Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 23, 2019
First Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:22-39
Everything about the man from Gerada who had spirits or daemons is “other.” “Other” is defined as a group or member of a group that is perceived as different, foreign, strange, etc., from that or those already specified or understood. He is “other” both to Jesus and to the gentiles in the Greek influenced area east of the lake we know as the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has just crossed to the “other” side – the only time he does so according to Luke. It’s important in Luke that Jesus does this. It means more than just a trip in a boat on a stormy day. It’s part of Jesus’ program of turning things upside down in Luke – of reversing power and reversing expectations. So Jesus arrives expecting to meet “the other” – seeking to meet the other – whoever that may be. The man he meets is also “other” to his own people. They have “othered” him – and continue to do so. He has violent spirits, dangerous to himself and to those around him. It’s not important for us to know exactly what the problem is, or to explain away the symptoms or the cause. What’s important is that the man is possessed by some foreign power. But he is also the object of marginalization and cruel injustice. He is naked and untouchable. He is “Legion” – a clear reference to the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in those lands.
Among ancient peoples and still today, when we suffer or perceive a threat, we find someone to blame – a person or a group on whom to hang the guilt. Among Semitic people, a goat was sometimes burdened with symbols of guilt and sent to die in the wilderness. The Hebrew people claimed that among the Canaanites it was a human being. Why do we do this? Why are humans so quick to separate and blame? If we believe in a punitive god, then it makes sense doesn’t it?
“Who me? No. He did it!” But even if we claim a benevolent and forgiving understanding of God, we may be prone to envy, suspicion, and fear. That’s an interesting word we use: prone. It means to be bowed down as in worship. When we “other” a person or a group, we bow down and worship envy, suspicion, and fear.
I can’t help but think about the inexplicable support in our nation for a mean, racist, misogynistic, white, male fear monger. The one who is enjoying that support may have participated in creating it, but we are all responsible for creating it to the extent that we worship envy, suspicion, and fear. Those who supporter such villainy are suspicious and fearful that the promise of white male privilege – which is a perversion of the American dream of sovereignty, opportunity, and freedom from oppression – will be taken from them. The perverse and pervasive logic is that if anyone who is unlike me is blocked from receiving an advantage then the chances for me to get what I think I deserve become greater.
Be careful about praying to get what you deserve – you might just get it.
The one-who-others is so committed to that process that he may suppress or repress or deny any thread of commonality with the other. And right now, you may be aware that I am doing it too. I am “othering” the ones who “other. We all do it. In some way, we all do it. It is part of how the human condition misses the mark of the Divine image.
The process of “othering” is as old as humanity, and it is as ingrained in our nature as speech or kinship. That’s why language is so important. It works like this.
We observe something desirable. It may be beautiful or beneficial or alluring, or powerful. It doesn’t matter whether not we need it or even if we already have enough of whatever it is. We desire it. If only we could transform desire to appreciation, the whole chain reaction may be prevented.
Next, envy sets in. Envy is an ugly thing. The Hebrew Bible calls it coveting and puts it on the same plane as murder and theft – one of the big ten. Envy is what begins to whisper to us that we are not equal in the sight of God and somehow we are “different” than the other. Why is she more special? Why is he more privileged? Why are they happier or more beautiful? Envy is the beginning of “othering.”
Then, if something is other, it is my rival. This hinges on the perception, or sometimes reality, of scarcity. The other has something that is or should be mine. We are rivals for it.
Then, rivalry often leads to conflict. This is point at which I decide to act on my perception that the other has what I need – perhaps what I believe to be rightfully mine. I confront the other or begin to work secretly to take the advantage. If I can do so quietly without risking my reputation or safety – so much the better.
This is where the scapegoat comes in. if I can foster a sense that the other is somehow undeserving or less than human, I can justify my actions to claim my right. So much the better if I can create a community that shares that view. I can single out a scapegoat, or I can set up a category of existence that does not deserve the object of my desire.
Next comes the sacrifice. We usually do it more subtly today than in ancient times. We can create a whole system that sacrifices the well-being of others. This works especially well if we can claim that we have nothing in common. And if we do it consistently enough and deceptively enough, we can begin to claim that it is just business as usual. “There is no other real choice. It has always been this way. The sacrifice would be too great for everyone if we were to dismantle the system in which we participate.”
