Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon; 5 Pentecost, Proper 7; Luke 8:26-39

About a week ago, someone asked me, “Do you prefer change or do you prefer the status quo?”  Being the good Episcopalian that I am, I answered, “Yes.”

Depending on your experience of me, some will say I prefer and work at change.  Others will say I prefer to maintain the status quo.  Examples of change include leaving the altar rail open at Communion, instituting the 6 a.m. Easter Vigil, and the impending chancel reconfiguration.  Examples of maintaining the status quo include . . . well . . . sometimes you can't recognize that because it's hard to see what you are doing when you've always done it that way.  Observing the status quo sometimes feels like being a fish in water – you don't notice the water until it's gone.

I bring this up because today's gospel is all about change and protecting the status quo.

Jesus and his disciples cross over to the country of the Gerasenes.  Immediately after getting out of the boat Jesus is met by a demoniac.  He is naked.  He lives in the tombs.  He was often kept chained and under guard.  And he knows who Jesus is.  Scripture doesn't tell us exactly how long the man had been possessed, we're only told that it was “a long time.”  Long enough, perhaps, for the city council to pass a resolution mandating all demoniacs live in the tombs, away from the quiet, orderly suburban housing tracts; or maybe away from the downtown corridor that they are trying to revitalize.  Long enough, perhaps, for the people to see this as normal behavior.  Long enough, perhaps, for the situation to become part of the status quo.

Part of that status quo was to keep him separated and apart from the “normal” people.  Part of that status quo was to keep him chained to behavioral expectations placed upon him by the dominant society.  Part of that status quo forced him to live in the tombs, unable to come out into the general society because of who he was.  And then Jesus stepped out of the boat.

After his brief encounter with the demoniac, Jesus healed him by sending the demons into a herd of swine that then committed mass suicide.  The swine-herders ran off and told everyone in the area what happened.  All those people then ran back to Jesus where they found the man clothed, in his right mind, sitting with Jesus.  And then the people ask Jesus to leave town.

They ask him to leave not because he healed someone who was a danger to himself and others; they ask him to leave because he upset the status quo.  They ask him to leave because Jesus brought change, and the people couldn't handle that.

Two things about change, and the first has to do with church.  I was talking with a woman last week about change in the church and we both found it ironic that when people say they want change, they really don't mean it.  “We need more people” is often followed by, “as long as I don't have to change pews.”  Or a comment about doing something different to attract people is often followed by, “as long as we don't change the music.”

If you want to grow there will be change, because all growth entails change.  Just think about the constant changes our bodies go through from birth to adulthood.  If it's alive, it changes.

The second form of change and upsetting the status quo has to do with the kingdom of God.  I could be wrong, but I think most people have an image or vision of the kingdom of God as supplanting the kingdoms of the world.  They see it as competing with and being ultimately victorious over the powers and principalities of the world.  But there's another way to think about the kingdom of God.

In his book Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams examines the gospel accounts of Christ’s trial before the high priest and Pilate.  His basic argument is that the kingdom of God is a kingdom that does not compete for space in this world.  As Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Because it is not of this world we have no need to defend it.  We especially have no need to defend it through tactics indigenous to this world, i.e. Christians marching off to war, holy crusades, attacking perceived threats to Christianity, and the like.  If we fight for Jesus using the tactics of this world (think of Peter taking up the sword), we end up surrounding Jesus with violence and we eventually do violence to Christ himself.  Rowan Williams argues that it is precisely this unwillingness to use violence, it is this unwillingness to participate in the violent systems of the world, that infuriates his accusers.  Because of his refusal to participate in their game with their rules, they attack his supposed weakness and execute him.

We are all caught up in one way or another in a world system that revolves around violence.  Because we are born into this world of competitive violence, into a world of winners and losers, we often don't recognize it as the status quo.  It appears to us as water appears to a fish.  We see varying levels of violence in the same way the Gerasenes saw the demoniac – something we have to attempt to control, something we force to live in the shadows of the tombs, something with which we would rather not address, and something in which our behaviors toward that other person become the status quo.

Last week a gunman walked into a night club and massacred 49 people, wounding others, and scarring many more for life.  The people targeted also happened to be gay.  In the aftermath of what has effectively become our national liturgy, the modern-day Gerasenes are fighting to maintain the status quo.  They are fighting against change that brings peace.  These modern-day Gerasenes are fighting to continue living in a world of violence, where the only solution worth pursuing is more violence.  And they are fighting to keep one group of people locked in chains, forcing them to live in the tombs, in deep, dark closets, away from everyone else.

Jesus is waiting to step ashore.  But it is our shore and we need to invite him.  If we do so, then we are also advocating another way.  We are advocating a kingdom not of this world.  We are advocating a kingdom that doesn't use the tactics of this world.  We are advocating a kingdom of peace.  And we are inviting people to do violence to us because we won't play their game with their rules.

Change is hard.  But without change there is no growth.  Without change, the incident in Orlando will soon be forgotten, replaced by yet another violent incident.  Without change, it's all status quo.

Change, however, is what Jesus is calling us to do.  Change is what we owe the victims in Orlando, Charleston, Newtown, Roseburg, Columbine, and so many others.  Change is what both the Gerasenes and the demoniac needed.

It is the process of change brought by Jesus that leads to peace and sanity.  And it is precisely that change that the Gerasenes cannot tolerate – both then and now.



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