Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Last Sunday a man gunned down forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States to date. In December of 2015 fourteen people were killed and twenty-two seriously wounded in San Bernardino, California while attending a holiday party. In December of 2012 a twenty year old man fatally shot twenty children between the ages of six and seven, as well as six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In July of 2012, a young man opened fire on spectators in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve people and wounding seventy others. The shooters all had different motives. The Orlando killer evidently committed his crime as an act of solidarity with ISIS. The San Bernardino massacre was similarly motivated. The Aurora shooter seems to have been plagued with severe mental illness. We will probably never know what motivated the Sandy Hook murders. But all these crimes have at least one common denominator: the AR 15 semi-automatic rifle-America’s gun of choice.
The AR 15 was first produced for the United States military in 1959. In 1963 the gun industry began marketing this weapon to civilians as a “semi-automatic.” The gun industry objects vehemently to use of the term “assault rifle” in describing this civilian version of the gun. Yet by whatever name one calls it, the AR 15 is designed specifically to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. While it may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” there is no doubt that a person with an A 15 can kill a lot more people than a person with a pitch fork.
To all of you gun enthusiasts out there, relax. I am not about to launch into an impassioned plea for gun control. It’s too late for that. The market for AR 15 semi-automatic rifles is already saturated with an estimated nine million such guns floating around in circulation. Because gun registration laws vary from state to state, there is no reliable way of knowing who has these weapons, where they are or who might be able to get their hands on them. The horses are out of the barn and closing the door at this point would be, at best, a symbolic gesture.
Of course, symbolic action is better than no action. I am not adverse to gun control legislation in principle. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that any legislation can cure the American fire arm fixation. Through generations of media entertainment from Bonanza to the current remake of Hawaii Five O, we have been brainwashed with the notion that conflicts between good and evil always come down to a good guy with a gun vanquishing a bad guy with a gun. That ideology was given precise articulation by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Underlying his cynical philosophy is the conviction that nothing short of violence can check evil and that, in order for good to triumph over evil, it must necessarily act more violently than evil.
The NRA’s non sequitur does not comport with reality. In fact, the vast majority of law enforcement officers throughout our nation complete their careers without ever having shot anyone. On a day to day basis, police officers deal with all manner of conflicts, disputes and infractions without ever having to draw their weapons. The vast majority of disputes between nations are resolved daily without resort to military action. It should also be noted that most of what the United States military does is unrelated to actual combat. In the real world, “Bad guys with guns” are far more frequently talked down than shot down. Violence is the exception and not the rule. That is the dirty little secret the gun industry does not want us to know. Gun sellers thrive by fostering a culture of fear and suspicion. They would have us believe that we cannot trust our neighbors, we cannot trust our government, we cannot trust our God. When all is said and done, it’s everyone for himself. If you would live, you must be able and willing to kill-and to do it more effectively than anyone else.
What I find very telling is that each of the above mentioned gun massacres was followed by a spike in sales of the AR 15, evidently spurred by fear of legislation restricting or outlawing it. There is only one way to describe people who, when they hear of tragedies like Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora or San Bernardino, think first and foremost about preserving their guns: sick and twisted. There is only one name for an industry that encourages and exploits such sick and twisted people for profit: demonic.
In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus casts out a demon. Its name is “Legion.” I don’t believe the name refers simply to the fact that the man of Gerasene was possessed by many demons. Palestine was under Roman occupation and its “legions” were a regular part of the landscape. The “peace of Rome” was enforced by the cross-Rome’s ultimate symbol of terror. Augustus Caesar, the architect of Rome’s peace, would have agreed with LaPierre’s ideology. Peace and security depend on the ability and the willingness to kill. I suspect that the herd of swine into which Jesus sent the demons was being maintained to feed one of Rome’s legions. There wouldn’t have been much of a market for pork in Israel. That would also explain why the locals wanted Jesus out of their territory. You don’t want to be seen in the company of a man who just threw the legion’s supper into the lake.
Naming demons is a dangerous business. But Jesus knew, and his disciples should also know, that once a demon is named, once it is exposed for what it truly is, it begins to lose its power to enthrall and control. Exposure is the first step in exorcism. It is high time that we name America’s gun infatuation for what it is: demonic possession. Here is a poem about its exorcism.
The Arsenal at Springfield
This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.
Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,
When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What loud lament and dismal Miserere
Will mingle with their awful symphonies!
I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
In long reverberations reach our own.
