Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 20, 2010
The children are heading off to the Guild Room to continue their worship together. Usually, they begin their time hearing the Gospel lesson again – the simple yet profound stories of Jesus’ life and ministry. This week however, when Alex and I were making a plan for Children’s Worship, I suggested he skip the Gospel and focus on one of the other lessons appointed for today. I mean really, this story is a little over the top, don’t you think – maybe even for adults! Jesus and the wild, naked man – Jesus confronting demons – and that part about deviled ham, I’m not even going there.
Clearly, this is a story about Jesus’ power to heal, but it is also a story about mission – Jesus’ mission in the world. And, because we claim to be God’s children, it is also about our mission.
Mission is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot; it means different things in different circumstances. Organizations have mission statements that are created to guide behavior, there are diplomatic missions and space missions, and then there is mission in the church-y sense.
It goes without saying, God has a mission – that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Jesus had a mission – that is what his entire life, death and resurrection are about. As God’s people – individually and corporately, we have a mission – an assignment, if you will, to make a difference. That’s how I’d like for us to think about mission today – an assignment to make a difference, nothing more that that for now, and nothing less.
As a parish, we’re in the process of trying to determine more about our mission. Today after the 2nd service there will be a special forum on mission and next Saturday, we’ll be gathering for a summit on mission. It seems this story about Jesus comes at just the right time. So what might we learn about mission – God’s and ours – from this story today?
The first thing to note about this story is that it takes place in new and unfamiliar territory. This is the first report of Jesus and his friends leaving predominantly Jewish towns and going into an area that was primarily Gentile; it was culturally foreign and religiously unclean according to Jewish law.
And, as if religiously “unclean” territory wasn’t enough, Jesus and his friends are immediately confronted with the embodiment of evil forces – legions of demons dwelling in a naked man who cannot control himself, nor can he be controlled by others. Scary stuff.
Jesus is not afraid, however. That’s the second thing I noticed. In fact, he seems rather bold; he must have known that the power within him was greater than any power outside of him.
Jesus does not avoid this individual but rather addresses and engages the internal demons – those internal powers that had kept this man from his true identity. Jesus confronts the evil powers that had left him less than human – demons that had separated him from human society, demons that had left him without those things that give meaning, purpose and hope.
Another interesting piece of the story is that the demons know who Jesus is. Unlike the disciples who have to keep asking Jesus who he is, these spiritual forces seem to understand something about Jesus. At the very least, they understand that he is a force to be reckoned with – something, someone they cannot simply ignore. When Jesus speaks, the power of God is summoned and it trumps any power they might have. They know that.
The fourth important thing to note is that when Jesus speaks, the man is free. The demons have no choice but to depart from him. And in his new state of freedom, the healed man wants nothing but to be with the One who set him free.
But Jesus says no, which is a bit strange; so many of the other healing stories in scripture end with Jesus saying, “Come, follow me.” But not in this story – even as the man begs to accompany Jesus – he is sent on a mission of his own: Go home. Go back to those who love you and to those who have been afraid of you. Tell them what God has done. Proclaim it – tell it over and over and over again.
To tell the truth, I’ve never liked the term “mission.” When I was a child, my mom used to say as I left the house, “Remember, you’re either a missionary or a mission field.” I think it was really a warning to “mind my p’s and q’s,” to make sure I was behaving – doing the right thing, acting like a missionary, one who was saved and not like one who needed saving.
That kind of mission was static – the rules were set – you were either in or out – it was flat and it was like the television we watched as kids – everything was in black and white. Today’s story about mission is much more colorful. The healing work of God in this story is in high definition and even includes some 3-D scenes.
The setting for God’s mission is new – it happens in unfamiliar territory, colorful territory with new and colorful characters. It is edge-y and in high-definition.
This story encourages us to take seriously the forces that hold us hostage. They are real – ask anyone who deals with depression, addiction; ask anyone who lives in poverty or is abused or is themselves abusive. Powers of darkness seem to leap from the screen and into our lives in ways we never expected. It can invade our homes, our communities, this fragile planet, our very souls. Mission is 3-D.
Our ability to be free – to live into our true identity as children of God – to live and breathe as whole people is dependent on divine power. This power changes lives and it is available. It is available here in familiar territory and it is available in the new territories to which God will call us. We do not need to be afraid. We are not alone in mission.
Finally, as we experience new life – as we see it around us and as we experience within us in whatever form it takes – we must be willing to tell the story of God’s goodness over and over and over again.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, will be dynamic, it will be full of color, it may be edge-y and it may very well be three-dimensional.
May God bless us with vision and courage as we discern how we, filled with God’s Spirit, will make a difference – today, tomorrow and in the years to come.