The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Lectionary 12)

For June 19, 2016

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One Sunday afternoon about 35 years ago I was driving across eastern North Carolina, headed for a church convention in Fayetteville.  I was listening to a radio preacher because that was the only station I could pick up and I love gospel choirs. The preacher was waxing eloquent about what Ephesians calls “the full armor of God.”  In rhythmic cadences, he invited folks to “put on the helmet of salvation, uh; and the breastplate of righteousness, uh; and the belt of truth, uh, about your waist, uh; and carry the shield of faith, yes uh; and always carry the sword, uh, of the Spirit, uh, which is the word of God. Yes, amen.  Yes sir, brothers and sisters, yes sir, as long as you facing the devil head on, uh, the Lord is with you.  But look here now – there ain’t no back-plate in here, no sir; if’n you turn your back on the devil and run – you on your own.”  I almost ran off the road at that point, I was laughing so hard.

But for the man Jesus met running around nude in the cemetery – the devil was no laughing matter.  Like most modern people, I don’t know what to make of biblical stories about demon possession and exorcisms, I really don’t. When I was studying at a somewhat liberal seminary in the late 1970s, we were taught that much of it was mental illness and epilepsy and things like that, and I’m sure that those things accounted for a lot of what people in the first century thought of as demon possession.  On the other hand, it doesn’t explain everything, and it doesn’t eliminate the fact that whatever was afflicting these people – Jesus was able to cure it.

In this story, and in several that come before and after it, Luke wants to show us, to reveal to us, that Jesus has authority over all sorts of things that make our lives miserable.  This is the second of four episodes in which Jesus displays this authority: 1 – Calming the storm. (8:22-25) 2 – Today’s story of the demon possessed man. (8:26-39) 3 – The woman with the flow of blood. (8:43-48) and 4 – The raising Jairus’ daughter.. (8:49-56)  In each of these stories, Jesus is confronted by something that is frightening to most of us most of the time: the unleashed power of nature, the mystifying behavior of a self-destructive person, the chronic pain and worry of an incurable disease, and the gaping finality of death.  And each time, Jesus refuses to turn his back. Each time, Jesus chokes down his fear and faces the evil and destructive force in front of him.  Each time, Jesus reveals a little bit more of the character of God and how God feels about God’s people.

So Jesus came to the man or the man came to Jesus, and after a bit of somewhat unintelligible verbal sparring, the Bible says the demons go into the swine and the swine go into the lake, and the man goes back into his good clothes and back into his right mind.

In this encounter Jesus shows us that God is not blind to, nor turns away from, the evils and ailments that beset us.  An important message here is that God is not away off there somewhere, far removed from our petty little lives.  No.  God is here with us now, just as God in Christ was there with that man and his demons then.  Elie Wiesel1 in “Night,” his classic book about the Nazi concentration camps, tells of a day when the guards hanged three people in front of the prisoners.  Two died immediately but a third, a young boy whom Wiesel described as being loved by everyone, hung on for about thirty minutes, struggling and choking and twisting in the wind.  As they watched, Wiesel heard someone behind him say, “Where is God now?”  and Wiesel thought to himself, “He’s right up there on those gallows with that boy.”  The Biblical understanding is that, although God does not always rescue us from our distress – God does always go through our “dangers, toils and snares” with us.  God in Christ came to face evil, not turn a back to it.

Jesus went to a land full of the gentiles and healed a non-Jewish person. God does not play favorites, not among genders, not among social classes, not among races or nationalities.  Instead of building walls, Jesus broke down barriers.

As it says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)  Where we continually separate and segregate and parse out minute variations in accent and origin and social class and educational level so that we can keep people appropriately classified and pigeon-holed – God in Christ simply stands in front of the world, and spreads wide those holy arms, and invites all to come.

But, many of us are simply afraid.  Verse 35 says, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.”  We are not our best selves when we are afraid. Often times, we turn our backs, not on the devil, but on God. When we follow our fear instead of our faith, we often find ourselves on the road to perdition – not actual hellfire and brimstone but rather a life (and death) of misery, anxiety, and sorrow.

“The man from whom the demons had gone,” shows us a better way.  He sits at the feet of Jesus.  In ancient times, The teacher sat down, on a rock or a chair, and the sat of the floor or the ground at the teacher’s feet.  To sit at someone’s feet was to indicate your devotion and your loyalty, both to their person and to their teaching.  This healed man, this rescued man, this freed and liberated and happy man responded to his healing, not with fear but with faith. He wanted to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to hear and obey whatever Jesus said.

But Jesus had a better idea.  Jesus told him to stay where he was and to tell people about the good things God had done for him.  So the man stayed – but he put his own twist on Jesus’ instructions.  Did you notice it?  He was told to talk about Jesus, he obeyed by telling people about Jesus.

We too have been healed by God in Christ.  We too have been freed from sin and liberated from fear; we have too been released from racism and set-free from sexual politics; we too have been sent out into the world to tell our story of God’s love and forgiveness; we too have been stripped of our defenses and re-clothed in the armor of God.  And though it true there is no back-plate – not to worry.  Jesus loves us and Jesus has got our back.

Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Lectionary 12)

  1. The writer of Ephesians was correct. A Christian needs the full armor of God for spiritual warfare. And uh, anyone who has spent time in ministry to prison inmates have uh, come face to face with demon possession. Paul also said in Ephesians, “that it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle but against Sovereignties and the powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens. That is why you must rely on God’s armor, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.” Any pastor, priest or Rabbi who thinks that possession by evil does not exist might want to look more closely at the community he or she is preaching to. Most of my ministry was as a lay person, and I spent many years of it in prison ministry, and uh, the hardest people to get to join us, uh were clergy. They liked to talk about it but their feet seemed to be stuck to the bottom of their pulpit. What was real in the day Jesus walked this earth is also real today. Our war is spiritual. The preacher was also correct.n if you turn your back on it you are on your own. Don’t be surprised if you get an demon possessed arrow stuck in your butt.

    Les+

  2. Hey Les — I’ll let Delmer speak for himself, but I don’t think his story was meant to impugn either the validity of evil’s presence in the world, or the veracity of the radio preacher. We both resemble that remark way too much for that!

    Rather, I think my friend intended to communicate exactly the opposite: the presence of evil in the world is no laughing matter at all! And you are correct in asserting that everything Jesus had to face, we must also. After all, we are called to be “crucified with Christ.”

    As always, thanks for your careful reading and response!

    Grace and peace,

    John

  3. Les, John is correct. The story was meant to get us into the text. I agreed with the preacher, except for one point – Jesus never leaves us on our own. As you may have noticed, I pointed out that “demon possession is no laughing matter,” modern explanations “don’t explain everything,” and “Jesus heals the evil that frightens us.”
    As Dr. Craddock pointed out, sometimes you have let people “overhear the Gospel.” as John said, thanks for reading carefully and responding.

    Delmer

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