Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sermon: "You Are the Light of the World"

A Meditation on Mark 5:1-20
At the Conclusion of a 16 Year-Ministry
Peace United Church of Christ
Santa Cruz, California


What I love so much about you, about all of you, is that you’ve encouraged me (for all these years) to read the bible and do my best to tell the truth.  Think about that.  It’s been my calling, it’s been my privilege (for all these years) to read our ancient texts and to search them for the promises of God and the vocation of the church.  I’ve got an extraordinary gig.  It’s been my job to dive deep in the seas of grace, and to praise God for the magnificence of life, and yes, sometimes to grieve for the senselessness of violence and bigotry among us.  In this beloved space.  And you’ve encouraged me in this.  You’ve listened to me and you’ve questioned me and you’ve puzzled with me and you’ve honored my words.  You’ve honored the importance of discernment and study, scripture and preaching.  And I love you for that.  I really and truly do.  I am a wiser person, a better writer and a braver preacher: because of you.

But be honest with me.  How many of you expected me to go out with a sermon about exorcism?  I mean, really.    How many of you expected—on this particular Sunday—to chase Jesus with me into a graveyard with a crazed fellow who’s possessed by demons, who’s howling at shadows and bruising himself with stones?  Nothing like a good exorcism to round out sixteen satisfying years of ministry!  Seriously?  Seriously, Dave?

But here’s the thing.  You’ve encouraged me to read these stories bravely and to make connections.  You’ve encouraged me to go to the edge of the gospel and find radical hope and strange peace there.  You’ve encouraged me to appreciate metaphor and symbolism, and to take Jesus seriously as a teacher and a lover.  So this week, I read the fifth chapter of Mark and I see Jesus face to face with a man who’s breaking everything he can get his hands on.  And I’m reminded of my country, our country: I don’t know about you, but it all seems oddly relevant, this tale of possession, even contemporary.  How violence gets into a man (and maybe even a culture).  How it warps and wastes a nation's soul.  Whatever it is this man’s been through, whatever haunts him, terror has occupied his spirit so thoroughly that he can’t help flailing from tomb to tomb, turning down every offer to help.

It’s a strange tale, to be sure, but not unbelievably so.  Because we know.  Because we know that too often soldiers return from prison duty in Iraq or killing fields in Afghanistan, devastated by despair, and turn deadly weapons on themselves.  And we know that too often young men—raised on a steady diet of war games and bitter news—unleash their many demons in American high schools and American nightclubs and American newsrooms.  And we know that even this week demagogues hyped up on bigotry are ripping children from their parents in the name of national security.  It’s a strange tale, sure, but not unbelievably so.


The gifted New Testament scholar Walter Wink once insisted that “the myth of redemptive violence undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy.”  I don’t know about you, but this makes so much sense to me this week.  Particularly this week.  The myth is embedded in every Trump tweet, in every piece of NRA propaganda, in every mean-spirited congressional hearing.  The myth of redemptive violence.  “It lies coiled like an ancient serpent,” Walter Wink once said, “at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence since well before Babylon ruled supreme.”

This myth is enshrined, it seems, in American hubris and immigration policy.  It’s embodied in our American economy and the political dysfunction that tolerates, no facilitates, poverty and despair as public policy.  The myth of redemptive violence is rehearsed in the angry, illogical and racist ranting of elected officials—and the bitter news cycle that seems sometimes to revel in it all.  We seem somehow captive to it, shackled to violence and habits of recrimination and contempt.

And I really think this is the myth Jesus exposes and even exorcises in this morning’s story.  This myth of redemptive violence.  He urges his disciples to confront it, to unmask it.  And he urges you and me to do the same: to free ourselves from its hideous, bloody grip on our American soul.  Right here, at the edge of the gospel.  Right here, in graveyard of human despair.  If we’re to be faithful, true to our calling—in Santa Cruz, Washington DC, or anywhere else in America—we have to speak truth to these demons, within and beyond us.  We have to ask the right questions and unmask the myth.

So this angry, terrified man: he throws himself at Jesus’ feet and he begs Jesus just to leave him alone.  He may as well be a suicidal veteran, or a rabid racist at the border, or another young white boy with an AK 47 and a shattered heart.  We’ve seen him on CNN.  We’ve seen him wandering the streets right here in town or locked up in jail.  He’s one of us.  And he begs Jesus just to just leave him alone.

But instead Jesus engages and asks him his name.

