Preached at Hope UCC 6.19.16
This week was hard. So hard. And if it was hard for me as a straight cisgender woman, I can only imagine how much harder it was for members of the LGBTQIA community. I found myself wavering between crushing heartbreak and livid anger. Not only about the massacre itself, which surely broke my heart open, but also about the reactions after the tragedy. The way certain churches who have turned away the LBGT community from its doors suddenly were full of prayer. The way the tragedy quickly got whitewashed, and yes I use that term deliberately, into a terrorist attack to stir up Islamophobia instead of an attack on a specific community, a group that has been targeted for years, in a sanctuary for those exploring their sense of self with the friends who supported them. The way certain groups and people, especially on the internet, didn’t even try to mask their glee and approval of this attack: “Wow, some guy managed not to just take out gays, but also a bunch of Latinx, in one fell swoop.” And then there were people whose first response to Orlando was to become gun apologists and explain quickly to the rest of us why this might be a sad day, yes, but please don’t take it out on the guns.
I feel crushed in the face of such loss and pain and apathy and hatred. I feel adrift and unmoored in reaction to this inconceivable event. I felt extreme despair to realize that this week was also the one year anniversary of the racially motivated mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel church in South Carolina. It is enough to say to God, as the psalmist says, “Why have you forgotten us? Why must we walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses us? Where are you God?” If ever there was a time to sing a psalm of lament, it is now. We long for you God, to give us a sense of peace and hope in this broken world. We thirst for you God to tell us what to do to make it better. We cry out to you God, “Why must it be this way?! How do we make sure that what happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando never happens again?” What can we say, what can we do to help, to provide succor to those in pain, to our own wounded and scarred souls, to a nation mired in violence and fear of the other? Help us, God. Help us.
The psalm we sang this morning, Psalm 42, is called a psalm of lament. These kind of psalms make up at least a third of the psalms found in our scriptures. These lament psalms remind us that God is perfectly okay with us saying these things. God understands our despair. God wept this week as we all wept. Because those souls lost to us this week, all of those souls, and all the souls around the world lost to violence and war of one kind or another, were God’s beloved. God knows our cries and God hears them. The beauty of the psalms, despite their core of grief and pain, is best found in the way the writers never give up on God. In fact of all the psalms of lament in the bible, only one ends in complete hopelessness. The others all say, oh God despite the disaster I see all around me, I know you are still here. I know you can still do amazing things. I believe that though I hang at the very end of my rope, you hold the other end and will just keep reeling me in until I am home again in your peace. If anyone can heal this broken world God, it is you. We need your healing now.
But I know, all too well, that even the very word “healing” is a loaded term. In our gospel story this morning we heard the story of Jesus encountering a man with demons. It is important to acknowledge that this is not a neutral story. It has been used to wound. One blog post I read this week by an LGBT clergywoman called an “Open Letter to Preachers” started this way, “This Sunday’s lectionary passage about the Gerasene demoniac is a very touchy text to be preaching, especially given the shooting in Orlando this past Sunday. Demon possession is an accusation still leveled at the LGBT community on a regular basis. It underlies the whole idea that you can “pray away the gay”; that you can “love the sinner and hate the sin” – as though sexuality and gender identity were things that possess us, rather than integral parts of who we are.”
Now I know that I am literally and figuratively preaching to the choir here at Hope UCC when I say that I repudiate fully and completely this association of healing or demons or even yes, sin, with my beloved friends who are LGBTQIA. But I need to say this out loud because I am an authorized minister of God, and now I wear a stole, and now people hear my words and think that maybe, just maybe, I have something useful to say about God. All too often the church has wounded my friends. Religion has wounded my friends. It is still, in this day and time, revolutionary to say that God loves you just as you are, in all your fabulousness, in all your questions, in all your struggles with your identity, despite anything anyone has ever told you about your sin, or how you need to be healed, or if someone could just pray the gay away. NO! Just No. This passage isn’t about you because Jesus didn’t/doesn’t need to heal you or exorcise your demons because you are gay. God loves you just as you are. Hear that, please!
But also hear this: this passage IS about us. This passage IS about our demons. I know that even talking about demons seems a little strange. Demons aren’t a nice clean easily understood scientifically provable modern construct. It’s easier when we encounter such passages about Jesus to rush right over them and get to some of the easier to digest miracles. Or we look to break up the power of these stories by explaining them away. Clearly when the bible talked about demons it was an ancient way of saying mental illness or even epilepsy. Still cool that Jesus dealt with it, but not much different than his other healings right (which we modern types question anyway, but regardless)?
No. For I do believe that there are demons in this world. I believe those demons are powerful and hold sway over us even when we don’t want them to. I believe that in some very individual and extreme cases people let their demons take over and they lose their very selves. They lose themselves to the point where it seems perfectly sensible to buy a gun (or build a bomb or take a knife), and go into a nightclub (or a church, or a school, or an office, or an airport), and take the life of as many other humans as possible. Hear me, I am not saying these people are not culpable or are or are not mentally ill. I am not saying they are or are not guided by an ideology or are capable of working with others to destroy. I am simply saying that every day each and every one of us wrestles with their demons. Those dark places of ourselves we often hide so no one else can see them. And sometimes people lose, or even give up the fight and the demons win.
