To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

Bible Study: The Addict in Abraham’s Bosom

We had an amazing time during Bible study today.

The setting is the Rickman House, a single-room occupancy (SRO) subsidized apartment complex for adults who live with mental illness in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Rickman is often many residents’ last stop before (or first step after) being homeless. The names of participants have been changed and comments have been paraphrased.

There were two participants in today’s study, in addition to myself.

One participant, let’s call him Tom, is a socially awkward man in his late thirties who likes to dress in leather. He self-medicates his mental illness with alcohol and other substances. On Sundays, he sits on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral, but doesn’t go in, afraid that he doesn’t have enough faith. He says, “I just need a break from this place (i.e. the Rickman) sometimes.” He was raised in an evangelical Christian household but now isn’t quite sure what to make of faith. He says, “I believe, but I don’t believe… y’know?”

Our passage is Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16:19-31

Click here to read it with us

I’ve been wrestling with this passage all week as I prepare to preach on it this Sunday. As is often the case, participants in this Bible study hardly ever attend church (if at all). I lead this study using techniques I learned from Bob Ekblad, one of my seminary professors and author of Reading the Bible with the Damned.

Looking at the text, we read, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

Looking for equivalent images in contemporary society, we decide to imagine this rich man as a business man in a three piece suit who eats lobster and filet mignon at a swanky downtown restaurant.

Continuing to read: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

They decide that Lazarus was probably like a homeless panhandler in the city. They notice that Lazarus was sick, like so many of them who live with mental illness at the Rickman. Thinking specifically about the sores, they recognize that there are many “sore spots” in their own lives and minds: painful wounds that refuse to heal after so many years. Without access to proper medical care, Lazarus reaches out for some kind of temporary relief from the pain, even if it comes from a dog’s tongue.

“He’s self-medicating,” says Tom, noticing the similarity with his own tendency to ease the pain of his emotional “sores” with drugs. It may not be good or healthy (like letting wild dogs lick open sores), “but that’s the only thing that quiets my emotions,” he says. Like so many other people who are substance-dependent, Tom assumes that his addiction is due to his own moral failing. He thinks he shouldn’t call himself a Christian if he is still using. He sometimes worries that he will go to hell if he dies in his current condition.

I decide to test this assumption by looking carefully at the biblical text.

In the next sentence, the text reads, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”

I ask, “Does it say that, when Lazarus died, the demons came up and dragged him down into hell?”

Looking puzzled, he says, “No, it says angels came and took him to heaven. They were compassionate. They showed him mercy.”

I note that Abraham was an important figure in biblical history. He is the founder of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, to be with him is to be in a place of great honor.

I ask a very important question: “What did Lazarus have to do in order to earn his place of comfort and honor in Abraham’s bosom? Does the text say that he repented of his sins? Did he accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior? Did he join the church and put a big, fat check in the offering plate?”

“No, definitely not,” Tom says in reference to the last question.

“What did Lazarus have to do, then?” I ask.

“Nothing,” Tom says, “he was just poor and in pain, and God showed him mercy.”

I suggest that God wants to do the same thing for him.

There are two linguistic details that want I clarify for the group from the text. The first is the name of the homeless man: Lazarus. In Hebrew, that name is Eleazar, which literally means “God helps.”

“This is not a coincidence,” I say, “It’s very intentional and important to the meaning of this text. When Lazarus is dying, what does God do?”

“God helps him,” they say.

Does that mean God ignores Lazarus?

“No,” they reply, “God helps.”

Does God judge or criticize Lazarus for letting the dogs lick his sores?

“No, God helps.”

Does God shout, “Go get a job, you lazy bum”?

“No, God helps.”

The text says that angels picked Lazarus up and took him “to be with Abraham.” The original Greek text of this phrase literally translates as “Abraham’s bosom”. I compare it to the image of a mother holding a crying child close to her chest for comfort and love.

“Yeah,” Tom says, “my girlfriend used to do that for me, before she died.”

I suggest that maybe God wants to be his girlfriend and care for him in the same way, holding him close in God’s arms.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I’m not really into guys that way.”

