Reading for the week: Luke 8:26-39, the healing of the demon possessed man
A sermon in the “Questions of Jesus” series
(Editoral note: I don’t usually post sermons here at my blog, mainly because a sermon is very much a living thing. So much changes in the giving. I’ve been persuaded of the value of sharing more online so here it is, along with an audio file if you prefer to listen. May it be a blessing this week!)
My daughter and I, always on the lookout for a good book, have been listening to Madeline L’engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. In the Wind in the Door, the second book in the series, heroine Meg meets a Cherubim, Progo, who teaches Meg about her special gift—naming.
“You are a namer.”
“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”
Progo, whose job it was to name all the stars in the galaxy, says this, “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a namer’s job.” (79)
This is the truth Meg learns, the truth the possessed man learned in our scripture reading, the truth Jesus knew: names have power.
In Genesis, during our second story of creation, the biblical writers record a parade of animals in front of Adam, with God asking each Adam to name each one:
“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; (Genesis 2:18-20)
Like a child getting a new pet, Adam gets to joyfully inspect each one, play with it, pet it, look it over and decide what to call it. But just as with a new pet, Adam knows this excitement will give way to the long-term reality of caretaking. The biblical writers are pointing us toward a deep, ancient truth–we have been given the power of naming the world, and the responsibility of that is immense.
When we become Namers, we take on the power of shaping reality.
How many of us have been called names that didn’t bring us into our fuller selves? Childhood nicknames that carried wounds for a lot longer than they should have, maybe? In first grade, I lived with the name Amelia Bedelia, which sounds innocent enough but anything said teasingly takes its toll. There was a chant, too, you know–Amelia Bedelia. But maybe for you it wasn’t a silly book character, maybe some of us were called fat, stupid, lazy, ugly? Poor? Rich? Or the worse names, the ones that we can’t even repeat, especially not on a Sunday morning sitting here in the sanctuary.
Those are the names that carry shame—they touch us at our deepest, most vulnerable places and they hurt so bad we can’t even whisper them.
We don’t know what was going on with the man Jesus encountered out there in the middle of nowhere. Possession, I know, is hard for us to wrap our modern minds around. But we don’t have to know all the details to know this: he was outcast. Sent to live alone outside of town, among tombs–literally left for dead. He’d been given some names: Sick. Dangerous. Worthless. Those were reality shaping names, until one day, when he was finally asked his name, he couldn’t even answer. No longer a person, he had become completely his situation–literally demonized, one with the illness that had grabbed him.
We do this to ourselves, too, don’t we? I recently read an article in which the person listed all the things she’d said to herself that day:
“I’m forgetful” “I’m inconsiderate” “I’m slow” “I’m impatient” “I’m a worrier”
You know those things, right? Which of them do you say to yourself? Or are there others? Ones you can’t own up to?
The problem with these labels, these names, is that when we name ourselves, we too often base our names on moments, not on the eternal truth of who we are. We focus on these moments, we tell ourselves that they define us and so they do. We take a great, big, black Sharpie and in that permanent ink, we put a giant X across our true identity.
And that’s why we need Namers. We need people to come along, inspect us, see us for who we are and call us by our truest name. Jesus’ healing ministry almost always–with one exception–came from his ability to see people. “Do you see this woman?” we heard him ask last week. Or, “Zacheaus, Zacheaus,” he called, scanning the trees. Seeing him, naming him. Daring to erase the giant, vicious graffiti that had X’d over his real name and written “tax collector,” instead. Or in today’s reading, confronted with a mad lunatic when all he wanted was a reprieve, Jesus gives a gentle smile, an outstretched hand, “What is your name?”
In the universe Madeline L’Engle crafts in her books, evil is represented by a shadow in the universe. The Murray children see the shadow first on the planet Camazotz, which has given in completely to the shadow. “IT” controls them–but the result isn’t what you think. It’s not chaos and craziness, instead, it’s perfect. The newspaper arrives at exactly the same time every morning, delivered by a child who wakes up at precisely the same time as all of the other newspaper delivery boys. Mothers put dinner on the table at exactly the same time each night. Fathers arrive home from work at precisely the same time each evening. All of them together, walking in rhythm, down the street, whistling jauntily as they let themselves in the door. “Honey, I’m home!”
They have names, I imagine, but none that matter. For all intents and purposes, they are living the same life, with exactly the same result.
There is no hope here, none at all, of a Namer being able to do their job. To be a Namer, one must look at the differences–the particular uniqueness that sets each person apart. Progo says it this way, “A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”
There is no hope of this if we are all the same.
