Proper 7C 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, Virginia
In light of today’s reading I am pondering this question: How much does God ask of us toward reconciliation?
On Wednesday I had the privilege of viewing a newly released film that changed my life. It is a documentary on the event which happened four years ago this week when a white supremest shot and killed nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston while they were praying. They were in their weekly Bible study and the murderer joined them, waited until they were done and bowed their heads to pray and that is when he opened fire.
The film doesn’t pay too much attention to the shooter or his motives but rather, focuses on the response and healing since then of the families of the victims.
You remember the story. The perpetrator was arraigned by videoconferencing technology so they wouldn’t have to transport him. They had him on camera and projected this onto a huge screen in the courtroom which was full of the family members of his victims and a judge who was keeping order and informing him the charges against him which included nine counts of first degree murder.
And the family were invited to speak directly to the accused. And the first person who spoke found that she ended up saying words that she did not prepare. A surviving pastor coached the group of family members before this hearing but he only said to “hold their tongues” from expressing anger. Nadine Collier ended up telling Dylan Roof that she forgave him for killing her mother and that she would pray for his soul. Several others in the group followed and ended up saying the same or similar expressions of forgiveness.
Each person interviewed in the documentary of this tragic tale indicated the same thing. I don’t remember the media indicating this fact. All of them had an experience of speaking words that seemed to come suddenly to and through them. Words of forgiveness. Words of hope.
I was left blown away by the power of the spirt at work in this story and none of us ever saw that detail. We were too busy being outraged.
How much does God ask of us toward reconciliation?
Karl Vaters, who has a blog called Pivot on the Christianity Today web site posted a blog on Friday asking this question: “Why do we invest in people who fail us over and over again.?”
And he led the blog with his answer to this question. He said, “We need to invest in people, not because they might do something great some day, but because they’re made in God’s image, and that alone is worth investing in.”
This message struck me as relevant to our readings this morning because we are talking about equality. And, well, on the one hand there is no such thing as equality. Right? I mean I’m no Einstein and even our wonderful Music Director Mason is no Mozart. Some of us have more artistic ability and some of us have more degrees and some of us have more talent for sewing or cooking or skateboarding. So, one way we’re not equal is in our talent.
But we are also not equal in status, wealth and privilege in our culture.
So, let’s look at that for a minute.
Vaters proposed the thesis that we should invest in people more than things. He illustrates this by reminding us of the struggles of Vincent van Gogh. But his point is not so much about Vincent as it is about the relationship of Vincent and his brother, Theo van Gogh.
After reading about their relationship (actually, about Theo’s stubborn insistence on loving his brother, no matter what) Vaters was moved to reaffirm that what we do for other people has value – whether we ever see the results or not.
Here’s a shortened version of the story of the van Gogh brothers.
(And a quick disclaimer: Obviously, everyone has potential. The point of the title and of this article is to invest in people whether we see that potential or not.)
Vincent van Gogh was a lousy painter. He had no talent, no promise, and no potential. He lived his entire adult life with severe mental illness, emotional, social and financial problems. He had only two things going for him. A passion to keep painting, and a brother who loved and supported him.
While art lovers today study, celebrate and learn from the ground-breaking work of Vincent van Gogh, we should all be striving to be more like his brother Theo than like Vincent. It is not an understatement to say that, without Theo van Gogh, no one today would remember the name Vincent van Gogh. We would have none of his paintings and none of the lessons learned from them. But, more than that, without Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s life would have been even harder and certainly much shorter than it was.
Vaters said, “No one should strive to be like Vincent van Gogh. He lived a life of misery, poverty, immorality and insanity. Outside of his paintings, he is most famously known for one act – cutting off his own ear. Why? No one really knows, because he was never able to explain it, even to himself.”
“Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire lifetime. If it had not been for Theo, who not only encouraged him to paint, but sent money every month for him to live on (money that Theo himself could barely afford) Vincent would have starved to death.”
“So why did Theo invest in someone with so little promise and no visible potential?”
“Theo simply loved his brother. So he supported him to do the only thing he was passionate about. Theo van Gogh literally invested his time, money, patience and loving support into someone that no one, including he, thought had any promise, any potential, or any possibility of producing anything of value.”
