Deacon Jeanie Smith used On Trails as inspiration for her sermon on the Second Sunday After Pentecost, June 23, 2019.
Our St. Timothy’s book club is currently reading a book entitled On Trails by Robert Moor. I have to confess, as a person who isn’t truly drawn to nature, to hiking, to the outdoors generally, that I am amazingly enchanted by this book. Here is this guy who has grown up only truly feeling at home walking in the wilderness, who has, for heaven’s sake, hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, who writes a book that enchants even me! So, the first thing I’ll say is that I highly recommend this book to you!
One of the things Moor says about trails is that they are constantly evolving, streamlining is the word he uses. It’s not just the trailblazer that we have to admire, who forges a path through the wilderness. It’s the trail followers who not only reinforce the trail but who move it to cut corners, to avoid pitfalls, to straighten the way forward.
Moor talks in the introduction to his book about the metaphor of path in virtually all major religious. Buddha’s eight-fold path to enlightenment, Zoroaster’s paths of enhancement, the Hebrew word for law, halakhah, which means “the walking,” the Arabic word for Islamic law, shariah, which translates to “the path to the watering hole.” This is true for Christianity as well for the earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians but “people of the way.”
Moor says, “[P]aths, like religions, are seldom fixed. They continually change – widen or narrow, schism or merge – depending on how, or whether, their followers elect to use them. Both the religious path and the hiking path are, as Taoists say, made in the walking.”
I like to think that we here in the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement are right in step with that notion of constantly evolving our understanding of the path. Our church is said to rest on three legs, like a stool. Those three legs are scripture, tradition and reason. We use our experience and our reason to enhance and grapple with our reading of Scripture and to mold our traditions to make the path meaningful to us in our own time and place.
When we read Scripture, particularly a passage like the gospel reading we have before us today, we usually come at it with some lack of knowledge — such as who the Gerasenes were or where Jesus was at the time and who he was interacting with – but also with our own cultural assumptions. In this case, we know that this story appears in all three synoptic Gospels, but in Luke’s and Mark’s case, it is in the country of the Gerasenes and in Matthew’s Gospel the same story is said to have taken place in the country of the Gadarenes. The two places aren’t far apart. What’s important to know here is that Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee and is in territory of non-Jewish people, Gentiles. So we are beyond Jesus’ own understanding of his work as being only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
As to our own cultural assumptions, I’d say most of us are at least skeptical about the entire notion of demon possession. I don’t know many of you who would acknowledge actual possession by demons as being something that forms the basis of our understanding of human beings. We certainly might use a metaphor of demon possession to talk about something like addiction, say, but most of us would probably say that being possessed by a demon or an unclean spirit is a very old-fashioned and uneducated understanding. Today we might describe this man that Jesus encounters as a person who has a serious mental illness.
Certainly if we were confronted today with the man in our story, we might well steer clear of him. We’d surely keep our children as far away as we could. He is described as wearing no clothes, living in the tombs, being kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles from which he would break free and escape into the wilds. And here is Jesus, not shrinking back from meeting this man, but actually holding a conversation with the demons that possess him.
One of the first things we notice is that Jesus sees the man distinct and apart from the demons that possess him. In modern terms, we might, if we were brave enough to interact with such a person, see a crazy man or an insane person – not necessarily as a man who has a mental illness. And the wording is important here for it either validates or denies this person’s identity as a human being, a person not totally defined by his illness but distinct from it. A person like me, as worthy as I am.
For Jesus, we are all individual human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Some of us have illnesses or conditions that circumscribe our lives in ways that are entirely visible to the rest of us. My guess is that all of us have some conditions that circumscribe our lives in ways that are not visible to others. But those conditions, visible to others or not, are not the definition of who we are in God’s eyes. We would all do well to remember that.
The next thing that I notice is that Jesus converses directly with the demons. They seem not only to respect his authority, but to be pretty convinced that they have to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. Our text says, “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” And that the demons begged Jesus to let them enter the herd of swine.
What on earth are we to make of this? Well, probably that God has power over even the worst of the demons that plague our lives, just as Jesus had power over the demons in this story. But that seems to me a bit simplistic. It smacks, to me, of the form of Christianity that says just pray to Jesus and whatever ails you will be fixed. And, if it isn’t fixed, well, you just didn’t pray hard enough.
That just doesn’t seem to me to be the way God works in the world that I know. Some people have cancer or schizophrenia and they pray really, really hard and their cancer goes into remission or the schizophrenia symptoms seem to go away. Others pray equally hard without those same results.
For me, the power of this story comes in the fact of this man’s, this non-Jew’s, coming to Jesus and laying his whole self, ailment and all, at Jesus’ feet, asking for help. When we come to this altar, to God, with what ails us, physical, mental, circumstantial or whatever, and we open ourselves to God’s healing, healing comes.
That is not to say that curing comes. As Mary has often reminded me, healing and curing are not the same things. We may desperately want curing that doesn’t come at all. Healing sometimes comes in the form of peace in the face of continued, advancing illness, of a new normal, even of death.
It’s hard work to get to the place where we can fully lay ourselves and what troubles us before God. For me, that’s a lifelong process full of my stumbling and grasping and desire for control over my own life and destiny. When we truly let go and let God, as the saying goes, we not only give up control, but we give up our idea of what the “right” answer is. When we pray for peace, for that deep inner peace we so often refer to in our prayers, that’s what we’re asking for. We’re asking to lay it all before God, giving up our own control and listening for God’s work in our lives.
— Jeanie Smith