The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s179g07 Sunday 12 24/6/07
'I beg you, do not torment me' Luke 8.28
As I read this passage I was astonished how frequently Jesus is begged for things. This man begged Jesus not to torment him. Then the legion of demons begged Jesus not to be sent into the abyss but begged to be allowed to enter the swine. Even the people who came to find the previously tormented man in his right mind 'asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.' Finally the man himself begged Jesus to be allowed to follow him, and this was the one time, Jesus didn't do as he was asked.
Jesus was hardly likely to torment the man - he had been through far too many years of torment already. Jesus didn't want to stay anywhere he was not wanted, so he simply left. Jesus didn't heal the man in order to gain a follower, he is content for him to return to his home. Even with the demons, Jesus simply 'gave them permission'. Jesus does as little as possible. I have a picture of a calm and serene Jesus amidst a whole lot of manic people - utter chaos is reigning - and he does as little as possible. The exorcism happens almost without him.
The second thing that strikes me is how almost everyone else is ready to do things, to change. Very few people I've met are so ready to change. The man was tired of being tormented, the legion ready to leave the person. Having been delivered the man was ready to follow Jesus. The only people who were reluctant to change were the townspeople. For some strange reason they preferred things as they were; I suppose because the man with the legion didn't in fact affect their own day to day lives much.
I wonder how much we use religion to avoid changing? Everyone in this story knew that their lives would never be the same again.
Jesus comes to change our lives for the better. Jesus doesn't come to torment people. In my life I know how frequently I have tormented myself over stupid things I have done long ago. We are all our own worst enemy. God comes to bring us peace and others peace. Jesus doesn't come to torment other people, so there's little point in praying that someone who has offended us will 'burn in hell'. That is not what God does!
Jesus comes to change our lives. In fact, of course, every human encounter we have always leaves us changed. My father, God rest his soul, used to say: 'the day you stop learning is the day you die'. So if we are coming to Church to stay the same, then in all likelihood we are avoiding the real Jesus. Little by little we too are changed. I hope that I am being changed, despite myself :-)! Jesus is in no hurry.
While this man was possessed by this legion of demons he was isolated from civil society. The most important part of his healing was for him to return to civil society, to learn to live with other people rather than apart from other people.
I have often cause to reflect how frequently the church has set itself up as apart from the rest of society, when our true place is to live within ordinary society - showing others how they too might live amicably amongst their neighbours.
And perhaps here is a clue as to why Jesus does so little and sends the man back to his family. Jesus didn't want to set up a new religion, another cause of division between humans, but to show us that true religion is about living amicably with others who are different. This is what real health, indeed the kingdom of God, is all about.
This morning I worshipped at St Barnabas, Orange East, where they were celebrating their patronal festival. So the gospel I heard read (rather than the one I used at the hospital later) was from Matthew 10.7-13 that includes the directions to the disciples: 'Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.' (8) If Jesus gave these directions to the disciples, it was clearly not all to be dependent on Jesus. If we claim to be disciples then the same directions are given to us, and we too are called to not depend on Jesus curing us or others.
Time and again I see good religious people praying for healing instead of taking the doctor's advise or the prescribed medication. Some of the people who most ardently resist treatment are those to whom I take the sacrament of Holy Communion, and it makes me weep. As a chaplain, I am often asked to pray for healing and I have my suspicions that this is what is really being asked for. But this is to set up ourselves and the church as an alternative to society that we are somehow apart from others. When God has given doctors and nurses the sorts of care and technology to bring about all sorts of healing, then God is not going to bypass them for 'special' people like us.
There is nothing we can't do without help from other people; but nothing will be achieved if we try to do it ourselves or with the help of our personal god. God will always bring us back to others, to get us to appreciate that we can't live alone, personally as individuals, or corporately as a church. Healing, personal and corporate, is dependent on our inter-dependence.
One of the indicators of mental illness is the breakdown of a significant relationship, such as marriage. But many people who suffer mental illness have been the victims of abuse as children, which makes me wonder what comes first the breakdown or the illness?
As I visit in hospital it is not me as the chaplain who cures the sick, raises the dead, cleanses the lepers, or casts out demons but the doctors and the nurses and other staff. It is these people rather than me who are the true disciples of Jesus, whether they are 'christian' or not.
Recently the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, closely followed by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney expressed their opposition to any relaxation of the laws concerning stem cell research: http://your.sydneyanglicans.net/mediareleases/anglicans_oppose_human_cloning_amendments/
It is that which opposes God that continues to torment people, and opposition to medical research is all very well for those who do not have life threatening diseases. But for those who do, pronouncements such as those from Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Jensen are likely to be viewed as tormenting them further. And I reiterate my words about the townspeople: 'For some strange reason they preferred things as they were; I suppose because the man with the legion didn't in fact affect their own day to day lives much.'
While we as the Church are a terror and a tormenter to the society around about us, we would be better doing nothing at all, like Jesus did, and let society cure itself. It is well able to, and the torment we inflict on ourselves need last only as long as we choose.
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