You can find Part 1 here!
Over the last two days I’ve been thinking deeply about the readings, and relating it to what I’m finding in the real world. I am struggling with the hateful rhetoric in the aftermath of the homegrown terrorist action in Orlando, a crime targeted towards the Latinx and LGBTQ communities. I am saddened in particular by the ways that other Baptists are reacting. I am ashamed that we share a spiritual heritage.
When I consider the actions of Jesus in the Lukan story that is our periscope (text) to preach from, (found here – Luke 8:26-39) I find them to be the opposite of this divisive and hateful preaching that is coming from Baptist pulpits. At the core of this story, I find a Jesus who, having proved his mastery over the forces of nature, takes a moment to prove that he has mastery over not just the supernatural world, but is still deeply part of the world of humanity.
Jesus and his disciples disembark from the boat, having left behind the suddenly stilled seas, and walk up the shore. Pushed off course, perhaps, they find themselves in the land of the dead – tombs all around them. This is not an encouraging place to be. Indeed, knowing the rest of the story as we do, it is easy to see the foreshadowing that the author of Luke/Acts (the same author wrote both books, and I contend that it is meant to be a single gospel – but that’s another post for another time) is accomplishing in the aftermath of the quiet of the once violent storm. This liminal place between this world and the next has a unique occupant – one who greets them in a singular manner.
Naked, for his mind is beset by demons, living far outside society because they refuse to let him near, a man comes out from among the tombs and addresses Jesus – instantly recognizing him as “Son of the Most High God.” I think at this point it is important to note that the ONLY people in Luke’s Gospel who have called Jesus “Son of God,” or “Son of the Most High,” have been angels or demons. No human has called him such, nor has Jesus called himself such. Even the term “Son of Man” has not been used. Instead Jesus has been called a prophet by the crowds and his disciples. In many ways, I don’t think even Jesus has agreed yet that this is who he is.
You can read the story yourself, see how Jesus treats this person – troubled and lost in a wilderness of the mind – who has been cast out of normal society. Jesus does not condemn him. Nor does Jesus rebuke him. Jesus asks his name. Jesus talks to him calmly, rationally, treating him like a fellow human being, not a demon. When the demon answers with the name Legion (might this have been a very self aware schizophrenic), Jesus doesn’t immediately banish him. Nor does Jesus act in anger or harm the man. Instead, he honors the request of the “Legion.” Even these demons Jesus treats with respect.
What Jesus does is transformative. When the swineherds, who fled in fear to get a mob from the town (a different legion, no?), return with a crowd, they find the whole situation changed. Here is Jesus, talking with the formerly possessed man, very much in his right mind. He is now clothed, and they are talking as teacher and student might. And when it comes down to it, the people of the countryside do not know what to do in response to Jesus transformative healing.
Like people have since time out of mind, they react in fear to something different. This man – whose place in society, or rather outside of it – had been set is now restored to them. They just don’t understand. They cannot accept that such transformation is possible – it means they may have been completely wrong about rejecting this man in the first place. So they tell Jesus to leave. And acting in love in the face of their fear (and remember – Yoda taught us fear leads to hate), Jesus abides by their request. He gets right back in his boat and leaves.
When the man begs to follow Jesus, Jesus turns him back to his community, telling him that he now has a message of the Good News of God’s Love for his community. He who was rejected by the community now has a truly prophetic voice – for he has been alive, and he has occupied a space between, and he has been restored to community. Sometimes it takes living in the in-between to truly understand where one has come from.
I see three amazing things in this story. 1) Jesus loves everyone involved, even the demonic powers, even the hateful people. 2) It was an act of hospitality (asking the man’s name, talking to him as a human and not fearing him) which helped restore the man from a space in between to a space of community. 3) Jesus empowers the man to speak love, even knowing that the fear of the community is strong.
Let me be clear – while some view this as a parable of dealing with mental illness (and indeed, there are lessons to be gleaned from this viewpoint), I am not seeing the story in this light, at this time. Instead the supernatural forces, and the very natural (but not acceptable) fears of the community of the Gerasenes, which are the heart of this story leap out at me. Particularly this week, the fearful, hateful reaction of the crowd seems so normal – and tells me that we have not grown much as a species in the last two thousand years.
It doesn’t help that I am reading Frank Herbert’s Dune right now. I read it every year, at some point. It is a seminal text. It is foundational (no – not Foundation – that’s Asimov) for me. Between Dune and the hateful Baptists, two things come to mind.
The first is that I have this phrase I use – often – when I am talking about my faith and my faith tradition: “I’m Christian, but not that kind of Christian.” Almost always followed by, “And Baptist, but not that kind of Baptist.” Far too many of my friends have been scarred by their faith traditions – particularly those of a Christian bent. I say those phrases because it’s true – I am a Christian, and a Baptist – but I am not the kind of Christian or Baptist that most people think of. Sadly, in our culture today – and among my friends who were hurt by people of faith – Baptist tends to bring at best the image of a bible thumping, hellfire and brimstone, exclusionary preacher. At worst, it invokes Fred Phelps and his kin at Westboro. I am not ashamed to be Baptist, but I am ashamed that Phelps and his kind share a spiritual heritage with me.
That brings us to now – where though Westboro is mercifully quiet, other Baptist pastors are spewing their hate in the name of the gospel. It would be one thing if this were happening somewhere one might uncritically think to expect that (say the Midwest or the backwoods of Minnesota), but the preachers I have heard this from are from as close as Sacramento, as Arizona. These spiritual kin to Fred Phelps have lamented not the 50 people killed in this horrible attack, but rather that more people did not die. I want to speculate on their true thoughts but I will limit myself. I am not in fact a mind reader. I can only judge what they say. But what they are saying is in no way what I would understand Jesus to say. I cannot believe that Jesus would be disappointed that more people did not die.
The second thought I had is one that I have often when I read Dune. I read it for the first time when I was in Second Grade. I got two ideas out of it. The first is that water is precious, and the second is that you can make religion say anything that you want it to. Linked to my first idea – that is exactly what these hate preaching pastors are doing. They are using religion – specifically Christianity, and the Baptist name – to hold up their message of exclusion, violence and loathing. I wish I could say that this was particularly un-Christian, but there is a fairly significant history of this kind of rhetoric in Christian thought in the last two hundred years. I wish I could say this was not Baptist, but the Baptist name is thoroughly wrapped up in hate speech like this.
All I can do is make sure I speak out as a Christian and a Baptist. I must claim these mantles as my own – and I must speak loudly. I can grieve the loss of life – and specifically the targeted attack on LGBTQ persons. I can denounce the hate and I can speak out – preach – my understanding that Jesus would NOT agree with these hate filled ideas coming from these independent Baptist pulpits. I can stand for Baptist principles – Soul Liberty, Priesthood of all Believers, Church Liberty and Religious Liberty. I can speak against what these antagonistic Baptist preachers are saying without denying them a right to say it.
So I think there is my sermon title – “Baptist? Why, Yes I Am!”
And now I need to get some more rest…