Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pigs, Demons and Jesus

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached October 16, 2016
at Urban Abbey

Scripture: Mark 5

This text is perfect for the season of Halloween.  It references everything I believe makes up an amazingly scary movie, complete with demon possession and an exorcism.  It represents the kind of movie I never watch, primarily because I like to sleep at night.  Demon possession and exorcism are things that seem very far away from us culturally, at least for me, and are two pretty solid reasons to skip right over this little passage.  The truth is, in eight years of full time ministry, I have never preached on this passage…mostly because I am a chicken and it is scary.

Some folks encounter this passage and say, “Aha! It is about being clean or unclean, it is about purity…not casting out demons.”  Jesus is casting out a multitude of unclean spirits and then, even more proof it is about cleanliness,  he is sending them into a drove of pigs….an animal we all know Jesus would have thought unclean.  Then the unclean spirit and the unclean pigs run off into the sea in some sort of dramatic, chaotic, cleansing pig-astrophic event.   This leads to a host of conversations around getting rid of what is unclean in us and in our culture, which I think is often less then helpful because Christianity has done such a good job at making some people feel bad for who they are.  A further disservice is this perspective never asks the question, “Why are there pigs in Palestine?  Why is everyone in the town afraid once the man is well but not afraid when he is howling and naked and bloody?”  So we are going to look a little bit and ask some questions and wonder if there is another reason why this text is so scary.

The first thing we have to do when we explore this text is to name and honor that it is written by occupied people, people living under tremendous oppression.  The Gospel of Mark is written to and for a community of people that are not sure what their identity is beyond the Jewish culture and it, like the other new testament writings, is the work of people that have to worry their very act of claiming this identity could condemn them to death.  The Bible is filled with the stories and poems of people who have experienced occupation, whether, it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians or the Romans.  This is a work of an oppressed people.  And oppressed people don’t come right out and say what they think about their oppressor…most of the time.  When we look at the Bible we might be wise to imagine it like the spirituals born out of the violence of slavery and the hope of the Gospel.  Spirituals were songs that could remind people of their humanity when the whip and words worked to dehumanize.  Spirituals gave a message of hope in a hopeless space and they gave a way to communicate plans and dreams of liberation, actual liberation.  Because an enslaved person, “Cant say hey we have a plan to get on up out of here tonight and head north,” spirituals offered language that could.  ‘God’s gonna trouble the water’ means stay close to the river, the dogs will lose your scent in the water and the river will give you a path north.

Jesus sees this naked, bloody, howling man run toward him and he asks his name.  “His name is Legion, for we are many.”  Legion is a powerful name.  There are probably zero boys running around Palestine with the name, it is not like Kevin or Josh.  A legion is a unit of the Roman military.  It is a force of troops that would have entered the country, subdued it and continued to occupy it.  The legion is the face and name of Roman oppression.  Historians point out the deep psychological and physical violence that comes with occupation.  People living under constant threat to their bodies, their families and their well-being are likely to experience a high level stress that impacts both their physical and mental health.  Perhaps it is not an accident that the possessed man howls, beats himself and lives naked in the tombs, struggling with mental and physical well-being while possessed by a demon named Legion.  The Gospel of Mark is pointing to the violence of the earthy kingdom and the healing hope of God’s kingdom which is perhaps what makes this passage scary for us.  Because if we are honest, most of us wouldn’t really have an experience of oppression like this, particularly if we are white, middle or upper middle class folks born in this country.  The military base just south of this coffee shop church is our own.  When we hear a plane flying over head we don’t really have to wonder if it is filled with destructive firepower or families returning from a vacation at Disney.  We have an expectation of due process under the law and avenues of accountability if a member of the military mistreated one of our loved ones.  That is not the experience of everyone in the world.  This past summer the Methodist clergy and laity of the Great Plains Annual Conference gathered to hear from a Christian Palestinian leader who lives in occupation.  There are limits to drinking water. There are limits to electricity.  His father was taken for a time and they had no idea if he was alive, dead or coming home.  People’s access to their farms and their livelihood is disrupted without recourse and building permits are hard to get.  It took Reagan’s Secretary of State calling the Prime Minister for this Priest to get a building permit for construction of a school for the children in his community.  People are building lives and they can be taken in a moment and there is no hope of due process.  This is an experience that I don’t have and pausing to recognize that privilege can be as hard as grappling with demon possession and exorcism.

