Sermon for the 5. Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2016
Deacon Sue Nebel
It has been a long week. Seven days, since we first heard the news of the mass shootings in Orlando. Accounts of death and injuries. The pain of grief and loss. The stories of the people who died and the ones who survived. A targeted attack against a specific group, motivated by anger and hate and a fierce desire to lash out and destroy. The news of the shootings was like a rock dropped into a body of water. Circles rippling out, growing bigger and bigger. A nightclub, the city of Orlando, the state of Florida, our whole country, the world. A wound to the human family.
When something like this happens to us, something that overwhelms us and is too much to comprehend, we search for something to grab onto. Something firm, something solid to steady us in the midst of upheaval. Last Sunday, I heard about the shootings in Orlando after the beach service. Shocked and saddened, I carried the knowledge of the event deep inside me during the 9:30 service. As I moved to the back of the church during the closing hymn, I began to anticipate giving the Dismissal. Thinking about the kind of world we would be going out into. The final hymn last Sunday was “God is Love.” By the time I reached the back of the church, we were on the second verse. These are the words that we sang:
God is Love: and love enfolds us, all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us, every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching deep within the heart of God.
“. . .aching deep within the heart of God.” That is what struck me. That is what I grabbed and held onto. By the time I headed home later to turn on the TV and hear the details of the horror in Orlando, that line from the hymn had become a simple phrase: “the aching heart of God.” A sense that the pain that so many people shared was embraced and held in God. A God whose love is strong enough to bear all that pain. God in us. God with us. Something to hold onto.
As the hours of last Sunday wore on and the new week started, the leaders of the Church began to speak out. In the Episcopal Church we turn to our bishops, the shepherds of the flock and guardians of the faith. We want and expect them to step forward and offer guidance to us. And they did. One after another, our bishops urged us to pray for those harmed by the violence. To widen the embrace of our love to include people who are targets of judgment and hate because their sexual orientation or gender identity. To translate our Christian commitment into action.
As people of faith, we turn not just to the leaders of the Church. We also turn to our greatest leader and teacher of all: Jesus. To find out what he can teach us in this moment. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has moved out of Galilee, familiar territory for him, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. To the land of the Gerasenes. There he meets a man who, the story tells us, has demons. This man has a strange history. He wears no clothes and lives among the tombs, rather than in a house. When people have tried to restrain him, he has broken free of the chains and shackles and taken off into the wilds. Now we need to understand that in Jesus’ time, demons were seen as evil spirits, drawing people away from God. It is not hard to imagine, given the description of the man’s behavior, that being possessed by demons could be an explanation for some form of mental illness. In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we were told that some of Jesus’ followers were “women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” Among them, Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons had gone out.”
This man has a lot more than seven demons. It is hard to tell in this story when the man is speaking and when the demons are talking, but it is clear that Jesus has the upper hand. It is a dramatic story of healing. Jesus commands the demons to come out of the man. Then, responding to their pleas not to be banished into the abyss, he lets them enter a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs then rush down the bank into the water and drown. There, done with, gone. When we see the man again, he is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Restored to wholeness, he is now wearing clothes and is calm. As Jesus prepares to leave, the man begs to be allowed to go with him. Jesus refuses. He tells the man to return home and tell people what God has done for him. He does just that. Having experienced the power of Jesus, the power of love, the man moves into action. In the last glimpse we have of him, he is proclaiming what the power of Jesus has done.
Jesus and the Gerasene. A confrontation with demons. Jesus wins. Love wins. That is what this story tells us. Love is stronger than the demons of prejudice and hate, the evil powers in the world that draw us away from God. As we move forward from the tragic events of this past week, what are we to do? The demons that controlled the mind of the shooter in Orland and the damage that his actions inflicted seem overwhelming. Any action on our part seems so small, so ineffective. Some of us will join in efforts to control access to guns. Some will march in Pride parades. But for most of us, the question is: what can we do each day, in our own lives?. Last Sunday, a friend of mine, overwhelmed by her grief and feelings of helplessness in the face of evil forces in the world, wrote this:
And then this came to mind: any act of kindness, any act of resistance
is worth doing. It doesn't matter how small. Small is good. Small is great.
Small multiplied by a few billion acts every single day becomes something big.
What can we do? Embraced and held in the aching heart of God, grounded in the deep core of love, we can move forward, one step at a time. With a faith that has been made wider, fiercer by the events of last week, we can o be a force of love in the world. To stand with those who are hurting. To reach out in acts of kindness to everyone we meet, whether friend or stranger. To treat everyone with respect. To help build something big. We can do this. And we will.
Proper 7; Year C
1 Kings19:1-4,8-15; Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39