19 June 2016
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7C (RCL)
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalms 42 & 43
I had not heard about the Orlando massacre before church this past Sunday, or I would have set aside my sermon and addressed that situation somehow. As it is, the readings for this coming Sunday couldn’t be better suited for trying to bring theology to bear on our national fascination with gun violence.
The story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is part of a larger structure. It follows immediately on the story of the calming of the sea, and is followed by the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, and Jairus’ daughter. The whole structure is then closed by the feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness. The couplet of sea crossing and wilderness feeding calls to mind the story of Moses and the people crossing the Red Sea and the manna in the wilderness. The healing of the Gerasene demoniac adds a little humorous resistance story into this Moses typology. Just as Moses drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, so Jesus drowns a legion of the Roman army in the sea as a herd of pigs. The hearers of this story would have rejoiced to imagine their oppressors meeting such an appropriate end.
But once the humor has opened a space for reflection, the story does its real work. Jesus and his disciples come to shore on the side of the lake opposite Galilee — on the wilderness side in the old stories. The hearer of the story is forced to wonder why people living in that region would be raising pigs in the first place. If they were Jews (or even Galileans, likely), pig would not be in their own diet. These pigs were for the occupying Roman army. The occupation had completely shattered the economy and social structure of the region. People are no longer subsistence farming, but raising foreign animals for sale to foreigners.
Anthropologists suggest that demon-possessions occur in societies undergoing great dislocation. This would certainly be true in this story. The demon-possessed are always already marginal persons. We don’t hear what makes this man marginal, but his habiliment (or lack thereof), and his dwelling among the tombs attest to his marginality. Despite his position at the margins, the demoniac/demons recognize Jesus as the Son of the Most High God. Jesus commands the demon to leave, and then begins a bargaining process, by which the demon(s) enter the herd of pigs. The swineherds, now in serious financial trouble, run off to tell the townspeople what has happened. When they townspeople arrive, they see the demoniac, now clothed, and in his right mind, seated at the feet of Jesus. They are terrified — indeed they are — what will the Romans say when they learn that their source of pork is gone? When the man begs to come with Jesus, Jesus will not allow him to, but instead sends him back to the town to tell his story.
After the initial humor of imagining the occupying army thrown into the sea as a herd of pigs, the story requires its hearers to examine their own implication in the shattering of the social system that allowed this man to be demon possessed. Who was he, that he was cast out to live among the tombs? And now that he is back in town, telling his story, how are others going to react to him. It would be easy to blame him for the loss of capital represented by the herd of pigs, and his very existence will shame those who were raising the pigs for the benefit of the Romans (their own oppressors).
It would be easy to talk about gun violence in America in demonic terms. The level of violence, the heat of our rhetoric, the anonymity of insults allowed by the internet, all look like the work of a demon. Which then immediately raises the question of what social structures have been shattered and by whom. Who is it we would like to see plunge over the cliff into the sea as a herd of pigs? But once we’ve answered that question, we have to ask about our complicity in the system we allow them to create. What are we selling to the Romans? And then, once the demon is gone, what do we do with the once-possessed?
I suspect the system that feels broken in our current situation is the system that used to guard the privilege of straight white men. We want to exteriorize that threat, make it the fault of the Muslims, the gays, the blacks, anyone but us. And so, we end up with Donald Trump, possessed by this demon of fear that the system we are complicit in will collapse. And so, we fetishize guns — guns will keep us safe, will keep the system from collapsing. We let our senators and representatives accept the gifts of the occupying force — we sell our pigs to the Romans.
The good news for the Church, the Gospel, in this is that the demon recognizes the power of Jesus, and Jesus in fact sends it packing. The Roman Empire no more disappeared with the telling of this story than gun violence will disappear in this country. But as hearers of the story, we can recognize where true power lies. We can also promise to do the hard work of disentangling ourselves from our dependence on the pig market, and also of welcoming the now-healed demoniac back into our midst.
When Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, God does not appear to him with any of the standard equipment of a theophany — wind, earthquake, fire. God appears in sheer silence. We don’t like silence — we are always trying to fill it with noise. In silence, we have to sit with ourselves and begin to contemplate ourselves in the divine light. No wonder Elijah threw his mantle over his face! God then asks a second time, “What are you doing here?” Elijah protests his devotion to God, who then gives him three do-able tasks, only one of which he will complete. He is not expected to solve the problem, only see his part, and do his part. The silence strips away our excuses, our dreams of grandeur, and brings us face to face with our insignificance before God, but then leaves us with a much clearer sense of the power of God, and of what we can do. Then we can go and do that without any pretense that we can succeed on our own.