Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think we forget sometimes just how cruel the ancient world was. Infanticide, often by means of exposure, was a daily reality in antiquity, practiced by parents of unwanted or “imperfect” babies. Bloodsport was a common pastime. Slavery was nearly ubiquitous (it must be noted on this Juneteenth that modern Europeans perfected the institution of slavery as a means of cruel debasement in the Americas, and it was in many respects far more brutal than the form slavery took in the ancient world, but it was more widespread in antiquity, every major Empire in Europe, Asia, and North Africa practicing it, with the singular exception of the Persians, though even they have an asterisk next to that in the record book of history).

Most shockingly of all, the very concept of qualities like mercy and generosity and loving-kindness beings goods in themselves–not simply means for gaining some advantage–was essentially unheard of before Judaism and organized charitable activity (not philanthropy meant to attach one’s name to a public building or service, but honest-to-God aid to the poor and marginalized) did not exist before the Christian Church. Even famously atheist historian Tom Holland, acknowledges in his most recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, acknowledges that while he cannot personally affirm the metaphysical claims of Christianity, the moral principles established by Christianity and their influence as our religion grew, undeniably made the world a much less cruel, mean, scary place.

All of this is to put into context something which might have struck you as odd in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus saves the man from the country of the Gerasenes from demonic possession. We know that this is not a Jewish community, but a pagan, Gentile one, both by virtue of being on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee (a largely culturally Greek region) and because somebody is keeping pigs there, which no Jewish commmunity would have tolerated. Now, by contemporary standards or by ancient Jewish standards we might have expected this miracle to have been greeted with joy and awe by all, except perhaps the swineherd who lost his pigs. But how did the people of this city respond? They were afraid and they asked Jesus to leave.

Here is a naked man who lives in a cemetery. Mark’s version of the story tells us that this man would rant and rave and cut himself with stones. One would think seeing this man come to his senses would be a cause for celebration, but not so in the country of the Gerasenes.

It is hard to say precisely why this would be the case. There are various theories. The one I find most convincing is, believe or not, from somebody with whom I generally vehementky disagree, French philospher and critic René Girard. Like a lot of people who get fixated on a particular idea or theme to the point of trying to explain everything by reference to it, Girard developed a view of anthropology which held scapegoating as the primary mechanism by which human culture is established. This leads to some pretty outrageous claims from a Christian standpoint, particularly as it regards the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ crucifixion.

However, in at least this one instance we see the power of the theory to explain otherwise seemingly-inexplicable behavior. Why on earth would anybody want a person to undergo this horrible experience and be disappointed that he’s been healed? Presumably even the most heartless members of a community would at the very least want to be spared having to look at this horrible scene day after day. Because, sinners that we are, we might sometimes want to have a target for our collective guilt and loathing. Just so might we communally impute our problems onto one unlucky person–he must have sinned that this befell him, his sin is greater than mine, and so he bears my sin, too. Look, we don’t even need to stone this one; he’s doing it to himself.

Think this doesn’t happen today? We have seen all too clearly, all too recently with tragic effect what happens when an individual or a group of people convince themselves that their problems cannot possibly be blamed either on themselves or simple bad luck or even thorny systemic issues with no simple solution, but must, rather be blamed on an individual or a class of people. That person or group over there is entirely to be blamed and must be made to suffer, whether they be schoolchildren or the congregation of a church or synagogue or elected officials or an entire sovereign nation in Eastern Europe. Resentment, thus, becomes the primary mode of interacting with the world until that Other is made to suffer, and this has been used by fascist dictators and Marxist revolutionaries alike to create untold suffering. There will never be a shortage of angry young men, and now they’ve all got internet-connected computers in their basements to make the scapegoating more efficient.

Is there good news here? Yes. In fact it is The Good News. Jesus can save us from this cycle of rage and recrimination. When the man formerly possessed of Legion is healed, he is given not only freedom but a job to do–namely telling the people of his own city that there is a better way to live. We don’t know for certain whether or not the Gerasenes eventually accepted this message, but I suspect so, because I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have set the man to this task unless he knew it was going to work.

It can work and it does work and it will work. The catch is that it requires our own conversion, our own turning away (every day, perhaps) from pettiness and the desire to see ourselves as more deserving of God’s love than the person with whom we have the least in common, with whom we are at most enmity. It requires us to recognize that even the one who is most unlovely to us is just as loveable to God. Because in Christ, the one who has the most to need for forgiveness can, when given the gift of grace, is the greatest messenger of the Lord’s universal love. Because the church’s greatest persecutor might well become her greatest Apostle, as of old Saint Paul was made worthy to be. Because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. For Christ came to save us all, and we must see each and every human heart as a fit place in which the Spirit of God might take up residence, to transform, and to be made and inheritor of the promises of the Gospel and a herald of the same.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.