Encounters with Jesus in the Cemeteries of Life

Yesterday’s sermon from Luke 8:26-39

My friend Emily and I met in seminary. During our last semester, we were in a class together called Writing as a Spiritual Discipline. After we graduated, we continued to meet together and practice a writing exercise called morning pages: writing for 15 minutes without stopping or editing yourself. One day I got a text from her. “Hey do you wanna get dinner tonight at Willy’s and do some morning pages at the Decatur cemetery?”

I said sure, and after dinner, we strolled through the cemetery – which is quite lovely in its layout and calming in its serenity. We made it to the top of a hill to sit in her favorite pondering spot, and we wrote morning pages together. That summer evening, in the Decatur cemetery; amidst rich architecture and life stories condensed to a few words on beautiful tombstones, I wrote the best morning pages I had ever written.

Being in the midst of a pediatric chaplain residency at that time, had felt a little like living in a cemetery: a quiet wilderness where signs of life were limited, and hope was a luxury to be metered out carefully, lest it run out.

I didn’t experience any major epiphanies that day, but I did gain a clarity in how to understand my situation of wilderness as a gift of mystery ready to be discovered.
By that I mean, I began to think about how, even in a time of holding a lot of other people’s pain, I could encounter Jesus and hear what he might be trying to say to me.
Life is a series of moments, and sometimes those moments can make us feel more like we are living in a cemetery than among the community of the thriving. What have been some “cemetery moments” in your life?

It could be a loss of a loved one, which led you to an actual cemetery and a final goodbye. Metaphorical cemeteries could be loss of a job or a dream, loss of independence, a loss of connection, maybe even feelings of loss of God’s presence in your life.
In these moments, often times of despair, hopelessness or loneliness, Jesus comes to us, and we witness this in our gospel passage from Luke.

Jesus, having just braved a stormy night on the water himself, steps, gratefully, onto dry land and is met by a man who is described as having demons. Supposedly, the townspeople have tried to offer him community through unsuccessful attempts to subdue and control him with shackles and chains. So, he is driven into the wilderness and out of the sight and minds of the community.

Consumed with many demons, he is unable to speak for himself when he sees Jesus, and when Jesus asks him “what is your name?” the man responds not with his own, but with the name of his affliction. “Legion, for we are many.” This legion of demons cowers in fear, as it is evident that Jesus has come to restore this man to wholeness. The unclean spirits, as they are also called, beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss, but to send them into the herd of pigs nearby.

“Ok,” he says, and they come out of the man, go into the pigs and the pigs run, wildly down the steep bank, and drown in the river. The farmers who tend to the pigs, having lost their livelihood, run to tell the rest of the town what has happened. The townspeople come racing to the tombs and see this man who has been tormented inside for so long, clean and dressed; speaking for himself and repeating his own name; the word dripping off his lips as if it were sweet watermelon juice on a hot summer day.
Rather than be happy for him, embracing him and inviting him to eat at a table in one of their homes; rather than reinstate him into community with them – the townspeople are filled with fear and they ask Jesus to leave… and Jesus does.

The man begs Jesus to let him come too but Jesus needs him to go and tell the news of all that God has done for him. The town won’t have this man as part of their community, but Jesus will. He sends him off as a representative of hope to tell the story of this transforming encounter with Jesus in the cemetery.
In healing this man, Jesus restores him to hope and reminds him that even in the darkest places, God is with him and among him, and can use him to spread love and hope to the world.

What draws my attention most in this encounter with Jesus are: 1) the reaction of the townspeople when the man is healed, and 2) the decision Jesus makes to sacrifice the livelihood of the farmers who tend to the pigs, in order that this man might be healed and made whole.

When the demons beg him to send them into the pigs instead of the abyss, Jesus does – showing that he believes that the welfare of this man is worth more than the benefit of this herd of pigs to their owners. This is quite a statement, and quite an act on Jesus’ part. This demon-possessed man is that important in Jesus’ eyes.
What does this say about Jesus’ feelings toward people who are social outcasts today?

When the man is healed and the townspeople see him, dressed and speaking for himself, they are afraid. They can’t accept the healing as good because it has upset the structures that have been their guiding principles for a long time. They think “what might we have to give up, for the healing of others, if this guy is just going to go around healing everyone and setting them free; when we have a perfectly workable system of controlling them?”

In the healing of this man in such an intentional, subversive way, Jesus invites the townspeople into a transformative relationship of community with each other and with this man. They are not excluded from the story; they are not left out of the healing and wholeness, yet they choose to exclude themselves, because they are afraid.
One of the strongest of our present-day demons is fear; a multifaceted monster with a multitude, or, legion of ways it presents itself. For example, the fear of people who are different. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are set to begin raids in 10 major cities in the US, including Atlanta. These raids, targeting immigrants for deportation, have been delayed for 2 weeks, but the spirit of fear that has put ICE officials on high alert remains intact. The influx of people from other countries seeking refuge and asylum continues to be met with fear and inhumanity, rather than community and welcome.

Fear, in its legion of forms, is universal, relentless, and powerful. The good news of the gospel, however, is that there is a power which is stronger than fear, and that is the power of love.

Love is a powerful force that gives us the tools we need to overcome barriers, to transcend despair and find hope. This love gives us bravery to ask “what might Jesus be calling me to give of myself so that others might be healed and made whole?” And to face the various cemeteries of life where Jesus waits to transform us.

Our congregation faces a metaphorical “cemetery” of wilderness as we discern the path ahead in combining ministries with First Baptist, following Christ’s call to partake in the healing and wholeness of isolated elders in our community.

This church invites community and wholeness, despite whatever fears may arise, because you are a people who have chosen to love others, and you know the power of the love Jesus.

In the cemeteries of fear, Jesus is there to show us the way of selfless love. Selfless love welcomes the stranger and embraces diversity; creating a community where all are welcome.
In the cemeteries of loneliness, Jesus is there to show us his comforting love and presence; a love that carries and sustains us turning mourning into dancing and sorrow into turned to joy.

In the cemeteries of despair, Jesus is there to show us abundant love that tunes our hearts to the promises of Christ; guiding us toward hope.

And in these times, there will always be an invitation to community, with Jesus and with one another, an invitation to give of ourselves and grace enough to follow through.
Just as Jesus entrusted the man who had been healed with the important task of sharing his story; we are also entrusted with the task of sharing our stories. We share the stories of our encounters with Jesus and the transformations we have experienced, and in this, spread love and hope to the world around us.

 

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