First Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 65. 1-9; Psalm 22. 19-28; Galatians 3. 23-29; Luke 8. 26-39 (view all)
A few months ago, my wife and I began reading the Harry Potter books to our daughter Evie. One of the things I’d forgotten about the early books in the series, is the dramatic relationship between Harry and the Dursleys, the relatives who are bringing him up when we first meet him.
To them, Harry is an inconvenience to be kept hidden and swept under the carpet. He is kept in the cupboard under the stairs and forced to hide away when guests visit in case he causes a scene.
But this is of course what always ends up happening! We’ve just begun the third book where at the beginning Harry accidentally causes his aunt to blow up like a balloon until she fills the dining room, and later has to be carefully deflated by the Ministry of Magic.
The horrible way in which the Dursleys treat Harry, and the ways in which they get their just desserts, are of course a source of great humour. However, in today’s gospel reading we encounter someone else who is being swept under the carpet in a far more serious and dehumanising way.
What can we learn from Jesus’ encounter with this man, and the responses of those in the passage, to help us to live as followers of Jesus today?
This man, again whose name we never learn, is clearly a huge inconvenience to the people of the city that Jesus is visiting. In his gospel, Luke presents him in about as desperate circumstances as you can imagine, held captive by a legion of demons who have made his life impossible.
Unlike the girl we met a few Sunday’s ago — whose demonic possession presented a good money-making opportunity to her owners — the reality of this man’s captivity is that he is reduced to about as degrading an existence as you can imagine. We’re told that, ‘For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.’ The people of the town had taken to chaining him up, shackled and guarded, and yet they were still not able to contain him.
It is an impossible situation — until Jesus arrives and changes everything, setting him free and restoring his humanity. His life is transformed, and the town is freed from the impossible situation which has been hanging over them all.
But the townspeople are not happy.
Surely they should be pleased with what has happened — and yet we’re told that instead it is them who are now held captive, ‘seized with great fear.’
Why? Perhaps because their real concern is the loss of their pigs, whom Jesus had sent the demons into. To them, this man had become a necessary inconvenience, someone to feel sorry for, but to avoid wasting too much time, effort and money on — and now Jesus has come and healed him at the cost of a whole herd of valuable livestock.
Or perhaps, we should be more generous to them. Maybe they are simply terrified by the idea that such a transformation could happen. Maybe their lives are comfortable enough already that the last thing they need is Jesus coming around and turning everything upside down.
And so Jesus does what they ask and withdraws away from them.
When we encounter someone else in an impossible situation, we too can find ourselves paralysed, ‘seized’ by either fear or indifference. It can be easy to lose sight of the person, because we’re too pre-occupied with the pigs. If we are really honest with ourselves, perhaps there are times in our lives when we too beg Jesus to withdraw, because we aren’t ready for the transformation which inviting him in will bring — I certainly know that at times this has been true of me.
And yet, for the man who meets Jesus, it changes everything. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic transformation, from the beginning picture of him stalking the tombs, naked and insane — to afterwards, when he is sitting at Jesus’ feet, ‘clothed and in his right mind.’ Jesus sets him free and gives him back his humanity, gives him back his dignity, gives him a fresh start and commissions him to proclaim just what God in Jesus has done for him.
He is now a ‘child of God through faith’, as Paul describes it in our reading from Galatians, one of the first of a new humanity, a new family of God, in which there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek… slave or free… male or female… for all… are one in Christ Jesus.’
I wonder, In our lives, and in our world today, will we invite Jesus to bring transformation even in situations which are seemingly ‘impossible’?
Whether it’s issues in our individual lives — long-term problems with our physical or mental health, the struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table, broken relationships within our families. Or whether we looking at national and societal issues — how to respond to rising knife-crime, how to halt the negative impact of climate change, how to safeguard respect and tolerance in a rapidly-changing, increasingly multi-cultural society.
As we face these situation, will we allow ourselves to be paralysed by fear or indifference, or will we invite God to bring change, even if it means turning things upside down? Will we, too, be pre-occupied with the pigs, or will we focus our sight on the person, the people affected, whom God dearly loves?
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know where to start — but the one thing we can always offer is our attention, our time and a listening ear. The American theologian, Christine Pohl writes:
‘Often, the best gift we can give another person is our time and attention… Few experiences are more lonely or isolating than finding oneself unwanted, unneeded or unable to contribute. People come to life, however, when they and their offerings are valued.’Christine Pohl, Living into Community, p.170.
Our God is a God of liberation, who longs to bring new life even in the most desperate of circumstances. May we find hope in him today, whatever we are facing, and be filled afresh with compassion for others. Amen.