Are we like Legion? Luke 8:26-39

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St. Mary’s Church, Upton Grey, in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice

Today was my first Sunday covering services the North Hampshire Downs Benefice, and specifically a Family Communion service in the parish of Upton Grey. I really should have photographed the glorious view from the church porch (complete with circling Red Kite and twittering Long Tailed Tits) and I received a very warm welcome. It was a particular delight to have young children both read the Epistle, and lead the prayers. 
It has been a challenging week for anyone preaching; just what can one usefully say into a dynamic situation of violent episodes around the world. For me there was the added challenge of speaking to a congregation I don’t know, to a maximum of 8 minutes, and with young children present. What follows was my stumbling attempt which included props, as annotated. 

How familiar is our Gospel this morning? A person with significant mental health issues is ignored by the society in which he lives, and presents not simply a threat to himself but to those he encounters. A carer, passionate about serving people in need, is turned away through fear.

No too human stories are exactly the same. In our Gospel today, Legion doesn’t kill, Christ does not die, at least not in the land of the Geresenes – it will take the religious and political powers of the land to do that. In the Gospel story, our God-given humanity is given another chance.

We see a ‘legion’ of dehumanized situations in our world that perhaps it’s tempting to hide our children from and ignore. To add to the conflict in Syria and the treatment of refugees across the Middle East and Europe, the normalization of violence has been seen only too clearly in the last couple of weeks. We’ve seen football hooliganism (I managed not to decapitate a Churchwarden when throwing a football to them) rooted in a culture of casual racism, fuelled by the normality of heavy drinking (empty beer bottle). The violent gun use of a computer game (Call of Duty 2, borrowed from a neighbour) was suddenly translated into desperate scenes from Orlando (on my iPad) related to both IS and to homophobia. And when it all seemed comfortably like other people’s problems, MP Jo Cox is murdered outside her constituency office, and we watch (Saturday’s Guardian article) as an armed man is arrested. West Yorkshire suddenly seems quite close to leafy Hampshire. (Hand out visual aids as I talk.)

In our Gospel reading, within a short while of Jesus’ arrival and healing encounter with Legion, the community Legion has run from, creep up voyeuristically to gaup at the transformed outcast – fully clothed and in his right mind, sat as a disciple at Jesus’ feet. They are filled, not with joy and amazement at the healing of someone they know, but by fear. Fear, not so much of Legion, but of the man who had given him new life: it is Jesus they ask to leave.

It is human nature to fear what we do not understand.  The Gerasenes understood the source of the healing power that transformed Legion’s dehumanised life even less than the evil that had inhabited Legion in the first place. Jesus knew that they would only come to understand by living with a visible symbol of the power of good over evil, which was why to complete his re-humanisation, Legion had to stay in the community to which he belonged as a catalyst for their healing. It was Legion’s healing which for that society would prepare the ground for the apostolic mission to the Gentiles that would proclaim that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for ALL of you are one in Christ Jesus”.

As we reflect on this morning’s Gospel, we need to ask ourselves to what extent are we like Legion? There may indeed be demons that we have been, or need to be freed from including an over-addiction to computer games or drinking to the exclusion of all else. There may indeed be the dehumanising influences of racism around sport, the sensationalism of the papers, and the ridicule of social media memes that on the surface seem funny. (I took back the visual aids and placed them at foot of Nave altar at which I presided.) Yes, as the last week has proved only too well, we need the calm understanding of Christ-like compassion to heal these, alongside a healthy dose of self-control. To the extent that these things rule our lives rather than cause us to flourish, we need to let Jesus take them from us and place them out of reach.

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The ‘high altar’ at the end of a narrow chancel in St. Mary’s Church Upton Grey – I shared bread and wine with the congregation at the rail here, having presided at the Nave altar.

But like Legion, we are also called by Jesus to stay in the communities in which we live and work, and to show them in word and action how he has changed us. To the extent that we have been healed, helped and placed ourselves as disciples at Jesus’ feet, we need to be encouraged to make that known to those around us. Like Legion, we will not see Jesus’ healing work complete in us, until we share his compassion with the world around us. The apostolic work towards creating a world of equals, where our shared, God-given humanity is understood, is ours. “Return to your home” Jesus is saying to US, “and declare how much God has done for you.”

 

 

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Luke 7:36-8:3 Serving and being served #HMQ90

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The Nave and unusual sanctuary of St. Mary’s Church Eversley.

On the occasion of national celebrations for Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday, I found my self covering a service of Holy Communion in a parish a mere five minutes from my home, rather than the usual 25 minute drive to Old Basing. It’s been a while since I was in St. Mary’s Eversley, but as they work through a vacancy this is the first of a couple of services I’m for them. Due to the celebrations of The Queen’s birthday the service also included the treat of listening to the choir sing Zadok the Priest!

 

I wonder how many times in her long reign Her Majesty The Queen has felt like she is dining at a Pharisee’s house? Perhaps we best not answer that question.

Pharisees got such a poor reputation from the Bible that they became an adjective in our dictionary, a synonym for hypocrisy and dissembling. But, at least at first view, Simon the host in our Gospel passage seems on better terms with Jesus than some of his legalistically minded brethren.

Simon is willing to invite Jesus into his home; pity he forgets to make Jesus welcome too.