And isn’t this always the way with Jesus?  He so often looks a terrorized soul in the eye and speaks of love or invites him to dinner.  He so often comes across an angry mob and invites reflection and imagination.  Instead of running for the hills, instead of hurling slurs and accusations, Jesus engages this wild, angry man and asks the demon his name.  Where do you come from?  What’s happened to you?  Who are you?

“My name is Legion,” he says, this strange, bruising demon.  “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
And here’s the clue, the indispensable clue, about where Jesus and Mark are going with this story.  Because a first-century Jew in Palestine hears this part about the Legion (capital L) and knows immediately that this is a story about Roman occupation and the violence of armies and empires.  A first-century Jew in Palestine hears the Legion howling in the graveyard and recognizes immediately the madness of war, the spiraling of violence, the terror embodied in an occupied land.  Does this sound at all familiar to you?  The madness of war, the spiraling of violence?  This is a story about rage and self-mutilation.  It’s a story about the colossal boomerang that is organized violence.  Inevitably, we take on that violence—spiritually, physically—and we inflict it on our families and schools, communities and neighborhoods, and on and on and on.  Its many demons wreak havoc on souls and cities and whole nations.  We are, indeed, possessed.

And let’s be clear, just as Jesus was clear back then, just as Martin Luther King was clear in the 60s, just as our friends in the Black Lives Matter movement and the Sanctuary network are so very clear now.  We are all in this together.  There are no exceptions for religious purity or intellectual sophistication.  There is no ‘get out of jail free’ card.  We are all in this together.  And Audre Lorde had it just right: “I am not free while anyone is unfree,” she wrote, “even when their shackles are very different from my own.”

And this too I’ve learned with you, at Peace United, over all these years.  As we’ve blessed gay and lesbian marriages all over the county, all over the state.  As we’ve committed time and energy to ministry in county jails and courtrooms.  As we’ve joined the Sanctuary movement and cast our lot with Palestinian peacemakers.  "I am not free while anyone is unfree."  We are all in this together.  We are sisters, brothers, siblings in one human family.  We are linked, connected, joined in one beloved body.  That’s how God made us.  That’s the spiritual, mystical, political heart of the Christian gospel.  And only this truth—this wild and glorious and uncompromising truth—will set us free.


When the Legion hurls itself off a cliff and into the sea, we remember the great narrative of Jewish faith, the organizing narrative of the Bible itself.  We remember that God so loved the Hebrews that God swallowed up Pharaoh’s warriors and their many chariots in the Red Sea.  And we remember that God did so to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and occupation and poverty and fear.  Whoever else God is, whatever else God is, the Biblical God is a God of liberation and freedom.  Slavery breaks God’s heart.  Occupation rouses God to action.

So Jesus sends the Legion into a herd of mad pigs, and then roaring off a cliff and into the sea.  God’s on the move again, and none too subtle about it.  God’s dream (after all) is a big dream.  God’s love is a big love.  And the point of Jesus’ stunning exorcism would not have been lost on Mark’s first-century audience.  And it ought not to be lost on us either.  Discipleship has something to do, maybe everything to do, with calling out violence, and releasing all bitterness, and rejecting the inevitability of poverty and cruelty and hunger and war.  Disciples dream God’s big dream.  Disciples ache for the kingdom, for the kin-dom, for the commonwealth of peace and freedom.  We are bread-breaking, love-making, wealth-sharing, truth-baring conspirators.  Did you get that?  We are bread-breaking, love-making, wealth-sharing, truth-baring conspirators.  And, friends, if that’s not discipleship, nothing is.

Now it would be easy, of course, if there were some great magic we could perform to heal the world of its madness.  Like the old priest exorcising the frenzied demon from Linda Blair in the old Hollywood movie.  Remember that one?  But Jesus teaches and you and I know very well that it just doesn’t work that way.  We know that God heals the world in a very different and more demanding way: through disciplined loving and daring forgiveness and committed sacrifice.

Again and again, Jesus’ disciples seek an easy way, a quick fix, a dramatic solution to the world’s problems.  Again and again, Jesus invites them to faith and compassion and daily practice.  “If any want to become my followers,” he says, over and over again, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  I wish I could tell you that this whole exorcism business is quick and easy.  But I can’t.  And it’s not.  We are called to take up the cross.  We are called to follow Jesus.  And that means bread-breaking, love-making, wealth-sharing, truth-baring.  One day at a time.  One prayer at a time.  One protest at a time.  One project at a time.