On helm and harness rings the Saxon hammer,
Through Cimbric forest roars the Norseman’s song,
And loud, amid the universal clamor,
O’er distant deserts sounds the Tartar gong.
I hear the Florentine, who from his palace
Wheels out his battle-bell with dreadful din,
And Aztec priests upon their teocallis
Beat the wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin;
The tumult of each sacked and burning village;
The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns;
The soldiers’ revels in the midst of pillage;
The wail of famine in beleaguered towns;
The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,
The rattling musketry, the clashing blade;
And ever and anon, in tones of thunder
The diapason of the cannonade.
Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,
With such accursed instruments as these,
Thou drownest Nature’s sweet and kindly voices,
And jarrest the celestial harmonies?
Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
There were no need of arsenals or forts:
The warrior’s name would be a name abhorred!
And every nation, that should lift again
Its hand against a brother, on its forehead
Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!
Down the dark future, through long generations,
The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;
And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,
I hear once more the voice of Christ say, “Peace!”
Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals
The blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies!
But beautiful as songs of the immortals,
The holy melodies of love arise.
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet who lived from 1807-1882. Longfellow grew up in Portland, Main (then still a part of Massachusetts). His father, Stephen Longfellow, was an attorney and a Harvard graduate. His mother, Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow, was the daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth, who had served in the American Revolution. After distinguishing himself at Bowdoin College, he was offered a teaching post upon graduation. Longfellow traveled widely throughout southern Europe, becoming fluent in Italian, French, Spanish and German in addition to the classical languages of Latin and Greek. In 1831 he married Mary Potter with whom he had six children. In addition to many shorter poems, Longfellow perfected the art of narrative poetry, an example of which is his famous Hiawatha. You can find out more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This passage comes to us form Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). For some background on Isaiah generally, see thesummary article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. For our purposes, it is enough to note that our lesson for Sunday was directed to the Babylonian captives who had returned to Palestine inspired by the prophetic utterances of an earlier prophet of the exile. That prophet’s sayings are collected atIsaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah). Filled with hope and expectation, these pioneers soon discovered that their dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple would not easily be realized. The land was inhabited with hostile peoples who claimed it as their own. Jerusalem was in ruins and the hoped for influx of additional returning exiles had not materialized. Broken and discouraged, the returning exiles were on the brink of extinction.
In order to fully appreciate this Sunday’s reading, you need to back up a chapter to Isaiah 64 which begins with the cry, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” The anguished prophet recites God’s doing of “terrible things” alluding to prior acts of salvation for Israel. Though Israel has sinned against her God, the prophet reminds God, “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter.” S/he then asks why God remains silent when the people cry out for salvation.
Our lesson for Sunday is a response to this question. In a nut shell, God replies: I am not silent; you are deaf. God has been reaching out to Israel, trying to get her attention but Israel is a rebellious people who will not listen. They have fallen back into idolatrous ways, “sacrificing in gardens and burning incense upon bricks.” vs. 3. Commentators are divided over what this means. Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann believes that this is a reference to “sacrifices in the high places,” a problem referenced throughout I & II Kings. Westermann, Claus Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press) p. 401. Though most likely intended for worship of Israel’s God, these shrines and the priests that oversaw them absorbed Canaanite practices into their cultic worship. While the biblical authors and the prophets understood worship of Israel’s God to be wholly incompatible with Canaanite religion, the Israelite people did not always view it that way. Worship at these “high places” was never thoroughly eliminated at any time throughout Israel’s history as an independent kingdom. Thus, it is not surprising that it springs up again as the Jews begin to return from Babylon to resettle what once was Canaan.
It is alleged that the people “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places.” vs. 4. Again, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on here. Westermann believes that the reference here is to rites designed to obtain oracles from the dead. Id at 402. Such rites are not unknown in Israel, see, e.g., Saul’s appeal to the witch of Endor, I Samuel 28:3-25. Whatever is happening, it constitutes resort to someone or something other than Israel’s God whose word alone is worthy of trust. One cannot expect to hear a word from God when seeking other words from other sources.
The people are castigated for eating “swine flesh” contrary to specific biblical injunctions, e.g. Leviticus 11:7;Deuteronomy 14:8. This practice might have been dictated more by hard times and scarcity of food than by willful disobedience. Nevertheless, it reflects a lack of faith in the God who promises to provide for the needs of his people. Dietary restrictions and other cultic rules might sound petty and nonsensical to us, but for Israel they were part and parcel of a holistic covenant existence where every moment of life is filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness and opportunities for thankful obedience. Because the presence of God is known within the framework of the covenant relationship, rejection of the covenant naturally creates a sense of God’s absence.
