Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
December 10, 2017
In the movie “Talladega Nights,” the lead character, a race car driver by the name of Ricky Bobby, sits down with his family for Thanksgiving dinner.Ricky
Bobby starts to say grace over the bountiful supper.He prays to Jesus, but the image of Jesus to which he directs his prayer is taken directly from
Christmas.Ricky Bobby’s prayer goes something like this:“Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent . . . lying there in your . . . little . . . manger, looking at your Baby Einstein developmental . . . videos, learning about shapes and colors . . .”At one point, Ricky Bobby’s wife interrupts and says, “Hey,
you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up.You don’t always have to call him ‘baby.’It’s kind of odd putting him in a cradle all the time.”Somewhat defiantly,
Ricky Bobby replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus best.”
“I like the Christmas Jesus best.”
Ricky Bobby is probably not the only person who likes the Christmas Jesus best.Certainly the Christmas Jesus is simple and sweet.The Christmas Jesus does not push us outside our comfort zone, does not ask us to examine our conscience, does not challenge us to create a more just social system.The Christmas Jesus embodies hope and peace and wonder.What’s not to like about the Christmas Jesus?We welcome the Christmas Jesus.We have no problem with the Christmas Jesus.We celebrate and celebrate and celebrate the humble birth of the Christmas Jesus.
Only later do we remember that when the Christmas Jesus grows up, he has a very different message and a very different agenda from the innocence we find so appealing during the Christmas season.
One example of this different message and different agenda appears in the Gospel according to Luke, in the words we heard a few moments ago in our reading.This strange story, sour as a pickle compared to the Christmas story, presents a narrative where Jesus heals a man by driving out the demons that have inhabited him for a long time.But in doing so, Jesus upsets many other people in this village, and they ask him to leave.
If you have been attending First Unitarian Church for some time, you probably know that I do not often preach from Biblical texts.One reason for this is that my theological education did not prepare me to preach from Biblical texts.I never learned Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.I never learned Greek, the language of the New Testament or Greek Bible.The courses I took that focused on the Bible were survey courses where we learned how the Bible came to be written over many hundreds of years by many diverse authors who had many diverse purposes and were writing for many diverse audiences.But I don’t recall ever having a course where we focused on how to interpret the Bible for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and certainly not how to interpret the Bible from a social justice or liberation theology perspective.
Somewhere along the way I learned enough to be able to say:You can take the Bible literally or you can take the Bible seriously.In other words, if you are on a serious quest to find meaning in the Bible, you need to move beyond embracing it as literally true or rejecting it as literally false.
There are at least four different perspectives through which we can approach the story about the man possessed by demons.One perspective is that of Jesus, who believed that it was his duty in this situation to cast out demons.A second perspective is the perspective of the man who was possessed by demons and was subsequently healed.A third perspective is that of the swineherds, that is, the workers whose job it was to keep the pigs safe.A fourth perspective is that of the residents of the village.
Jesus had a mission statement.Here is his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When he encountered the man who was possessed by demons, Jesus acted on his mission statement and insisted that the demons would have to leave the man and go somewhere else.Later, Jesus was asked to leave.How do you think Jesus felt about being asked to leave?
Let’s move on to the man who was possessed by demons.What is a demon?What does it mean to be possessed by a demon?From the perspective of the school of psychology initiated by Carl Jung, people in the ancient world thought of demons as external to oneself, whereas modern people might understand a demon as a metaphor for an uncivilized part of oneself.In his book Why Good People Do Bad Things, Jungian analyst James Hollis writes:“While our ancestors would project the origin of [uncivilized motives] externally onto a Devil, or an Evil One, the modern [person] has a greater likelihood of recognizing that these darker thoughts and acts come from within us, and that we, in the end, are responsible for them.”From this point of view, when the story says that Jesus was casting out demons, what Jesus was really doing was calling on this man to acknowledge this uncivilized or destructive part of himself and take responsibility for it.
Here is another way to understand the man who was possessed by demons.You could understand the man possessed by demons as a symbolic representation of the social structure of the village.The demons might be patriarchy, xenophobia, economic oppression, and so on.Jesus the social reformer arrives and seeks to remove these social illnesses.And that brings us to the perspective of the swineherds.
