Sermon for 19 June – Mary Bowden

Psalm 42

Luke 8.26-39

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?

O put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

I’m speaking today in both churches, against the published rota, in response to a difficult and shocking week. It included the massacre in Orlando and the football thuggery of British and Russian fans in France, was backed by the increasingly toxic rhetoric of the referendum debate and the American presidential campaign, and culminated on Thursday with the murder of one of an MP. Yes, the fact that Jo Cox was young, a rising star, a wife and mother of small children made that event even more deeply shocking and sad, but the sheer fact of an MP dying whilst on constituency duty is surely in itself enough to appal and outrage us.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?

O put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Like many people, I’ve been struggling for some time with the changing tone and language of political debate here and abroad, and of course my discomfort has reached a peak with some of the highly emotive language being used in the referendum campaign. I need to stress: I am not making a political point. 30 years in the civil service trained me in political neutrality and taught me the importance of focusing on facts and what could be done about them, ignoring, if you like, the rhetoric of our political masters and seeking the best outcome we could within the political constraints of each passing administration. But before I was a civil servant I was an English student and throughout my life I’ve been aware of and worked with the power of words: to inspire, to hurt, to heal and transform. When I began to think about becoming a priest, and always since, one of the things I prayed was that God would take the skills I had with words and use them in his service – you are the judges of that.

And so one of the reasons that my soul is full of heaviness and disquieted within me is the way that words are being used to expose and make valid attitudes and prejudices in our society which that society, through successive generations of governments of every political colour, has sought to make unacceptable and ultimately to eradicate.

Marina Hyde in Friday’s Guardian (yes!) quoted Louis Brandeis -an American Supreme Court Justice in the early 20thC. He wrote: We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself.” This is the power of words: the way we choose to use them sets the tone and temper of our discourse, publicly and in private. Words are the tools with which we construct arguments, lay out logical, persuasive cases: but equally they can be used in ways that make them deliberately emotional, gut-wrenching triggers which, in turn, make us vulnerable, playing on our fears, preventing us from applying logic, drawing us into prejudice. Have you heard anything more chilling than the man accused of Jo Cox’s murder giving his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”?

I admit that after the initial shock of hearing of Jo Cox’s death, my first reaction had been to hope that the killer wasn’t Muslim – and as we now know, the man who has been charged isn’t. But it does appear that he may be a member of another marginalised group, a group of which we can easily feel afraid, the mentally ill, and it also appears that because of that he was himself vulnerable and easily influenced. A lifetime of apparent interest in and involvement with far right organisations had led to nothing at all, until now. I expect we will never know for certain exactly why Thursday was the moment he chose to act, but I honestly believe it has something to do with the increased prevalence and thus the implicit acceptability of language which demonises other people, which makes us fear them, – whether as migrants, “nutters”, foreigners or, indeed, Muslims – which makes us think of them , of anyone who is different, as “other”, not like us, implicitly less human…. and so a cause for fear, a threat. So I’m suggesting that this demonising language was at least part of the reason why an MP, a woman who had dedicated much of her time to the plight of Syrians both in Syria and elsewhere, who campaigned for justice wherever she saw injustice, became in one man’s eyes a legitimate target for violence. And in our grief we need to ask – because no man is an island – where our responsibility lies and what we can do to prevent such things…. the huge violent injustices and the small, insidious, cumulative misrepresentations and slights of everyday life.

The answer, as so often, is to follow Jesus…..

Today’s familiar gospel story is one of hope and compassion. Jesus arrives in the region of the Gerasenes. The hills there rise steeply to the east of the Sea of Galilee, the lake and it’s easy to imagine the herd of pigs losing control and careering down into the water. It’s some way from Jesus’ home territory on the north and west shores – it seems that the people of Gerasa didn’t know him. In fact, he didn’t get as far as their town. Because as he stepped out of the boat he was met by …. a madman, a man possessed by demons, a man so frightening to his neighbours and family that he had been banished from the town to live naked amongst the tombs, and at times of particular madness, kept under guard and manacled with chains and shackles.

Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls;

all your breakers and waves have gone over me.

Of course, we understand that this story is told from a perspective and an understanding of mental illness very different from ours in the 21stcentury: and Jesus approaches it from within the context of his time. He heals by commanding the demons to leave the man, and then of course there is the whole complication with the pigs, and the name of Legion, often seen as a prophetic allusion to the occupation of Judea by the Romans – and their legions…. a sermon for another day….

Because what I want to focus on is the underlying truth of how Jesus responds to the man – the truth of compassion, recognition and action. Others have ceased to see him as a man, as a human being – he’s become in their minds an object of fear, a cross between a beast and a threat… “the demoniac”, “the madman”, the lurking threat among the tombs….

And then Jesus comes, and he sees, sees clear and true, through the fearfulness, the threat and the chaos, real as they are, to the truth, the humanity, the person made, known and loved by God. He speaks first into the madness, commanding the demons to leave, and when the man is no longer wild and screaming, he and his disciples complete the healing by caring for the man, giving him back his humanity and self-respect, befriending and welcoming him so that when the townspeople come, full of outrage over their drowned pigs, they find him sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And now everyone can see what Jesus saw – this man isn’t a stereotype, a statistic. He is one of them…. part of their community, sharing their humanity, healed and rehabilitated by recognition and respect. Jesus’ words and actions revealed this truth. Its hard for us to see others as Jesus would see them, but…

The Lord will grant his loving-kindness in the daytime; through the night his song will be with me, a prayer to the God of my life

The Lord will grant his loving-kindness in the daytime.

I am painfully aware of how often in my words, and the attitudes they embody, I don’t follow Jesus’ example. Careless assumptions, lazy clichés, dismissively clever-clever descriptions…. all these reveal the times when I am not reflecting God’s loving kindness in the day time, singing his song in the night. I’m not alone in this. What about you? How well do you recognise and honour the humanity of everyone you meet – the irritating acquaintance, relation or colleague, the inconsiderate driver (Haslemere Rants, anyone?), the dishevelled, muttering passer by..? Jesus shows us how in the way he treats the man with the demons – in all he does. His lovingkindness needs to be the source of ours, of our recognition and respect – and even love, for a person made in God’s image.

If we take care with our words, seeking always to treat and speak of the people around us with respect, crediting them with good intentions and seeking to understand their behaviour, even if we can’t condone it, not allowing fear to cloud our judgement: then we will be following Jesus’ example. We can’t heal the mentally ill, but we can recognise their humanity, speaking and acting accordingly.  We can’t solve the problems of millions of migrants seeking a new life in a safe place: but we can imagine how we would feel and behave faced with their challenges and offer welcome, prayer, support: not closed minds and borders and the language of fear and rejection. The words that we use matter. The words we use and hear form us, can transform us over time. The language of fear, of mockery, of hatred, is corrosive. It isn’t godly, it isn’t loving, it doesn’t witness to the love of God, it isn’t how Jesus would speak.

Can we resolve today, together, to watch our tongues, to resist the temptation to speak in ways that ridicule, disrespect, belittle others – the people around us, the people we see in the media. Well-founded criticism of others is fair enough, but don’t let’s make assumptions about each other’s motivation. We have seen this week the wrongness of the easy assumption that all politicians are out for what they can get.  Jo Cox certainly wasn’t. Let’s be careful what we say and let’s think about what our words say about us.  Language is an amazing gift – a blessing beyond price – but it can be misused and perverted. Let’s make sure that we use it, as Jesus did, to express and reveal God’s truth and love.

The Lord will grant his loving-kindness in the daytime; through the night his song will be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

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