I wrote this sermon in the week after the massacre and shooting of over fifty people at the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooter claimed allegiance to a radical religion that claims to be Islam. After much contemplation and wrestling with scripture, social media, my friends, my own heart, and God, this is what I could come up with, and in the context of a five week preaching series on healing which I had already begun three weeks before. It is what it is.
Healing is... listening, and telling the truth: A sermon on Luke 8:26-39
Have you ever had the experience of realizing the way you present yourself isn't all that helpful? Perhaps even not very kind? I find it to be nearly universally true that we all think about ourselves quite a bit more than anyone else does. We have strong opinions and beliefs. We have our patterns and ways of being in our home and in the world. We tend to think that we are basically right, and other people are from time to time, but certainly not as much as we are. We are quick to judge. Slow to listen. And only when we are really pressed, do we seek to understand the perspective of someone who is really different than we are. It often takes a shift in our environment, an intentional placing of ourselves in a vulnerable situation, to really hear what we sound like. As my mother used to say, "I'm going to record what you are saying sometime and play it back for you so you can hear what you really sound like." She never did that, but she didn't have to. Eventually I had the experience of hearing what I really sounded like. I thought I sounded witty, but really I sounded sarcastic and judgmental. And because my posture had shifted, suddenly I could see that my comments had a negative effect on the person who was listening to me. It was as clear as if someone had shown me a brief video of myself. Gosh, how long had I been doing that? Not pretty. Demons are never as attractive as we like to think they are.
And yet our demons are often so wrapped up in who we think that we are, that it is difficult to imagine life without them. The tormented man in Geresene had so many demons that when Jesus asked for the name of the evil spirit that possessed him, the demon replied: Legion. Hundreds. Too many to count. Many of us are able to keep our demons under wraps, but some of us fall to pieces like this man in Geresene. What were his demons exactly? Did he drink too much? Did he speak whatever came to mind? Did he suffer from mental illness and hallucinations? Did he break all of the Ten Commandments and then some? We don't know. All we know is people were so frightened by his behavior that they tried to control him. This was to no avail. He broke the shackles, tore off his clothes, and wandered among the dead. This was likely preferable in the minds of the villagers to wandering among the living.
But not so for Jesus. Jesus saw this man and had compassion on him. He listened to him. He called him to remember his true self: one made in the image of God and beloved by God. He sent the demons away. You want to go into a herd of pigs? fine, go into the pigs. But leave this man in peace. Let this man know the good news that he is not his illnesses, he is not his mistakes, he is not his sins, he is not his demons. No, this man belongs to God. He is God's beloved son.
When I committed to preaching a series on healing this month to correspond with the healing stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, I had no idea I would once again be compelled to comment and respond pastorally to another act of hatred and gun violence in our country. On August 5th I will celebrate my ten year anniversary to the priesthood. In that time there have been far too many mass shootings and smaller acts of gun violence--citizens murdering citizens-- on which I have prayed, written, and wept: Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Mother Emmanuel AME Church, San Bernadino, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. NIU student Steven Agee was murdered over four years ago across the street from our own church, shot to death. I know I am not mentioning others, there have been too many. And now Orlando. And now two vulnerable and beloved communities are heartbroken and terrified, people who are my friends and who's friendship and gifts to my life and our world I value deeply: the LGBTQIAA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer, Intersex, Assexual, and Allies) community and the Muslim community. Ten years of ministry marked by ministering in the midst of horrific violence. Twelve years since the ban on the sale of assault rifles was lifted in our country. I heard that fact in passing this week. Now it makes sense, but I don't like it. I don't like it one little bit.
Where is the healing to be found for this seeping open wound of violence in our country? What's a Christian to do? Michael Franti sings in his song Gloria, "When many little people in many little places do many little things then the whole world changes, but sometimes not fast enough for me." As much as we want a quick fix, the truth is it took a while for us to get here: crazed, naked, shackles and broken chains rattling in our footsteps. It took us a while to get here, and it's going to take a while to come out of the tombs and into the land of the living. It's going to take some courage as individuals and a society to let go of those demons that have so possessed us that we can't imagine who we would be without them. One answer I do believe we can see in the example of Jesus and his encounter with the man at Geresene. Jesus listened to him. He did not run away. He told the demons to leave the man in peace. It seems a small thing to heal just one man. But that one man when he was made well became a witness. He was able to tell the story, to offer hope to others who were wrapped up in their demons.
I believe we are being called by Jesus as church to listen with the heart of Christ, and to tell our story, just as Jesus commissioned the man he healed of a legion of demons to stay in his home and tell his good news story there. We are being called to tell the truth. Part of that truth telling is to say with intention what we assume everyone knows. The Episcopal Church does not believe that human sexuality is a demon. We do not believe that being LGBT is a demon. We do not believe that being Muslim is a demon. We do not believe that being Latinx is a demon. We do believe that we are all created in God's image. We do believe that the image of God is not to be defiled by the demons of hatred, fear, intolerance, and prejudice. We do believe as Bishop Lee wrote, "Every act of violent hatred is an assault on Jesus Christ who is present in every victim. I do not know how else to understand the mystery of the cross. Murder is simply blasphemy, an attempt to obliterate the image of God in which we are all made." But we as a congregation of St. Paul's have not said that directly here in the place Jesus has called us to tell the good news. Why is that? I am not trying to make you feel guilty, I'm simply asking us to contemplate if the way we have been presenting ourselves to our neighborhood is helpful or not. Do the vulnerable and hurting people in our city know they can find healing and sanctuary here? And if not, then are we willing to confess these sins of privilege, indifference, and apathy to Jesus, and allow him to send these demons away?
In a few minutes we will pray a litany of healing. I encourage you to lift up in prayer all those demons that are troubling you. All those ways that you have been presenting yourself to the world that have not been helpful, that have hurt others, that have hurt you. Some of you will feel compelled to come forward for anointing and laying on of hands as we beseech Jesus to fill us with his grace so we may know the healing power of his love. Some of you will feel compelled to keep vigil from your pew. Both are acceptable. But know this, the good news is we are not our illnesses. We are not our mistakes. We are not our sins. We are not our demons. We belong to God. We are each one of us God's beloved child. Jesus is our liberator and the great healer of our souls. Some wounds will take a long time to heal, but in God's eyes you are not your wounds. This is good news. And there are people in your world who are dying to hear it. Do not be silent. Do not assume that everyone already knows this truth.