“As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” vs. 8. Though Israel’s faithlessness will be punished, God will not make an end of Israel. To the contrary, God will “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains.” vs. 9. Judgment is a necessary word, but never the final word from God. There is a future for this harried people and a promise-if only they have ears to hear it.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. Our reading begins at vs. 19 where the psalmist makes a plaintive cry for salvation. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
This passage spells out the consequences of faith in Jesus Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” vs. 28. Yet I find myself asking in good Lutheran fashion: “What does this mean?” Surely it cannot mean that we lose our distinctiveness through unity in Christ. It cannot mean that there is some spiritual essence that is truly “me” and that my maleness, my American identity, my love of J.S. Bach and Ella Fitzgerald is merely accidental. So what, then, can oneness in Christ mean?
I believe we need to expand our literary scope to I Corinthians to answer this question. Paul does not envision oneness coming about through the shedding of our differences. To the contrary, unity in Christ is achieved through harmonizing these differences in a community bound together by love. This is not a sentimental sort of love. It is a love that is practiced between people who might not like each other very much. It is the kind of love Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. Becoming one in Christ is a slow, painful and difficult process built through ongoing repentance and forgiveness.
One might conclude from all of this that Paul is replacing the requirements of circumcision and dietary rules with the far more onerous burden of loving each other by our own strength of character. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intent. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1. The life to which Paul calls us is one of joy and thankfulness. Note well that Paul distinguishes between “works of the flesh” which, however well meaning produce sin of one kind or another, and “fruits of the Spirit” that bring life. Galatians 5:16-25 The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control are not achieved by following any rule. Instead, they grow spontaneously from a forgiven heart that knows the generosity and love of God through faith in Jesus. Knowing God’s limitless generosity toward us enables us to be equally generous and accepting of our sisters and brothers in Christ-with all of their differences. The Body of Christ is enriched and strengthened as the one Lord Jesus is reflected in many and diverse ways through its individual members.
Just prior to this story of the demoniac and the pigs, Jesus calmed a threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee leaving his terrified disciples asking, “Who then is this, that he commands even the wind and the water, and they obey him?” Luke 8:25. In last week’s gospel lesson the guests at the party of Simon the Pharisee were asking each other, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49. Ironically, the answer is given by the legion of demons who recognize Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The evil one knows his enemy.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think it is no mere coincidence that the demon answers to the name of “legion.” Matthew and Mark agree with Luke on this point, (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20) but Luke seems to take the story to a heightened level of confrontation with the Rome Empire which has been lurking in the background since the first chapter in his gospel. A “legion” was a Roman infantry division of 6,000 troops. Four such legions were holding the province of Syria, which included the principalities of Palestine. While the Decapolis was predominantly gentile territory, it had a substantial Jewish population as well. The quartering of hogs in what Jews considered to be part of the ancestral holy land could not have been welcome. In all likelihood, the hogs were being raised to feed the Roman legions and their servants. That would explain why the inhabitants were so eager to get rid of Jesus. The Roman commanders would not be pleased to learn that their dinner had been chucked into the lake and less pleased still if they were to discover that this had been the work of a Jewish exorcist. This would also explain why Jesus wished for the man who had been healed to remain in the Decapolis and proclaim all that God had done for him rather than accompany him with his disciples. The people need to know that there is a new sheriff in town. God, not Caesar, is Lord; God, not legion is in command.
The demons beg Jesus not to command them to depart into the “abyss.” This is a broad term. In Hebrew cosmology it constituted the watery deep over which the Spirit of God was blowing at the dawn of creation. See Genesis 1:1-2. In later Hebrew thought this “deep” or “abyss” became associated with the place of subterranean confinement for evil spirits. Jubilees 5:6; I Enoch 10. It figures heavily in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1-11; 17:8 and 20:1-3) and is mentioned also at other points in the New Testament. See, e.g., Jude 6; II Peter 2:4. The confinement of all evil spirits in the abyss is an apocalyptic event signaling the end triumph of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus appears to spare the demons at least temporarily from this fate, but their entry into the swine which, in turn, perish in the sea suggests that maybe the demons found their own way to the “watery deep.” Perhaps we ought not to read too much into the fate of the demons. The point seems to be that “legion” no longer occupies the man he once possessed and cannot long maintain his hold on the people God calls his own.