why were they afraid? This seems a strange reaction when a good thing has happened, someone has been healed and restored to his place in the community. And yet, the community is afraid.
There is a curious reversal here. At the start of the story, it seems that it is the man himself who we should be afraid of. He is scary, uncontrollable, living naked among tombs. And yet it seems that the fear of the community had been dealt with by the fact that he had been driven out from their city. He has been excluded, so their fear has been excluded with him. But when he returns, suddenly they are afraid again.
This in fact is how human communities often function: what is threatening, what people are afraid of, is dealt with by its being projected onto a scapegoat, someone who is different or an outsider in some way, who can be victimised or excluded. The problem isn’t with us, oh no; it’s that person over there, the one who is different from us, they’re the source of all our troubles - so get rid of them. 
So this man at Gerasa, who is described in the language of Luke as having demons, has been cast out from his society, a scapegoat for their underlying fear. What was that fear? What was it that was really threatening and oppressing that society? The man himself gives us a clue: he says his name is “Legion”. That’s an odd word for a large number. It’s not “crowd” or “mob” or “tribe”. It’s a specifically military word - a legion was a large unit of the Roman army, several thousand men. 
And the region where the man lived was a heavily militarised area, as it is today - it’s roughly where the Golan Heights are. Then as now it was a border zone, where different races, cultures and religions rubbed up against each other. The tensions between those communities, which were real, were kept under by Roman military might, which could be brutal and ruthless. 
When you read Luke’s gospel you can see that he is very conscious of the political realities of first century Palestine and the Roman Empire, and he often links the oppressive power of the Empire with that of Satan or the demons - it’s as though he can see the spiritual realities behind the facade of events.
So this man at Gerasa, who has demons, in his disorder and illness acts out and names the real nature of the oppressive power which is affecting his whole society. And perhaps the fact that he names it is too dangerous for them to deal with, naming it brings that power too close to the surface. Perhaps that is why he was selected as the scapegoat to be driven out.
We in our context might ask about fear in our own communities. We might ask how people are made into scapegoats for the ills and oppressive powers of our own day. When an Islamic cultural centre is burned down, or a British soldier murdered in the streets, these are of course terrible things which can never be justified. And we must work to build strong and cohesive communities, to grow closer to our neighbours, as different faith communities have been doing in Muswell Hill these last two weeks. We will have an opportunity today to take part in such an act of building a good and human society with the solidarity walk to the Bravanese Centre.
But Luke’s gospel also teaches us to look behind the scenes, to ask what is the oppressive power at work behind events in the world. To ask, in his terms, what is Satanic or demonic in our own society. That is, what it is that keeps people trapped in mechanisms of violence, that prevents them from being human, from flourishing in peace and love. 
So we need to look behind the scenes. If extremist groups such as the EDL become more significant and threatening, that shouldn’t stop us also noticing how sections of the working class are being ignored by politicians and vilified in the tabloid press, when the reality for many is poverty, bleak hopelessness and lack of opportunity. And incidents of Islamist extremism shouldn’t stop us attending to the effect of Western policy and interventions in the Middle East on increasingly disempowered, alienated and traumatised populations. Of course, none of this justifies a violent reaction. But like the Gerasene man it is those on the pathological extreme, those who have become demonised, who enact their fear with violent results.
But of course, we are reading the Gospel, and “Gospel” means “good news”. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this. The good news is that Jesus frees us from fear and violence and makes it possible to be human again in a wholly new and creative way. 
Because Jesus has conquered the powers that demonise human communities and destroy human lives. The Gerasene man is not simply healed of his demons, he is re-humanised: seated, clothed, in his right mind, not afraid. In fact, he is seated at the feet of Jesus, which means he is a disciple. A very important figure, actually: he’s the first Gentile disciple. And Jesus makes him stay with his people. 
He wants to follow Jesus, of course, as most people do in the gospels. But unusually Jesus says, no, stay here with your people. The people who are now afraid of him. The people who are unable yet to believe in the Creator God who is simply overflowing love and generosity for all. But they have to learn not to be afraid, they have to learn the new way of being human that Jesus makes possible, free from fear, free from the need to find scapegoats, free from the demonic powers that turn human communities into destructive machines. And they can only learn that from him. So he has to stay with them, and tell them all that God has done for him. 
This is radical and demanding discipleship! Not to retreat into a comfort zone, but to stay with the people who need to hear the Good News and can only hear it from him. For him, to run off after Jesus would simply reinforce their casting out of him when he was ill. They would not then learn about the new life that Jesus makes possible, free from the old mechanisms of violence and exclusion. So he must stay.
There is a deeper meaning to this story, too, for it contains an image, a prefiguring, of the Resurrection. How do we know that Jesus has conquered the powers of death and hell? Because he was raised from the dead. Jesus too, on Good Friday, was cast out, naked, placed among the tombs. He too returned to his community - who were afraid, hiding behind locked doors - with the greeting of peace, to free them from their fear. It is the Resurrection which shows us that we do not need scapegoats, that God is on the side of the excluded and the victim. The Resurrection shows us that we can make the supreme adventure of being disciples of Jesus, of following in his way which trusts completely in the overflowing love and goodness and creativity of God. 
And this is our task as disciples of Jesus in our community - to be not afraid, to enact the Resurrection in our lives instead of the community’s fears. To enable those who are afraid, who do cast out, to be healed and fully human too. This is radical and demanding discipleship! But we can trust in the great things that God has done for us, and not run away, but tell them in the world in which we live.

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