Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (Read the whole passage)
At a legislative budget committee meeting on Friday, an odd thing happened. Rather than political foes going at each other over ideological differences, two people – NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine and Premier Brian Pallister – talked about their mothers. For half an hour, the two set political and partisan differences aside to talk to one another as people. What resulted was a personal and intimate conversation that led the two to a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another. Political rivals speaking to one another in this way was so surprising and unusual that it made news headlines around the province.
Two Sundays ago, a contingent from the MNO Synod, including lay people, pastors and the Bishop walked in the Winnipeg Pride parade in downtown Winnipeg. The presence of a faith group in the parade prompted some surprised looks, and more than a few on-lookers to say things like, “Wow! The Lutherans are here!?! – That’s cool!”
Today, Jesus and the disciples sail across the sea of Galilee to gentile territory and show up in the region of Geresa, a place where no self-respecting Jew would ever want to find themselves.
We are 5 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and while there are about 22 more to go before we get to Advent, we have already seen a wide variety of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has healed a sick slave, raised a dead son to life, forgiven a forgotten and sinful woman, and today Jesus exorcizes an unclean spirit. Yet, perhaps the thing that ties these different acts of ministry together is who Jesus is ministering to. Each example is of Jesus encountering a person that he wouldn’t be expected to encounter, and in places where Jesus isn’t expected to go.
Geresa, where Jesus is today, is the strongest example of Jesus being somewhere he shouldn’t be. Geresa was a town on the other side of the sea of Galilee from Judea, it was a mixed territory, where Jews and Gentiles both lived. But Geresa more recently was also a Roman military outpost, where Roman soldiers were stationed. And because occupying soldiers need food and shelter, the towns people were forced to work in service of the army, raising pigs and hosting their oppressors.
But Jesus doesn’t just show in Geresa, the first person he meets there is a man possessed by unclean spirits. A man living in the town cemetery. An outsider.
So when Jesus shows up in Geresa, he is showing up in a place that good jews would avoid at all costs because everything about this place is unclean. The town, the cemetery, the pigs, the possessed man. This isn’t just the discomfort we might feel visiting a poor, impoverished, rundown part of the city. This is about Jesus and the disciples coming into contact with the unholy, about Jesus becoming unholy himself. It isn’t just the possessed man who has an unclean spirit, but everything around this place seems to suffer from unclean spirits.
And those who lived there, did as much as they could to protect themselves from the unclean spirits around them. The people shackled the possessed man in the cemetery in order to avoid his uncleanliness. The possessed man tries to escape the chains of the townspeople, so that he can avoid their shackles. The pigs are kept near the cemetery so that everyone can avoid the unclean spirits of the Roman occupiers. And by the time people figure out what Jesus is up to in their town, they even ask him to go away too, fearing what kind of unholy power he might possess. Of all the unclean spirits in this place, the greatest is not Legion or the Romans or the pigs. But fear. The unclean spirit of fear has gripped and paralyzed the people of Geresa.
And just like the fearful people of Geresa, we go to great lengths to mitigate coming into contact with the unclean spirits of our world, to avoid coming face to face with the things, or other people we fear the most. We are possessed by unclean spirits of fear as much as the poor man is possessed by legion.
And in case we thought we could forget or pretend the unclean spirits of our fear don’t exist, this week we were reminded in a horrific and tragic way.
Early last Sunday morning, a deeply troubled man walked into a packed nightclub in Orlando and began shooting. The result was the largest mass shooting in US history, with 49 people dead and 53 injured. But it wasn’t just any troubled man walking into a random nightclub, but a young Muslim walking into a popular gay nightclub.
And almost immediately the unclean spirits of our fear began speaking for us:
“The shooter was muslim, so we must protect ourselves from terrorists”
“The nightclub was full of LGBTQ people, and the shooter may have been gay, so this is their tragedy and their problem”
“Mass shootings are a problem that Americans have, Canadians know better”
The unclean spirits of fear push and pull us to blame anyone other than ourselves. They demand that we protect ourselves from anyone or anything different. They make us feel like need to divide ourselves from the other, build walls to keep the other out, destroy the other in order stop feeling threatened. And thus fear begets more fear and violence begets more violence.
But the most powerful thing that the unclean spirits of fear make us feel is stuck. They make us feel like we can never escape the other unclean spirits around us, like we can never make the dangers go away.
And that is why Jesus’ presence in Geresa can seem like such a problem… he is too close to all the unclean spirits, too close for our fear’s liking.
When Jesus shows up in Geresa, he does exactly what the unclean spirits of our fears keep us from doing. Jesus approaches unafraid.
Jesus is not afraid of the unclean spirits. He doesn’t fear the town, or the cemetery, or the pigs, or the possessed man. And because Jesus is not afraid, not afraid that the spirits will taint him, he is willing to meet and be with the community of Geresa. He is willing to meet the possessed man on the man’s turf, in the cemetery. When the possessed man begs for mercy, Jesus simply asks his name.
And because Jesus is willing to brave the uncleanliness around him, Jesus does what we cannot. Jesus begins to reconcile and rebuild the people of Geresa. He sends the unclean spirit of Legion away. He sends the unclean spirits of oppression, division, intolerance and fear away. Jesus restores the man to community and the community to the man.
Anyone else would have been afraid of becoming unclean in Geresa. Anyone else would have feared the unholy taint of unclean spirits. But when Jesus comes to this unholy place, God comes and meets the unclean and the unholy. And all of sudden, the fears that held everyone back don’t matter anymore. They don’t matter because the God of all creation, the Holy One of Israel, the Christ in whom we are God’s children makes the unclean clean. In Christ, God shows us how not fearing the unclean spirits, the unclean places, the unclean people allows God to see people instead of a condition. God sees beloved children instead of things to be feared and avoided. God shows us what it looks like to see beyond our perceived uncleanliness, and how to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Last Sunday in Orlando, the unclean spirits of fear pushed us to the edge of fear and division. The unclean spirits threatened the places of sanctuary and refuge for the LGBT community, the unclean spirits churned up bigotry towards all muslims, and the unclean spirits made us all feel like potential victims of arbitrary violence.
And yet throughout the week God began showing up precisely where God shouldn’t have been. In places and in people we wouldn’t expect. In the people who stood in line for hours waiting to give blood, in the vigils of solidarity with the LGBTQ community around the world, and even in a short conversation between politicians who were able to set aside partisan differences to see each other’s humanity.
When the unclean spirits of fear threaten to divide us beyond all hope, to keep us stuck and afraid… God shows up. God shows up despite the uncleanliness. God shows up despite the fear. God shows up to free us to see one another as God sees us. As beloved Children of God.
This sermon was co-written with my wife, Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker – Twitter: @ReedmanParker