Saturday, June 18, 2022
Trinity 1 C "Clothed and in his right mind"
One of the peculiar blessings of being here at the Cathedral is the sheer variety of people who find their ways through our doors...I think perhaps I never really understood the phrase “all sorts and conditions” before I came here. Often conversations with visitors are pure joy...So many people blown away by the beauty of our building or coming to reconnect with a precious memory of past visits and special people. Inspiring stories of the difference that reconciliation has made in their lives, and of the part that Coventry played in that. Moments of encounter with God in so very many ways. Other conversations, of course, can be more difficult – especially with those whose grip on what I’d see as reality seems to be on the loose side. Some visitors are clearly struggling with life, and this is reflected in behaviour that can be, at best, challenging. You may remember hearing of a visitor who arrived one Sunday evening during the 6.30 service clad only in an umbrella – but there are others, less dramatic, who don’t obviously fit into the gentle world of arts societies and choral evensong. I have to admit, I find those enounters uncomfortable. I would quite happily avoid them. Nonetheless, the demoniac in our gospel takes the phrase “challenging behaviour” to a whole new level. Small wonder that he is excluded from normal society. He's as frightening as he is frightened - not simply because of the shouting, the antisocial behaviour, the unnatural strength. His vulnerability is alarming too – a brutal reminder of our own frailty. When the chips are down, this is the truth of our existence….what Lear’s Fool describes as “unaccomodated man …a poor bare forked animal” We would prefer, I think, to clothe ourselves in more splendid garb, to imagine ourselves as more powerful, more sophisticated, with more agency in our own lives and our own destinies… We struggle with anything that challenges this, and so it’s much safer to turn away from those who might paint a different picture. Send them packing if you can. That’s what has happened to this man, driven out to live naked among the tombs, in a place of death and decay. He is at the mercy of the elements, as well as other less tangible forces beyond his control, beyond OUR control….and it is that lack of control that renders him most alarming. No wonder he is no longer welcome at home. He’s just too disruptive...the feelings he inspires just too big to accommodate. I cant help but wonder whether some of the more extreme views and behaviours that have gripped our country in recent years have a similar root. Quite often after listening to the news or reading an article on line I’ve thought “What has happened to us? Have we all gone quite mad?” … Is this our response to a feeling that we have lost control? That conflicting voices are goading us in different directions, that, like Elijah in the cave, we are taking shelter while earthquake, wind and fire rage around us... I guess that many of us may have been feeling overwhelmed by the rate of change even before the pandemic hit, with its insistent reminders that we are not, after all, in charge of our own lives, commanders of our own destinies, as we might have liked to believe. The past 2 years have made it very clear indeed that for all our startling brilliance, the stunning achievements of civilisation, nonetheless as the Collect puts it “through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing” And we don’t like hearing that. We don’t want to confront our own helplessness, our own neediness, our own nakedness. We’re in control, remember. So, when the evidence suggests otherwise, we take steps to distance ourselves We turn away from those who make us uncomfortable. We may choose to ignore inconvenient truths about our pwn reality or better still, we might cast out those who disturb us, to pretend that they and their problems do not exist. Maybe we could try shipping them off somewhere… If that’s sounding a bit political, can I remind you that there’s quite a political agenda present in the healing miracle we’re considering. The story is set on the other side of Lake Galillee, in the Decapolis, a part of occupied Palestine where the Romans are very much in evidence asserting their unwanted control. We are not intended to miss the implications, when the demons speak as Legion, and are cast out from their human host, straight into a herd of swine. Hard to think of a more appropriately insulting abode for them from the viewpoint of observant Jews...and when the swine charge into the lake, (remember the sea is synonymous with chaos in Jewish thought,) - well, you don’t have to look very hard between the lines to see a bit of wish-fulfillment and a declaration of God’s power over all the forces of oppression, whether political or supernatural. That’s probably quite helpful for us. We may be slightly wary of the overtly supernatural – but nonetheless, we might still see ourselves, or our society, embodied in the struggling demoniac. Though we won’t use the language of possession, we cannot deny that many find themselves at the mercy of feelings, thoughts and patterns of behaviour that they would never have chosen...driven by addictions beyond their control..Fightings and fears, within, without… Things that strip away our disguise and leave us naked, our vulnerabilities exposed again. But in this place of fear and fragmentation we meet Jesus. We shouldn't be surprised to find him there. Others may have written the demoniac off – but not Jesus. He always pays particular attention to those excluded, literally and metaphorically -- those with nothing, beggars at the gate, lepers, bleeding women and dead children. He thinks nothing of engaging with the ritually unclean – and here he is in unclean Gentile territory, close to that herd of swine… Jesus is never choosy about the company he keeps -for he is intent on restoring not just the individual but the community as well....Again and again he confronts everything that stands in the way of wholeness, everything that divides us from one another, everything that prevents us from knowing the love of God in loving community. Here in this wasteland of death and destructive behaviour Jesus stands – and sees that within the alarming person of the demoniac is one of God's own precious children. The demoniac recognises Jesus too – asking him a crucial question “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most high God” Naming is powerful. The demoniac no longer knows who he is. He has lost his own name, his own identity, and is at the mercy of so many voices, driving him every which way, intent on his destruction. But Jesus speaks into that maelstrom and brings healing. The inner storms cease. For all their volume, those were never really the important voices. At last the man can listen and in the sheer silence, he knows and is fully known, restored to the truth of himself and, in due course, to his community. You see, ultimately this is another story of reconciliation – our story, our song. So, I wonder where you would place yourself in this narrative. Are you the man tortured by so many conflicting voices, so many fightings and fears that you have lost track of yourself? Or perhaps you’re just off-stage, among the conscientious community that has driven him in to exile, as his rantings are just too disruptive, too disturbing, and you must preserve the peace? Or one of the swineherds, whose livelihood is destroyed by this unprecedented turn of events...for sometimes God’s works of mercy to some seem to come at a cost to others? Or a disciple, gasping in amazement at the company your Lord keeps almost more than at the wonders he performs? It can be hard to watch Jesus engaging so attentively with those whom we don’t understand at all, those who don’t look like us, speak like us, respond like us...We are striving to follow him, and yet he seems sometimes to prefer to focus on those who show no interest in him at all. I wonder where you are in the story. There may not be many parts that you’d LIKE to claim for yourself. But wherever you are, remember, there is hope. Jesus is here, healing what is broken, engaging with the powers of the world Yes, truly – Jesus is HERE. It’s easy, I think, for us to name some of the demons that drive our society mad...There’s poverty, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry… There’s self-interest, pride, hatred, greed, ...Just think of our Litany and you’ll find it easy to name the legion…Endless varieties of unkindness, couched in the most respectable, acceptable terms to exclude some and imprison others. A panoply of Powers that seek to divide us one from another, to prevent us from living as citizens of the Kingdom. But we’re not bound by them. We do not need to run naked, at the mercy of their tormenting, conflicting voices, nor do we have to protect ourselves with the garments of false self that preserve us from acknowledging our vulnerability. Be still Listen. Amid that clamour, there is someone speaking who knows the truth of who we are, each one of us, and better still the truth of who we could be. Listen. He calls you by name. He will clothe you and restore you to your right mind. The power of his love drives out demons and restores outcasts to their community, commissioning them, commissioning us, to declare to OUR families, OUR city just how much God has done for us.