Gospel: Luke 8:26-39
1st Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9
2nd Reading: Galatians 3:23-29
One fun game in our household, these days is “Hide and go seek.” Sterling is beginning to branch out in his hiding places. In fact yesterday, he thought of a hiding place all on his own and I might have had a hard time finding him if he had not had to move a box out from under the bed to fit there. For almost a year, he always hid in the same place, under the kitchen table. Now he hides in various other places, enjoying the surprise when he is found or when he jumps out to scare us. He was happy to hide in the same place again and again, I think, because it wasn't the hiding that was thrilling at the time, but being found—the anticipation as the seeker went from room to room, his heart beating as he held his breath and his giggles, and then the excitement as the voice got closer and then finally being found, hider and seeker meeting eyes and smiles. It is a more advanced version of peek-a-boo—another game about object permanence. Not really about the hiding or going away, but the being found and coming back together.
I remember as a child, I was one of the older ones in my mother's daycare home. One cruel thing we would do to get rid of a pesky younger child was to have them hide and then not go and seek them. Of course I feel bad about it now, but what can I do? I would never do that to Sterling. Sadly, in the first reading for today, that's just how God feels, like those little kids we left in their hiding place, as one who has been abandoned in the game, who is waiting to be found, trying to reach out to those around him, “ready to be sought be those who do not ask, to be found by those who do not seek.” Why don't God's people seek the one who gave them life, who is the source of all love and goodness? Some are distracted by other gods, idols, priorities. Some separate themselves from God and others around them like we did as kids, from the younger kids, saying by our refusal to seek, “I am better than you,” “I am too holy for you.” “Holier than thou.” Christians get accused of acting like this quite frequently—who do we think we are, passing judgment, making ourselves better than other people, refusing to spend time with people based on prejudices and fears and superiority. In this reading, God is pleading for us to listen, because God has what we need to live well and treat each other well, but we ignore God's pleas. At first God gets pretty mad, but then relents in mercy.
In the second reading, we see a similar pattern going from anger to mercy. It says that at one time we were imprisoned by the law, but now we live by faith. At first we needed a disciplinarian. Children in the time and place of this Galatians reading might have been walked to school by a tutor or nanny, a slave who made sure the kid made it to school. Here the word for that person is translated “disciplinarian.” For a time, we needed someone to walk us to school, to remind us of the rules and limits, and ensure our safety. Now that we have grown up in the faith we have Christ, and he's pretty gentle. He isn't an enforcer of rules. He's a friend. He offers forgiveness and mercy. He offers relationship. He gives us a chance to be free, make our own decisions, learn from them, and grow into a more loving person.
Furthermore, this reading from Galatians points out, God's grace extends to all of us, because we are all in one family. Because of God's love for us, we get to love one another, and to behave as loving brothers and sisters to others. We don't get to say to one another, “I am too holy for you.” We don't get to abandon one another during the game. We don't get to walk away from one another and separate ourselves or make ourselves superior based on race or religion (there is no longer Jew or Greek), gender (there is no longer male or female), class (there is no longer slave nor free), ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or “any other differences between people” as we state in our Reconciling in Christ Statement. In fact we don't walk away from one another because we are one another and we need one another to be whole. Hence the phrase, “We are Orlando.” No one is far away. No one is disposable—those wounds are our wounds, it hurts all of us when people are killed, when people live in fear, when families abandon people because of who they love. We must act as urgently as we would if I was in that nightclub, or if you were afraid to be true to who you are, or if Christ were shot by an automatic rifle, because we are all brothers and sisters, we all matter, and we need one another.
In case we don't quite get it, we get this profound story in the Gospel reading for today. This man living in the tombs was abandoned there by his people who couldn't figure out what to do with him. He was intolerable in every way, naked, out of control, dirty, wild, possessed or mentally ill. They kept him out in the caves of the graveyard in shackles so that he wouldn't hurt himself or others. All they could think to do was to separate him from others.
We all know what it is like when unexplained terrors wreak havoc on our families and communities—sometimes it is natural disasters, sometimes a terrorist or homophobic madman, sometimes mental or physical illness, sometimes socioeconomic pressures like the economic downturn or losing a job. We stand there helpless to explain it, helpless to get out of it.
And we find that Jesus has more authority than all the terrors we face. We find that Jesus is here to upend all the chaos and fear that we face. Jesus is with us, way out in the graveyard, way out in the farthest reaches of our minds, in our sickness, in our misery, in our fear and pain, in our grieving. Jesus doesn't just cross over to the country of the Gerasenes, a land of the Gentile heathens and barbarians. Jesus crosses over to all those places at great risk to himself. He crosses the boundaries he's not supposed to cross as the clean, holy, Son of God, Messiah, so that God with us is with the very most despised, lost-cause, abandoned person out on the edges of nowhere. He goes there and he has authority and strength and power. He tells the demons where they can go.
I have to point out here, that another word for “demon” is “idol.” Apparently demon possession was something more common among the Gentiles, because they believed in other gods. So you have all these idols, other gods, competing for someone's allegiance, their mind and spirit. It made me wonder about the idols we worship in our own lives, the things we give our attention and money to (our cell phones, celebrities, sports, guns) and what we get out of those attachments—certainly not love and mercy. Only allegiance to God and God's way of live will break down the barriers between us, will lead us to new life for us and for our communities.
The next scene, here sits the man. How can we even recognize him from before? He is clothed—It reminds me of the phrase “clothed with Christ” that we read in Galatians this morning. He is at Jesus' feet, the position of a Disciple. He is in his right mind—calm, clear, level-headed. He is ready to be reunited with his family, with his community, to become a productive member of society. You would think this would be one of those happy endings where everyone stands in awe and one person starts to slowly clap, and then in comes another one, and another until the whole crowd is loudly clapping and cheering.
But no. They were seized with great fear and they asked Jesus to leave. Why? Because he threatened the balance of power that were already in place. He caused a herd of pigs to be drowned. We're sorry for the pigs. This may be another story where they explain what happened after the fact. Why did a herd of pigs all run into the water—maybe it was an evil spirit. However the symbolism here would be clear to someone who was Jewish—of course the unclean spirits would go into the unclean pigs and of course they would go into the water which is the symbol of chaos and the origin of unclean spirits. However people were upset because the loss of the pigs was an economic loss to the owner of the pigs and restoration of a man to his right mind means this man needs a house, a job, a wife, etc., and that means competition, it means fear for the rest of the townspeople that they might have to make room for this person, to give something up so that he can have a share in the good life. They were happy to draw that line between themselves and this man. They are too good for him, no matter how he seems now. They think they know his potential, and unfortunately, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy when we draw those lines and decide we know how things ought to be and how they ought to benefit me and only me. People are left in their hiding place, like the little kids in our game of hide and seek, with no one to seek them out.
Again and again we find ourselves abandoning God and missing a chance to learn mercy and compassion. But God won't forget us or abandon us so easily. Sure, God gets frustrated, but God's primary way of acting is out of love and forgiveness, so we get another chance tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, until we find ourselves not acquiescing to the damaging, wild, chaotic ways of this world, and instead doing the thing that brings the most peace. Then we find ourselves clothed with Christ, close to our Savior, sitting as Disciples at his feet, learning from him to be merciful, to seek and be sought, to experience the great joy and excitement of a life that has been lost and then been found. And we get to experience the joy of knowing how this will all come out in the end, that God is always looking for us, locking eyes with us, laughing with us, and taking us into those strong and loving arms, so that we can go out again and lose ourselves in ministry and service and find and be found again as the divisions between us fall away.