Homily for Proper 7, Year C
preached at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (San Francisco, CA)
Video of full service including homily can be accessed at the bottom of this post
Long before I was a priest…back when I was a newly minted social worker…I worked for a residential health care facility in Buffalo, NY where my assignment included staffing both a medical unit, and a memory care unit. I floated between the two units, so one of my responsibilities was to determine which space better met the care needs of each resident.
One day, I was working on the medical unit making sure my notes were up-to-date during the annual inspection from the state health department. We had a newly admitted resident who was sitting in her chair, directly in my line of sight. I’d been asked to observe her to see which unit might be a better fit for her care. As happens when staff are under the watchful gaze of authorities, everyone was feeling on edge. Nurses were making sure the right medications went out at the right time to all the right people, and CNA’s were scurrying to get people dressed, bathed, and fed with more expediency than perhaps was typical. The resident under my watchful care was trying to talk to all the busy people passing her by, “Excuse me!” she’d say. The nurse would reply, “I’ll be right back!” and hurry off with her cart. “Could you help me?” she would say to get the attention of the CNA who was wheeling someone off to their room, “I’ll be back in just a minute!” they would reply.
My head was down, writing my intake note when I heard the woman suddenly burst into a loud cry, “THE DEVIL! THE DEVIL!! THE DEVIL IS OVER HERE!!!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. I flew out from behind the desk to run over to intervene in this mental health crisis, the nurse left her cart, the CNA reversed course to see what kind of situation had emerged. And we all did a double-take when our new resident calmly shifted herself in her chair and said, “There we are. Now that I have everyone’s attention: could someone please help me to the restroom?”
Suffice it to say, my assessment read: “Excellent self-advocate with no cognitive deficits noted”
That was a pivotal moment in my early career. My own presumptions got in the way of truly seeing a person in strength and humanity. I’ve shared that story with my social work students back home at VCU as a prelude to talking about the human and spiritual dimensions of the social work profession. I’m talking about the blend of social work and spiritual care right now at Church Divinity School of the Pacific where I once studied, and now I’m serving as a Visiting Professor this summer. We grow from moments like this that sneak up on us, and catch us right in our assumptions. We’re given one of those moments in today’s Gospel.
The Gospel sounds like a movie script, doesn’t it? I can practically see the trailer: a creepy cemetery with a figure lurking around, cutting to a hillside filled with pigs running headlong to their demise. But let’s step away from the cinematics to the heart of the lesson. I’m convinced that the people living in the country of the Geresenes thought they had this situation all figured out. I can imagine the kind of stories that were told about the naked, crazy man who lived in the tombs, cast out from the daily life and residential vibe of the city. I’m sure that the rumor mill was on fire whenever he was acting out, and the authorities began to think nothing about binding him up in chains and shackles in the name of safety, “for everyone’s good.” I can imagine parents scooping up their children and shushing them when they wondered out loud who that man was and asked what he was doing, living where the dead were supposed to be. Childish curiosity turned quickly to fear, and fear turned to stigma, and stigma turned socially sanctioned discrimination where no one thought twice about marginalizing this outcast labelled as a demoniac who didn’t have access to housing, clothing or basic needs because (subtext) they couldn’t really be human after all, could they? Being less than human, of course, justified their acts of punitive exile and carceration for the safety of self and others.
We may be living in a different century, but some situations seem shockingly familiar.
Enter Jesus, who earlier in the Gospel according to Luke, has just stilled the winds and waves of rough waters and now steps from sea onto dry land. Jesus is welcomed ashore by this outcast who has seen torment, shackles, ridicule and oppression; that which is in possession of him recognizes Jesus for exactly who he is and he exclaims it at the top of his voice. I doubt it sounded like holy recognition. Like my resident on the unit, that greeting probably struck fear into the disciples and all who were nearby. Everyone was in position and ready to react.
Except Jesus. Instead, Jesus asks: “What is your name?”
What is your name?
It sounds like a simple question, but it tells us so much about Jesus. The question Jesus asks is singular, personal, human. And even when the man cannot identify himself beyond that which possesses him, Jesus’ response is to cast away that which was not of the person, to free the human being who has been imprisoned by the evil forces of this world. After all the resulting drama involving swine and cliffs settles and the swineherds go into the city to tell the tale of what they saw, because…well…who doesn’t want to share a story like that…people drop their busy lives to rush into the dramatic scene to see what has happened. They set out anticipating great drama unfolding from one they had demonized, and arrive to see something else entirely: a person who is whole, clothed, calm and sitting as Jesus’ feet.
And they were afraid.
The order of operations by which this Gospel lesson unfolds isn’t lost on me, and I don’t for a moment think it’s accidental. Deep fear sets in when they see the person, the human being, the one just like them. They came to that scene expecting what they had come to expect: a demoniac, a non-person, an outcast. Now, they saw a person. And they were afraid.
It was too terrifying to confront the reality of our common humanity, to recognize that the person Jesus was able to see singularly was in effect, every person. The sad reality is that it’s easier to keep a demoniac…or any other “label”…cast out from a community, then it is to welcome and greet a human being that we now see clearly is and always has been one of us.
Jesus sees that man, and each of us, as a person. That radical love was too much for the people of the Geresenes. They ask Jesus to leave; the fear of seeing their common, equal humanity was just too great. But it was enough for the healed man, who saw himself renewed and asked to go with Jesus. I can imagine why, can’t you? It’s hard work to confront stigma and fear, day after day. But Jesus asks him to remain and he does, using his voice and story and person to share the Good News even to those who had cast him aside, who were afraid, who could not see him as a person. Yet. But Jesus had seen him, and healed him. And being seen, respected and loved was enough for him to stay and proclaim the good news of what Jesus had done, believing others would eventually see it, too.
The Good News in this story is profound: there is no amount of human marginalization, no amount of possession by the structures and forces of evil that can keep us from being seen, and known and loved by Jesus and healed by divine love and grace. Not a legion of demons; not the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism; not the terror of unchecked gun violence; not the structures of addiction, illness, fear, or oppression. We are seen, known and asked our name…invited to see ourselves beyond the structures and forces of evil that can enslave us and others. The value of our personhood matters to God, profoundly.
We can also be overwhelmed when confronted by the holy equality of the Good News of God in Christ: Can we see others as Jesus sees them? Can we see ourselves, as Jesus sees us?
I hope the answer to both questions is: I will, with God’s help.
We are invited to move from the fear that enslaves us and into a new reality, a new freedom, a new way of life through God’s healing grace.
That kind of radical celebration is the heart of Juneteenth: an anniversary celebration of the words of General Order No. 3 reaching people at the furthest edge of Texas who were still enslaved not by law but by the continued abuse of power and perpetuation of the oppressive status quo. That document reading was two years after the emancipation proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. We can imagine the freedom and emancipation conveyed to those who had been enslaved, and lament the reality that fear still fueled the hearts of those wielding the power and privilege of possession. Juneteenth invites us to solidarity: celebrating freedom from the evil of slavery and the evils that enslave us, liberating us to live into the vision of holy equality we read today:
In Christ there is no longer Hebrew or Hellenist, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Imagine that as an invitation. Imagine that as the lead in to Jesus asking you not how the world sees you but, “What is your name?”
There is healing that needs to happen with the oppressive structures of this world, and there is healing that needs to happen in the most personal, ordinary everyday spaces where we greet each other with our common humanity. The Good News is, Jesus models for us a place where we can begin and from which healing and transformation can and will emerge, with God’s help.
So, I invite you to ponder, and then to pray, and then to act: who are we being called to ask, “what is your name?”
Watch the full service (Zoom Stream from St. Gregory of Nyssa):