Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Not Big on Pork or Demons

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

According to the two-year daily Eucharistic lectionary provided in Lesser Feasts & Fasts, 2006, the gospel lesson appointed for today is Matthew 8:28-34, the passage in which Jesus heals the Gadarene demoniacs. This story takes place near the end of a long line of miracle stories in which Matthew makes a case for Jesus' identity as the Son of God. First, he cleansed a leper by touching him (Matt. 8:1-4). Then, he healed the Roman centurion's servant at a distance (8:5-13). Then, Matthew tells us that, while he was staying at his disciple Peter's house, he healed many who were sick or possessed by demons (8:18-22). After a brief word of instruction about the need to leave everything behind to follow him ("let the dead bury their own dead"), he stilled the storm while riding in a boat with the disciples (8:23-27). Immediately following today's passage, this healing cycle culminates in the healing of a paralytic, whose sins Jesus pronounces as forgiven (9:1-8). And then there's today's story--a strange little tale about two demoniacs being freed from their possession. What place in the case for Jesus as the Son of God does this passage have?

I wonder whether the first readers of Matthew's gospel account identified the same irony I see in the demoniac's clear identification of Jesus as the Son of God. This is the case that Matthew is making with his retelling of the story, and, before he's even finished, the unholy, ungodly demons reveal the divine truth: "What have you to do with us, Son of God?" Because these words come from demons, they are able to say what no one else has been able to proclaim--Jesus' true identity. They see what others cannot see. Perhaps the tradition of the pre-existent Son of God being present when Satan and his forces were cast out of heaven impregnates this text, but I suspect it's less direct than that. More than anything, it's a way for Matthew to show how Jesus' real identity is accessible by those who inhabit a spiritual plane, but I also think that the gospel writer is conveying a subtle criticism here, too. He's reminding us that those of us who do not inhabit that spiritual plane might miss what is standing right in front of them.

There are some other clues in this passage that suggest that Matthew might have the spiritually uninformed in his sights. The land of the Gadarenes was Gentile territory, and, even if you aren't up on your first-century Palestinian geography, you can tell that from the presence of a large herd of swine in the story. Pork, of course, isn't kosher. The children of Israel were forbidden from eating it. More than that, however, they were not allowed to touch pigs, raise pigs, or allow pigs to live in their towns. Pigs, as you might know, are omnivores, and, as such, they have a tendency to dig into shallow graves and munch on poorly buried corpses--a fact both disgusting and doubly unclean. So pigs were absolutely forbidden in the presence of God's people. These Gadarenes, however, were Gentiles, so keeping swine was no big deal. Once cast out of the people, the demons, represented as equally ungodly, find their home in the equally ungodly herd of swine. Naturally, the swineherds, by virtue of keeping the pigs and touching them and living with them, were thought of among the most unclean in their society. They become the counter-evangelists, who run to the town and share the disturbing news of the exorcism, and the townspeople, despite being freed from the burden of two uncontainable demoniacs, meet Jesus and ask him to leave.

The demons can tell who Jesus is, but the swineherds and the townspeople cannot. The demons submit themselves to Jesus' authority, but the Gadarenes ask him to go away. Just as we criticize the disciples for failing to grasp the entirety of Jesus' message, just as we condemn the religious authorities for turning against Jesus, it is easy for us to be critical of the Gentiles who were not enlightened enough to recognize who it was that stood in front of them, but how sure are we that we are standing on the right side of that spiritual divide? How confident are we in our ability to recognize Jesus for who he really is?

Anyone who loves mother or father or sister or brother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it and anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are the meek, the hungry, the poor, and the powerless. That's Jesus. But do we recognize him?

We live in twenty-first-century Bible-belt America. Christianity has never been easier, but following Jesus is just as hard as it has ever been. Do we have the spiritual eyes we need to recognize him and his words and his work, or have we become so accustomed to a sanitized, depoliticized, popularized religion that we've lost that spiritual sightedness? Like a herd of swine feeding on a hillside, our comfortable life stands in the way of what Jesus is doing in the world around us and would do within us if we would only recognize it. Where is he to be found? Amidst the outcasts, the sinners, the refugees, the illegal immigrants, the homeless, the illiterates, the alcoholics, the addicts, and the gamblers. Where are those of us who claim to follow him to be found? Comfortable offices and comfortable churches with comfortable pews. It's easy to see Jesus when you in habit a faith that is removed from the ministry of Jesus, but it's impossible to recognize him as the Son of God.

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