Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
Sally was driving home from one of her business trips in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride. With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got into the car. Resuming the journey, Sally tried in vain to make a bit of small talk with the Navajo woman. The old woman just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every little detail, until she noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Sally.
What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman. Sally looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” The Navajo woman was silent for another moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder, she said, “Good trade.” A little Arizona morsel for our new priest who will return there this week to begin his priestly ministry.
Actually, the Gospel today is about a trade. The demons who possessed the Gerasene man asked Jesus in exchange for his release from their torture that Jesus send them to possess the pigs. The Gerasene is described in the story as a man who had demons. Today he might be categorized as mentally ill, high on some substance, or just drunk. He wore no clothes and lived among the tombs instead of in a house. He was considered ritually unclean and shunned by the community. He lived in isolation—not unlike the lepers of that time.
When Jesus asks for the demon’s name he is told it is “Legion,” reference to a Roman legion of as many as 6,000 soldiers; in other words, 6,000 demons possessed this poor fellow. Recognizing the authority and power that Jesus had over them, they ask him to send them into the herd of pigs where they assumed they might be safe. Not so. The swine hurled themselves into the water and pigs and demons drowned. When we next see this Gerasene man, he is fully clothed and restored to complete sanity—wholeness and health.
What do we make of the pigs in this story? Probably nothing. The pigs are not the point. Jesus’ authority over demons and all evil sway is the point. Jesus caring for people with terrible difficulties and life-altering crises is the point. And Jesus welcoming even a crazy acting gentile, having compassion and healing him is the point.
It is no small thing, however, that Jesus first asks his name. He is homeless, lost, suffering from what today we might identify as mental illness. We could find a similar scenario on a cold winter evening in Manhattan, perhaps on the upper East Side near Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue, a woman, lying on the sidewalk near Crate and Barrel, stark naked, shivering, begging for money for her next hit—and the world averting eyes and not doing anything. Is she maybe this demoniac that Jesus met in the tombs? Passers-by just gawk or turn away to avoid this unpleasantness. They don’t know what to do.
No one knew then what to do either. Except Jesus. He knows that this guy is more than a naked, crazy person. He knows that he has a name. And he asks it.
It is our name that gives us identity and recognizes our dignity. It is usually the first piece of information we entrust to a stranger. We all look forward to our friends and family and even acquaintances calling us by name. When Jesus released this man from the shackles of demonic possession, he restored his dignity and gave him back his life as a member of the community.
And Jesus wants the same for us—wholeness and restoration and freedom from the fetters and constraints that society may hurl at us because of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, mental health status, or class.
Today we will welcome by name some folk who have been worshiping with us and want to make this community their spiritual home. Today when all of you come to God’s Table, you are greeted by name because in God’s eyes you matter greatly. You hold in your hand and taste on your lips the sacrament of his love for you. And today we give thanks and honor those who have welcomed the call to ministry in this community, all those one hundred thirty five people who serve in one or more of the many ministries that support our common life. Finally, we give thanks for the new ministry of a young man called Robert who came to us two years ago as a seminarian and whom we welcome as celebrant of the Eucharist.
At the heart of the Gospel is the welcome and invitation of Jesus to all people. Two thousand years later, it is our holy work to do the same thing: to be God’s people on mission, caring for those who are in most need of God’s love–feeling another’s pain, another’s suffering, as Jesus did for the Gesarene man. Jesus asks us to listen to the pain of all those who come through our doors, to be here for the helpless, the wounded, the oppressed, and anyone who needs to be raised up and shown the promise of a life restored and made whole. No exceptions.
No exceptions. That’s the rub of radical welcome, isn’t it? And this Gospel today comes with a challenge to us to be sure that there are no exceptions.