Demons like racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, ageism and many others. Demons like violence, hatred, anger, and fear. They exist and they are very, very powerful. They are insidious. They are easily fed, especially in groups. They grow deep roots, especially where doubt takes hold of us. They are Legion.
We ALL have them. Every last one of us. It is part of why we, though we are beautiful divine creations made in God’s image, are also broken and in need of redemption. We have demons. Sometimes we ourselves are the ones we fear and hate and wish to do violence to. Other times we turn that self hatred and project it on to others. We say aloud, “How could this tragedy happen?!!” But if we are brutally honest with ourselves, honest with God, we know how it can happen. Demons are very, very powerful. Hatred is very, very powerful. Violence is easy when you have stripped another of their humanity, of their self-worth, of their God-given beauty. I have no idea how a person can rationalize and calmly and methodically kill another human being, much less 49 of them. And yet, I do know how anger and pain and the lie that some are superior to others and the other has no value, can take over and destroy lives. It is a fight we have to fight every single day.
In the gospel story today the man with the demons is fighting that fight. He goes out to meet Jesus. Clearly he knew something was going to happen. He is looking for help. And Jesus heals him. Jesus heals him of his demons. When was the last time you asked for Jesus to heal you from your demons? To heal you from the demons of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious prejudice, discrimination, extreme anger, fear and violence? In light of this week it is clear we all need to do a lot more of this.
Right after it was revealed that the Pulse attack had been perpetuated by an American of Muslim faith who pledged allegiance to ISIS, lots of people’s demons came out to play. These demons said that clearly it was Islam’s fault that this happened. And maybe by extension it clearly is the fault of everyone of Muslim faith. And then maybe also it is the fault of those who allow immigration, and those who have allowed ISIS to exist and expand in the first place. IT IS THEIR FAULT! Set the bonfire up, burn them all. Because it is far easier to do that, far easier to give in to our demons, than to admit there is a flaw in our system, our entire structure, that allows certain people to be vilified and stripped of their humanity. It is far easier to find a group to blame than to realize we have let violence have the upper hand as a way to solve conflict. It is far easier to see evil in a belief system we do not understand and do not want to learn about than it is to confront our fellow Christians who have blocked full equality for all kinds of people and used God’s name to justify feeding their own demons. We have demons my friends. And we need to be healed.
The good news is, that God can give us what we need. Jesus healed the man who had lost to his demons. Jesus defeated demons who were Legion. Ran them out! They stood no chance in the face of Jesus’ unfailing love, understanding and gift of abundant life. Our demons are also defeatable. Our demons are not any more powerful than Legion. A God who can conquer death can surely drive out hate, violence, and any kind of -ism or –phobia if we but ask God to do so. And we may have to ask over and over and over again, because demons are nasty resilient things. But they are nothing in the face of Jesus’ healing power.
After the man in the gospel passage is healed, his fellow community members don’t really know what to do about him. They are, in fact, scared of him and terrified of Jesus too. The man wants to simply go with Jesus. To fade into the background. But Jesus knows this is too important for that. Jesus says, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So the man does. And who knows how many more demons were exorcised that day because people started believing that God was more powerful than their demons.
If you are here this morning you are already in the process of being healed of your demons. Because by coming here you have already declared an act of hope. You have already declared that you think that encountering God in worship and being in community with others makes a difference. And as we are healed, even as we continually wrestle, our job is to go out and tell. For too long we have stayed silent. We have not wanted to offend. We are afraid we don’t have the words. We have been hesitant to claim the healing power of God to people who will hear that and misunderstand. For too long we have treaded carefully so that our demons and other people demons stay placated. No more.
If you feel as though being here today has made a difference in your life, if God is making a difference in your life, if God is healing your demons, go tell the world. Not only in your comfortable settings, but in your uncomfortable ones. I will no longer let the God of life be used as a wrecking ball to destroy LGBTQIA lives. I will no longer let silence give tacit agreement to people who seek to divide and other. I will no longer allow aggressions against my brothers and sisters of color to go unchecked. I will not let my demons win. I will listen to others. I will see them as my people, not as the other. I will reach out in affirmation and offer assistance. I will let kindness and compassion be my guides and I will teach my children to do the same. I will say over and over and over that violence is NOT the answer. I will love instead of hate every single time and when my demons rear their ugly heads, and they will, I will shout, “Jesus, heal me!” Church, this is our work.
I know this week it seemed like demons won and they have been winning for quite some time now. We can and should lament that. We can even rage about that. But we cannot give up. Too much is at stake. We will do our own work of healing with God’s help and then we will go out and tell everyone of what God has done for us. We will shout the message of equality and justice and love from the rooftops until the demons run away in fear. I say definitively from this pulpit, with this stole on, with all the authority my little 5 foot frame can muster that God embraced every single one of the 49 souls that came home last Sunday morning. End. Period. You can tell everyone you know that your pastor said so. Because I will not have my God, my beloved beautiful loving God, twisted or used or to hurt, wound, or hate anymore. I will not let the demons that stalk us win. Not when I have the voice to say otherwise. Not when we have the voice to say otherwise. For together, with God’s help, we are stronger than any Legion. Let it be so. Amen.