I point out that God is not exclusively male; there are several feminine images for God in the Bible. Jesus described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks. Deuteronomy describes Yahweh as a mother eagle, teaching her young to fly. And then there is Sophia (“Wisdom”), a feminine image for God in the book of Proverbs. She is a beautiful woman who stands in the door of her house and invites us in to share a feast. “I never knew that,” Tom says as he smiles and nods his head.

Before I leave, we pray that God will help Tom experience God’s care and compassion for himself, even in the midst of his struggle with illness and addiction.


The Impassable Chasm

The Olbiston Apartments. Image by Peter Franchell of the Utica O-D.

St. James Mission had a very invigorating Bible study this week on Luke 16:19-31.

Our space was a bit busier this week as First Presbyterian Church, where we rent our chapel, has opened its doors, in partnership with the Red Cross, to shelter the displaced residents of Olbiston Apartments, who found themselves suddenly homeless when a fire ripped through their elevator shaft last week.

The Olbiston has been one of my regular haunts during my time on the streets.  It’s famous as a haven for folks who are down and out.  It’s often the last stop for addicts and squatters on their way to homelessness.

Commenting on our gospel passage, someone noted that the rich man was in desperate need of conversion: not to a religious faith, but to a living faith that expresses itself in deeds of compassion.  “Faith without works is dead,” she said.

A homeless man from our group said, “The rich man looked up and saw that what he had ignored for his whole life was suddenly staring him in the face!”

I added that the impassable chasm between himself and Lazarus, which was so apparent in eternity, had actually existed all along in the social gap between rich and poor.

Someone else noted that, even in hell, the rich man still maintains an arrogant sense of superiority in the way he barks out orders to Lazarus.  He says, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  (Luke 16:24)

It’s no wonder that a miracle would do no good to convince someone like him.  He doesn’t need a miracle to convert his head, he needs love to transform his heart.  Only then can the gap be crossed.

This is often easier said than done.  A prison nurse in our group told us how he saw someone die of AIDS this week, a rare occurrence these days.  He talked about how he felt paralyzed in the face of so much suffering.  I could relate to that.  I commented on how it took me almost a week to visit the shelter after the Olbiston fire.  “What the hell is wrong with me?”  I wondered aloud.

Before we departed, a woman in the back gestured to the shelter across the parking lot.  “Hey,” she said, “don’t we have a bunch of people suffering like Lazarus on our doorstep tonight?  Why don’t we do something to help them?”  We shrugged our shoulders and looked around at each other.  After a moment we decided that the entirety of our offering this week should go to the Olbiston residents through the local Red Cross.  After worship I took the offering over to the night manager at the shelter.  One member from our group spent several hours there the next day, talking and listening.  I hope to get there next week.

The Red Cross folks tell me that the big needs right now are for:

  • Large-scale showers
  • Laundry facilities
  • Transportation to get people there

If you have access to these services (not in private homes, please), then please call the Red Cross of the Mohawk Valley at (315) 733-4666.

Maybe that chasm isn’t so impassable after all…

Learning How To See

This sermon was preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, NY.  The text is Luke 12:49-56.

For those who would rather listen than read, you can hear a recording of the sermon by clicking here.

Earlier this week, I received a life-lesson in waiting for the voice of the Holy Spirit.  The time came for me to submit this week’s bulletin materials to Kari, your church secretary, and I decided to go ahead and give my sermon a title (even though it had not yet been written).  I thought I might focus on Jesus’ statement about bringing “fire to the earth” and explore the ways that Jesus might be “kindling a fire” in our hearts.  But on the day after I submitted the bulletin, my point of view on this week’s gospel text was drastically altered during our Thursday evening Bible study at St. James Mission in Utica.

My paradigm shift came from comments offered by a new visitor to our group.  He is a young father in his early thirties who is currently going blind.  He claims that, as his eyesight has diminished over the last year, he has developed an ability to intuitively sense when he is in an unsafe part of town.  While there may be no way for us to scientifically test whether he actually has this sixth sense, let’s take him at his word, for the sake of argument.  What this means is that this gentleman has been learning how to see in a new way.

Our visitor told this story in response to the last part of today’s reading, where Jesus asks, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  Our friend commented that the people in this story were like he once was: blind to the reality of the world around him.  Ironically, it is as he loses his sight that he gains insight.

Jesus’ question to the people comes in the context of a larger discussion that happens in Luke 12.  This discussion is prompted by someone who comes to Jesus, asking him to resolve a dispute between family members over an inheritance.  Jesus declines to get involved in the conflict and engages instead on a lengthy teaching about the spiritual dangers of greed and anxiety.  He invites people to live by a different set of beliefs and values than those embraced by society-at-large.  In the portion of the discussion we are reading today, Jesus warns his followers that living by this different set of beliefs and values will inevitably put them at odds with the world around them.

Jesus further challenges the crowd to take a closer look at their lives.  All the fuss about money and property rights; does it really lead to better quality of life?  Is it really worthwhile to get caught up in playing society’s games?  As for the man who was fighting with his brother over their inheritance, Jesus encouraged him to go and try to reconcile with his brother outside of court.  After all, what’s more important: the inheritance money or their family relationship?

If we were to take an honest look at today’s world, I think it would be fair to say that ours is no less driven by the powers of greed and anxiety.  The teachings of Jesus present us with a way of living that still puts us at odds with society’s beliefs and values.  We, no less than Jesus’ original followers, face the daily temptation to buy into society’s illusions about what will bring us true security and happiness.  And, like those first followers, Jesus is continually inviting us to take a closer look at the world around us, so that we might become more faithful followers of the way of Christ.

One way that we can take a closer look at our world (or “interpret the present time”, as Jesus put it in today’s reading) is by looking at the world through the eyes of another person.  This is a large part of our ministry at St. James Mission.  Allow me to give you an example:  There are relatively few homeless shelters in the state of New York between the cities of Albany and Syracuse.  One day, as I was sitting outside a coffee shop here in Rome, I asked a passing police officer about homelessness in central New York.  He told me that we are “blessed to not have that problem here.”  At first glance, it would be easy to agree with this officer’s assessment.  After all, I am rarely approached by panhandlers in Rome and Utica.  I don’t often see people sleeping on park benches or huddled inside cardboard boxes (a common sight in other cities).  Could it be that we are immune to the effects of this perennial urban problem?

The answer came for me as I have walked with multiple people as they transition from one place to another.  St. James Mission started our Community Chaplaincy program a year and a half ago in the neighborhood surrounding the Olbiston Apartments on Genesee Street.  Those who know Utica are probably familiar with this large red-stone building at the corner of Genesee and Clinton.  Most of our ministry contacts were located in that immediate neighborhood.  As relationships have developed, every single one of the people I met there has moved elsewhere.  I have helped individuals find new housing and fill out applications for assistance.  What I have discovered is that many of these people have been moving house every three to six months for years on end.  Sometimes they travel into and out of inpatient treatment programs.  Sometimes they stack up eviction after eviction, each time stepping down the ladder toward more dilapidated housing.  Some people go “couch-surfing” or staying informally with a series of friends for extended periods of time.  While these urban nomads always manage to have some kind of roof over their heads, they are still ultimately homeless.

Homelessness is a very real problem here in the Mohawk Valley, but it remains a hidden problem as long as the general public is unaware of the particular form it takes in our area.  I am learning the truth of this reality from those brave men and women who are willing to share their lives with me as their pastor.  To me, they are God’s messengers who help me “interpret the present time” and pay attention to the world around me.  Never again can I buy into the illusion that the Mohawk Valley has no homeless people.

Ministries such as Emmaus House, Hope House, JCTOD, and the Rescue Missions are working tirelessly to address this problem.  Through our Community Chaplaincy, we at St. James Mission are joining the effort by offering free services of referral, advocacy, and spiritual care to people on the street in Utica.  Any of these ministries would be worthy of your support.  Consider giving, not only with your prayers and wallets, but with your volunteer time and presence as well.  Get involved and look at the world through the eyes of someone who is different from you.  This is part of what it means to “interpret the present time”.

