I am going to start today with three stories:
Story 1: I want you to imagine a young man. He is 22. He is filled with hope as he graduates college, commissions into the Army, and marries his high-school sweetheart. This new Lieutenant is deploying, but it’ll be okay. He’ll be in Kuwait – “out of harm’s way,” he tells his family. During this deployment, though, this young Lieutenant is assigned to Mortuary Affairs. Day in and day out, his job is to clean and prepare the bodies of servicemembers who died in Iraq before they are flown back to the United States. He and his fellow soldiers prepare scores of bodies, all of whom are brothers, sisters, friends, spouses, and children to their grief-stricken communities back home. For 12 months, the Lieutenant knows and processes every extinguished life that passes through this base. With each body, he begins to feel a bit number to the reality of his job. Then, just about the time he is preparing to deploy home, the young Lieutenant realizes that he is now more accustomed to be around the Dead than the Living.
Story 2: Now I want you to imagine a young person…maybe 17 years old. Ever since this individual could remember, he felt…he knew…he was male. His parents and siblings ignored his early curiosity about gender and subsequently silenced his pleading that he was born into a body that doesn’t match the person he is. “You are a girl,” his parents replied. “This is the end of the discussion.” So he packs a bag and leaves. This young man prides himself on being a planner – he has friends who have offered him a place to stay. High school graduation is just around the corner – this is doable. Then one day, this young person realizes suddenly that he forgot to pack one very important item. He tries to find one of his friends in the hallway to ask for a tampon or a pad, but no one is around. He could go to the nurse, but he is afraid the nurse will realize what’s going on and will make him go back to parents who do not accept the person he is. The young man skips class and leaves school grounds in frustration and shame about a body he doesn’t recognize as his own.
Story 3: I want you to imagine a woman in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital. This woman knows she is very sick, but she cannot even begin to accept the words the doctors are saying to her. “It can’t be AIDS,” the woman tells herself. “What will my family think?” The doctors ask the woman if she would like to call anyone to be with her. “No, I can’t tell them. I can’t tell anyone.” The doctors leave. The woman is left alone, lying in the hospital bed.
In the midst of a month that commemorates history-altering moments within the American collective memory, such as Juneteenth, DDay, or the Stonewall Riots, many of us here today are well aware of the pain and suffering that accompanies living through and surviving the stories that underscore these days of remembrance. AIDS has claimed the lives of approximately 39 million people worldwide and almost 700,000 Americans since the early 1980s, and while generations of people have worked tirelessly to deconstruct the stigma surrounding this illness, the reality is that there are many communities in which an HIV/AIDS diagnosis renders people as outsiders. [Pause] The 2012 Williams Institute and True Colors United survey showed that 40% of youth navigating homelessness identify as L-G-B-T-Q. Shelters for youth are always asking for donations of toiletries, sanitary products, and socks – items to try and support the day-to-day hygienic needs of these young people as they navigate survival on the street. [Pause] And many veterans – even those of us who did not experience direct combat – return to the United States disoriented by the mundane reality of our deployed lives or without words to describe what we did while abroad. [Pause] Experiences of survival can create a cacophonous vacuum, isolating us from ourselves and from our communities. We can feel like outsiders, both within our existence and within our own skin.
The gospel story today confronts these experiences of isolation. Luke recounts that Jesus steps out onto the shores of Gerasenes. A man who is possessed by demons approaches Jesus, and before Jesus can exorcise the demons, they speak to him. When Jesus asks the man his name, the demons again answer, claiming they are “Legion.” The demons try to bargain with Jesus and ask to be exorcised into a large group of pigs, instead of condemning them to the abyss of their destruction. But then the pigs run off a cliff, both killing the swine and eliminating the demons. Onlookers are fearful to see the man restored to his full self and, I imagine, to realize that they are down the economic benefit of 2,000 pigs. The whole Gerasenes community asks Jesus to leave, but before Jesus does, the man requests to come with him. Jesus sends the man back to his community, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God as done for you.”
It is interesting to consider is the lengths that Jesus travels to get to this man. After performing miracles and healing people all over Galilee, Jesus and the disciples get in a boat and sail to Gerasenes or Gerasa, a region understood by Luke to be opposite Galilee and occupied by Gentiles. En route, they encounter a storm that Jesus calms. And, then, when they arrive, Luke only names Jesus as getting out of the boat. What happens to the disciples? Are they scared to be in a foreign land? Or maybe the disciples see the man lunge at Jesus and retreat back to the boat. But Jesus journeys on and meets the man.
