Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

June 24, 2018

Lessons:

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

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I’m always intrigued when public figures quote sacred scripture to support some political policy, and there was an example of this the last couple of weeks. As you’re probably aware, the Attorney General of the United States used some verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans to justify the policy of separating immigrant families at the border. I don’t want to spend time on the policy itself, which seems so contrary to basic teachings of both Judaism and Christianity and such a violation of common human decency, that it doesn’t bear further comment. But I would like to think a bit about the use of the passage from Romans 13, as well as more generally how we, as people of faith, approach an understanding of scripture as a whole.

The section of Romans that the Attorney General referenced is well known: it’s the passage where Paul writes that Christians should be obedient to government authorities, because they are ordained by God, so that disobeying them would be disobeying God. The use of this passage has a long and troubled history in our own country. During the Revolutionary War, guess who was quoting these verses? It was the British authorities, telling the revolutionaries that they were going against God by rebelling against the crown. The response of the Americans was that, well, but Paul only meant obedience to legitimate authority, and since the authority of the British in America was not legitimate, Americans didn’t have to obey. Problem solved.

But of course, the much more problematic use of these verses was during the slaveholding era in America, when slaveholders constantly referenced Romans 13 to attack those who sought to undermine slavery – abolitionists, helpers on the underground railroad, those who refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Slaveholders also made frequent reference to Biblical passages that condone slavery and counsel obedience of slaves to masters.

Taking a snippet from a piece of writing (whether the Bible or something else) to support an argument that one has already decided on is called “proof-texting.” It doesn’t seek to understand the broader context of a passage, it simply tries to use a short piece of text as a weapon to attack or refute someone’s else’s argument. It’s something that people of all political and theological persuasions do often. But I would suggest it’s not how Christians are meant to think about scripture and how it speaks to us.

So how should we be thinking about scripture and what’s the best use of it in our lives? I would start by pointing out the obvious – that the Bible is a very large compendium of a variety of different kinds of writings, by many different authors, composed over a period of a thousand years or so. Understandably, there are parts of it that we may find more appealing and helpful than others. We might favor the gospel stories about Jesus and turn away from the Old Testament stories of wars and violence. But I think if we really want to be faithful to the Bible, we have to read and ponder all of it, not just bits and pieces. The relationship between God and humans is complex and sometimes ambiguous, and the broad range of sacred writings induces us to keep exploring that complicated relationship.

Each book in the Bible has its own integrity and deserves to be treated as a whole. For many years I have taught a course at school on the gospels and the origins of Christianity. One of the first things I have students do is read a gospel straight through from beginning to end. Most students, even church-going ones, have never done that – they’ve only heard the gospels in short readings. They are often amazed to realize that each gospel has a coherence and some clear themes that the author intends in telling the story. They wonder why there should be four gospels, because they are all different from one another, with different emphases. Each gospel, for example, has a different set of resurrection stories – and Mark doesn’t have any, only the empty tomb. When the New Testament was assembled, didn’t people realize there were all these differences? Of course. Each gospel has a unique perspective that helps us get at the truth about Jesus. There is no one way to understand Jesus.

The scriptures are full of contradictions and passages that seem ambiguous and mysterious. It’s possible to disagree about how to understand them. I think God wants us to grapple with these difficulties to go deeper into the truth. In the rabbinic tradition, one rabbi has one interpretation of a passage and another rabbi has a different one, and they argue with one another. It’s precisely at the intersection of competing interpretations that we gain true insight.

It’s tempting to edit parts of the Bible we don’t care for, and I would suggest it’s precisely those parts we don’t care for that we need to pay attention to and try to understand. Psalm 137 is one of my favorites and a very familiar one. It’s a lament of the exiles in Babylon. It begins “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept…” and goes on to express sadness at the loss of their home. It’s very poignant. But towards the end it turns into an attack on their Babylonian captors; “Blessed is the one who takes your children and dashes them against the stones!” We don’t usually read that verse in church. But we shouldn’t avoid it. It expresses emotions of anger and bitterness and desire for vengeance, that are a real part of the human experience and that we have to learn to grapple with in order to understand ourselves.

We also need to understand that each book in the Bible has its own historical and cultural context, different from our own. As an example, Jewish society in Jesus’ time, like Roman society, was very patriarchal. Women had few rights and abuse of women was often condoned or overlooked. When we read passages in the scriptures that seem to justify poor treatment of women, I don’t think we can just say, okay, we just have to accept that. We must be willing to wrestle with how to make sense of such passages in the context of our own culture and social understanding.

