This is my sermon from June 19, 2022, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. On June 16, 2022, at a potluck dinner, a man welcomed into the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, shot and killed three members of that parish. This tragedy hit close to home for us. The parish was founded by The Rev. Douglas Carpenter, whose sister is a long-time member of St. Stephen’s Millburn.
The lectionary for the day may be found here. We use Track 1.
At the start of today’s service, I offered the prayer from our Presiding Bishop for those who were killed and those who survived the shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. I heard about that shooting when I logged onto the internet after getting a couple of notifications on my phone, one being news of the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the other being an update on the arrests of the 31 men who were heavily armed and in body armor on their way to a Pride event in Idaho.
Though I’m not sure why, because we’ve had a steady diet of these kinds of violent acts, literally several in any given week, but there’s a part of me that is still surprised. It boggles my mind that in a country that has all of the resources we need to stem this flow of violence and death, we continue to lack the will to do it. And I know that it is because resources without the will to use them for good is the civil equivalent of praying with no intention to change one’s behavior and attitudes.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is continuing his healing ministry, his ministry of radical love and radical hospitality. He’s been journeying by boat and by foot all around the Sea of Galilee. He’s veered off into the countryside away from the shore and then comes back to where we meet him today.
As they arrive by boat to the southwest shore of the lake, he and his followers encounter the man struggling with demons. We’re told that the other villagers, the man’s community, have been trying to help him. No doubt, trying to protect him was also about protecting themselves. Demons are unpredictable and scary, but they do try to help him. He asks Jesus not to hurt him as Jesus is exorcising the demons, restoring the man and his community to health and wholeness.
Now the man is thrilled. He begs to be able to follow, to travel with Jesus, but Jesus says “No. What I want you to do is to go back home and to witness the Good News of God’s love working in you. The man does just that. That really doesn’t come as any surprise. I’d like to think that all of us would listen to Jesus, who has just healed us, and that all of us would do what Jesus asks.
But there were so many other people. I would have expected that this man’s community would be thrilled. Or, if not thrilled, I would expect that they felt some relief. Yet that’s not what happens. We’re told that some were afraid and then, in verse 37, we’re told, “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.”
“Seized with great fear” after witnessing a healing. Why?
Was it the magnitude of Jesus’ power that overwhelmed them, causing them to feel afraid?
Was it that Jesus spoke to the demons, giving them what they asked for, only for them to be drowned with the sheep when the sheep flee into the lake?
Was it that the loss of those sheep, their livelihood, meant economic peril?
We’ll never know. It could have been one of those things. It could have been all of those things. The Scripture doesn’t tell us so I’m going to offer another possibility, and that is:
Even the change we say we want can be scary and overwhelming if we get it, especially if it means we have to give up something important or familiar. We would rather hang onto to what we know, what we have, even if it is contrary to our wholeness and our wellbeing, and to God’s will. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and there’s a reason for the phrase “fear of the unknown.” We need something to fill the broken places, something to fill the places where fear resides in us or we choose to hang onto it.
We don’t like to feel vulnerable. Vulnerability scares us. Fear makes us feel vulnerable because it reminds us that we are not in control. And, for some people, at least, feeling vulnerable and afraid, out of control, makes them feel angry and leads them to act violently. The anger and the violence mask the fear and fill the place in them where the control they think they should have doesn’t exist.
When I read that all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them,
when I heard about the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the situation in Idaho, when I heard about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, and the mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Uvalde…, I wondered why it is that we can’t trust in God’s love, why we can’t trust our faith to be what fills those broken places.
Why is it that we sometimes act more like the demons in today’s Gospel, asking for what we need and then still going to a place that is about violence and destruction and our own deaths, both literally and figuratively?
Why is it that we cannot see God’s love, mercy, justice, and compassion, God’s grace, for us and all people? Why is it so hard for us to let God’s Spirit, God’s grace fill the place where fear resides?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. What I do have hope, though I’ll admit in this moment that if it is possible to feel a bleak hope, I think I do. And yet it is still hope. It is hope rooted in Scripture, which is how we’re help to understand God working in and through us.
In today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, as is true in all of the Gospels, we are shown the unconditional love of God for all of us. I heard on a podcast this week [Terrell Carter on Pulpit Fiction] that “Jesus always goes to all the wrong places, at all the wrong times, and spends time with all the wrong people.” Obviously, “wrong” is a human understanding because for God there are no “wrong” people. There are only people needing healing and wholeness, compassion and forgiveness, love and grace.
In today’s Gospel we are reminded that Jesus travels a long, hard road, literally and figuratively, to give us what we need to fill the places of vulnerability and fear. And all it takes is one teeny tiny crack in our defenses, in our hardened hearts, for God’s Holy Spirit to make her way in and to do what she does best: to work in and through us to guide us deeper into the heart of God, deeper and deeper into that place where we are a reflection of God’s love, and not our own vulnerability and fears.
God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s hope can overflow our hearts and fill all of the brokenness in our lives. That is what happened to the man cured of his demons. And then he does what we should do. He does as Jesus asks, as Jesus would have us act. He goes and he gives witness to God’s love and God’s grace. And I have to believe that his witness opened at least one heart, changed at least one life in a way that furthered Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.
The man cured of his demons is an example for us of how live our faith, how to live our trust in God, how to invite God’s Spirit to give us what we need, to empower, enliven, and embolden us to act in ways that bring healing and reconciliation. That is our call as Christians. We are to shed light on the darkness, to be beacons of God’s light and God’ hope in the world.
I’m going to end with a passage from the book that Alex’s brother Doug wrote in the book, The Story of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church: Birmingham, Alabama 1972-2008:
Yes, it was cozy at St. Stephen’s, and yes a parish is the best place in which to absorb the shocks of brutality. The parish is also the best place to learn how to respond to cruelty near at hand and far away. Jesus responded to the news of the brutal death of John the Baptist by feeding five thousand people and healing the sick later that day. He responded to the brutality that preceded his own death by spreading out his arms that all might come within his saving embrace. Paul sums up this radical teaching of Jesus in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Let us all be the good that God created us to be. Amen.
Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland