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.
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.”