Fifth Sunday After Pentecost 19 June 2016
(Isaiah 65:1-9 Psalm 22 Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39)
“A Love Stronger than Death!”
I remember a story once told about a family with seven children, and one day the youngest girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy, which one of us do you love most?” And the mother smiled to her daughter before she answered, but then she said very gently, “I love all of you the most from the very bottom of my heart, but I also want you to know that when one of you is in trouble or when one of you is hurt—at the moment I see you in pain, at that moment you’re the one I love the most.”
In the past two months I’ve preached four of the most difficult funerals I’ve had to preach in my 36 years of being a pastor.
In mid-April I had a funeral service of a 42-yr-old man who died of a heroin overdose. Only three weeks later, his 21-yr-old daughter died of a similar overdose and I had that service. Last Saturday I had the funeral service of a 47-yr-old woman whose wedding I celebrated 5 years ago here in this church, who died of cancer. This past Friday I had the funeral service of the 36-yr-old man who killed his 9-yr-old daughter last Sunday before taking his own life. This coming Wednesday I will have the service for that 9-yr-old girl.
In every one of these funeral services I am charged with giving a message of God’s unfailing love, as well as the hope of Resurrection. In each one of these services, I always remember the story of the mother saying to her youngest child, “the one who is hurting the most is the one I love the most at that moment.”
In each of these services I also am guided by the words that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin preached at the funeral of his 24-yr-old son, Alex, after Alex drown when his car ran off the road into Boston Harbour.
In his sermon on the day of his son’s funeral, Sloane Coffin said: “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, it was God‘s heart the first of all hearts to break.”1
In response to the horrific massacre at the nightclub in Orlando last weekend, I want you to know that today it is the LGBTQ community as well as the Muslim community that I love the most, because it is these two communities who have been hurting the most this past week. Let me also say, I believe that when the shooter opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last Sunday morning, it was God’s heart which was the first of all hearts to break.
ELCA presiding bishop, The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, said in her letter to the churches this past week, “We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God’s image.”
One of the sad ironies of this shooting is that it took place only a mile away from “the happiest place on earth”—Disney World. All of us want to be happy, and we all wish to live this dream, but into this dream come nightmares such as we encounter on so many different levels every day. It seems as if there is pain, dislocation, shock, grief, and utter devastation almost daily that render us dumbstruck in our helplessness and grief.
I believe there is something dreadfully wrong if we do not admit that there is something deeper going on here than one horrific incident. There is something in the soul of our country that is festering, ugly, evil, a proliferation of hatred, intolerance, inappropriate religion; damaging political rhetoric. More than ever before, I believe we are being called to step up with courage, to boldly insist on a complete rejection of any ideology that even suggests anything other than that, every person is a beloved child of God, always welcomed into relationship and community.
Each one of us is called to put on the prophetic mantle and speak the power of love before we lose our ability to speak anything at all!
Now…. for those who keep track of both Law and Gospel in every sermon, if my sermon thus far has sounded like all Law, you are right! So let me also share the Gospel Good News, using today’s text from Luke and the Galatians text.
As we pick up the story in Luke, we are told that Jesus is crossing over the Sea of Galilee into the land of the Gerasenes, which means he is not just crossing the sea; he is also crossing a boundary. Because the land of the Garasenes is the land of the Gentiles, no self-respecting Jewish rabbi would take his band of followers there.
When he gets there he is confronted by a man who is possessed, and Jesus asks him his name, his identity, and he says, “Legion.” This man is more than possessed; he is occupied. Because that’s what a Legion was—a unit by which the occupying Roman military organized itself, made up of 6000 soldiers. Could this man really have 6000 demons?
The man is alone, wandering the tombs, overcome with wretchedness, and Jesus confronts the demons and sends them into a herd of pigs. Jesus tells the man to stay there and “Declare how much God has done!”
Jesus then gets into the boat and crosses back over to the other side of the Sea. It is clear that Jesus came all the way into dangerous territory and healed only one person. Pretty amazing . . . but it speaks volumes about our God!
Today…….Jesus is still crossing boundaries to drive out demons. Jesus is still coming into strange and difficult and unfamiliar worlds of our failure-ridden and broken lives to cast out our demons, wherever they are, however we may define them. Jesus says to us again and again and again, you are identified as God’s beloved children, forgiven of your sins; you are are not the sum total of your personal demons.
To paraphrase Paul says in his Letter to the Galatians, which is really part of a baptism liturgy, “…we are not Jew or Greek, nor Muslim, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, or gay, or transgender, or black or white—in Baptism we all become one in Jesus Christ.”
As the mother told her daughter: “I love all of you the most, but when one of you is feeling pain or hurt, at that moment you are the one I love the most!”
That’s the Good News—that our God loves us the most when we’re suffering and in pain! I pray that members of the LGBTQ, the Muslim communities, and each one of you, likewise, know such a God of unfailing love! Amen.
1 The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Years, Vol. 2. 2008. p.4.