UCA Anniversary • 19 Jun 2016

1 Kings 19:1-15a
Luke 8:26-39

Rev. Chris Udy

Gospel stories have significance and meaning
because they speak to us
on many different levels.
On the surface they describe the life of Jesus,
the Jewish teacher who lived in Galilee
nearly 2000 years ago –
but when we listen to them carefully
we hear echoes and overtones
that hint at something deeper.
The story we read today has deep significance,
especially after the events of the last week
and as part of our celebration
of the Uniting Church’s birthday.

The passage we heard
is part of a longer story,
one we re-visit many times
over our 3-year lectionary.
Jesus and his disciples board a boat
to cross the sea,
travelling from familiar territory – Galilee –
to a place where strangers live:
the country of the Gerasenes.
As they stepped into this strange place
they met a strange man,
who wore no clothes
and lived, not in a house,
but in the tombs, and among the dead.
This man was unpredictable, uncontrollable;
driven, Luke says, by demons
to do violent and terrible things,
not only to other people,
but to himself.
He was uncivilised and wild.
He didn’t live or think as ‘normal’ people do,
and Luke describes his spirit as ‘unclean’.
But something in even this strange man
responded to something in Jesus,
and he called out, at the top of his voice:
“What have you to do with me, Jesus,
Son of the Most High God?
I beg you, do not torment me.”

Jesus asked the man his name -
as you do with a stranger
you would like to understand –
and the man replied he was ‘Legion’
because, Luke says,
he had many demons inside him
and his spirit was fragmented and inconsistent.
Jesus called the demons out
and the man who had been strange and threatening
was healed,
and became a disciple of Jesus,
sitting at his feet to learn,
clothed and calm and coherent.

This is a story about strangers and strangeness.
When we’re born, and as we grow,
we think our family’s values,
and our culture’s norms,
are right, and good, and true.
We learn and absorb them;
we work out the rules
and we choose to keep or break them –
and most of the other people
we come across in our early years
see the world as we do:
they share our language
and our fundamental beliefs.

But there comes a time
when we have to move beyond our familiar places
and into the world –
and that can feel like crossing the sea
in a little boat, in a storm.
And even when we arrive on the other side
the people we encounter
don’t live or think or believe
as our families do.
They’re strange, and a little bit crazy,
and they don’t seem right or sensible, or ‘clean’.
What’s even more confusing
is that sometimes that journey of discovery,
that crossing of the stormy sea,
doesn’t happen only with other people:
it can happen within us as well.
As we grow we discover a stranger inside us;
someone who doesn’t belong in our family;
someone who doesn’t fit with our culture or clan.
All of us have a shadow within us,
and sometimes we can even discover
that the shadow we’ve been hiding
is more real than our façade –
more true than the mask we use
to present ourselves to the world.

When some of us encounter strangers –
whether it’s in the outside world or within –
we react with anger and fear.
We don’t understand who they are
or what they’re doing,
and sometimes they seem to threaten
who we are or what we have.
Sometimes it seems safer, and easier,
to keep away from strangers –
to refuse to make that journey into the world.
But that doesn’t work very well –
especially when the stranger is within us.
So some people try to keep the stranger away;
to build a wall, or deploy a border force,
or even to wish them dead and in the tomb.
Sometimes we do violent and terrible things
to the stranger outside or within,
to people whose names we don’t know
for no other reason
than that we feel uncomfortable with difference.

Ginie and I have just returned from Florida,
and just a few weeks ago we were in Orlando,
not too far away from the nightclub
where Omar Mateen took an assault rifle
to battle demons that lived inside himself.
His father says he came unstuck
when he saw two men kissing in Miami –
and when he went to the nightclub
he rang the police to declare himself a soldier of ISIS –
but no-one knows who he really was
or what he truly believed.
What we know is that in the USA
he could buy a gun
that has no other purpose
than to kill a lot of people very quickly –
and he could buy that gun
because a lot of other people
in the US and around the world
think walls can make them safe
and consigning strangers to graves and tombs
will keep them secure from change.
Every night on US television
we saw journalists and commentators –
including those from his own party -
openly and forcefully say
that Donald Trump is a racist, sexist liar –
but nearly half of those who are polled declare
that they will vote for him,
because he says he’ll build a wall
to keep the Mexicans out,
and he’ll build up the US military
with even more guns and ships and planes
to – as his slogan says –
‘make America great again’.

