Sermon for Sunday, 20th June 2010 (Third Sunday after Trinity/Proper 7)
‘When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town’. Luke 8:27
The part of England in which I grew up was an area full of legend and superstition. In ancient times it would have been a place of marshes and rivers and little islands. Even now, when the mists come down and lie across the levels, it is easy to imagine that you can see all sorts of things.
At the centre of the district was the little town of Glastonbury, the legends about which would fill many books. I grew up learning all the old tales and superstitions. Most of them were harmless folk stories; they gave a bit of life to an area which was very boring. Nothing ever happened in our area, and it was nice to think that maybe in some past time interesting and important things had taken place.
When I was young, Glastonbury was beginning to be attractive to all sorts of other people. They had no interest in Joseph of Arimathea, or King Arthur, or the old tales which we had learned. They had ways of life which seemed strange to our old-fashioned farming community. Nowadays, the new arrivals would have been called New Age travellers, in those days they were hippies. They were altogether different from the people I knew. To be fair to them, most of them were innocent and harmless. They believed in love and peace and thought they could find it in our little corner of the country.
But the hippies brought people’s attention to thoughts and ideas which were very different from the things we were taught in school. They had ideas that we thought were strange.
Some of them had come to Glastonbury because they believed that Glastonbury Tor, the hill outside of the town, was the centre of the Earth. Given the fact that I could see Glastonbury Tor from my bedroom window, I found it hard to believe it was the centre of anything. The hippies believed in all sorts of things. They believed that there was power in crystals and pyramids. They believed that the future could be foretold; some of them believed that you could tell a person’s future by reading Tarot cards; some of them believed in astrology, that our lives were controlled by the stars.
The people who gathered around Glastonbury included some who believed in “black magic”; trying to call up the spirits of the dead; trying to use the powers of darkness. They seemed to have believed strongly in the black and sinister powers. One man who got a house in our village is said to have moved because someone painted a pentagram, a five pointed star, a symbol of black magic, on the door of his house.
Being so frightened by a symbol painted on your door that you move house? Maybe there was more power behind this stuff than we imagined; maybe there were powers beyond our comprehension.
Maybe in order to understand the fear of the man who moved house, we need to look at the story of Legion in today’s Gospel and ask ourselves how we understand it.
Jesus goes to the region of the Gerasenes and is met by this man who is described as ‘demon-possessed’. Modern psychiatric medicine would come up with a different diagnosis and modern Bible scholars would tend to explain this story in a way very different than the explanation in the past.
But we are faced with a question? Can we simply explain this story simply in terms of modern science, or do we believe that there are supernatural forces at work, beyond our comprehension?
On one hand there are those who tend towards a more scientific and rational view of the world, the people who would see Legion psychiatrically disturbed, who would see in Glastonbury, and all that stuff that surrounded it, simply human efforts to create some sort of spirituality. On the other hand, there are those who would see Jesus’ encounter with Legion as a meeting with real spiritual evil, and who would see behind non-Christian spirituality a power of darkness.
Where do we find ourselves in the argument? My education and my experience of doing occasional chaplaincy work in the Downshire psychiatric hospital at Downpatrick tells me that there are people who could have behaved like Legion; I was sometimes met with strings of expletives. On the other hand, there are unexplained aspects of the story, how the man is suddenly cured and what was it that suddenly panicked the pigs? I can explain parts of the story, other parts cannot be explained.
Being rational, the sort of stuff the hippies believed has been around for generations, it never had much impact in the past are is unlikely to do so now.
But people being rational would also explain away the Christian faith. I would have friends who would say, ‘you don’t believe that old stuff, do you?’ If there is no spiritual power behind all the Glastonbury stuff, if we say it is harmless, do we also say there is no spiritual power behind the Christian faith? Do we say that religion is just humanity reaching out for some meaning in life and that we have an explanation for everything?
What the Bible records many times is God engaging in a head on conflict with cosmic powers of darkness and evil. Are we to say that is all old-fashioned?
Being a Christian always means treading a fine line. On one side, we need to be able to apply our God-given faculty of reason, but in doing so we need to to remember that on the other side there are all the things that we cannot explain.
‘When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town’, Jesus meets the man with calm logic and reason, but he also meets him with spiritual power. We need to follow that example, to be people of logic and reason, but always also to be spiritual people.
Thank you for that Ian; I found it very helpful in trying to come up with something legible for my own sermon! This is one of those passages where the conflict between the rational modern mind and the supernatural reality of Jesus’ ministry comes to the fore…