Sunday, 19 June 2016

Confrontation with demons - the need for encounter with humanity

Homily for the 4th Sunday after Trinity - 19th June 2016

(Isaiah 65.1-9; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39)

Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes and straightaway, we’re told, even as he steps from the boat onto land, he is met by a man “who had demons.” He’s naked – “for a long time he had worn no clothes” – “and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” Perhaps we need to pause and try to take in that encounter. Think of how it looked… The terror the man must have inspired in others who had tried to bind him with chains and shackles, who had thrown him out of their community, who must have feared his brute strength, his unpredictability and screaming rages, who tried to keep their children from this terrifying creature. Think of how you would feel if you were approached by that crazed man who had torn off all his clothes and who has now set eyes on you and is heading your way. It’s not an everyday encounter. But neither perhaps is it outside our experience… We’d simply rather not be there, we’d rather keep it outside our imagination and consciousness.

Where might you meet someone like this? I realise looking back that it was an almost everyday reality when I was a student – or rather a real possibility which most of us chose to avoid. Cambridge in the 1970s - and probably still to this day – had a higher proportion of homeless people than just about anywhere else in the country. That was something that would strike me in one particular spot which should have been a haven of peace and quiet – a small triangle of land between the Divinity Faculty, the shops of Trinity Street and opposite St. John’s College where you could stop and sit on park benches shaded by the trees. It was an old churchyard. And it was there amongst the tombs that you might find yourself the object of unwelcome attention – the homeless and the hungry who felt you could spare them some money for a cup of tea, people in rags but with enough money for the bottle you saw in their pocket, people who might just want to talk… but then you realised this was not the sort of conversation you wanted, that so many of these people had a mental illness which had taken them onto the streets and out of a system which had failed them, out of the company of people who feared them.

These were my earliest encounters with people who might be like that man who nearly two thousand years earlier had lived among the tombs. When the living fail you, where else is there to go? – perhaps that’s the reasoning. When I worked in Sunderland, it was outside our church in the city centre that I would find people lying under a blanket of newspapers on the park benches in what had once been a churchyard. Quite a few of them would find their way into the church. These were people whose problems were not going to go away – even if most people wanted them to go away. So they’d converged on that particular area. Many more lived in the squalor of bedsits, an almost completely separate culture from the one surrounding them. The churchyard was one of the places where those cultures met.

It’s in the meeting of Jesus with the man possessed by demons that there’s a meeting of cultures and understandings which most of us prefer to avoid. The man no longer has a place in the city which is his true home. He lives amongst the tombs – the place of the dead shunned by the living, the place of ritual uncleanliness and contamination which a good Jew like Jesus should seek to avoid. The demoniac puts himself outside the acceptable norms with his refusal or inability to wear clothing. The way he has been bound in chains speaks of a society’s despair at its members for whom there is no recourse except to use secure units, locked wards, sedating drugs and straitjackets. What can you do for people like this? And there’s no easy answer. It would be easy to point the finger at the people who seemingly have excluded this man. But how much had they put up with? Don’t they bind him with chains and shackles not only for their own protection but to keep him from self-harm too?

There are some words of one of the Church’s Collects which come back to me again and again: Speaking to God we admit, “You see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” There are things about some people which we just cannot deal with. And if we’re honest there are things in ourselves which are beyond our capacity to cope with too. “You see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” It’s a beautifully reflective admission of our self-failure. Less beautifully put, it’s what we see in that man who comes out to Jesus and screams at him: “What have you to do with me, Jesus… do not torment me.” It’s the man’s voice but it’s that which is within him – over which he has no control – that speaks. An “unclean spirit” as the Gospel writer puts it – these are real demons by which he is possessed, so many they are called “Legion.” This is the encounter of all that is beyond human control with one who is recognised to be God’s Son. And it’s the recognition that is important. There is nothing that can be done for this man. The people of the city know it. He knows it himself. It seems the demons know it. And we know it. And we see “that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.”

The demons of the man who encounters Jesus need to be recognised. That man – distraught and dangerous as he probably is - has to be able to approach Jesus before Jesus can drive the demons out. His humanity needs to be recognised by Jesus before he can be healed.

The events of the last week, its atrocities and the shock felt so widely in the communities of our nation and further afield are a reminder of what goes wrong when we treat people as something other than ourselves, as an enemy, as people to be kept at a distance, as less than human. From the slaughter of so many young people in a night club in Florida because their sexuality identified them as a rightful target to the murder of an MP in a Yorkshire street, the fundamental failing is to create an enemy because he or she is perceived as something alien – as someone who needs to be erased from the world which another individual wishes to inhabit. The gunman in Orlando might have had his mind poisoned by extremist Islamist notions of right and wrong or he might have been directed by his own conflicted sexuality – or both. The killer on the street in Birstall might have had psychiatric problems with his mind still further poisoned by politicised racism. What we can say is that both inhabited worlds which denied a place to other people. Both failed to see humanity in their neighbour. Neither could have recognised that to be human is to be created in the image of God.

Religious people need to be careful in all of this. Those in today’s Gospel identify the spirits possessing the Gerasene demoniac as “unclean.” Things that are unclean have no place in their community – as surely as the Jews of Jesus’ day would have identified the pigs into which the spirits are sent as “unclean.” How do we perceive other people – of different race, nationality, religion, sexuality? – people who are unemployed, people who are an economic threat? – people who are wrong where we are right? – people who (as far as we are concerned) don’t belong?

Jesus comes into the situations of conflict and disagreement – and brings healing… But not without risk. Not finally without losing his life.

The point is not to suffer wounds – though that may be the cost – but to bind them up. It starts when we can look beyond difference and what we wish to reject to recognise a common humanity by which we might be formed.

It’s there in those most critical verses from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians which we read today:

27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ; 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Do we believe that? Can we act as if it is really true?

Here are the words of the Collect – that prayer – to which I referred earlier:

Almighty God,
you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves:
keep us both outwardly in our bodies,
and inwardly in our souls;
that we may be defended from all adversities
which may happen to the body,
and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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