The Rev. Dr. David Lose, Former President of Philadelphia’s Lutheran Theological Seminary, makes the argument that this story is only in part about healing…and the physical healing of the man is perhaps not even the primary focus of Jesus’s ministry. To fixate on questions of “Are demons and exorcisms real?” or “Why the pigs?” is to lose sight of the miraculous restoration of one man’s identity. Within the cacophony of voices that plague this man, he has become separated from himself and his community. He is driven to absolute isolation, living among the tombs and in wild places, and Jesus comes to the shores of Gerasa to enter into relationship with him. Luke tells us that “the people came out to see what had happened,” and they find the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus restores this man’s identity, not just by exorcising him of the demons but by providing him with community, the very thing he was without. Jesus gives the man a place to sit, and I cannot help but wonder what the two of them talked about as the man sat at Jesus’s feet. Maybe Jesus was listening to this man recount his story of trauma and isolation. Maybe they just shared in a moment of gentle stillness. Whatever transpired during the untold events of this encounter, we know the man is no longer alone. Jesus sees the man as the child of God he is. Then Jesus further restores this man’s identity by facilitating his reintegration into the community from which he had been an outsider. Jesus’s encounter with the man reminds us that, “The names and claims that the voices of this world may shout at us do not [and will not] have the last word” for we are loved, and we are seen by God. Furthermore, we believe in a God who goes to great lengths to be with us in the midst of our pain and to restore our self-identification as beloved Children of God. And now, in seeing himself as Beloved, the man bravely returns to his city to proclaim how much Jesus has done for him.
But friends, as is often the case with Jesus, the Gospel lesson here is two-fold. Luke’s gospel is about a Jesus who disrupts the social structures that separate us from each other and from God. Jesus’s miracles redefine “home” and re-center communities around individuals who prevailing societal norms previously excluded. Jesus reintegrates a man to a community who had grown accustomed to seeing him as an outsider. And Jesus ministry asks his followers to go to great lengths – socially and economically – to ensure that all are counted. This ask can be too much for some who witness the disruptive power of Jesus, as we see in this story. The Gerasenes people ask Jesus to leave after his restoration of the man’s identity costs the pig owners the loss of their herd.
Friends, how many of us found a home here at Broadway United Church of Christ at a time when we felt lost or alone? How many of us have survived feeling like an outsider – or, maybe, continue to feel like one within our own existence? Of all the churches in New York City, what brought us here? Why do we keep on coming?
Broadway, we are a beautiful and brave community, filled with countless narratives of survival and resilience. Our history is one of proclaiming God’s just and loving kindom for all, and our stories speak to the Good News of God’s work in redefining where and with whom we find “home.” Now, we are entering into a new chapter of Broadway’s story together. How do we continue the work of our own healing, as individuals and as a church, and still proclaim what God has done in our lives? What are the continued possibilities for restoration here as a community? And how do we stay open to the ways that God might disrupt our congregation’s established social order through the stories of new people who seek relationship with us? [Pause] I wonder if these are the questions that we might ask ourselves in the coming months. Jesus’s trip to Gerasa proclaims the Good News of God in our lives, but it also asks us to do the brave, vulnerable work of continuing this ministry in the world. The veteran, the young person, and the woman – they all experience their own forms of isolation and feel plagued by the voices that the world shouts at them. They, like the Gerasene man, seek restoration. Their stories are so much like our own complex narratives of survival and resilience. We are all looking for a home in which we can be understood, seen, and loved in our full expressions of humanity. Today’s Gospel story calls us to continue the process of creating home. There are social structures inside and outside of these walls that need to be disrupted for the sake of the restoration of all of us who feel or have ever felt alone. We are called to those places.
Broadway United Church of Christ, let us continue to believe the truth of our narratives. Let us trust that we are a community that strives to disrupt. Let us know that God is with us every step of the way. This is a Gospel of justice, of resilience, and of hope. Let us proclaim what God is doing in our lives – boldly, vulnerably, and unapologetically. For this is the Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Broadway United Church of Christ,
Hear the Good News: We are here, we are queer, and we are loved. Now go and proclaim what God is doing in our lives. Amen.