Lectionary 12C (June 23, 2019)

One of Trinity Lutheran Church of Valparaiso’s identifying marks is that we do not (usually) need (much) assuring or exhorting to believe that service in the world is God’s work. Martin Luther famously challenged the medieval hierarchy of clergy (who got to play with holy things and were themselves holy) and laity (who did not get to play with holy things and were not themselves holy). Luther attacked that, largely demolished it in the Protestant world. Luther said all Christians are priests, all have callings. Any vocation could be holy. Lay work can be holy, clergy work can be unholy. Trinity embraces that concept well among Lutheran Churches in the United States. A lot of Lutheran churches think the faith should be kept private. We’re pretty good at seeing work as holy. I’m pretty good at that. I need my reminders all the time but I’m okay saying, “When I advocate at City Hall for a rehab center, I’m doing holy work,” or, “When I protest deportations I’m doing holy work,” or, “When I am being a husband and a father I’m doing holy work.”

            Where I struggle is in trusting other holy workers to know what they are doing. When I am at City Hall advocating for a rehab center, I’m thinking, “Why are we taking this approach!? Why on earth would you say that? Why aren’t we just reiterating my take on the issue? It’s the right one.” Or, at a deportation protest: “Why are we protesting this way? Why aren’t we over there? Who authorized this person to sing? Nobody talked to me. That’s the problem: no one talks to me.” This may surprise you, seriously, because I try not to act that way (because I hate it when people act that way), but I’m thinking it.

            And I don’t think it’s just me. We’re experts on what our fellow human beings should be doing. Experts. On stuff we have no clue about. Don’t believe me? What’s the Chicago Cubs’ problem this year? Bullpen. Relief pitchers can’t consistently throw strikes. You’re watching the game exasperated (or laughing, if you’re a Sox’ fan). “What is he doing?! Why did he throw that pitch? Why put the ball there?” I suppose you could’ve done it? You can strike out a major league batter? Even best shape of your life and years of training, no. But you totally could do it in the ninth inning clinging to a small lead. And even if you don’t care about baseball you know you could do it, because someone you love is busy complaining loudly about it and you figure you could get it done and get the complaining to stop. None of us can do that, but we think we could. I struggle with trusting others to do what they know how to do far better than I do.

            I think of this poor man out among the tombs in Luke’s gospel. Luke says the man had a demon. I’d say we don’t believe in demons any more, but the President of the United States’ spiritual advisor says she is praying to protect him from a demonic network. So, clearly, belief in demons persists. It’s hard to nail down what First Century people meant by “demon.” This man usually is thought to suffer from a mental illness. The “demons” express how he almost becomes a different person when suffering an episode. His living situation, in the tombs, expresses a deeper, systemic failure. The only place he can go is a place no one living goes. The demons identify themselves as “legion,” which of course is a metaphor for “many” but also specifically means six-thousand Roman soldiers. Oddly enough, the Roman Legion X Fretensis—stationed in that area—has a pig as one of its symbols. Pigs play a role in what is to come. This “legion” connotes Rome, a Rome for all its power unable to help this man. There’s nothing for him at the Roman Imperial level, the Syro-Palestinian level, the Gerasene level, the family level. Neither the system nor the people in it can help this man. All his loved ones can do is chain him so he does not hurt himself or others. And, apparently, he breaks those bonds.

Jesus saves the day. We’d be disappointed if he did not. He always does. Even dying on a cross he manages to save the day. How does he save the day? By being Jesus! So, all you need when you’ve got a serious problem is Jesus! Right? No. No. No. That is not how that works. If this guy was someone I knew, and I went out to the tombs and told him about Jesus, chances are pretty good nothing would happen. This guy needs someone with expertise. Now, we would say, rightly, God is present for this man in someone with expertise. I think Trinity would, as a group, say that. Where I struggle is in accepting that I might not be the person with the expertise. I may not have an answer for this man among the tombs. I may be unable to help. It may be that both the man and I need Jesus. We need Jesus not only because Jesus is the eternal Word, Son of God, and whatnot; we need Jesus because in this story he represents the one who has the expertise. Jesus is many things. Among them, in this story, he is someone who knows how to do something I don’t.

I ask you to believe God is present in our acts of love for one another, but do I trust God is present in others’ acts of love for my neighbor? God asks me to trust God is present in my neighbors’ acts of love for each other. If I take Christ seriously, I need to trust that not only my vocation is holy, but that my fellow Christians’ vocations are holy. That’s part of Christian community. That’s the reality of the Priesthood of All Believers. What do I do when as a pastor I don’t know what to do? Make something up? No. Call the bishop. What do I do when as a parent I don’t know what to do? Nothing? No. Call my parents, call other parents. What do I do when I simply cannot give what those around me need? Find someone who can. It’s being Christian. It’s being Christ-like. Christ does that. Where does Christ end up? His followers abandon him and he’s on a cross. What does Jesus do? He says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He gives up having an answer. He dies to having the answer. It costs him.

But that’s in Jesus’ future. Today, he’s on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, with a man who needs his expertise. There’s this moment in which the demons beg to enter a herd of swine. Jesus “gave them permission” and they flood the swine and rush into the lake and die. There are lots of attempts to interpret this. I don’t think any one is entirely correct. Considering the cost Jesus pays on the cross for not having the answers, I think of the costs incurred here. Namely, the herd of swine. Jesus gave the demons permission to enter swine. These aren’t Jesus’ pigs! It’s likely they belong to someone in the “city” nearby, someone wealthy, whose wealth is now at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. The people are afraid. There’s often fear associated with the holy in the Bible. There’s also fear associated with great economic loss and the threat of further loss. What crops or livestock will Jesus destroy, next? It’s perfectly reasonable when the entire city pours out to the lakeside and says to Jesus, “Please leave.”

There is a cost to expertise. There’s a cost to handing off to someone else. You “die to” being the one with the answer or the strength. The expert may tell you there’s more to pay. I said earlier that the pigs may have some connection to Rome. The Roman legion stationed in the area had a pig as one of its symbols. Demons calling themselves “legion” and asking to enter a herd of pigs is at least a massive coincidence. The Legion connotes Rome. The Legion, the System, failed this man. Legions are great at breaking stuff and killing people—and if you need that, call them. They can’t help with this. The system needs someone who can help with this. To do that, the system must prioritize. The system must pay a price. It’s not “kill all Romans.” It’s, rather, “caring for a man such as this is going to take a lot. The act of paying that cost is the act of trusting that other Christians can do what they know how to do.

Always remember: Christ pays that cost for us. Christ trusts. Trusts his Father’s design, trusts the Holy Spirit to raise him. That’s the only way we trust Christ in our fellow Christians. Paul says in Galatians, “You all are one in Christ, you are all children of God through Christ.” Christ in me paid the price of trust on the cross, and trusts Christ in you, you with your vocation and expertise. Trusting those who can do what you cannot is holy work. Trusting the assisted living facility with mom is Christian. Trusting the therapist is Christian. It’s true for much bigger problems, too. Ecological crisis: trusting ecologists is Christian. Migrant and refugee crisis: trusting people who’ve made it their business to understand this—like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services—is Christian. Housing and Equality crisis: trusting the people who know the fight is Christian. Every bit as Christian as showing up and getting your hands dirty. You’ll still get to do that. There’s work to be done. Faith in Action team has signups. But Christ pays the price of you not personally having all the answers all the time.