Sermon – Trinity 1 (Proper 7)
Archbishop Michael Ramsey famously said that “the duty of the church is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” We see Jesus doing both in today’s gospel. The poor deranged man is made whole and wonderfully given a new life; but the people of the neighbourhood are fearful and ask Jesus to go away and leave them in peace!
Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and is now in the mainly Gentile territory on the eastern side. Jews wouldn’t be keeping pigs!
It was believed that everyone was surrounded by demons, all watching for their opportunity to invade the human body and soul. It’s interesting that the demon-possessed Gentile immediately recognises Jesus’ identity when many of his sane Jewish contemporaries fail to do so. He calls him, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God,” using the Gentile title for the God of the Jews. By calling Jesus his son, he probably meant “The Messiah”.
The possessed man’s symptoms are all characteristic of certain kinds of mental illness. It’s been suggested that he may have witnessed acts of brutal oppression at the hands of the occupying Roman forces, and that this might have triggered his breakdown. Jesus asks him his name, for it was believed that knowing a demon’s name gave one power over it. The man’s reply of “Legion” indicates both his sense of multiple, conflicting forces within him (a Roman legion was 6,000 men) and, perhaps, the cause of his trauma.
In recent decades, the consequences for the herd of pigs has concerned people on grounds both of cruelty to animals and the destruction of other people’s property. Plausible explanations have been offered. Maybe the possessed man’s shouting and gestures frighten the pigs and cause the herd to rush down the hillside into the lake. Jesus needs to convince the man that the demons have left him in order to make his cure complete, and seizes this opportunity: “There, you see! They’ve gone!” Whatever the truth of the situation, the effect on the people of the neighbourhood is to make them beg Jesus to go away. They’re afraid, and don’t want their way of life disturbed.
In his book, God in All Things, Gerard Hughes suggests the following imaginative exercise. Try it now.
Imagine there is a ring at your front doorbell. On answering it, you meet on the doorstep the Risen Lord himself. Somehow you know beyond any shadow of doubt that it is he. What do you do now? How do you greet him, what do you say? . . . In the course of the evening you find yourself making fatuous statements to the Lord of all creation, such as ‘Do make yourself at home.’ Jesus seems very pleased with your invitation and tells you that is why he has come.
Now take a leap of two weeks in your imagination. Jesus is still staying with you. What is your home like now? To stimulate your imagination, you might like to recall some Gospel passages, sayings you wish Jesus had never uttered such as, ‘Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household will be divided: three against two and two against three . . .’ How has it been at family meals during the last two weeks? What has Jesus said or done that has caused some members to leave the table in a tantrum, slamming the door behind them? In Jesus’ own lifetime, as far as we can judge from the Gospels, relations with his own family were not always easy. . . .
Told to make himself at home, Jesus begins to invite his friends to your house. Who were his friends in the Gospels, what kind of people were they, and what did respectable, religious people say about them? Who is coming along your road now, what is happening to the curtains in the house opposite, and what is happening to local property values? How are things in your own family and with your own circle of friends, now that Jesus’ friends are also calling in?
You may then decide that it is not right to keep Jesus confined to your own house, so you arrange for him to give a little talk. You remember the little talk he once gave to the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees, assuring them that the tax-gatherers and the prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God before they did. He gives substantially the same sermon to the faithful of [St Margaret’s]. There is uproar, and the parish loses its principal benefactors.
You return home with Jesus, who has now become the major problem of your life. As you ponder the question, ‘What am I to do with him?’ you know you cannot ask him to leave, for he is the Lord of all creation, so what are you to do? Perhaps you could look around the house carefully, find a suitable cupboard, clear it out, clean it up, decorate it, sparing no expense, and have good strong locks put on the door. You then invite Jesus to step inside, turn the lock on him, put flowers and a candle in front of the cupboard door, and every time you pass, you bow deeply. You now have Jesus in your house and he doesn’t interfere any more!
The deranged man begged to follow Jesus, but Jesus asked him to do the – perhaps – harder job of staying in his home community and witnessing there to God’s transformative work in him. In doing so, the man makes no distinction between God and Jesus. The blessings of knowing Jesus are immeasurable; but unless he sometimes takes us out of our comfort zones, we should perhaps ask ourselves whether we have locked him away in a cupboard!