There are many other ways in which God is teaching us how to see.  Earlier in this passage, Jesus talks about reading the signs set forth by the clouds and the wind.  I couldn’t help but think of this as I was driving home from our Bible study on Thursday.  There was a most magnificent sunset on the horizon.  With me in the car was another one of our regular participants who lives in Rome.  We drove west on Route 49 describing the shapes we saw in the brilliant orange and purple clouds.  At one point, he said to me, “I think of clouds as art.”  I think he was absolutely right.  When we look at our world, do we see a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions?  Or is there something deeper that lends meaning to this universe?  To be fair, Jesus wasn’t exactly speaking about the revelation of God in nature when he spoke about the clouds and the wind in this passage, but there are certainly other passages in the Bible that do point in that direction.  One of my personal favorites is Psalm 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

As we drove along toward home, praying grateful prayers for those natural fireworks, I believe I could hear the voice of the heavens telling the glory of God.

If I were to give this sermon a new title, it would be Learning How To See, because Jesus is in the business of teaching us how to see.  He teaches us to take an honest look at our world and the empty illusions it holds.  He challenges us to look past the surface of our lives and face reality, so that we might learn what makes for true peace and prosperity.

I’ll close with these words from a song by Bruce Cockburn:

“Little round planet in a big universe:

Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed.

Depends on what you look at, obviously.

But, even more, it depends on the way that you see.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we confess that we, in our spiritual blindness, are unable to see our lives and our world clearly; we need your Holy Spirit to kindle a fire in our hearts, so that we might see you and serve you in every person we meet and every situation we encounter; we ask this for the glory of your most holy name.  Amen.

Being Ready

Tonight’s Bible study discussion was on Luke 12:32-40.

OK, so it looks like we got another one of those scary “end of the world” passages this week (insert famous REM song here).  Judging by the number of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye books on the market, I’d say there’s a lot of money to be made from other Christians’ eschatological anxiety.  Ironically, I think it was Jesus’ intention to reduce the anxiety of his followers in this particular section of teaching.

To be fair, there is a lot of talk about being ready for the Son of Man’s unexpected arrival.  Our group spent a lot of time brainstorming about what it means to “be ready” for the culmination of human history.  Some of us at St. James Mission embrace a more literal interpretation of the Second Coming.  Others of us prefer to speak more generally in terms of “facing our mortality”.  Either way, we shared a lot of common ground when it came to how we should prepare.

One person commented on how “being ready” consists of “walking the path” of “keeping yourself open” to compassion.  Here are some ways in which the members of our community are trying to do just that:

  • A combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder is having trouble with his medication.  When a neighbor tries to help, he pulls out a gun and starts waving it around.  Rather than pressing charges, the neighbor stays with him through the recovery process and even helps him get more stable with his meds.
  • A passionate activist undergoes nonviolence training and gets arrested for acts of civil disobedience against an unjust system.
  • A Christian woman has Muslim neighbors downstairs.  When their teenage daughter runs away from home, she comes upstairs and asks her Christian friend to pray with her.

To me, these are signs of the times (in a good way).  Rather than foretelling the coming of doom and gloom, these vignettes indicate the presence of God in our midst during an age of conflict.

God’s Gift of Self

Tonight’s Bible study discussion was on Luke 11:1-13.

Somebody made a good point tonight that this parable of Jesus casts the listener in the ‘receiving’ role instead of the ‘doing’ role.  This text is all about how we receive from God.  More specifically, it’s about God the giver.

I used to read this parable as a lesson in persistent prayer.  If we pray hard enough and long enough, we get what we want.  However, walking away from tonight’s discussion, I think this parable is a statement about God as the generous and liberal giver.

When we come to God in prayer, we don’t always get what we ask for.  Someone else in the group pointed out that a person might ask God for more money when God would rather make that person more content with what he or she has.  More importantly, I would add, when we come to God in prayer, we receive that which we need most: God’s own self.

