By the Rev. Darren Miner
I don’t know about you, but my heart is still broken by the massacre in Orlando. I hear stories about a man who sang in a Gospel choir, another man who worked in a local blood bank, two men who faithfully served their country in the Army Reserves, an 18-year-old woman who graduated high school just the week before her murder…. The list goes on. Good people died, and the nations mourns. But the nation does not unite. Yes, after September 11 some 15 years ago, the nation did unite for a time. But not now.
Recently, a county commissioner in Alabama defied the proclamation of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to lower the flag in mourning. Why? Because he thinks that to mourn is to be weak. On an Episcopal Church blog, a man refuses to pray for the President of the United States by name, because he just can’t stand Barack Obama. Another person on that same religious blog criticizes a litany against gun violence (not against gun ownership, mind you, but against gun violence!), because if God fulfilled the prayer he might have to give up his guns. Democrats look at the massacre in Orlando and see a case of domestic gun violence by a mentally unstable man. Republicans look at that same massacre and see foreign terrorism at work. And so they defy each other and block any real change. The truth, of course, as it often is, is lost somewhere in the middle.
Why, you may well ask, do I bring up all this mess at church? What on earth does it have to do with the lectionary readings? Well, let’s look at those readings.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah tells of a nation that has turned against its God and refuses to seek him out, a nation that no longer calls upon his Name. Well, we are a nation that calls on God’s holy Name left and right, but then refuses to listen when he answers. We call on a God that has clearly expressed his will that we be one, that we show mercy to all, that we forgive others, that we live without fear of the death of the body. But instead, this so-called Christian nation is divided, would turn away the refugee, holds tightly to grudges, and arms itself to the teeth in an attempt to quell pervasive fear. This nation calls on the Name of God, but does not listen. Even so, there is hope in God’s unlimited mercy. And I firmly believe that God has not given up on us!
The second reading, from an angry letter of St. Paul, addresses unity in Christ. All who are baptized are mystically one in Christ Jesus. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” To this one might add, “There is no longer Democrat or Republican, no longer gay or straight.” All such divisions are meant to be erased in the Body of Christ. But of course, we Americans hold on to our differences ever so tightly, to our own detriment! Political scientists even have a term for it, “identity politics.” And self-serving politicians feed identity politics. They feed the fear of the other. They actively breed disunity. And the cable news gives it the innocuous label of “appealing to the base.” And in a sense, the news channels are right, American politics today appeals to the human base, by which I mean, the baser instincts of fear and disunity that St. Paul preached against.
Then we get to the reading from the Gospel. It’s a strange tale of an exorcism with elements that seem more appropriate to a folk tale than to a Bible story. It deals with a man who was hardly recognizable as human anymore. He wore no clothes. He lived in a tomb. He had fits of violence. His own people feared him and cast him out. (Even so, they did refrain from killing him outright.) The sick evil within this man recognizes Jesus and is afraid. At first, the spirits defy Jesus’ command to come out. Then, they give a fake name, so as not to give Jesus any more power over them. Finally, they turn to bargaining. They ask to enter a herd of swine, rather than be returned to the abyss. Jesus agrees. And ironically, the swine then drown themselves and condemn the spirits to the very abyss that they sought to avoid.
All this is very engaging. But for many who don’t believe in the existence of evil spirits, it all seems pretty unbelievable. For such people, let me suggest one way to reframe the story. Jesus considered all illness as having a spiritual component. And to heal the sick, especially those with mental illnesses, he did directly address that spiritual component, and he did so in a way that the people of that day would understand. So he did not speak of the Ego and the Id. He did not speak of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He spoke of unclean spirits. That the people could understand.
One take-away from the Gospel reading is that Jesus had power over illness and spiritual evil. Another is that he had the power to reconcile. After Jesus had healed the Gerasene demoniac, he sent him back to his own people. The man didn’t want to go, at first. He was grateful to Jesus and wanted to be a disciple. But Jesus sent him back to be reconciled and reunited to his people. And he gave the man a mission: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Well, the man does return home, but he does not declare how much God has done for him; instead, he declares how much Jesus has done for him.” Of course, we here are in on the secret: Jesus is God.
Jesus’ command to go home and reconcile applies to us as a church, to us as individuals, and to us as a nation. The Church is splintered into thousands of denominations, because people refuse God’s call to reconcile and be one. People leave the church and refuse to darken the door again, because they either don’t know how to forgive, or they sinfully decline to do it. This nation is split right down the middle. Our national government has ceased to function for over a decade, because Democrats and Republicans refuse to reconcile. They refuse to see the other as a beloved child of God. They refuse even to pray for one another—with one notable exception!—recently a Republican senator publicly prayed that Barack Obama’s life might be short.
I don’t have a simple solution for the problem of terrorism. I don’t have a simple solution for gun violence in a nation that protects the right to gun ownership in its Constitution. I don’t have a fool-proof solution for national disunity. But I do think that a first step is to recognize the other as worthy and beloved of God. Another is to pray sincerely for our political opponents—and even for our enemies. Yet another (and this is the really hard one, folks!) is to push ourselves to refrain from retaliation in the face of fear and terror and suffering and to steal ourselves to return hatred with love. This is Jesus’ way. This is our God’s way. And it must be our way, or else the demons win!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.