Monday, June 24, 2013

Sitting at the feet of Jesus (J. Barry Vaughn, June 23, 2013)

When I was a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland I preached occasionally at a small Church of Scotland parish in the village of Anstruther. Anstruther is a fishing village on the North Sea and is about 9 miles from St. Andrews.  To get a sense of Anstruther, it’s helpful to have a picture in your mind’s eye of the area around St. Andrews. St. Andrews is in the Scottish county of Fife, a small peninsula with the firth of Tay on the north, the firth of Forth on the south, and the North Sea on the east. By the way, a firth is an old Scots’ word for a bay or inlet.


My point in giving you this geography lesson is to explain a bizarre incident that happened the first Sunday I preached there. During the service a man entered the church and somewhat furtively and quickly took a seat in a back corner of the church. Something about the way he moved struck me as odd.


After the service one of the elders told me that the man wished to speak to me. The man who had come to church late and sat in a back corner began to tell me a bizarre story about how Satan was trying to read his thoughts but was prevented from doing so by the roof of the church. I quickly realized that the man was mentally ill and probably schizophrenic.


It was the kind of thing we experience quite a lot in large cities but not so often in rural places such as Anstruther. But it turned out that a local mental hospital had been forced to release some patients it deemed not a danger to themselves or others because of government cutbacks.


I wonder if Anstruther was much like the village in which Jesus exorcizes the demoniac in today’s gospel reading. Like the village in today’s gospel reading, Anstruther was a quiet, rural place. No one is quite sure of the location of the “country of the Gerasenes” where Mark locates this exorcism story. All we can know for sure is that it was on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.


The story of Legion is one of the most fascinating miracle stories in the gospels. To understand this story we need not believe in literal demons but we do need to believe in evil. Evil is real. There is something abroad in the world and in our hearts that would draw us away from God and from goodness, away from what is truest and healthiest and best in our own hearts.  And the story of the Gerasene demoniac offers us a perfect illustration of what happens when evil gets the upper hand.


Luke tells us that the demoniac wore no clothes and lived among the tombs. In other words, he was completely isolated, estranged from others. He had turned away from life and embraced death. The story of the Gerasene demoniac is an Easter story. Jesus raises this man from death to new life.


I know from personal experience that when I am depressed, I isolate myself from others, even though that is one of the worst things I can do. God created us to live in community. We need to be in relationship with others to be healthy, to be the people that God intended us to be.


Genesis opens with God’s repeated insistence that the world and everything in it is good. God declares light to be good. God declares the day and night to be good. God declares the sea and the dry land to be good. God declares human beings to be good. And then finally God declares something to be not good. Do you know the first thing God declares to be not good? After God has created everything and declared it to be good. After God has created the first human and placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, God declareds, “It is not good for humans to be alone.” Genesis 2.18.


God made us social creatures. The word ubuntu from the Zulu language of South Africa means “I am who I am because you are who you are” and “You are who you are because I am who I am.” I believe that is why God said it is not good for us to be alone. We need each other to be the people God created us to be.


But evil wants to drive us apart. Evil isolates. But God longs to have a relationship with us and for us to have healthy relationships with each other.


I am impatient with people who tell me that they don’t need to go to church because they can be a Christian just fine all by themselves. That’s simply not true. Christianity is not a solitary enterprise. We need each other.


Notice what happens to the demoniac when Jesus casts out his demon. Luke tells us that when the people of the town “came out to see what had happened… they found the man from whom the demons had gone out sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” In other words, he has not only been restored to community, he has become one of Jesus’ disciples. To “sit at the feet” of a teacher is the traditional posture of a student or disciple.


Several years ago Harvard professor Robert Putnam  wrote a book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s research shows that since World War II Americans participate far less in community organizations such as churches, synagogues, PTAs, Rotary Clubs, and even bowling leagues.


The result of this declining participation in groups is that our stock of social capital is dwindling. Social capital is defined as the social benefits derived from cooperation with others. Study after study shows that the number and quality of our relationships is an important index not only of mental health but even physical health.


Do you remember the old TV sitcom Cheers? It was a place “where everybody knows your name.”


The first question Jesus asked the demoniac was “What is your name?”  There was a theological reason for that question.


In the biblical world, names were powerful. Again, Genesis is a good example of the power of names. As God creates each component of the world, he gives it a name.


“God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night… God called the dry land Earth, and the waters… he called Seas…” God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. The Namer has power over the things he names. So Jesus asserts power over the demon by demanding his name.


But there was another reason for Jesus’ question. Both mental illness and evil can destroy our identity.


The demoniac replied to Jesus’ question, saying that his name was, “‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him.”


The nature of evil and the nature of mental and emotional illness is to fragment. In schizophrenia the different parts of our personality split off and manifest themselves as visual and auditory hallucinations.


All of us are composed of a multitude of parts. When we are healthy, these different parts work together. I can be upbeat one day and sad the next but still recognizably myself. You can be angry some of the time and warm and loving at other times, and still be the person I recognize as my friend and parishioner. But when we are the victims of mental and emotional illness, these different parts of ourselves take on a life of their own. We become angry all the time and the anger becomes destructive. Sadness takes over our life and saps our energy.  Sometimes anger and sadness get such a hold on us that we become self-destructive and even suicidal.


And what is true of individuals is sometimes true of whole nations and cultures. Think of Nazi Germany. Hitler channeled the anger that the Germans felt about their defeat in World War I into a hatred of Communists and Jews. The Jews became the embodiment of all that was evil, and the Nazis conceived of the Final Solution– the murder of 6 million Jews. In the camps their identity, their names, were taken away and replaced with numbers tattooed on their arms.


One of the most moving parts of the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is the Well of Memory. After walking all the way through the museum, you come to an enormous circular room. In the floor is a deep well cut into the rock of the mountain on which the museum is located. Above it is an enormous circular chamber that goes up at least 2 or 3 stories. The chamber is lined with boxes that hold the names of 4 million of Hitler’s victims. The names of 4 million have been restored but the names of millions of others may be lost forever.


I have to confess something to you. Before I came to Christ Church I had many conversations with Bishop Dan about the history of conflict at Christ Church. I was afraid that conflict had become a way of life here, that conflict had taken on a life of its own, and I did not want to get caught up in it. He assured me that that was not the case, and now that I am here, I know that he was correct.


Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, and there is such a thing as healthy anger. They only become destructive when they take on a life of their own and become disconnected from their sources. It is perfectly all right for us to argue and debate. It may even be OK for us to be angry from time to time. But it is not OK to stay stuck in conflict and anger. When that happens, we need Jesus to remind us of who we are, to assert his authority, to come to us and say, “What is your name?” Our name is Christian, Child of God, not Legion.


The power of God is always drawing us closer to God and closer to each other. If we find ourselves pulling apart and becoming isolated, then we can be certain that evil, not God, is at work among us.


From time to time all of us have strayed, wandered from the embrace of life and love. We may even have found ourselves in a place of death. We may have forgotten for a time who we really are. But there is a place (and I don’t mean Cheers) where we are known and named and loved. And it is that place where the Gadarene demoniac found himself at the end of the story – at the feet of Jesus.


Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.


Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.