Like the friend in the story who asked for bread, we come in search of Christ, the Bread of Life.  One newcomer pointed out a possible Trinitarian allusion in the friend’s request for “three loaves”.   More than the reluctant friend in the story, God is eager to get involved out of love for the world.  This gift of self is what God liberally pours out in the person of Christ.  Likewise, Christ promises in this passage, not that God will grant our every request, but that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”

Whatever my situation, I find that I am best able to deal with it when I am most attuned to God’s presence with me in that moment (contemplative exercises such as centering prayer help me most in this regard).  Sometimes, the act of prayer leads to a change in my circumstances.  Other times, the act of prayer leads to a change in me.

As Bishop Gene Robinson put it, “Sometimes God calms the storm and sometimes God calms the child.”

For those who are interested, here is a brief introduction to centering prayer from my wife’s Davidson College classmate, Fr. Matthew Moretz:

The Good Samaritan on Oneida Street

The Good Samaritan by He Qi

In this week’s Lectio Divina Bible Study at St. James Mission, we explored the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37.

One thing I’ve noticed again and again in my work with people in the margins is that the spirituality that develops there has a certain practicality to it.  For example, I was leading one man through our catechism class and reflecting with him on the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed.  When we came to the line: “He will come again”, this person had no interest in abstract theologies of the parousia or the end-times.  Instead he said, “Christ comes again in us.  Christ puts us on like the white coat that a doctor puts on when she goes out to heal people.”  Likewise, another person studying for Confirmation understood the ascension to be a statement about God’s constant presence with us (he said that with Christ, we too are “seated at the right hand of the Father”).  Spirituality, for people on the street, is something practical and embodied.

This week’s exploration of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was no exception to this rule.  In many ways, they could relate to Jesus, who spoke of disconnected religious leaders who would rather cross the road than encounter a bleeding, hurting human being.  They see in Jesus the impetus to reach out and live as God’s compassionate people in the world.  Not much was said about the historical or literary context of the text.  Instead, our people were interested in the story itself.

One elderly woman told a story of meeting her neighbor this week.  He was looking for some piece of furniture in which he could store his clothes.  She didn’t have anything that would fit.  But later, as she was walking down the block, she saw a set of shelves that would work perfectly.  Unfortunately, as frail as she is, she was unable to drag the item home.  Instead, she said that she felt the Lord tell her, “Go this way” around a corner.  There was a man standing there who was quite willing to help her drag the shelves upstairs.  As it turns out, he was out of work and looking to do odd-jobs around the neighborhood.  She paid him some cash, he gave her his card, and the neighbor got a shelf.

This woman became a living parable on Oneida Street.  Like the Samaritan, she is a marginalized person living in hostile territory.  Also, she went out of her way to embody compassion for a neighbor in need.  Finally, she formed an impromptu community of compassion, just like the Samaritan involved the local innkeeper in caring for the robbed man.

This is what an embodied Christian spirituality looks like for the people in our community at St. James Mission.  It has little to do with denominational affiliation or theological orientation.  Instead, the presence of Christ in our midst becomes most apparent as we commit and celebrate these random acts of kindness in the daily grind of life in Utica, NY.

The Kingdom of God Has Come Near to You

Tonight’s Lectio Divina at St. James Mission came from Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.

As one member of our community pointed out tonight, it’s more than a little unsettling that Jesus tells the seventy to “rejoice that [their] names are written in heaven” rather than celebrate the tangible good that was accomplished during their ministry.  Isn’t that just one more example of Christian indulgence in irrelevant escapism?  It certainly seems so.

It doesn’t help that most popular images of heaven involve pearly gates and golden streets on clouds with angels and harps.  Could anything be more divorced from real life?

Someone suggested another image of the afterlife: you and me in the ground, becoming part of the vibrant ecosystem that exists underground.  What if we could somehow sense the presence of the worms and flowers that transform our broken bodies into sources of nourishment?  We might even be able to reconnect with the creative harmony that was lost when we left Eden.

