Of Deviled Ham
Sermon by Dn. Jeffrey Smith from Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Reading is from Matthew 8:28-34; 9:1
Yesterday, Fr. Antony reminded me that we read this Gospel at least three times over the course of the year. That's a lot of demoniacs to keep coming up with original sermons, and so I stand before you today to preach about the gospel of deviled ham (that's not a new joke people). But I wonder why these herdsmen simply didn't fish their pigs out of the lake, salt, smoke, and sell them, instead of sending Jesus packing. Why?
No seriously, like many (if not most) of the gospels we read, this is another story of healing, although we don't really meet the men who are themselves possessed. Jesus has pity on their insanity. Compare his mercy to our more typical attitude toward those who are mentally ill, which more often than not, is revulsion. Jesus was not dismayed by these fierce demoniacs, unlike most people, who lived under the threat of demons which filled the air and were ruled by "the prince of the power of the air". Jesus has a calm confidence and courage in the face of evil. He has the resources to deal with their disordered minds. In this gospel, he simply says one word, "Go" in response to the demons' request to be cast into the herd of swine. Think how often we live in our tombs, gloomy, divided against ourselves, and helpless. Of course the demons recognize and fear Christ before any human beings do, and they cry, "What have you to do with us, O son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Jesus breaks their power before their time of judgment. He approaches the demoniacs with understanding, seeing the humanity of the men who are possessed. He reaches into their deranged minds and brings the power of the "Most High God" against evil. And the gifts of his faith are peace of mind, calming of fear, turning chaos into harmony. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all this will be added to you as well. When Jesus casts out demons, he also casts out their greed, aggression and pride. But when everyone in the city sees what's going on, they beg Jesus to leave them. Why? What did they see? The sight of healed, sane men was apparently more terrifying than the demons themselves. The demons they knew, but casting them into their swine was something else again.
This same story is also found in the gospel of Mark, but unusually, as Mark is typically more direct and simple. St. Mark's version, in this case, is more detailed than St. Matthew's. In St. Mark, there is one demoniac, bound in chains that he had wrenched apart, not two men, and the story is followed by showing the man in his right mind asking to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home to his friends (a wonder that he has friends!) and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, how God has had compassion. This gospel we read today tells us nothing about this personal aftermath, except how the people of the city were afraid and upset.
I would like to say now a word about self-love. It seems to me that there are two kinds. The first kind, demonic self-love, is the will to stay alive at any cost, to stick to a life of any kind, to grasp onto life by possessing another if necessary. This self-love of course, is our instinct to survive, and is right there when the demons ask Jesus to send them into the herd of swine. But there is another kind. This other self-love is understood when we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. To love our neighbor, we have to love our selves first, and this self-love of course, is the state of being loved, being worthy of love, recognized and given proof of that recognition. We realize that we are not unworthy of love. We are reassured when we are listened to attentively with interest. We gather that we are respected, that we do count, that we matter, that our being alive makes a difference in the world. This recognition of our unique, irreplaceable value is impossible without first being loved, and in turn, loving others, valuing each other for our differences, which enrich the world and make it a more fascinating and enjoyable place to live. The demons assuredly do not love their neighbors. Their only desire is to survive by grasping and possessing others.
I began by describing this gospel as one of healing, but the epistle of James that we read today, (although I think we read it because it mentions the prophet Elias) is also about healing, and therefore connected to the Gospel. We read what to do when confronted with demons, "Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil, and the prayer of faith will save the sick man. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. So confess your sins to each other and pray for one another that you may be healed." This is what we read today, and this is what we are to do. So the epistle indeed brings the story of the demoniacs home to us.
Just as the demoniacs were healed from their sickness and possession, so may we also be healed through the prayers of others and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen