The Second Sunday after Pentecost: The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Kate Flexer headshot
The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Summer has now officially begun, as of Friday – and so begins the season of traveling. In our staff meeting last week, before starting our planning for the fall we went week by week through the summer, noting down which of us would be gone when. Afterwards Richard Storm sent around a New Yorker cartoon, of an office staff sitting around a table looking at a chart. One of them is saying, “I’m gone, then Tim’s gone, then Mel’s gone, then you’re gone, then we’re all gone, then it’s September.”

Sort of true. If you want to catch the whole staff together, you’ll have to wait till September.

And we’ve got some traveling in the scripture stories today, two vivid stories of chaos and peace and people being sent to preach God’s word. Elijah in the first one, running for his life from Jezebel and hiding in a cave in the mountains. God appears to him in the midst of chaotic storm, earthquake, and fire, finally bringing peace and the sound of sheer silence. But Elijah doesn’t get to stay and enjoy that silence – God sends him off again: go on your way, Elijah, you’ve got work to do. Never mind that the king and queen are out for his blood.

In the gospel, Jesus and his disciples travel to the country of the Gerasenes. (In the Family Camp we take part in every year we act out the scriptures in chapel, and this one would be such a great one to do. Jesus and his friends coming in on a boat, a crazy naked guy, gravestones and tombs, pigs rushing down the cliff, villagers freaking out – the possibilities are endless.) Jesus heals a man possessed with demons and restores him to his right mind, restores him to life. The man comes out of the tombs, a frightening, dangerous and unclean place of death, and is healed. He wants to stay with Jesus, the one who brought this healing and life to him. But Jesus sends him off, to go and preach to his people about what God has done for him. It’s such a powerful story of joy and life. Except the Gerasene villagers don’t seem to see it that way at all. Please go away, they say to Jesus. We liked it better the way it was.

I suppose you can’t really blame them. Those pigs were maybe their livelihood, and they’d all spooked and thundered down to drown in the sea. Or maybe it was the symbolism of it all that got to them. A man possessed by unclean spirits, living in the unclean tombs, from whom those spirits are exorcised and sent into the unclean pigs. Demons who self-identify as Legion, the term for the Roman occupying force. Or maybe it was just the trauma of the whole experience: raving violence sent to drown in the chaos and tumult of the sea. Just because at the end of all of this the man is sitting there calmly and clothed, birds singing all around, didn’t mean that it all couldn’t erupt again. Of course the locals wanted the whole scene forgotten. One can imagine Dame Maggie Smith as their spokesperson, in her role as the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. What on earth was that all about? Let’s pour some tea and put all that behind us.

But Jesus told the healed man to go back to those very people and preach the word. A tough assignment indeed.

I came across an article on this story, entitled ‘The Dysfunctional Family of the Gadarene Demoniac.’ The author makes the compelling case that this demoniac has served as scapegoat for the whole community, carrying in himself the legion of demons of the whole city. In that role he has been very useful, maintaining their calm and rational social order by containing within himself the horror and suffering they do not want to face. But his healing disrupts that order. The demons are banished into the abyss of the sea, the man is well, but the system around him can’t adapt to this new reality. Just as a dysfunctional family can’t allow the addict to heal, the villagers can’t let this man be made whole. They don’t want this healing. Jesus, please leave, they say. So Jesus does. But he sends the guy instead.

The thing is, wherever Jesus goes, he heals people. Sometimes without even intending to, he heals people. He can’t seem to help it. God wants healing, and Jesus is so transparent to that that healing flows out of him all the time. But that healing isn’t always welcome. God’s order doesn’t look like our order. God has a better way for us to live. But sometimes people get so settled in their dysfunction that they don’t really welcome that healing when it comes.

Today we welcome new members to our St Michael’s community. In a short while we’ll make some promises to each other, to be community together as we seek to make all people whole. We’d like to offer tea and an assurance that everyone is going to behave in good Episcopal fashion. But it might just be that God has other things in mind. (If you were with us at Pentecost you saw one sort of outbreak: the Spirit’s presence was all around as the bishop laid hands on each confirmation candidate’s head, the mood of the place was exuberant as the music rocked and rolled the space. Our usual order was broken, and it was all really good. Maybe it was good enough that it’s part of what made you want to join officially – it definitely served as a re-up confirming for many of us here.) After all, look at Pentecost a few weeks ago – this community is a place where the Spirit is happening and healing is afoot.

Which sometimes means we get a little shaken up. We come in from one reality, the rest of our lives, and find that this place is trying to live entirely differently. Thank God, we might think. Life is hard, our week is exhausting, our kids have us worn down, we’re lonely and isolated and restless, and this community can be a respite from all that. A place to rest, to heal, to recharge, here in a place where prayer has happened for centuries, where God is present.

But of course church is not really an escape from the dysfunctional world. Some of that dysfunction comes along with us, naturally. And we don’t just get to hide out here. God sends Elijah back to carry out his voice of prophecy; Jesus sends the healed man back to his people to tell them all that God has done for him. And so too is our charge: to be apostles as well as disciples, people who don’t just come to receive but who go out to give. We are here to experience healing and then bring it to others.

Which is easier said then done, isn’t it. Because first of all, here, in Christian community, we have to allow ourselves to be changed. Here we might find our careful cups of tea overturned, and our assumptions broken apart. Some of that might feel fun, like jazz on Pentecost. Some of it probably doesn’t. But we don’t just get to carry our dysfunction in and back out the door without it being challenged. God wants to heal us here, and then to send us out to heal others. It’s no small thing.

Here, for example, might be the place where we are meant to be healed from our addiction to success and comparing ourselves to others, where our overweening devotion to career might be brought up short. From here we might go back into our workplaces where people are in thrall to those same demons: overwork, anxiety, the feeling of never measuring up. The demons that make New York City go. We might find ourselves changed, not caring so much about all that any more – and then sent out to heal others of it too. Not an easy message to preach.

Here, maybe, we might be healed from what keeps us from real relationship, from the careful shells we build around ourselves and the ways we keep ourselves safe. We might be sent back to our families to reconsider our use of technology in the home perhaps, to re-find together the joy of really talking and being with each other. A word that people in our society crave, and yet resist to the nth degree.

Here we might be set free from our constant preoccupation with money, our scrimping and saving or our profligate spending on consumer goods. And then we might be sent back to our neighborhood where some around us are enslaved by poverty and despair, while others are captive to wealth and decadence. No one wants to hear that we’re supposed to give and share, really. Not in real life.

I know all of these demons. I’m sure you do too. And there are many more. They are legion.

Our world needs healing. It is, in fact, desperate for that healing. But that doesn’t mean we welcome it. Like the family healing from addiction, the system that we make tries to find the equilibrium it had, even when that is a life among the tombs, the path of death. Our world keeps tilting back, and we keep tilting back with it. We have work to do – and there is work to be done on us.

Going to church, we too often forget, is a countercultural act. And it’s not always so comfy. The old adage says that the church’s role is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. So think about it this summer: what do you see in your own life, the life of this city? What dysfunctions of our world do you notice us perpetuating here in our community of church? What healing do you see God working on us, welcome or not? What message do you hear God telling us to share with the world?

A few things to think about on your summer vacation. Pray on it, my friends. Because the Spirit never sits still, and we follow where she leads. And she will always lead us back out to heal.