The story of this demon exorcism in Luke is a strange and somewhat scary story. It helps to remember that this is one story in a series. Kind of like watching episode 4, season 1 of a TV series and not watching the previous episodes. Most of the time you lose track of the ongoing story.
Jesus calmed the storm on the sea in the previous episode. The episodes after this morning’s section include healing a sick woman and raising a dead girl but I’ll avoid a spoiler alert. You’ll have to go and read that part in your own Bible anyway because in next week’s lectionary we’re moving on to another series.
But that Jesus got his disciples to get in a boat with him and cross the Sea of Galilee and beat back a severe thunder storm on route is important to the setting of this story. It is also important that for some reason he went from Jewish territory to Gentile territory and beat back a storm of demons when he got to the second.
This poor man with demon possessions is a tragic figure. He is naked and homeless, and while he apparently can escape shackles, he ends up alone in the wild. The demons, and the man in which they harbor, correctly identify Jesus and fear the possible exorcism. Then, when Jesus commands these demons to come out of the man, they enter the swine and drown in the lake. Whatever the reason for this, we are faced here with the realization that some healings are often more complicated than others.
It is as if there are elements of hesitation that Jesus needs to work with to bring about healing. In this case the demons had to enter swine.
One scholar I read in preparation for this sermon suggests, for a joke, that this is the “first instance of deviled ham!” (Ian Markham quoting Stephen Farris)
In these actions, Jesus seems to be showing us the power of the love of God through him and he he is also emphasizing that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile.
Or, as St. Paul put it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” “all (of you are) children of God through faith.”
How much does God ask of us toward reconciliation?
Well, there is one difference between these two episodes of calming a storm and sea and excising a legion of demons. When Jesus calms the sea and ends the storm in the previous episode, the disciples worship him, follow him and attempt to emulate him. For the rest of their lives!
But the story in today’s episode has a negative fallout: the people of the area of Gerasa, these gentiles, these pig farmers, they reject Jesus. They ask him to leave (vv. 34-37).
Later in Acts (16:16-39), also written by St. Luke, Paul is said to have cast out a spirit from a slave girl and as a result he too was asked to leave that city. In both stories there are two reasons for the negative responses: fear and economic loss.
The fear is prompted by the presence of a power (God in Jesus) greater than that of demonic spirits. The people had isolated this man with the demons and had figured out how to guard and controlling him. That cost them time and money though it was working for them.
They had met the situation with tolerance and management of the demonic among them. Now the power of God comes to their community and disturbs that way of life. Even when it is for good, power that can neither be calculated nor managed is frightening. What will God do next in our community? One is reminded of the fear created by Easter. The resurrection is scary. Those first witnesses trembled and fainted with fear. What would we do?
How much does God ask of us toward reconciliation?
As for economic loss, it remains the case that the impact of Jesus Christ affects any community’s economy. The embrace of the Gospel influences patterns of getting and spending. The Gerasenes are not praising God that a man is healed; they are counting the cost and finding it too much. Such was Paul’s experience in Philippi and in Ephesus as well (Act 19:18-34): powerful economic forces array themselves against the good news. It remains so today, and being asked to leave by persons you seek to help is a pain unlike any other. (Fred Craddock)
How can we love like Theo Van Gogh loved his difficult and challenging brother? Are we lost in the mire of racism and fear in a violent and turbulent world? No. Because we are sealed as Christ’s own forever in our Baptism. We have Jesus. We have the love and grace of God who moves in and through us. And not even the violence such as the families of the nine victims of unspeakable violence at Mother Emanuel four years ago can take that away.
But the most important good news here is that we are not trapped or frozen or even limited by fear or economics. Nothing can keep us from practicing brotherly and sisterly love. Nothing can keep us from the love of God in Christ, as St. Paul put it in Romans 8. He was not talking about the love that we receive. He was talking about the love that flows - in us, through us and among us.
Our job is to get out in our community and see how that’s happening in our brothers and sisters in Christ in other churches in other ways than we might possibly imagine.
How much does God ask of us toward reconciliation? Everything. It says so just two chapters later in Luke: With all of our hearts and all of our souls and all of our strength and all our minds. So go forth friends and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)