But if we are not all the same, then none of us can be perfect. And if we are not all perfect, it goes without saying that we have faults. Or at the very least, we have differences. And it’s easy, so, so easy, to let those faults become our names.
The namer has to see the real person, in spite of the differences, in spite of the faults. The Namer, it turns out, must not only see people as they are but see people as they could be.
There’s another time in the Bible when a person is asked for their name…the blessing of Jacob.
Some of you might know this story from Genesis: Jacob is journeying across the desert to reunite with his brother, Esau, and end an ugly family feud. When he camps for the night, he is inexplicably attacked by a man. They wrestle all night. When morning comes and the man asks to be let go, Jacob demands a blessing.
Not an explanation, not an apology, a blessing. And in reply, the man first says, “What is your name?” On hearing Jacob’s answer, the man replies, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 2:28)
That’s it. There’s no other blessing, no other promise of things to come, there is simply a name change. Jacob’s name, you see, was no longer accurate. Jacob means “heel grabber,” or “supplanter,” a reference to something in Jacob’s character that is sneaky, or somehow dishonorable.
“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.”
You are no longer to be known for your worst trait but your best, for you have wrestled with God and with yourself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that people are re-named in the Bible, nor is it the last. From Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Saul to Paul, namers are on the loose in the Bible’s thin pages, tromping from story to story, telling people not just who they are but who they will be.
This is not some vague optimism. It doesn’t mean putting on rosy glasses and imagining everything’s just going to be fine. Jesus doesn’t hop out of his boat, see the man possessed by demons and then jauntily wave as he passes by. “It’s ok! Don’t worry! God loves you and it all works out in the end!” Nor does he turn his back on the man in a fit of hopelessness. “I can’t do anything here. It’s all so horrible.”
Instead, Jesus holds the tension between naming the reality of the situation and recognizing the possibility for transformation. Jesus calls the man into being “more particularly the particular star that he was meant to be.”
Well, friends, the world needs more Namers. This is always true, I suppose. But this week, in the aftermath of a divisive election, it feels especially true. We need more people to speak love into pain, to speak solidarity into division, to speak protection into situations of vulnerability, to speak understanding into misunderstanding.
And you, by virtue of being followers of Jesus, are those people.
We cannot compromise on this:
We cannot compromise on our Christian calling to stand up to oppression. We cannot compromise on the fact that language that condones or incites hate is never “just politics,” “just teasing,” or “just grafitti.” Those words X people out.
We have to be clear that we are willing to stand up to this. We are willing to rally around the ESL class that meets in our building to say, “We’re with you, we see you, we call you by the name God gave you.” And we have to be clear that when swastikas are painted on playgrounds, as they have in places throughout the nation including Aspen, Colorado, we will be the first to be there with the soapy water and a paintcan of love to write, “Not on our watch.” We will not stand by when people are called “gay” like it’s an insult, or when the sacred right to love who we want is threatened.
This is the call we accepted when we took the name of Christ. And it’s the prophetic mantle we put on we proclaimed ourselves “Open and Affirming.” We will not sit here and “be accepting” of difference, we will actively go out to ensure that differences are treasured, invited, loved and protected.
But even while we do this, we wrestle with a tension. We wrestle with the tension that one of the differences that we must protect is the right to see things differently and to take those different perspectives to the polls with us when we vote.
It is helpful, perhaps, to remember that voting for any one flawed human being is by necessity an ethical choice. Ethics, you all know this, are when two or more moral principles collide. Do not steal is a moral command. Take care of children is a moral command. “Do you steal bread to feed a starving child?” That’s an ethical question.
Voters on all sides of issues, parties and candidates in this election made ethical choices. They made choices in which they had to pit several morals or ideals against each other. And so we can in good conscience say that people who voted for Clinton or Trump or Johnson or Stein or one of the other 20 something candidates on our Colorado ballot made an ethical choice. In our families, our circle of friends, and right here in this congregation, many people made choices they believed were ethical that landed them on different sides.
We must not demonize people for that. Just as we will not compromise on standing up for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, we cannot compromise on loving each other for the different ideas they bring to the table. And if we can’t do that here, in church, then there is very little hope for being able to do it out there, in a divided world.
There is a lot in this right now. I know, I feel it. We have to hold on to our Christian values as protectors of the oppressed while still loving those who saw it differently. It will not be easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it and the world wouldn’t need us at all. But we are needed, very much, to name the names of all God’s people in ways that call us all forward together, a holy line marching against all that would dare to X out another.