The swineherds find that their economic livelihood has been destroyed.Once the pigs run into the water and drown as part of the social reforms instituted by Jesus, the swineherds are out of work.Maybe the swineherds owned the pigs.Or maybe someone else owned the pigs and simply hired the swineherds to keep the pigs safe.Either way, who can blame them for feeling resentful toward that troublemaker Jesus?The swineherds would prefer that things would just go back to the way they were before Jesus insisted that the villagers acknowledge their patriarchy, xenophobia, or economic oppression.And so we see how powerful economic interests can create opposition to social reform.
Finally, we come to the perspective of the residents of the village who asked Jesus to go away.Twice the story notes that the villagers were afraid.Whether you think of the man who was possessed by demons as one individual person or as a symbolic representation of the social structure of the village, a healing had taken place.Nevertheless, the villagers were afraid.They were suspicious.They did not like the change that Jesus had introduced.They asked Jesus to go away.
At the top of your order of service, you will find a quotation that accurately summarizes the work of community organizers.The quotation says:“All organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.”If your plan is to organize a drawer in your kitchen, you might start by removing all the contents of the drawer so that you can sort through the various items.That is dis-organizing.It is disruptive.It makes things look worse.Critics might say that rather than organizing anything, you have simply created a mess.But you know that if you want a truly organized drawer, you have to start by challenging the status quo of that drawer.After the dis-organizing step, the next step is the re-organizing step, where you put things back into the drawer according to a new plan.The result is a beautifully organized drawer.But you have to have the courage to endure the dis-organizing step before you get to the re-organizing step.
When I first began imagining this sermon, I thought about calling it “Confessions of a Dis-organizing Minister.”Because of the chaos in my office, however, I was concerned that some might read it as “Confessions of a Disorganized Minister.”Nevertheless, “Confessions of a Dis-organizing Minister” might be an accurate description of what I have tried to do here at First Unitarian Church over the years.There have been times when I have wanted to improve the organization of some aspect of church life.And sometimes I have started by dis-organizing what was already there.Dis-organizing does not necessarily inspire confidence in others.At first, it may appear that I have not organized anything, but have instead simply created a mess.Only later, when the re-organizing begins to take shape, does the process become clear.
As we have seen in the story of Jesus healing the man who was possessed by demons, Jesus exemplified the statement that “All organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.”In our own time, Dr. King also exemplified the statement that “All organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.”And even in the last few weeks, as so many allegations of sexual harassment have surfaced, the “Silence Breakers” have exemplified this pattern as well, although you might say that we are still in the “dis-organizing” phase of this newly-re-energized social movement.
The contemporary German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said:“Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in [all of us].Those who hope . . . can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.[True hope] means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
In the story of Jesus healing the man who was possessed by demons, we can see a wonderful example of what Jürgen Moltmann has in mind.We can see Jesus the dis-organizing spiritual leader acting out of a sense of unrest, not rest, and impatience, not patience.He can no longer put up with reality as it is, but seeks to contradict it.Jesus – not the Christmas Jesus, but the mature Jesus – is in conflict with the world.Creative conflict, transformational conflict, conflict in the service of bringing good news to the poor, conflict in the service of bringing release to the captives, conflict in the service of lifting oppression, but conflict nevertheless.Whether because of powerful economic interest or simply because of fear of the unknown, Jesus encounters resistance.
The Sufi story that Erica told earlier this morning about the stream wishing to cross the desert offers some hope.As you recall, the steam was confounded when it came to the edge of desert because the water of the stream simply disappeared into the sand.A voice says, “The wind crosses the desert, and so can the stream.”At first, the stream is troubled because the stream must be transformed in order to move forward, and it is afraid it will lose its identity.Eventually, the wind persuades the stream that it must become dis-organized and then re-organized in order to move forward.The wind persuades the stream that its deepest identity will remain unaltered and unharmed even though its outward form will change.The wind carried the dis-organized stream across the desert, and on the other side of the desert, the steam was re-organized into a new stream.
This faith – that dis-organizing can be followed by re-organizing – is what Jesus struggled to convey to the villagers.This faith – that progress may require transformation – is what many communities need in our own time, both religious communities and civic communities.As our own country struggles with strong forces seeking to turn back the clock, may our faith be strong enough to understand that sometimes transformation is the gateway to a brighter future.
© 2017 by David Herndon