This image of the afterlife is certainly more engaged and engaging than antiseptic visions of “pie in the sky when you die”.  Not only that, but I think it is more consistent with biblical visions of the prophet Isaiah and John the Elder, where the New Jerusalem is portrayed as an international garden-city.  With gates wide open 24-7 (just like the Waffle House), the nations of the world coexist in a multi-cultural rainbow of celebration.  Instead of an eight-lane highway running through an industrial wasteland, there is a tree-lined river.  This biblical vision of harmonious heaven-on-earth bears more resemblance to the teeming underground ecosystem than it does to clouds and fat babies with wings.

I think we get a foretaste of this biblical vision in today’s gospel text as Jesus commissions the seventy disciples to go and tell people, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  Look at what the disciples are doing as they proclaim their message: they are inviting others to participate in an ever-widening community of healing and hospitality.  The Kingdom of God starts here and now as followers of Christ venture out to get dust on our feet and dirt under our nails.

Maybe we can rejoice after all that we are included in this dynamic, organic, and vibrant community?

Tortured Soul

The Scream by Edvard Munch

This week’s Bible study discussion was on Luke 8:26-39.

Exorcism is a controversial topic for discussion.  Many people are rightly disturbed by the fact that accusations of demonic possession have been levied against people who suffer from medically discernible disorders such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and dissociative identity disorder.  Our LGBT sisters and brothers can testify to the fact that accusations of demonic influence are often hurled at those who deviate from accepted patterns of behavior prescribed by dominant religious officials.  Jesus himself endured such accusations during his ministry.

With all this in mind, I approached this week’s discussion on the story of the Gerasene demoniac with not a little fear and trembling.

However the demoniac’s condition is understood, it cannot be denied that this story begins with an encounter between Jesus and a tortured soul.  This person is estranged among strangers.  The story begins as Jesus leads his disciples into Gentile territory on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.  The region of Gerasa was inhabited by people of different race, religion, and politics from the twelve disciples.

As soon as they arrive, they are met by the village idiot, but not the silly contrivance of Monty Python sketches.  This is a truly disturbed and disturbing person.  Those who know may be reminded of Cowboy in Utica or Ross in Vancouver.  Demon spirits, tombs, wilderness, and ritually unclean animals (pigs) give the story a rather menacing tone.  The disciples are probably feeling literally and figuratively “dis-placed” by such an opening to their venture beyond the pale of Jewish society.

I remember the first time I visited the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.  While I was waiting for the church doors to open, a hooker propositioned me on the sidewalk saying, “Ooh!  You look horny for ME!”  Not knowing what else to do, I just said, “No thanks” and nervously pretended to look at something else.  It was a little overwhelming for a southern boy from the burbs who was living in the big city for the first time.  I imagine Jesus’ disciples experiencing similar emotions during their encounter in Gerasa.

Jesus, however, is unphased by Legion’s display of insanity.  The most remarkable thing to me is Jesus’ ability to separate the problem from the person.  The problem is eliminated but the person is healed.  The Gerasene man was previously “demonized”, but has now been “humanized” by the ministry of Christ.

This is quite similar to the approach taken by those in recovery from various addictions.  For the last half-century, addiction has been increasingly recognized as a disease for which a person must receive treatment.  One hundred years ago, someone would have been called a drunk, now we know that such a person suffers from the disease of alcoholism.  In this area, we too have begun to separate the problem from the person.

One member of our community at St. James, who has been in recovery from alcoholism for several decades, was able to identify the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in this story.  Like the demoniac, she too was restored to sanity by her Higher Power.

In the denouement, we read that the Gerasene man is now “sitting at the feet of Jesus”, a remarkable phrase used to describe the relationship between rabbis and their disciples.  The same phrase was used to describe the relationship between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  What this indicates is that Jesus is interested in recruiting women and non-Jews into his cadre of disciples.  This would be unheard of in that time.

The transformation in the Gerasene man is obvious to those who know him.  In fact, it causes quite a bit of consternation among the locals.  This is not surprising considering that communal systems tend to resist change.

