Sermon " Reducing Suffering"
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
This past Thursday I went to downtown Santa Rosa to meet a parishioner. The restaurant where we had lunch has a semi-enclosed front porch. You are seated inside walls and under a roof, but there are no windows, so although you are inside, you have the breeze and fresh air of being outside. It is quite pleasant.
An amusing thing happened. A woman walking down the street literally reaching in and tapping my lunch companion on the shoulder in order to ask for information. In doing this she breached that invisible boundary between “outside on a public sidewalk” and “inside the restaurant having a private conversation.” However, it was harmless, and we were happy to help.
Not long after that a homeless man walked by in dirty clothes, shouting angrily to the spirits of the air. He was not only unhoused but unmedicated. Either he had a mental illness or the PTSD of living outside, always in some kind of danger, and in social isolation had gotten to him, and I guess the results are the same.
Anyway, he did not reach through the invisible boundary that separated people on the street from people in the restaurant, either to ask for money or food which surely, he needed, or to tell us why he was so riled up.
Imagine if he had. We would have been startled, possibly afraid, not just amused. But he kept on walking. Despite his mental state he knew that he was not welcome to stop and vocalize for too long in any public place, and that it was best to keep moving.
Our gospel lesson for this morning/afternoon from Luke chapter 8, traditionally known as the Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac, is tremendously compelling and it’s very contemporary.
Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee, which is no small lake, but eight miles wide by thirteen miles long. On their way across a storm had come up and they all thought they were going to die until Jesus woke up and stilled it.
Their nerves were just recovering when they pulled up on the shore of the country of the Gerasenes and were met by a wild man with no clothes, screaming at them. They were having a day.
The man was possessed by many demons – a legion is several thousand -- and he was so strong that chains couldn’t hold him. He wandered alone outside the city among the tombs.
This man screamed at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” And then Jesus, with word, cast out the demons and allowed them to enter a nearby herd of pigs who rush into the sea and were drowned.
After this, the man, quiet, dressed, and in his right mind, begged Jesus to let him follow Jesus, but Jesus told him to go back to his city and proclaim what God has done for him. And the people of the city? The same ones who pushed this demon possessed man outside the city boundaries to the grave yard? They begged Jesus to leave, because they were afraid.
This story has so many aspects. Whether you call it demon possession or mental illness there is tremendous human suffering and crippling isolation, an astonishing display of power, and then gracious healing. And there is fear. A lot of fear.
I’ve been caught up by this story all week, and this year I have focused on the action of the townspeople.
I’ve noticed how they dealt with the suffering of the man inhabited by demons. They were afraid of him, and so they chained him up. Then, when with what seemed like inhuman strength he broke those chains, they put him outside the city, outside the company of other humans, in the place of the dead where he howled and raged and roamed among the tombs.
The townspeople acted in fear. Not once, but twice. First, they acted in fear of the man possessed by demons, and then, when he was healed by a man whose divine power was clearly greater than the power of a thousand demons, they were afraid of that too, and sent him on his way.
I’ve been thinking about how we, like the townspeople, respond to human suffering, and how really very capable we are of putting it out of our minds, outside the restaurant, outside the city. In this country, on our very borders, children are being taken from their parents. The youngest child taken from his father was 4 months old.
Thousands of children are being kept in camps. The current administration is arguing that the children do not need soap, toothbrushes, or blankets, to be considered “safe and secure.”
Children sleep in freezing, crowded conditions on cement floors without enough food, or medical care. In one camp lawyers observed a two year old boy who was sick, did not have diapers, needed to be cleaned, and was being watched over to two girls, ages ten and fifteen. There was no adult taking care of any of them.
A year ago when the good and kind people of the United States learned about the family separation policy, we rose up. We called our representatives and went to demonstrations, the court confirmed that family separation was illegal, a judge ordered that all the children be returned, and we breathed a sigh of relief and moved on.
But it never really stopped and now it is increasing. Children cry for their parents. They are suffering and the love of Christ, poured out into our hearts, gifted to us generously and freely in our baptisms, compels us to not look away, but to speak and to act. This is not about politics. It’s about children and doing the right thing. If you are touched by this, I urge you to contact your representatives in Washington.
Now, I know, I really, really do know, that we as human beings cannot bear all the pain of all the world. We cannot. We are unable to focus on the pain of others constantly. If we did, we would go mad.
Turning our attention to the good and positive and beautiful things in life is not only self-preservation, but it’s really how life should be. In the big picture we have to live our lives in balance.
Here is how I do it, and I simply offer it to you as an example. Saint Paul wrote that each of us is a part of the body of Christ. A hand, a foot, a knee, a nose. We have different gifts and interests and when combined, we make the whole.
With all the suffering in the world and the many situations and causes, choose one - or many - that connect with you. It could be wounded veterans, homeless youth, or homeless pets. It could be hungry people in Yemen or Sudan. Choose one – or many – that is close to you, that reaches your heart, and then act in order to reduce suffering.
There are hundreds of homeless people in Santa Rosa. Choose one, that you see regularly, and get to know that one. Say hello, learn their name, give them a dollar or five as you can, and remind them that they matter in this world.
Don’t be afraid, like the townspeople in the country of the Gerasenes. I think often we hesitate to get involved because we’re afraid we’ll be overwhelmed, and yes, it’s a possibility. But the greater likelihood is that God will enter our lives and hearts in a new way and we will be reborn even as God, through our hands, heals the sick and relieves the pain of those who suffer.
Remember how the gospel for today ends? The man who had been possessed by a legion of demons, driven out of the city, naked, roaming among the tombs, was seated at Jesus’s feet, clothed and in his right mind. Clothed and in his right mind. Lord, let each of us sit at your feet, clothed and in our right minds.
And the man begged Jesus to let him come with him and be one of Jesus’s disciples, but Jesus did something that seems strange. He told the man to go home and to declare how much God had done for him. And so the man did.
We too are called to go home, to the places we inhabit, where we are known, where we have comfort and resources, and to proclaim what God has done for us. It works like this. First, Jesus clothes us in his righteousness and puts us in our right minds, and then we are able to see those in need, whether outside our door, at the border of the country, or in countries on the other side of the sea, and in Christ’s love we act to reduce their suffering.
Let us go and proclaim how much God has done for us. Amen.