Perhaps this passage is so hard because we can see it.  Rev. Dr. Ottis Moss III of Chicago looks at this passage and is reminded that he sees this man in his community.  He reads about this naked, howling man and he sees people without health care.  He sees people without support systems or mental health care.  He sees addiction and homelessness.  And, if we are honest we can see it too.  In fact, our coffee shop church sees it up close and personal all the time.  And perhaps the challenge is to see it and respond like Jesus.  Jesus sees a man.  What do we know about him?  We know he is strong; strong enough to break the chains of his bondage.  Jesus sees this man, bloody, naked, howling and strong, running toward him and he does not turn away. This is brave.  Most of us I think would have run the other way.  Mark doesn’t say this but I imagine the disciples  running the other way.  Given their behavior in the rest of Mark, I imagine half of them jumping back in the boat, one falling asleep and Peter drawing his sword to cut off an ear.

Jesus doesn’t run. He asks for the man’s name.  The demon responds, “I am Legion, for we are many,” and then the demon tries to make a deal with Jesus. “Don’t send us out of the country.”  Instead, Jesus sends the demon into a drove of pigs and when they catch all the heaviness, all the pain, all the intensity, they run off a cliff.  Moss raises the question of why are these pigs in Palestine and asks is this part of an illicit economy, an economy that doesn’t belong in the community, an economy that exploits.  Jesus disrupts the economy and the caretakers of the pigs run to tell everyone what they have witnessed.  Then the most remarkable part of the story happens. “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the Legion; and they were afraid.”  Now they are afraid?  They were not afraid when he was howling, naked, bloody and living in the cemetery but now they are afraid.  What does this mean that people are afraid when a man is healed, when he comes from a place of death into a place of life?  Perhaps this is one of the hardest parts of the story-to look at ourselves and ask if we have similar fears when people from the margins are brought to the center.   Perhaps we are afraid when one person’s healing changes our economy.  Perhaps we are afraid when change means more people will have a voice or a vote because we fear a loss of our own voice’s value.  People are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave.  As he is getting into the boat, “the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.  But Jesus refused.”  This man who has lived through hell in the tombs asks Jesus if he can go along and Jesus says, “No.”  Seems harsh, right?  Jesus continues, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown.”  Go home.  If he doesn’t go home, everything can go back to how it was.  The demon doesn’t really leave if the man leaves.

May we have the courage to call demons by name, whether they are shame or fear.  May we have to courage to call the demons of sexism or racism or any other form of oppression by name.  That is the way to cast it out.  That tis the way to heal.  That one of the hardest and most beautiful parts of this scripture.  That is why it is so scary but we don’t have to be afraid….we just have to be brave.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Kingdom Ain't Like That

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Urban Abbey
October 9, 2016

Matthew 5:38-41
 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile."

So. This is a hard scripture. Can I just admit that I like last week's scripture better? I’m not sure if you’ve met me. But if you have, you know that I am often up for a good rant. Especially after some…um…revelations about certain political figures this weekend. I have issued many a rant in my life about sexism and patriarchy, including about three yesterday.

This stuff really makes me angry. So I really wish I was preaching on last week’s scripture. I find it pretty satisfying to hear about table-flipping Jesus--the Jesus who gets all pissed and tells off the religious and political authorities who are exploiting the people. I like that scripture so much better in fact, that I spent some time studying it this week because I was genuinely trying to work out: what in the world does table-flipping Jesus have to do with this cheek-turning Jesus?

So I got out my trusty bible commentary, and the first thing it told me was that Jesus’ table flipping didn’t actually do anything to stop the injustice happening in the vast Temple complex. The temple was a gigantic structure and included among other things, a barn large enough to house thousands of sacrificial animals, an entire slaughter house, living quarters for the animals’ caretakers, as well as the area where pilgrims were exchanging their foreign currency and buying doves. And our commentator writes: “Jesus, even with the aid of his small band of disciples…could not have closed down or even disrupted the Temple business” [1].  So, at best, Jesus makes a scene, but the table-flipping doesn’t actually change things. But it is perhaps the most dramatic is a series of incidents that gets him crucified.

But let’s hold on that and talk about this week’s scripture. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first major teaching opportunity in the Gospel of Matthew. In this section, Jesus is giving instruction on how to live in the kingdom of God. Here, Jesus warns those listening against retaliation. He advises them that when struck, they should turn the other cheek. But first he says, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Now, Jesus is not rejecting this law of his Jewish tradition. This law opposed unlimited revenge. It would be illegal, for example, to kill someone because they had stolen a chicken. It might be akin to present day limits on the death penalty. Someone might receive the death penalty for murder in the first degree, but they would not receive it for anything less than that. As a society, we have for many years, made this eye-for-an-eye part of our judicial system.

