God With Us

The Rev. John D. Lane. This sermon is based on Isaiah 65:1-5 & Luke 8:26-27.

[The Lord said] I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long. (Is. 65:1-5)

As the prophet Isaiah tells us, God is feeling more than a little cranky. Sweet Jesus, where are you?

One of the reasons the Bible is a bestseller is because of its contemporary viewpoint. If we feel the absence of God these days—or at least the absence of God’s active influence—we may be on to something.

Consider some recent events:

49 are shot and killed in Orlando, which means of course gun control changes are unlikely; Congress sends its thoughts and prayers to the families and does nothing else; History repeats itself: Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

A college president suggests his student body pack heat.

A 2 year-old is attacked and drowned by an alligator—in Orlando—maybe a better SIGN at Disneyworld would bring him back to life.

A 4 year-old is saved from a gorilla attack at the Cincinnati zoo. Social media is full of chest-pounding grief for the gorilla and unbelievably nasty messages to the parents of the young boy.

The Middle East, birthplace of three religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—remains a mess, seemingly one of the most godless regions on earth.

Clinton versus Trump for President—we must have really offended God.

Obama’s popularity up 13% since January.

and on and on.

These are all front page stories, not fillers on page 17. Such things have gotten familiar, maybe even a little bit boring by now? What is going on? Do we as followers of Christ sense any sort of call to action? If so, what?

Today’s less than cheerful text is Isaiah’s channeling of God’s rant: The relationship between God and his people is broken. Guess what? It’s not God’s fault.

During my 3 years at a parish in Charlotte, the Junior Warden was a man named Earl Barker. He told me he was one of the first Republicans in Charlotte. Prior to his time, to win the Democratic primary was to win the election—as was the case here in Virginia. He always wanted to debate politics with me. I used to tell him, “There are two things we don’t talk about at the church. One is politics and the other religion.

I mean of course partisan politics though not all clergy follow this injunction. Think of Jerry Falwell and Junior, Pat Robertson, or Jesse Jackson and the pastors of historically African-American churches.

My sermon title today is “God with us.” If God is everywhere, God is the God of everything, politics and money and science included—all the things polite people don’t want to discuss, where ironically we need God’s help the most.

Luke (8:26-27) writes: Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

Jesus rushes in where angels fear to tread. The first man he encounters in the land of the Gerasenes, a Gentile area on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, is a wild man. The man would cause anyone to pass by on the other side. Jesus wades right in. He casts the legion of demons out of the man, and sends them into a herd of swine. The swine, possessed by the devil, run down the hill, into the water, and drown. Problem solved.

As one commentator summarizes: “The demoniac is presented as being less than human: wearing no clothes, living in the tombs, driven into the wilderness. At the end of the story, he is humanized: wearing clothes, being in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, returning to his home.” (Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes)

Jesus is outside Jewish territory, dealing with a demon-possessed Gentile. In the eyes of polite society he has no business being there. Like the 800-pound gorilla God (and Jesus) can do anything they want. There are no limits to what God can do for us and with us.

Isaiah tells us God has no patience with those who believe “I am too holy for you.” If we follow Jesus, we soon discover no one is too holy or too downtrodden for Jesus. Though the phrase “the one percent” or “the one percenters”—the actual number is much lower than that—has come into our political and economic argot, God doesn’t kowtow to the rich and famous or look down on the poor and disabled.

In our baptismal covenant, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” This is a call to action beyond the good things we are already doing like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, seeking to help those in need. We need to let our beliefs drive our politics.

In a scene from Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis, Francis is an incarnation of the Prodigal Son: rich, pompous, self-centered, fun-loving. He is then struck by the sickness unto death, and lies many days and nights hovering between life and death. One night, a leper visits him in a dream, a nightmare. He is hideous, with parts of his body and face wasted away. Francis keeps looking away, hoping the leper will leave him.

Instead the leper cries out to him, “Undress me, bathe me, give me something to eat!” Francis pretends to sleep, but the leper gets louder and more insistent, “Undress me, bathe me, give me something to eat.” Finally, despite his high fever, great pain, and overpowering fatigue, Francis gets up. He undresses the beggar and bathes him carefully, clothing him in his own expensive garments. He goes to the kitchen and gets a big plate of food. The beggar eats it very rapidly, like a starving dog.

He looks up at Francis with his hideous half-face and very suddenly and shockingly kisses him on the lips. When Francis recovers from this unexpected assault, he looks at the leper again—and sees the face of Christ.

Go and do likewise.

AMEN.