“But what about the pigs?”

demons-cast-into-pigs-contradiction

A sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk – Trinity 1

Here is my collection of children’s bibles…I’m rather proud of it!

How do you think they tackle today’s gospel story ‘Jesus heals the demoniac?

The answer is – they don’t. It’s in 3 of the 4 gospels, but only one of these children’s bibles. I wonder why?

I suppose because it’s weird…there’s a possessed man – naked and living in a graveyard; there are talking demons; there are a lot of dead pigs; there are people who see a man miraculously healed yet can’t get rid of Jesus quickly enough. It’s hard to know what to make of it.

I must have come across it somewhere as a child though, because I can remember very clearly thinking, ‘But what about the pigs?’ Ok, the man is healed…but what about all those innocent pigs?

Now I might ask ‘But what about the swineherds?’ Their entire livelihood destroyed – it’s not surprising they wanted rid of Jesus.

So what to make of this story – apart from thinking that preaching on Trinity Sunday might not have been so bad after all…!

You can start with bible commentaries, and they all seem to find ways of taming the story…

…most concentrate on the man who’s healed, sliding neatly over the pigs, to comment briefly on the lack of faith among the locals.

…others look for symbolism…the man’s name ‘legion’ refers to the hated Roman legions, the occupying forces. The business with pigs rushing into the sea is a metaphor for what Jews wanted to do to the Romans.

…or it’s all about clean and unclean things…graveyards were unclean…the possessed man was unclean…to the Jews a herd of unclean pigs was the best place for the demons…everything made clean at once…hurray!

Well they’re all much more learned than me…but I can’t help wondering whether they’re trying to sanitise the story…hanging on to a nice, safe ‘Jesus the healer’. I think maybe it’s good to be left asking ‘but what about the pigs?’

It seems to me that this story is about ‘Jesus the disturber’. Jesus who – if we really follow him – turns lives and societies upside down.

He could have come – healed the man – and gone on his way. But perhaps there were other things that needed changing. After all here’s a society dealing with a mentally ill man by chaining him in a graveyard. Maybe Jesus can’t help disrupting such a system merely by his presence.

I don’t suppose the pig owners were especially evil, I don’t understand the stuff with the pigs…but it seems to say that accepting Jesus’ healing has a ripple effect. I can imagine the locals coming to see…looking at the man ‘clothed and in his right mind’…longing perhaps for that sort of healing…tempted to invite Jesus in…

But then, looking at the pigs…realising that accepting Jesus and his message was going to disturb their whole society. And finally deciding they can’t make the leap, they prefer the safety of things as they are…they aren’t willing to take the risk.

It’s a thing about humans isn’t it…on the whole we like things to stay as they are. We might well know things are wrong, but we fear solutions that will change our lives.

This story puts me in mind of the debate around climate change today. Almost all of us accept that climate change is the biggest danger facing the world at the moment. When David Attenborough is telling us it’s time to act – we know in our hearts that it’s true.

So the Prime Minister recently announced that net greenhouse gas emissions in Britain will be cut to zero by 2050, and almost straight away we start talking of the 3 trillion pound cost…of money coming from schools, hospitals, the police…of the disruption to our lives such a target will mean.

And like the people in the reading – we look at what we have – and it doesn’t look so bad. We think a few tweaks here and there might be better – banning plastic straws say…and when people come suggesting a much more dramatic change…we ask them politely to go away. We don’t like being disturbed.

I suppose it’s not surprising I’m thinking about ‘Jesus the disturber’ as I approach the end of my curacy…following him has uprooted me from one career, and as I look around for a job, will soon uproot my family and me again.

But this story seems to say it’s not just about personal changes. When Jesus came to town and healed one man, the ripples were immediately felt. Jesus’ message isn’t just about individuals – it’s about changing societies.

The only children’s bible that tackles this story is the Brick Bible – illustrations all in Lego. It doesn’t attempt any explanation – but has a fantastic picture of the townsfolk all peering over the cliff…and I can just see them thinking ‘but what about the pigs?’