Again, I am so grateful, so profoundly grateful for learning this with you.  So many times, over so many years.  Two years ago, for instance, our friend Victoria Rue came to us with a project: “Mary/Maryam” she called it.  She told us she intended to bring together Christian and Muslim artists in a celebration of Mary/Maryam and her importance in both traditions.  And that night, that shimmering, lovely night in December of 2016, hundreds gathered right here in this sanctuary—Muslim and Jew, Christian and curious; and we broke bread together, and we reveled in stories and song together, and we exorcised demons.  Together.

That night, we conspired with God and one another.  We collaborated in a commonwealth of peace and freedom.  That night we became a multicultural, multifaith, multilingual community of resistance!  Dreaming God’s big dream together.  How sweet that was!

And then there’s the gaggle of you who’ve gone to Tecaté the past two summers, and the youth group working with Syrian refugees in Fresno last month, and Beverly and her Prophets of Hope, and Jim and his Sanctuary team, and Dave Furnish and Peter Klotz-Chamberlin and all the folks who insisted on the HP Boycott and Palestinian solidarity, and Suzanne and Jane and Lisa and all the folks who’ve shown up in our shelters to love and care and cook and feed.  For so many, many years.  Every one of these choices, every one of these projects, every time you show up: you are the gospel of peace, you are the grace of God, you are the light of the world.

So don't mistake what's going on here.  We exorcise hopelessness and despair here.  We resist the spirit of fear here.  Sunday to  Sunday.  Season by season.  We choose solidarity instead.  We choose creativity instead.  We choose laughter and love and music and mysticism instead.  This is ministry.  And this is resistance.  And this is faith.  And I’ll carry these many memories, and your irrepressible faith, in my heart for as long as I live.


The first time I heard this remarkable choir sing “The Peace of Wild Things,” I was hooked.  And not just because I love Wendell Berry, although that’s true.  And not just because I love Cheryl and her magic, although that’s also, undoubtedly true.  I was hooked because the poetry of the piece—elegantly matched by the score—heals something in me, something in us, that sorely needs healing.  Despair for the world.  Fear for our children’s lives.  Unsettling, unending, disorienting stress.

But the wise words of a poet lift the dark cloud and liberate the soul.  At least, that’s what happens for me.  I love Wendell Berry’s text and Imant Raminsh’s music and the choir’s sweet, lyrical imagination.

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars,
Waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I am so thankful, Cheryl, and all of you who’ve sung on these steps over these many years, for exorcising my fears, and ours, Sunday to Sunday, season to season, at least a little bit, sometimes a whole lot.  What happens here, every Sunday, is symbolic perhaps.  But symbols matter.  And poetry makes a difference.  When you sing something like “The Peace of Wild Things,” the myth of redemptive violence is dispelled; I really believe that.  When you give yourselves to this kind of poetry, you inspire us all to confess the angst that fuels bigotry, and then to release it, to let it go.  For a time, we can rest, we can revel, in the grace of the world.  And that is everything.  That grace is everything we need.

I want you all to know that I haven’t taken any of this music for granted: the abundance and diversity of it; the skill and expertise of all these artists; the exuberance of their ministries here.   We have experimented endlessly.  We’ve hit some home runs and bumbled too, from time to time.  But I don’t know if there’s another church on the planet—in fact, I’m quite sure there isn’t—where believers are reveling in “The Peace of Wild Things” this morning and shaking to “Shackles” in the same hour. 

And it all makes perfect sense to me: that the peace of Christ is energy in motion.  That the grace of God is the pumping of a human heart.  That the liberating church, the dreaming church, the kingdom church is a dancing church. 

Discipleship, after all, is about grace and the liberation of our minds.  But it’s also about solidarity and the liberation of our bodies.  Jesus looks this tortured man in the eye—this possessed soul—and he says: You are made for dancing.  You are created for community.  You are fashioned in the image of loving and gracious God.  So dream with me.  Build a better world with me.  Take the shackles off your feet and dance with me.

And so, dear friends, I say the same to you today.  With all kinds of gratitude.  With the deepest love for every one of you.  And with thanks for our witness together. 

Peace United Church, you are made for dancing.  You are created for community.  You are fashioned in the image of a loving and gracious God.  So dream with me, build a better world with me.  Take the shackles off your feet—one more time.  Take the shackles off your feet, and dance with me.