And then, when we have destroyed the other, we experience catharsis – the great emotional relief that the perceived cause of our lack or loss of what was never really ours in the first place – has finally been obliterated….
But it rarely lasts. We often don’t get what we wanted. Or our other desires have been waiting patiently in line until it is their turn to begin the process again: Envy. Rivalry. Conflict. Scapegoating. Sacrifice. Catharsis. Repeat.
Jesus and his early movement proclaimed that he put an end to all of that. Even in his crucifixion he declared that all was forgiven. Mark proclaims that the persecuted have a special place in God’s desire for a beloved community of all creation. Matthew proclaims that it is Jesus’ humility and submission that signal his divinity and his humanity. John proclaims that Jesus came that all might have life and have it abundantly. Luke proclaims that Jesus came to bring good news to the have-nots, to set free those who are bound up, to recover sight for those whose vision is warped, to release the scapegoats without their undeserved burden. Jesus did not “other.” And he did not “other” the “others.” He proclaimed “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Throw off your burdens and chains and unburden and unchain the scapegoat. I have put an end to that. I am the last scapegoat.”
I want to be clear that I am not equating difference – whether cultural or functional – with being occupied with evil spirits. Instead, I am focusing on how we as individuals and cultures are occupied by the evil spirits of suspicion, accusation, and fear that cause us to single out difference and try to exclude and expel. I am trying, as Jesus suggests, to flip the paradigm. We, in fact, are the ones possessed – occupied by powers foreign to our creation in God’s image – powers like racism and misogyny.
Recently, Pastor Leigh from Vashon Presbyterian had her lectionary study group from Renton over to Vashon for a retreat day. I enjoyed lunching with them and then showing them our beautiful sanctuary. One of them was Rev. Cynthia Meyer who was originally United Methodist, but who transferred her ordination to the United Church of Christ in order to live and love and lead with greater integrity. She now serves the United Christian Church of Renton – where they have recently decided to demonstrate their support and inclusion of Queer people in their community – both inside and outside of their congregation – by displaying rainbow colored doors with the message, “God’s Doors Are Open to All!” They are living out the mission of Jesus’ followers “to boldly go!”
As you can see, someone did not like that message, and bashed in the “All” door. That was Monday. Then on Tuesday night, someone tried to set off a fire-bomb. Friday evening there was a gathering on their lawn, and Pastor Leigh and members of that congregation led. I attended, passing out candles for the concluding song – “This Little Light of Mine.” There were over 250 in attendance – all ages, races, identities. It was a taste of heaven.
So, what do we do, church?
Wesley summed it up in three simple rules. Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. How?
To “do no harm” starts when we stop “othering.”
It continues when we cry out in the face of harm.
Remember that we are all burdened and caught up in systems of “othering” through a combination of choice and circumstance.
To “Do good” by being kind. I know. That seems frail in the face of the monstrous evil that occupies us just as the daemons occupied the man whom Jesus met on the other side. Be kind in every way – great and small. Build up such a habit of kindness that it becomes first nature in all that you do.
To “stay in love with God” means to align yourself with the heart of God. Jesus revealed to us the heart of God. Although it should be no big secret, the heart of God is unconditional love. We should never pray that anyone gets what is deserved. We already have the total, unfathomable, unquenchable, inexhaustible love of God. We all do. No. Matter. What.
Since we are not God, we cannot love as completely as God loves. But we can love like God loves. We can treat everyone we encounter not as deserving God’s love, but as already having God’s favor. That makes everyone God’s favor-ite.
Beloved, Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea. Jesus calls out our demons – those that occupy us as individuals and as a body bound up together – even those that we hold close, clutching them as if they are a comfort to us in the face of change. Jesus calls us to exercise our self-awareness and restraint, our habitual kindness and our efforts at unconditional love and pursuit of shalom. Jesus calls us toward the day when difference and unfamiliarity are no longer experienced as otherness but as the potential for rich, rainbow, resplendent togetherness.