When you look at footage of Her Majesty’s 265+ foreign visits, I wonder if like me, you are struck both by the number of symbols of welcome which she encounters: in Tuvalu she was borne shoulder high into the sea in a boat carried by warriors; in Northern Ireland she received a model of the infamous Game of Thrones throne; she received a wooden plaque from athletes in Sierra Leone ; a silver box of soil from World War 1 battle grounds whilst at Wellington Barracks; and in a New Forest clearing in 1979, she was presented with a small posy of garden flowers by a 10 year old girl, who had to curtsey whilst wearing a trouser suit!

I wonder if she’s ever had her feet ceremonially washed?

Many of us will know that common courtesy and tradition in first century Israel-Palestine, should have meant that whatever Simon’s view of Jesus’ status, as a guest entering from the dusty street, Jesus should have been made welcome by having his feet washed. As social faux-pas go, it was quite a big omission. Perhaps it’s a sign of Simon’s confusion about Jesus: is he a prophet or a problem; a servant of God or a seditious dissenter?

An intruder enters and with emotional excess, makes up for Simon’s slight.

The Queen knows a little of intruders too: when in 1982 a gentleman entered her Buckingham Palace bedroom, she said afterwards to those who praised her calm reactions: “you seem to forget that I spend most of my time conversing with complete strangers.”

So did Jesus. His Kingdom-building ministry meant he was constantly on the road, meeting strangers, most of whom were as confused as Simon the Pharisee about Jesus’ role in the world. Unlike the woman with the alabaster jar: she knew exactly what Jesus’ role was; he was her King.

We don’t know what the Palace intruder said to his Queen, just as we hear nothing except weeping from the woman pouring her wealth over Jesus feet. But unlike the Palace intruder, she is a disciple, someone who welcomes Jesus and recognises him as the Messiah; it’s just she doesn’t need words to say so.

In scripture we hear Simon’s concern for the impropriety of the situation overwhelm any understanding of his own mistake – he’s much more worried about her past mistakes than his current ones. He cannot see beyond these to the service and powerful symbolic action that she is making towards Jesus. Simon seeks to score points, rather than understand the depth and dynamics of love and forgiveness, faith and servant-hood.

They are hidden from Simon, deep in that alabaster jar, those tears, that hair, and in Jesus’ unflinching understanding of the woman at his feet: who here is serving, who is being served; who here is King, and who given a Royal inheritance?

Anointing with Oil of Chrism is a sign of Royal status. It was the most private bit of the Queen’s coronation, the part that wasn’t televised. During the singing of Zadok the Priest, the symbols of her status were removed, and in a simple white dress, the oil of Chrism “was poured onto her hands, her chest and her head, to show she was being set apart to serve and love her people in all her actions, with all her heart and with all her mind” (‘The Servant Queen and the King she serves’). To Her Majesty this was the most important part of her coronation, the point which most strongly symbolised the sacrificial qualities of the loving service in which she would devote the rest of her life to the peoples of this country and Commonwealth. Through that service she has sought to tell forth the praises of her Lord Jesus Christ, in the words of her Christmas messages and in the way she relates to people. She may have had Prince Philip at her side all these years to support her, but it is her Christian faith that has been at the “inspiration” and “anchor” of her service.

The woman with the alabaster jar was serving and anointing Jesus because she recognised him as her Lord and King. Something had happened that meant she had seen in him the undiluted love of God and so she placed her faith totally in him. But whilst it was her that was anointing him, at the end of this encounter it is Jesus who serves her with an anointing not of oil, but of public words of forgiveness with which to step forth into the freedom of a new life.

In baptism the stories of love, forgiveness and freedom come alive in the symbolism of water, the stories of creation, of Exodus, of new life. It is the point where we are to invited to metaphorically rise from our knees and start our journey through life taking with us the peace of Christ. As part of this, in some Christian traditions, the oil of Chrism is used as part of baptism services, underlining the fact that through baptism we are made Christ’s Royal people, anointed to serve others, as Christ has served us.

In a world where we are encouraged constantly by the media, by politicians, by economists to make judgements about others, the truthfulness or otherwise of their statements, the validity of one person’s rights over another’s, it is easy perhaps to forget that we are called by Jesus simply to serve one another.

If we are baptised, or wish to be baptised, then to fitly live out our baptism we must make sure we do not live like Pharisees. To show that we have received that anointing for service, we are called not to simply invite the stranger in, but to make them welcome. We are called not to judge the style or degree of another’s sin, but to forgive it. We are called not to hide our faith, but to proclaim it in abundance, by word and action. We are called to live lives as Christ’s Royal people, such that we make others feel not hopeless and downtrodden, but like royalty themselves.

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From behind the altar, the sanctuary design makes for a rather unusual view of the congregation, especially since there’s a who extra aisle and the choir right of picture!

As we celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s birthday and her life-long commitment to Jesus, let us live as a true witness to the faith we share with her, “inspired [as she herself has said] by Jesus’ simple but powerful teaching: love God and love thy neighbour as thyself – in other words, treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

 

St. Mary’s Eversley, it was a joy to worship with you; thank you for the warm welcome. I look forward to an early morning BCP with you in a few weeks time.