a sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)
Jesus healed the demoniac by naming his demon. Until we are willing to name our own demons, we will never be rid of them.
Note: This sermon was a joint effort with my good friend and colleague, the Rev. Pam Smith, Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Nashville.
One year ago, as you entered this worship space, you saw 9 lighted candles on this table as we remembered the Nine who were murdered at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC, simply because they were black. This struck a personal chord for me because one of those who died in that bible study that evening was a classmate and colleague, Clem Pinckney. We prayed that day for the Nine and for their shooter. And we prayed that our country might never have another such terrible tragedy. May the Nine rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon them.
And yet, here we are today, only this time there are 50 candles, instead of 9; and it was a nightclub, instead of a church; and it was because the victims were gay, instead of black.
Someone asked, “Why 50? Weren’t there only 49 victims?” And that is true, and in a few minutes we will remember each of those victims by name. But we’ll also remember the shooter, the one who took their lives. We won’t name him; for now, we’ll leave that up to God. For now, we’ll simply call him, “Legion.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus had traveled from his home in Galilee to the Gentile land of Gerasene. And there, Jesus immediately encountered a man who was possessed by demons. Because of this, the man was tormented – he was an outcast, naked, a tomb-dweller; he was considered unclean, and bound with chains and shackles; he was driven out by the demons into the wilderness. The man called out to Jesus, knowing that he was a man of God.
Jesus saw this tormented man, howling and acting like crazy person. But he looked beyond all of that – he looked deeper into the man’s soul and asked, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” the man replied, because his demons were so numerous, more than he could possibly count.
Names have power – naming something gives us power over it. When God gave Adam the authority to name the animals, God was giving humankind power over them. When parents name a child, they are bestowing their dreams and hopes for the future on that child. And sadly, when the Nazis imprisoned millions of Jews in the concentration camps, and took away their names and gave them numbers, they had but purpose in mind – to rob them of their humanity. And so when this young man responded to Jesus’ question, “What is your name?” by answering, “Legion,” he defined himself – by his deficits, by his ailment, by his pain, by his struggles and captivity. Instead of claiming the life-restoring gift of a new name and identity in Holy Baptism, the young man defined himself as the sum of all his brokenness. “My name is Legion, the bearer of too many demons to count.”
Last Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub was caused by a man with demons too numerous to count. It was supposed to be a safe place, a place were members of the LGBT community in Orlando to relax and celebrate and be themselves. And into that sanctuary came one filled with his own demons, Legion, who lumped all of these individuals into a single category, robbing them of their identity and giving them all one label: LGBT.
This was more than an attack on the gay community in Orlando. It was an attack on our humanity – all of us. As Bishop Jeffrey Lee, of the diocese of Chicago put it, “This was an attack on the LGBTI community. It has been said by some to be an attack on our common humanity. From the perspective of my own Christian faith, I want to suggest that it was an attack on Christ himself. Murder is the attempt to obliterate the image of God in all of us.”
This is the evil of crimes like Orlando and Charleston: the shooters are trying to obliterate the image of God not just in their victims, but in all of us. And sometimes they succeed in doing just that. We become possessed – we begin looking for people who are different from ourselves – people who worship differently, or have different skin color, or the different ethnicity or culture or history, or whatever. Sadly, in the aftermath of these kinds of events, our society – our politicians and pundits, our friends on Facebook, our leaders – we tend to resort to the same dehumanizing behavior, fearing those who we do not fully understand, the foreigner, the alien, the person who is different from us.
All to often, we allow our names are replaced by labels that divide us. Are we gay or straight? Are we Christian or Muslim? Are we conservative or liberal? Are we white or black? Are we Republican or Democrat? Are we pro-life or pro-choice? Are we gun fanatics or gun-control lunatics? These labels, rob us of our identity as children of God. They strip away our humanity and make us all just another faceless, nameless group.
The fact of the matter is that we will never know the demons this man had. We’ll never know what motivated the shooter. The one thing we do know is that once Jesus learned the name of the demons, the name of Legion, he had the power to cast them out. Jesus, who took the time to look past the label the man had given himself, who looked into his soul to find the child of God that he was, cast out the demons. Jesus, who saw more than just a crazy jihadist, or a frustrated security guard, cast out the demons.
The Fifty who died in Orlando were targeted because they were homosexual – LGBT. We mourn the loss of these gentle souls and we want to give comfort to the survivors. But until we are willing to name the demons of our society, we will never be able to cast them out. Until we are willing to look beyond the labels of whole groups of people and name the demons of our society – Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Idolatry of guns, Elitism, Religious Intolerance, Poverty, Drugs and any of a dozen others demons – things will not change.
So what are we to do? How do we confront the evil, the demons in our world today?
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul wrote:
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
This is how we overcome Legion. For when we are willing to give up our own labels and become united as children of God, then we will have the power to confront the demons of our society. When we are willing to stop labeling others and welcome them into the household of God, then we can restore our own humanity and theirs. When we are willing to stand as one in Christ and strive to live more fully into that unity – when we are willing to lay aside that which dis-members us, that which divides us, and dehumanizes us – then will we overcome our demons.
And the only way to do that is through prayer and dialog. Like Jesus, we must be willing to look into the soul of another, and acknowledge our common humanity. Through Christ, we will have the strength to name the Legion among us. Through Christ, we are freed to lay aside all that impedes us from being the fully human people of God once and for all.
In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; in Christ, there is no longer gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.
Once he had cast out the demons, Jesus told the young man to go home and tell the world how much God has done for him. Today, we’ll remember those who died, the 49 and the 1. We’ll gather at the table where God meets each of us with equal grace and equal love and equal forgiveness. We’ll gather at the altar to be fed and equipped to go forth from this place to proclaim in word and deed how much God has done for us.
Thanks be to God.