August tends to be a month where people think about vacations, picnics and other really cool stuff. For people in ordained ministry though, June tends to be a month when many of us think about the nature of ministry because at least here in this Diocese and every diocese I know people tend to be ordained in June after they graduate or in December. For me, my ordination day was June 23rd, today, 20 years ago on a Wednesday. I am celebrating 20 years of being a permanent deacon in the Episcopal Church.
I wanted to mention that because I was reflecting this week on how much I’ve learned in the last 20 years and how much I’ve changed in the last 20 years. When the readings came up, there was a choice and we could have had another week of the Gospel of John. It was what we’ve had for several weeks: Jesus saying, and I am in God and God is in me and we are in God and you are in me. I picked the other gospel because it’s a healing story and I thought a healing story would be a great thing to preach about. And then I thought, you know, when I started my ministry, I knew I was called to be a healer. So that would be a great story. And then I met with the Bible Study Group were meeting (you are all cordially invited to show up any Tuesday evening).
As we talked, I realized is this is a healing story, but it is another kind of story as well. And so let’s go through the readings because that’s kind of what tells you what that something is. The first reading is reading from Isaiah and it says that the Prophet Isaiah is being sent to a people who do not want to hear him. And he’s standing there with open hands, talking to a bunch of people who do not want to listen to him. When he put his hand up and said, “Here I am Lord, send me!” This piece of scripture is dear to my heart: the calling of Isaiah as a prophet. Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me.” And then an angel comes with a live coal touches his mouth, makes him a prophet and then God sends him off with a message.
Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures have a hard road because all of them are sent to people who do not want to hear them, to tell them things they don’t want to hear about. And then often those people want to kill him or her. So it’s not a great gig. You can see why initially, early in my ministry, I didn’t feel particularly called to that. I had an idea of ministry that I was called to be in the Church in a way that helped heal the world. So then we have the second reading. The second reading says, we used to be under the law and now we’re under grace. It says we’ve made a change. We used to understand that we needed these guard rails with rules and regulations to keep us on the street, but now we have love and we have grace to tell us how to be in the world, how to be with each other.
If Jesus changed the nature of how God guides us from being guided by these rules to be guided by this thing called grace, God must have also changed what it means to be a prophet. So if it used to be that being a prophet meant that you go out and talk to a bunch of people who don’t want to hear what you have to say because it’s God’s message to them and then they kill you, if that’s what it is under the law, what does it mean to be a prophet under grace? What does it mean to be a prophet under grace? Let’s look at the story in the Gospel. Jesus goes to a place that is far away, a place where there are people that are unfamiliar to him. We think that in this story he went to a place probably that was not very Jewish (because it said they had a herd of swine, which are unclean animals). You have a man who has been beset by demons and he’s living naked in the tombs, an unclean place. So you have this bad problem. This needs a lot of healing. Many people would say that this is a healing story that talks about someone being healed from mental illness, and that’s a good reading of it, I think. But just for the sake of argument, let’s call it a problem of demons This was a man who was beset by demons and he needed the demons cast out.
The demons say their name is Legion. I did some research and in the Roman army. a legion of soldiers numbered 6,000. That points to the breadth of the problem. When we read this story, I had a picture of one demon or perhaps a few demons. This was a much bigger problem than even I imagined when I first started reading, you have a legion of Demons and in Mark’s Gospel telling of this story, it says the swine herd was 2000 swine. And so Jesus negotiated with the demons and they say, “Don’t cast us into the abyss. Cast us into the swine.” And Jesus agrees. When I was reading this, I thought, what? Why is Jesus making deals with demons?! And if he doesn’t cast him into the abyss aren’t they still in the world? This is not good. Then someone in our bible study pointed out that the swine ran into the water and water represents baptism!
And I thought, this is very, very good. So Jesus cast the demons into the swine, the swine go down the hill, they drown. And I read a well-researched commentary t and it said, the demons died. I felt reassured. So you have the man who was healed and when people come back, they find this man in his right mind and wearing clothes, sitting at the feet of Jesus and the man says to him, as he’s leaving, let me follow you and be your disciple. Now this is in a time where through all of these Gospels, through all of these chapters, Jesus is calling people to be disciples and follow home. He tells James and John to put down their nets so that they can fish for people. He’s gathering his disciples, but this man says, I want desperately to be your disciple.
And Jesus says, no. He says, you, you get to be a prophet. Your job is to go and tell everybody the amazing things that God has done for you. Being a new testament prophet is not about telling people what they’re doing wrong. Be a new testament prophet is telling the world about what God is doing right. Being a New Testament prophet means being able to spot evil in the world. I never thought I would preach about evil 20 years ago. I really didn’t. But I’ve been in the world now another two decades and there is evil and we do need to cast it out. I don’t watch the news. I confess to you, I am not the only one apparently, but there is one news show that I watch every week. It’s a half hour show from the New York Times called the Weekly and they do one news story each week.
So the New York Times reporters are the ones that put together the stories. This week was a story called Baby Constantine. Now Baby Constantine was born in Romania and when he was four months old, his parents loved him so much that they decided that they wanted to keep him safe and so they, the mom and dad packed him up and brought him to the border of the United States. The parents got separated. Somehow the mother ended up back in Romania and the father is alone at the border with this baby and he said in the interview, “I gave them my paperwork and they put me in a room and they took my son and put him in a different room.”
And then he did not see his son for another six months. Baby Constantine was four months old. Baby Constantine was taken from his mother and father and for more than half his life was denied the comfort and love that they wanted to give for him. And there’s a little bit of good news. He was placed with a foster mom and dad in the United States who loved him. The mom had the presence of mind to record when he learned to babble and when he learned to crawl and when he took his first bite of food, she captured it all in video because she said it was heartbreaking to think that his parents were missing this experience of seeing their child grow.
The problem is that Constantine represents 7,000 or more. We don’t even really know. And some of them were put in foster homes, some of them were put in warehouses in cages. This is evil. This is what you will look like. And this is the kind of thing that Christian people need to cast out. Constantine parents said when they reunited with him, his foster mom brought him with a couple of people border guards to the airport. She had to hide behind the border people because Constantine was hysterical because he was being shepherded from the only person who knew was safe and being given to complete strangers who were his parents who loved him. And these people have now decided that it’s safer to raise their child in unsafe Romania because they’re Gypsies Romany people. And there’s a huge amount of discrimination. They can’t go to the hospitals.
Their kids get bullied in school. That’s why they were coming to America. They’ve decided that that is better than coming to us. This New York Times writer, whether she knows it or not, is a prophet. She is shining light on things that need to be changed, things that are evil, that need to be cast out, things that are broken, that need to be healed and as a community, that’s what we do. We fill the food barrel to say having children starve in our communities is not okay. That’s evil. We’ve got to stop it. We send our children, our young people on a service trip each year to do work because we want to make the statement that we are called to help each other and we are called to spot those who are in need and put them into safety. We support Home and Hope which supports homeless families because as a community we believe that we cannot in good conscience have people in our community who do not. Families who do not have a roof over their heads.
I thought today’s Gospel was a healing story and it is, but it’s also a story that is calling all of us, through our baptism, to be prophets. Jesus is saying to us, go and tell what God has done for you. Go and tell the evil that you have experienced and celebrate that it has been cast out and that the brokenness that has been healed. Go and tell the world about that. Jesus is telling us to go and do what he has done. So I say to you, go into the world and tell the whole world what God has done for you.