Finally, as we try to understand the voice of God in scripture, we know we also have the voice of the Spirit within us, and in some sense we can engage in an inner dialogue, through reading and study and meditation, to allow the scriptures to speak to us. The voice of scripture and the voice of Spirit. That inner dialogue will lead us to new understandings. We should always be willing to entertain new insights, to be ready to change our minds about what scripture is telling us. This is part of what it means to be growing in faith, so that faith itself becomes a dialogue with the voice of God.

If we can spend time to really engage with the sacred writings, if we can grapple with the hard parts, be open to new insights and understandings, then we can hope to truly hear the voice of God in the scriptures.

When Pigs Fly + Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Mary Anne Gard

Lessons:

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

 

 

When pigs fly……That’s the last phrase in the sentence, “That  will happen… when pigs fly!” It has come to mean, there is almost no chance that “it” will happen at all.

But, when I hear that phrase, “When pigs fly” I think of the Michael Sowa postcard. On it is pictured a forest and fern surrounded lake, shimmering with invitation on a hot summer day.

Jammed under rocks is a old wooden plank that is now used as a rough diving board. On the other end of the diving board, having just launched in full stretch, and fine form, is a big pig with a small grin of knowing delight.

That pig is captured in the delicious pose of full out abandon, unrepentant joy, and expectation of wondrous reveling in glory. (You know what that moment feels like. It is when you are at your best. You are fully trusting. You are giddy with God.)

“When pigs fly” – Anything can happen. Miracles are likely. There are no bothersome laws of physics or governments that bind us. Tables are turned. The first become last and the last become first, and those familiar words are what the Gospel is all about.

So now we find ourselves, with pigs, in the middle of today’s Gospel. The herd of swine have accepted the demons and are running head long down the steep bank. Even though Luke tells us they drowned, what does he really know in this crazy quilt of
a pieced together Gospel. I choose to see those flying pigs frozen in flat out abandon.

Let’s return for a moment to some of the scenes in Luke’s story.

As the commentators tell us, this Gospel appears to be patched together from bits and pieces of folklore, decades of commentary, Hebrew Scripture lenses, and superstition. If you have difficulty understanding or accepting it, you are in educated, good company.

For example, there is great controversy over just where is Gersasenes . After much speculation, the best scholars can come up with is that it might be on the East side of the Sea of Galilee.

Supposedly in that area many pagans lived. Pagan are supposed to have lived there because there were herds of swine. And only pagans would eat swine. However, Jewish commentator Amy Jill Levin, writes that after much archeological digging in that
area, no pigs bones have ever been found.

The quasi-fact that pagans lived in that area is important because the Gospel of Luke is supposed to be the Gospel to the Pagans or at least the Greek pagans. In the last lines of the Gospel, Jesus tells the demonically freed man to “return home and tell all how much God has done for him.”

It is assumed that Jesus was sending him off to evangelize to pagans who had never heard of God or Jesus. Yet this Gospel is written in several styles of Greek: one of which was formal, Greek that would speak to the most classically educated.

And another was business Greek used for commerce and dealing in goods and ideas from all over the then known world. More than likely, the “pagans” already knew of the Hebrew God and of the latest miracle worker in the region, and didn’t need some fanatic nobody to spread old news.

Even if they had never heard of this God or Jesus, It is hard to imagine how the healed man’s testimony would make much difference, or that he would even be allowed to speak in his homeland.

The people who actually witnessed his cure were frightened, not delighted by it. They wanted to get rid of the one who had been possessed by demons, and get rid of the one who performed the exorcism, Jesus. The Geraseses guy scares them with or without demons.

And what is casting demons into swine all about? John Craghan (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 30 no 4 Oct 1968, p 522-536) in his commentary on the Gerasene Demonic, lends his insight that “there is a popular folk tale or story of a Jewish Exorcist in a foreign country that was transferred to Jesus.”

Josephus, a Jewish historian, who lived and studied and wrote soon after the time of Jesus, tells the story of one of his contemporaries who wanted to prove to the crowds that he had to power to drive out demons, so he set up a basin of water a little way off and told the demons to knock it over on the way out of the person he was exorcising. That way, his audience had dramatic, visual proof that the demons had been ejected.

Then there is the Babylonian incantation that directly asks the demon “to make a pig’s flesh, it’s flesh and a pig’s heart it’s heart.” As proof that the demon has left the person and entered the pig, the pig falls over dead. It is speculated that many of these folkloric, possibly true, or absolutely doubtful stories were weaved together into Luke’s Gospel for today.