Ginie and I love America –
and most American people,
including a few we spoke to
who say they’ll vote for Trump,
are generous, kind and interesting people –
but we often find them strange.
We might use very similar words
but the way they think and act
can be alarming and confronting.
Walls and guns are everywhere;
gated communities supposedly
keep rich people locked away
from the poor, often ‘illegal’
Mexican gardeners and Latina maids
who probably spend more time in their palatial homes
than the owners do –
and every Wal-Mart store, in every suburb,
has hundreds of different varieties of gun
and boxes and boxes of bullets on display.
Ginie and I love America,
but sometimes we feel that over the years
we’ve been watching a bonfire being built
and any day now a spark will set it aflame.

Problems with strangers
are by no means confined to the USA.
In less than a week the United Kingdom
will vote to leave or stay in the European Union –
and the argument to leave is mainly about
keeping refugees and other non-British people
on the other side of the English channel.
The intensity of their argument
has already stirred up demons
in at least one unstable mind,
and while we can be thankful
he had no access to an assault rifle,
that doesn’t change the tragedy
for Jo Cox’s family, or for the UK as a community.
And the irony seems to be
that if those who want to keep strangers out
win the ‘Brexit’ poll,
it looks like Scotland might secede from the UK
and join the Common Market on their own –
so maybe they’ll soon be re-building Hadrian’s wall.

It is anything but surprising
that when we look at the world
we often feel like we’re in a little boat,
on a chaotic sea, in the midst of a storm,
and we wonder what God wants us to do
with these crazy and difficult days.
So we go to our Gospel stories
for some wisdom and inspiration.

Names are important in the story we read today.
When Jesus stepped down from his boat
the strange man called out his name.
He said “What have you to do with me,
Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
It was an attempt to control Jesus.
It meant – “I know who you are;
I know where you live;
don’t mess with me!”
Jesus had been identified as a threat
by powers who benefit from fear and chaos,
and the strange man wanted him to stay away.
Sometimes we use names and other information
to build our walls of exclusion.
We use them to limit access, to refuse a visa,
to identify someone as belonging
to a group we’ve decided is strange.
Instead of seeing the person who bears the name
we’re blinded by our prejudice;
instead of seeing the person
we see a family or clan, or an ethnicity,
or a religious connection,
and we use the profile
to determine how we’ll respond.
But Jesus refused to be controlled
by powers that thrive on ignorance and confusion,
and when he asked the strange man for his name,
it wasn’t to categorise or pigeon-hole him,
it was to understand him better
and to begin a relationship
that would lead to reconciliation and healing.

Learning a name
is the first step in establishing a friendship,
and finding friendship
leads to building community.
Our Gospel story says
that the man who had been a stranger
sat down at Jesus’ feet –
a phrase that’s used in the middle east
when someone becomes a disciple.
Legion – who was once a stranger,
joined the community Jesus was building,
and it’s revealing
that when he asked to leave his home
and go back in the boat with Jesus,
Jesus told him to stay with his people,
and tell them how he’d been transformed and healed.
Christian community isn’t meant to replace
a family, or a neighbourhood, or a culture.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to estrange ourselves
from those we know and grew up with.
His call is not to exchange one clique for another –
he calls us to extend and expand
his community of transformation and healing –
to make it more inclusive,
to challenge and overcome
our fear and prejudice about difference
and to offer friendship and forgiveness
to those who had once been alien and strange.

Names lead to friendships,
and friendships build community,
and in community we preserve and pass on
the memories and stories and rituals
that let us find our way across those chaotic seas,
and through those threatening storms
the world keeps throwing at us.

Today we celebrate the Uniting Church,
which, for all its problems,
really does continue the work that Jesus began,
and really does have resources
that can help us challenge prejudice and fear.
Sunday by Sunday we listen to
the stories that re-connect us to the spirit of Jesus.

We form that little boat,
on those dark seas,
we raise the sail of the Spirit
on the way of the cross
we learn from the life of Jesus;
we practice the rituals of welcome and inclusion –
baptism and communion –
and we involve ourselves in the life of the world:
preschools and children’s services, aged care,
and services for those who live
with disability and isolation.
We want to grow our covenant
with Aboriginal and Islander people;
we want to work with refugees and asylum seekers,
and we work very hard
to make our councils and church government
accessible and inclusive
to all the members of the Church.
We don’t always succeed,
so we also practice disciplines
of confession and forgiveness,
and we look for the peace
that is the mark of God’s presence in our lives.

We are the Uniting Church –
we’re still working on learning names,
and making friendships,
and building community
with people who, at the moment,
might think of us as a little bit strange –
but in a world that’s quick to fragment
and alienate and divide,
the memories and messages we live by,
and the resources that we carry
for forgiveness and reconciliation
have never been more necessary and vital.

So happy anniversary!
And may we,
in our little boat,
on this dark and stormy sea,
always remember
that whenever we’re together
the one who calls the seas to calm
and guides us on our journey into the world
is also and always here among us,
travelling with us.