Homily for Proper 7, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
June 23, 2019
If you’re familiar with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m assuming that most of you are, you may recall Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor to the Finch family. Scout and Jem along with the other children in the neighborhood introduce us to Boo as a sort of other-worldly spectre in the midst of what seems an otherwise idyllic town. We almost immediately take on a suspicion of Boo which matches the taunting of the children who sneak into his yard to bang on his door and fabricate tales that heighten fear in others in order to preserve their sense of power. It’s more complicated than that, of course; but its where we begin the story.
Our Gospel lesson today also opens in a kind of in-between place with a character who also seems to be located somewhere between the living and the dead. The Gospel writer describes a naked man, possessed by demons, making his home among the tombs outside the city walls. As Jesus approaches, we intuitively think we know who to sympathize with. “Watch out, Jesus” we think, “whatever is lurking about in that graveyard is up to no good!” Our suspicion holds true even in 2019, when we know there might have been any number of psychological reasons why the kind of behaviors described might have been happening.
Even holding open what might have been going on in the body, mind and spirit of the tomb-dwelling man, the linguistics of this passage convey an important undercurrent in this story which is easy to overlook in translation. The Greek words employed in the opening portion of this passage are the generic word for any man (ἀνήρ) accompanied by an indefinite pronoun (τις) diminishing the certainty of status, gender or even unique personhood of the one Jesus encounters among the tombs. Like our initial impressions of Boo Radley: we assume this is a less-than-fully-human outcast, a recluse, and an undesirable tomb-dweller.
But Jesus defies our expectations. He approaches; he engages; when confronted with the knowledge that this stranger seems to recognize both his humanity and his divinity Jesus responds by asking the man his name. But when asked his name…the response given to Jesus isn’t a human name but the state of his situation: he is the possessed. At this point in the Gospel story, we are becoming more concerned. But Jesus is becoming more invested.
As the story proceeds, Jesus encounters the person and reverses this situation, sending forth that which is truly evil from the human being he was able to see and recognize. The people who saw it fled and, as we are all keen to do, told others what had happened. When they arrive, they see something completely different than they expected: Jesus sitting with a fully recognizable and clothed human being (ἄνθρωπον) of sound mind and self-control (σωφρονοῦντα). The linguistics alone reveal the transformation from the less-than-human we think we see, to the beloved human being that Jesus sees.
Going back to our literary reference, I’m reminded of a moment further into the story of To Kill a Mockingbird when we come to understand something of the complexity and redemption of Boo Radley’s character. It plays out beautifully in the movie version of the book. Once Scout realizes Boo has been looking out for her and Jem, she then truly sees Boo as a person. Recognizing the superficial knowledge prevailing up to that point, Atticus introduces them by their full names: “Miss Jean Louise, meet Mr. Arthur Radley.”
We know, in that instant, that a true and authentic transformation has taken place. But the transformation isn’t just with the possessed man in the Gospel lesson, or with Boo Radley. It is with us.
Back to the Gospel lesson: “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.”
Notice when this fear happens:
It is when encountering the full, human being released into his personhood by the divine intervention of Jesus that they were afraid.
It is the struggle for those gathered, for the early Church, for Maycomb County, Alabama and for us right here today. It’s our human tendency to side with the people who seem to be like us, and to vilify the stranger who doesn’t seem to belong. As long as that other is outside the walls of the city…or our lives…or even our church…we live in self-protected safety. But when outsiders become insiders, it disrupts our sense of safety. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Jewish Christ-followers were wrestling with the idea of how to mix with Gentile Christ-followers, because that threw the Church into what they saw as a perilous situation under the law. Practices such as eating and bathing between Jewish and Gentile Christ followers were terrifying. And, if those who were seen as unclean strangers could be Baptized and share the Lord’s supper, then what did that mean for slaves, servants, women, and all those other outsiders? The early Church was face to face with this conflict between law and faith and they, too, were afraid. Just as Jesus presented a fully clothed human being in his right mind sitting where those gathered anticipated a monster to be, the early Church had to confront a vision of our common personhood in Christ in a way that defied their sense of what was right and pure:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sends the newly healed man back into his community, to continually speak knowledge of the workings of Christ. In the Epistle, the followers of Christ are clothed and welcomed to a new community of faith, the Church, in which they are reminded the divisions of the world no longer have dominion. In Baptism, we too renounce the evils of the world, and are joined by faith to Christian community.
This community to which we are joined, and to which all are invited to return, is the realm of Christ.
This is true of the healed person who once dwelled in the tombs; it is true of the outcast Gentiles and the less than fully human slaves and the socially marginalized women in the culture of that time. Today, it is true of all those who dwell in the outer margins of what we consider to be acceptable society as well: the streets, the jails, the border-lands, the tent cities, the detention centers, the places where we are not and where we’d rather not acknowledge that other people are. And yet, Christ is encountering all of us with the intention to heal, to transform, and to make and remake us into sound mind and body. And by “us” I mean the Church, the actor in this drama, where those given new identity in Christ are recognized and met together. The Church is the place, both in and apart from society, where this wholeness actually happens. It happens in our oneness, in our sacrament and in our communal life.
Samuel Wells, priest and ethicist, describes it powerfully:
By sharing bread with one another around the Lord’s Table, Christians learn to live in peace with those with whom they share other tables–breakfast, shop-floor, office, checkout. They develop the skills of distribution, of the poor sharing their bread with the rich, and the rich with the poor. They develop the skills of equity, of the valued place of the differently abled, differently gendered and oriented people, those of assorted races and classes and medical, criminal and social histories.
I’m also reminded of the description of the Holy Eucharist offered up by scholar of psychology and theology, Richard Beck:
The Lord’s Supper is a profoundly deep and powerful psychological intervention.
Beck goes on to describe how the symbols and practices of Holy Eucharist restructure our experiences of singularity and otherness into wholeness; we imagine, we participate and we are reconstructed from our positions of personal wealth, privilege and ability and made into whole beings, all of us transformed and now made of new mind together in Christ.
We live in a world filled with very real human drama. But our lives together in Christ are intended as a transformation, not a repetition of the way things are in the world. Jesus’ intervention is jarring and unsettling to us because it asks us to trust in a reversal of our social expectations. And it will change us. The action of the redemptive love of Christ is to recognize our need for wholeness and to transform that which is unclean to new life. That isn’t just true for those we consider to be the unclean other: it is also true for us. We are asked to come eye-to-eye with the humanness in ourselves and each other, transformed through Christ. Repeatedly coming back into community…and Communion…is an act of conscious grace. It is a practice, an intervention, and an opportunity for transformative growth.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little; you who have been here often and you who have not been here long; you who have tried to follow and you who have failed. Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.
 Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 83.
 Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011) 113.