The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s179g10  Sunday 12  20/6/2010

‘do not torment me’   Luke 8.28

Fear dominates this passage.   Fear had driven this demoniac to live away from ‘normal’ society and to take up residence alone where others would not come, the tombs.   Fear kept others away, fear of someone different.   Fear of someone who lived by other rules, fear of someone who didn’t observe the normal and universally accepted conventions for living.  The demons that assailed the man feared the power of Jesus; knowing full well that Jesus could indeed cast them out and even had power to determine where they might go.   The man was full of fear, expecting to be tormented further by Jesus.   The swineherds were fearful too for they had lost their swine and, more than likely, their livelihood as well.   The people who came out to see what had happened were afraid.   The account tells us that when they were told what had happened they were seized with great fear.   And in all likelihood the cured man was also afraid to go back to his home and family, fearing their reaction.   He knew that this family had no reason to trust him.

So much fear that we can conclude that it was not just the man who initially had the demons who was tormented.   It seemed most people lived lives tormented by fear - and this was and is nothing new - certainly I live a life determined (if not actually tormented) by fear.

And so often we ascribe this fear to God.   One of the oft-repeated phrases in the book of Proverbs is: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.   Those who have mental delusions ascribe them to the divine.   Suddenly we see that we are not all that different.   Perhaps we may usually manage to live life by those universally accepted conventions, but that does not mean that we live life in all it’s fullness, for I certainly haven’t.

And traditional religion is powerless against such fear, for the only weapon traditional religion has is fear itself, so it only compounds the problem.   Of course, traditional religion based on fear, may well have caused the problem in the first place.   I certainly have met people whose lives have been thoroughly blighted by their devotion to orthodoxy.

What then is the antidote to such fear?   It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to give the answer - it is love.   How sad and telling it is to have to write that traditional religion is based on fear.   How the words of Jesus about love seemed to have been bypassed.

Last week I spoke about love being between two equals.   There can be no power imbalance between people who love one another.   This is as true between human beings as it is between the divine and humanity.   Jesus reminds his detractors: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'?”  John 10.34.   So somehow we have to extinguish the differences between ourselves and others.   And already in this sermon I have suggested some ways to do this.

The first way is to acknowledge that each of us live with fear.   I have always been a shy and retiring person, and I have only been able to extricate myself from this demon by realising that everyone else is as shy and retiring, but others have found more effective ways of hiding their shyness.

And the second way is to realise that many, many people do not live according to our conventions of life, and to not be worried about this.   Of course, some of the greatest geniuses in the world have been so precisely because of their eccentricity.   These geniuses have benefited humanity enormously.

And the third way is to recognise our equality with others.   That we are no better than others - for all our seeming ‘normality’.

Equality, freedom and acceptance are the keys to healing of demons, including the demons of fear.   We know the truth of this in our own lives.   It really doesn’t surprise us.  

Certainly it seems Jesus was able to convey these uniquely, so that their impact was rather more immediate than ever we could expect.  

And there is another key, for is not just acceptance by God that is important, but acceptance by society that is equally important.   The man was sent back to his home and family, because we all need to live in society.   There is precious little use having Jesus love me, when, at some stage I have to leave the hallowed surroundings about Jesus and return to what passes for normality.   This man was sent home because Jesus doesn’t want 5 billion people who profess to love him but 5 billion people who love one another.

It is also helpful to me to realise the fact that the book of Wisdom commends fear, yet John reminds us that perfect love casts out fear.   ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’  1 John 4.18   It is impossible to reconcile these two outlooks on the religious life.   They both derive from the same sacred text.   And if our scripture shows us two equally valid but different ways of approaching the religious life, surely we are encouraged to seek our own way of approaching the religious life, to value our own spiritual journey and to recognise the validity of other peoples’ approach to the religious life and value their journeys.

At the end of the journey towards Jerusalem, the disciples faithfully following Jesus, for one year or perhaps three, come together, finally, to the upper room, and what does Jesus do?   According to John, Jesus washes the disciples feet.   For me Jesus, thereby acknowledges the journey each of the disciples had made to come to that place.   Jesus acknowledges the hardships they have suffered, the deprivations, the fears.   Jesus acknowledges that the road has been hard, and he washes their feet with warm water to ease away their tiredness.   I feel sure he didn’t use cold water to wake them up or hot water to scald them.   It was not about cleanliness, for if that was the case he would have washed their hands.   The road had been hard, the journey took so long.

The pilgrimage that each of them had made, while superficially might have been the same geographically, was different for them spiritually.   For Simon and Andrew it meant leaving regular employment as fisher-persons, Matthew left the hated job of the tax gatherer, James and John left their normal occupations and their political zealotry.   They all had to learn that following did not confer power and prestige.   Some of these things were self inflicted, others were accidents of birth, again others products of the society in which they lived.   And perhaps the mental illness of this demoniac was one or other of these things, yet his path to God is accepted as everyone else’s.

Jesus doesn’t come to torment anyone, he comes to take away that which torments us.   And this is not necessarily something that is done overnight.

As I listened to the gospel story being read this morning, the story of the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, I was struck by the physicality of her love.   Simon’s faith was primarily intellectual, whereas the woman’s faith was expressed by gesture and touch.   Simon considered the intellect as clean and the physical as unclean.   Simon considered the intellect as above sin, which concept perhaps we do well to challenge.   Not unsurprisingly Jesus warms to the woman’s faith rather than Simon’s.   And we speak of Jesus as the word made flesh and this ought to guide us to a faith which is more than intellectual.

And I wonder if it is precisely here that we find the antidote to this man’s demons, as well as our own.   It was not something intellectual, but something physical that happened between Jesus and this demoniac, analogous to the washing of the disciples’ feet.   I note that when the people of the town came to Jesus, they found the man clothed - perhaps for the first time in his life.   If nothing else, Jesus clothed the man, and this is certainly physical, not mental.

The healing of our fears will come not by intellectual assent to particular doctrines (even the doctrine of transubstantiation) but through the warmth of companionship and intimacy, which now must come though our own physical presence and actions, not through Jesus’.

Fear causes divisions between people.  Alienation, marginalisation and denominationalism are all products of fear and they serve only to continue and exacerbate fear.   Physical intimacy between people cuts through all this, and it was precisely this that Jesus seemed so good at, and good at with all people, even those afflicted with demons.  

Recently a number of people here in Christchurch, including myself, thoroughly enjoyed a day with the Rev’d Professor Barbara Brown Taylor and she was speaking about spiritual practice in ordinary life.   Her words made me wonder how we ‘naturally’ think of prayer (as primarily a intellectual activity) as spiritual but not sexual intimacy (as primarily a physical activity).

Jesus gives of himself in the physicality of the sacraments, and over many years I can only accept this gift of himself, and try to give of myself equally, as physically, to others for it is in this way that my fears may finally be overcome as well as helping the fears of others too.

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