Recovering addicts and alcoholics are able to relate to this as well.  Re-defining family relationships is one of the most stressful parts of recovery.  The family had maintained a delicate balance and rhythm for survival while their loved one was drinking and/or using.  When that person gets clean & sober, the balance and rhythm get disturbed.  There are two easy ways out of this situation: the person in recovery can “pick up” their substance of choice again or the person can leave the family system altogether.

The Gerasene man occupied a certain place in the communal rhythm of Gerasene society.  He was the person upon whom everyone else could look down.  His healing upset that rhythm, causing anxiety in the broader community.  He might face even more marginalization after his healing than he did before.  It would be easy for him to get out of town.  In fact, he tries to do just that when he asks Jesus if he can go with him.  But Jesus doesn’t allow the man the easy way out.  Already a disciple, Jesus sends the man back to his own town.  In essence, Jesus ordains him the first apostle to the Gentile people.  He is instructed to tell them the story of what has happened to him.  Our friend in recovery pointed out that this is not at all unlike the twelfth step in the AA program, where the recovering alcoholic is instructed to “carry this message” to those who still suffer.

This is not just a story about exorcism.  It is the story of a tortured soul who finds healing and purpose through his connection to Jesus.  It is a story about crossing boundaries and encountering real humanity in the most unexpected places.

Do we have enough courage to venture beyond the pale of our “normal” lives and see human beings where there only demons?  Do we have enough insight to discern the difference between people and problems?  Do we have enough faith to let our comfortable systems be upset so we can share in the healing work that God is doing in our midst?

“You’ve got to look outside your eyes / You’ve got to think outside your brain / You’ve got to walk outside your life / to where the neighborhood changes.”  ~Ani DiFranco, “Willing to Fight”

Serenity & Courage

Last week’s Bible Study at St. James Mission was on John 14:23-29, which can be read by clicking here.  Our discussion on the passage ended up following the contours of the Serenity Prayer, which we use in our weekly liturgy at the end of the Prayers of the People.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  This reminds one of the first line of the prayer where one asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.  Many things conspire to rob us of our serenity.  Various stressors and crises impact our lives on a daily basis.  In time, our souls begin to feel like the surface of the moon: pock-marked with craters, holes, and scars from the relentless beating of the cosmos.

Living in peace is a hard thing to do.  The state of anarchy we witness on an international scale is a constant reminder of that fact.  However, one need not look as far as the headlines to see the difficulty of living in peace, but only to the constant drama one finds in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools.  As Rodney King once said, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Just as destructive is the internal violence people do to themselves every time they look in a mirror:

  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I’m not pretty enough.”

Each one of us is our own worst critic.  Multi-billion dollar industries are built on the backs of people who are unable to accept themselves.  I believe that Christ, with his gift of peace, intends to liberate us from all forms of violence: international, interpersonal, and internal.

Embracing Christ’s blessing of peace does not constitute a quietistic escape from the harshness of reality.  It empowers us to face reality with renewed conviction and vigor.  The second line of the Serenity Prayer asks for the “courage to change the things I can.”

We can hold onto our serenity while acting courageously.  Our faith can give us the strength to stand up against evil and injustice in this world because we are certain of victory.  Christ has conquered sin and death, therefore any expression thereof is limited and temporary.  The darkness can oppose the light, but cannot overcome it.

Living as people of peace changes how we act, not whether we act.  We see the same facts as activists and analysts, but we see them differently.  Faith is the yeast that leavens the bread of action.  To borrow a phrase from a famous prayer, “Where there is hatred,” we are able to “sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

I am reminded of the mug-shots of the Freedom Riders from the 1960s.  Many are scared but smiling.  Their faces radiate with serenity and courage.  They are among the most beautiful images I have ever seen.

I invite you to examine your self, community, and country for the changes that need to be made.  I invite you to face those challenges with courage and serenity, believing in the certain victory of Christ’s peace over all forms of injustice and violence.  Your action is only one small part of God’s greater action, and that action cannot fail.

Russell & Mary Jorgensen

Helen Singleton