“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
When I was in eighth grade, I decided that, despite attending church every Sunday, being in the Church Youth Group, and being a pastor’s kid, I was not in fact Christian. As I saw it, there were too many beliefs, ideas, and propositions that I either couldn’t figure out or couldn’t get behind, so, with much thoughtfulness, sincerity, and all the wisdom of a fourteen year old boy, I set out to figure out my own religion: a set of beliefs, statements, and positions that I could fully get behind. It took me about an hour, and came out to a little more than one page, single spaced, in Microsoft Word. I picked a cool font, slapped a title on it in WordArt, and called it done.
That was about nine years ago, and while I hope that my relationship to Christianity has matured somewhat since then, I have to admit that I often find myself back in eighth grade, struggling with a complex faith, trying to figure it all out in my head, trying to make it work intellectually, to make it logical and comprehensible. It often feels like Christianity is a puzzle that I am trying to solve. Trying to somehow get it right.
Sermon for The Feast of Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416)
I’d like to address my comments to the middle school students and their chaperones who are with us this afternoon from Hilltop School in Brattleboro, Vermont. Of course, it’s okay if the rest of you want to listen in. Nothing I’m going to say is secret. But I want to speak mainly to these young people because I think the message we have today is especially important for them to hear, to learn and to remember.
Today we are celebrating the feast of a very interesting woman who lived in England in the 14th century. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the city of Norwich, so she’s usually referred to as “Julian of Norwich.” I’ll tell you more about her in a minute, but first let me say that she was born in the year 1342 and that it was a very difficult time to be alive. In the 14th century, Europe suffered through a terrible plague called the Black Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was highly contagious and deadly and it swept through towns and villages killing all kinds of people — rich and poor, old and young, it didn’t matter. No one was safe. In the end it was estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died from it, which was about one-third of the population of Europe at that time. Can you imagine a disease so terrible that it took the lives of one out of every three people?
“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
Here we kneel at the tomb once more, watching, waiting, numb, and grieving. We stare at love embodied and remember love received. Our song is love unknown, our Savior’s love—to you, to me—love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be.[i]
Love shown to children. “Let the little ones come to me. Do not stop them.”[ii] Listen to the kids and follow them that we might lovely be.
Love shown to blind Bartimaeus who cried out for mercy. Jesus turned, invited, and healed that we might lovely be.[iii]
Love shown to the palm-waving crowd who sang “hosanna.” Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey not a stallion, leading with humility that we might lovely be.[iv]
Love shown to the woman who returned to anoint Jesus with costly ointment. Jesus welcomed and honored her that we might lovely be.
Love shown resisting violence. Jesus said: “No more of this” and healed the one his followers struck that we might lovely be.[v]
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
Grandmothers, at least my grandmothers, are quite wonderful! I have many fond memories of them. One of them, whom we all called Nanny, had the softest skin of anyone I have ever known. I loved to snuggle up with her when she came for a visit, and feel the softness of her cheeks. The other, whom we all called Grandma, took an interest in everything around her. Even when she was well into her eighties, she was always taking trips here and there, exploring the country with this friend or that one. Over the years she enrolled in countless classes, or joined book clubs and attended poetry writing workshops. She took film classes, and practiced her drawing, and went on bird watching expeditions.
The summer I was 20, I lived with Grandma, and over supper in the evening, she and I would talk books. I had discovered Thomas Merton that summer, and was reading The Seven Story Mountain. Grandma had discovered Hans Kung, and was reading On Being a Christian, and so our evening conversations were about theology and spirituality. Pretty heady stuff for a 20 year old and his grandmother!
“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?