However, it is likely that somewhere in the country of the Gerasenes a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, when pigs fly event happened and for ages people were tripping all over themselves to spread the story and make sense of it.

You know how this is. Think of an event in childhood. Children are always discovering something new and trying to make meaning of it in their world.

I remember two sisters, neighbors and playmates of my sister and me. They had older brothers who were always creating eye-popping events to make sense of. One day the boys found a bag of cement in their basement and poured it into a downstairs toilet bowl, just to see what would happen.

I can remember their sisters excitedly gathering up my sister and me, running and babbling about a new and foreign substance called cement, then all of us standing over the toilet and speculating how that water hardened. How would we get it out.

Of course, just the proximity to the toilet made all of us have to go immediately. That episode gave a whole new meaning to clogged toilet. We passed on that tale, with our own embellishments, to many friends. You know how it goes.

Despite the disjoined, cut and pasted splicing of this Gospel, we can find our own meaning in it today. It often surprises me that when I am thinking about a Gospel and working on a sermon an event in my life will pop up that underlines the Gospel message for me.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I pray with and for people in all areas of physical, emotional and spiritual pain. One of the areas we chaplains cover is the mental health unit. Of all the units in the hospital it is the one that chaplains enter with extra prayers under their belts.

It is more like a prison. There is a guard by the door. The “rooms” are cells. No decorations or furniture, only a bed. Chairs are locked in a hall closet that the guard must retrieve for us to sit and visit. It is bleak and sometimes when I am admitted through the guarded door, I think of Dante’s warning about hell, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

In that block of hospital rooms there is a cold feeling and cold temperature and; as part of the mix, the sense that this is an area where the “usual;” like the usual medications, the usual explanation, the usual conversation, the usual prayer doesn’t usually have effect or help.

As we try to assist those trapped in their psychiatric disease to find meaning and healing, we are stretched to find meaning for ourselves being there. It is a place that shreds a do-gooders ego.

I wonder if Jesus felt this way when he first met the Gerasene Demonic? I bet he did. He had to make some meaning of this man’s torment too. He had to ask, “What is your name.” In Biblical language and even today, if you can name something you can have some power over it. If you can name a disease you can order the correct tests, prescribe the right drug, offer the best chance for healing.

Often when a patient or staff member in the mental health unit asks for a chaplain, they are sending out a desperate plea to reach a person down in the tombs of their despair.

On this particular night, while the guard was unlocking the door, I thought of this Gospel and when pigs fly. The nurse pointed me to the room at the end of the hall. I came around the patients door and all of a sudden this tiny, bony, whirlwind of a body was in by arms, hugging me tightly. Something in her realized that something in me was safe. Immediately, something in me received that trust and pain and knew it was safe

For both of us, it was the absolutely correct thing to do. No words had to be spoken, just the spontaneous embrace of another human was enough to slow her whirling brain and bring us eye to eye, soul to soul.

Eventually she backed out of my arms and retreated to a corner of the room. I followed and stood beside her as she told the crazy quilt story of her life. It was filled with a legion of folklore, half-truths, childhood adventures, “what-ifs”, magical thinking, and painful, piercing personal history.

The story came out in jumbled lumps and tears. Eventually she crawled into bed, tired from ridding herself of some demons she carried. Drained from crying out poisons accumulated in her hellish life. She wasn’t cured but she was calmed. She could finally accept the vulnerable state of sleep, that she had fought off for 3 days.

As I walked out of her room, and back down the hall to the locked door, Luke’s Gospel loomed large. Too easily I could connect the dots. Had Jesus had once again sent the demons flying out of the Gerasene demonic and into the pig? That made me the pig! A soft, open eyed, open eared being, unattached to this particular demons history, just going about my business of wandering through the wilderness, when a whim of Jesus interrupted.

That whim, that experience, left me feeling, giddy. Something sacred had transpired between two people and I got to be one of those people. Something holy was riding along with me

A little piece of my heart was transformed, lightened. Jesus had entered that room with and through me. My patient recognized it and I recognized it after her hug.

In my role as pig, it wasn’t demons I took on. If they ever were there, they washed right through me. What stayed was the peace that passes understanding, and the healing of being understood that two humans find when they connect. What stayed was the feeling that I wanted to extend out to my fullest self in an exuberant stretch to tell the glory of God.

I left that hall of cells with a small grin of knowing delight, a pig in full out flight.