Sermon: Trouble-making and scape-goating

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Sunday, the 19th of June, 2022

Luke 8:26-39
Galatians 3:23-29

I have no idea why so many people seem to think that Christianity is a reactionary force on the side of the status quo. After all the Jesus we claim to follow was a lifelong troublemaker. In today’s gospel reading, for example, Jesus cures a man who is possessed by a legion of demons. The demoniac is a man unclean in location, religion, culture, mind, and spirit. He is a Gentile: living in a land in which unclean animals like pigs are raised. He lives among the tombs: sources of ritual uncleanliness for Jews. He is totally dehumanised: he roams naked and doesn’t live in a house. Without any fear that he might himself be infected by it, Jesus approaches this situation of utter uncleanness and heals the man. Jesus then sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine, and the demons, forces of destruction, drown the pigs and presumably themselves. Evil destroys itself.

At first glance, this may not seem to be a particularly troublesome story – except for the pigs who are dead and the swineherds who must now explain where their pigs went. In fact, it seems like a happy ending, the sort of miracle story that would usually have people praising God for sending a prophet among them. But that is not what happens here. When the people of the area, alerted by the swineherds, arrive to find the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, in the position of a disciple, clothed and in his right mind, they are not overjoyed. They are afraid. They beg Jesus to leave the area. His presence is disturbing. There is no rejoicing that a once-possessed man is now able to re-enter his community. Perhaps his community would have preferred him to stay possessed?

I was a bit flippant about the fate of the poor pigs, but we need to acknowledge that Jesus’ presence has come at an economic cost to the people. Once there was a herd of pigs; now the pigs are drowned. The community’s economic well-being has been challenged. What is the mental health of a single person worth when compared to the economic health of an entire community? That is a question with which we have all become profoundly familiar over the past few years of pandemic. Throughout lockdowns we were told by business leaders, economists, and some in the media that the economic cost of closing down and staying home to save the lives of the elderly and immune-compromised was just too high.[1] I can only imagine what they would have said about the destruction of an entire herd of pigs that kept several people employed just so that one person with a mental illness could live a more normal life.

But this is not a story about competing economic values. The values under challenge in this story go beyond the economy. It is quite possible that the demoniac had played a significant role in the community. While he was ‘out there’, so obviously possessed by evil, the townspeople would have known that by contrast they were obviously good. He would have been a scapegoat, on whom the community could load all their feelings of guilt and shame. Fear of him could have drawn the townspeople closer together; we know that there is nothing like a common enemy to bond a community.

But if the outsider was no longer an outsider, the insiders might need to examine their own lives. Without a contrasting ‘baddie’, the insiders might not seem to be as good as they had imagined. If there was no longer an external enemy to draw people together, the differences between them would become more obvious. They would no longer have simply been able to rely on being part of a community created by what it was not: a community made up of people who wear clothes and live in houses and do not need to be chained up. When Jesus healed this one man it is completely possible that he put at risk the sense of identity of everyone else who lived in the country of the Gerasenes.

We do not know whether this was why the townspeople were so afraid. Maybe they were simply scared at the evidence that Jesus had a power that they could not understand. Maybe they had not even begun to think about whether the healing of the man with demons would make a difference in their own lives. But I am struck by the absence of praise and rejoicing from the community when they find the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. No joy; just fear. And they ask Jesus to leave, with no suggestion that there might be other people in the community who could benefit from a visit from the miracle worker. It is too much, the change he has brought is too scary. They want him gone.

You could say that I’m drawing a long bow by suggesting that the people of the country of the Gerasenes were more comfortable with, and might even have preferred, the demon-possessed man to the man Jesus heals. Except that sadly we see similar scapegoating, the labelling of some people or groups as ‘evil’, every day. For a long time, churches were convinced that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were evil. I spent my twenties sitting in church meetings in which people felt free to talk about people like me as disordered sinners out to destroy good Christian families. Some church denominations still believe this, but Australian society has moved on and there would be very few Australians open to arguments that same-sex-attracted people are evil. The debate has moved on to trans+ people, and in the most recent election campaign we saw an NSW candidate, Katherine Deves, whose entire reason for running seems to have been to challenge what she believes is ‘the transgender agenda’. The very same arguments about recruiting children and destroying families that were made about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people when I was young are now made about trans+, non-binary, and gender-diverse people – because some people will always need scapegoats in order to feel good about themselves. The townsfolk felt good because they were not possessed by demons. But then Jesus came along, confronting the true evil, and acting with compassion towards the so-called unclean. Troublemaker.

The Apostle Paul knew that ‘troublemaker’ was Jesus’ middle name. After all, Jesus had turned Paul’s own life completely upside down, when on the road to Damascus Paul went from being a persecutor of the church to an apostle. In today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, we see Paul following Jesus by making his own sort of trouble. The Galatians were suffering under the condemnation of biblical literalists, fundamentalists who had told the newly converted Gentile Christians that they must be circumcised to follow Christ. Paul is horrified by this. For Paul, the gospel is a message of freedom. The law that had once acted as a disciplinarian had now been replaced by baptism into Christ. Paul knew that the fundamentalists of his time could accuse him of abandoning Scripture (an accusation that is sometimes made of the Uniting Church today) and that is not what he is doing in this Letter. But he is arguing that the scriptures need to be read in the light of the coming of Christ. Jesus Christ is for Paul the hermeneutic key of the scriptures; everything needs to be interpreted through Christ. This is the way we continue to read the Bible today; this is the way we read even the letters of Paul himself. Just as Paul argued against the circumcision party of his day in the light of the gospel, so we argue against some of Paul’s statements about the role of women and the unnaturalness of same-sex desire.

Paul told the Galatians that through their baptism they were the children of God. He took a title that had previously been used only of Jews and applied it to Gentile believers. The Galatians had become part of a new world, a new creation in which divisions of race and status and gender no longer applied. This was difficult for them to believe, which is why Paul’s Letter to them contains the fabulous line: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ (Galatians 3:1) It was just as hard for members of the existing Jewish church, which is why this letter contains Paul’s description of Peter’s hypocrisy:

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (Galatians 2:11-14)

As I have said before, the division between Jews and Gentiles was the greatest that members of the early church knew, and it was a division that they eventually managed to overcome, just as the Protestant churches are gradually managing to overcome the division between male and female. But if we think of the division between ‘slave or free’ as being about economic disparity, then it is obvious that those who worship in churches on Sundays are usually from a completely different economic class to those who use the church’s welfare agencies during the week. And on this first day of Refugee Week it does not hurt us to be challenged about how open and welcoming Christians really are to those who have, in the words of our National Anthem, ‘come across the seas’ to seek refuge here.

Refugee Week logo colour

Asking such questions of ourselves, our community, and our nation may create trouble for us. But since we follow Jesus the troublemaker, that is only to be expected.

[1] Look, I don’t advise you to read Gigi Foster’s article, Stop this human sacrifice: the case against lockdowns (smh.com.au), but it is here in case you want to be reminded of the sort of rubbish that was being published to undermine the public health responses in 2020 and 2021.

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