And Jesus is affirming that yes, this is good. It’s good to set limits on revenge. But. (That’s classic Jesus. “But I say…”) It’s even better to receive a blow, to receive an offense, and not retaliate at all. That’s what living in the kingdom of God looks like. Jesus’ instructions are about responding to offense in a different and somewhat shocking way. In his culture, someone has a legal right to sue you for your coat. And Jesus says, then give them your cloak as well (which would in ancient times render you naked). Another example: a Roman soldier can force you to walk a mile with him, to help carry his pack. And Jesus says, walk two miles with him instead. Help him out.

Now these responses are unexpected. Rather than concerning yourself about the fact that your rights were violated, that your well-being was compromised, Jesus says to genuinely respond with compassion and generosity to the other - even to those who have hurt us.

I do not like this.

I do not like this at all. I do not want to forgive or be compassionate when I’m offended. I want to lash out and put down, and honestly sometimes inflict pain on those who have hurt me or hurt the people I love…especially then. That’s why I love table-flipping Jesus.

But this turn-the-other-cheek Jesus.

And yet, I am a Christian. It means I have to take our Christian story seriously. Both the table flipping Jesus. And turn-the-other-cheek Jesus. Because there’s this. We know that in the temple story, Jesus doesn't drive out every last money changer and victoriously reclaim the temple for God's glory. Jesus doesn't turn out to be the new King David who militarily ousts the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus dies on a cross. Jesus' radical turning of the cheek doesn't miraculously foil the empire and force a new Christian empire on the world. If you've looked around lately, you know that Jesus’ death did not instantaneously oust the powers of darkness and evil. Because we still seem to be operating mostly under empire values.

See, the empire teaches us that one must exercise power, often through violence, over one's enemies in order to create peace and justice…that enemies are to be destroyed, killed, ousted, or at the very least disregarded or silenced, so that we can take what is rightfully ours. These are the empire values of domination and retribution. And they have infected our nation, ourselves, possibly our families, and even our church - but Jesus teaches us that empire values have no part in the kingdom of God. Jesus' death on the cross did not establish a new domination structure with his followers on top. His death on the cross created a movement of people who believe that the kingdom of God is both here and coming to fullness - not through violence and domination and retribution - but through world-changing acts of compassion and forgiveness and God-empowered restoration.
And I will be the first to admit that Christianity often doesn't look that way. But sometimes it does.

This October 2nd marked ten years since the West Nickel Mines shooting in an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A man named Charles Roberts shot 10 girls that day, ages 6–13, and killed five of them before killing himself. [2]

And the Amish community – the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents of those girls – they forgave him.

Part of me hates this. I have an eleven-year-old daughter, and I cannot possibly imagine forgiving a grown man who would do any harm to her. I am almost sure I could not do that.

And yet. And yet, there is something that happens in me when I hear this story--when I heard that the Amish families of the girls who were killed responded in such a shockingly different way. Terri Roberts is the mother of the man who committed this atrocity. Here is how she described what happened at her son’s funeral:

“That week, we had a very private funeral for our son. But as we went to the gravesite, we saw 30-40 Amish start coming out from around the side of the graveyard. And they surrounded us like a crescent. And love just emanated from them.”

And Roberts tells other stories of the community’s response: the relative of one of the girls showing up at their house soon after the shooting, offering forgiveness and comforting her husband. The story of how the community continues to support her as she battles cancer.
Roberts continues, saying:

“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son. I mean, especially in the situation with Rosanna. Rosanna’s the most injured of the survivors. Her injuries were to her head. She is now 15, still tube-fed and in a wheelchair…and that’s certainly not the life that this little girl should have lived. So I asked if it would be possible that I might come and help with Rosanna once a week. So I read to her, I bathe her, dry her hair…” [3]

I am overwhelmed when I hear about the compassion offered – in the name of Christ – by the Amish community of Nickel Mines to the Roberts family. I am in awe when I hear about the compassion that flows out of Terri Roberts in response.

And I also feel terribly inadequate. I can't even react with compassion to small offenses: harsh words exchanged with my partner, my daughter not cooperating when I am tired at the end of a busy day. Some guy I don’t even know saying something irritating on Facebook. It’s so easy to be angry… And I know I cannot possibly embody this transformative spirit of compassion through my own sheer willpower.

But when I look at the Amish Community of Nickel Mines, I sense that God can do it through me. And God can do that through you. And maybe it’s possible for us to be that kind of Christian community that embodies God’s compassion in shocking and world-transforming ways.

And if God can do that through all of us, then a radically different world is coming.

May it be so.


[1] Boring, M. Eugene. Gospel of Matthew. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. Page 405.
[2] http://www.woosterweeklynews.com/article/20120405/NEWS/704059977/-1/wwn26
[3] http://www.npr.org/2016/09/30/495905609/a-decade-after-amish-school-shooting-gunman-s-mother-talks-of-forgiveness