I guess they never found out – because they asked Jesus to leave. But it’s a great reminder to us that if we truly invite Jesus in, he will disturb us…and the ripples will spread. That suggests a church shouldn’t exist in a neighbourhood without anyone noticing – we should be letting Jesus the disturber work in us and through us.

This morning David has offered us a chance to do just that. Take a load of flyers around your street; take some mission brochures and personally invite a friend who doesn’t know the good news of Jesus Christ.

Let’s not be like those people left asking ‘but what about the pigs?’ Let’s invite Jesus in – trusting that whatever disturbance he brings – however scary it feels – it will be, as it was for the possessed man, about finding our true identities and being healed.

 

 

‘A meal with sinners’ – some words for Corpus Christi

a meal with sinners

Words for St Mary’s Whitkirk in thanksgiving for Holy Communion…

Tonight we meet to celebrate God’s gift of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. To be reminded that the central act of our faith takes place around a table…that our table is just part of a table found wherever there are Christians…and just a glimpse of the table we hope we will somehow find in heaven.

I have a picture to help us think about this mystery.

It’s a painting, by artist Sieger Koder. He invites us into the Lord’s house, into his Kingdom. What greets us is a table. It’s a very ordinary table…so our eyes are drawn instead to the people around it…to see who has been welcomed to eat with Christ.

It’s called ‘The meal with sinners’; reminding us that Jesus so often caused scandal by eating with ‘the wrong people’.

So we look around the table

  • front left is a Jew in his prayer shawl…perhaps a reminder that Christ was a Jew, perhaps a reminder that Christ is known in places far beyond our imagining…that it’s not for us to worry who is in and who is not.
  • next to him a woman dressed in scarlet – a woman of dodgy morals perhaps – clutching the cup to her – gazing boldly at Christ…a reminder that Christ always seeks those on the margins…the ones we might be uncomfortable sharing the table with.
  • the next woman is aged and poor – maybe unable even to lift her head to look at Christ – but like those who share communion in Colton Lodges or in their own homes…still part of the one body.
  • then – rather surprisingly – a clown. Does he represent the foolishness of God, that finds strength in weakness?…or those who are called to be fools for Christ?…or do his clown’s face and silliness mask the pain and suffering he dares not bring to the table?
  • Next to the clown – a scholar – thoughtful – prayerfully interpreting the words and actions of Jesus anew for his own times.
  • the last two are a woman with a widow’s veil, and an injured man…representing perhaps the bereaved, the sick, the lonely, the suffering.

These are the people, suggests the artist, who will be found at God’s table. Maybe not those we expect. For me it’s a reminder that we don’t come to the table once our faith is sorted, once we know Jesus…we come to the table in order to get to know Jesus.

So, this odd assortment of people sit together, sharing bread and wine and gazing at Jesus. But this isn’t the experience the artist gives to us. We are invited to sit where Jesus sits and see as Jesus sees.

We might want to ask – as people often did – ‘why does he choose to eat with them?’…but we’re challenged to look on them as Jesus does, to see them as his friends, to love them for who they are, not for who we’d like them to be.

Because, although we each come to encounter the mystery of God…we never come to the table alone. We’re invited and welcomed together. So coming weekly to this table shouldn’t just feed our faith but build us into a community learning to look on one another through Jesus’ eyes.

Finally, in the background of the picture, on the wall of the house, is an etching. It shows the story of the Prodigal son. The Father embracing the son tells us of the welcome that is always found at this table. But to one side sits the envious older brother – who just can’t bring himself to join the feast.

For me – a reminder that God never forces – he only invites. And also that if I can’t cope with the people Jesus seems to have invited – I’m the one who loses out.

I love this painting – there’s just one thing I might have included – an empty chair. Because the invitation is for everyone – and there’s always more room at the table.

With the picture in front of us – let’s pray…

Gracious God,  You surprise us with those you invite to your table. May we welcome the stranger, as you welcomed them on earth,and may we be surprised and filled with joy, to discover that we too are invited to the heavenly feast in your kingdom. Amen

(Much of this was inspired by the book ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ by Magdalene Lawler…reflections on the art of Sieger Koder.)