Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Love One and Other

Love One and Other
Rev. Jennifer Browne
 

 

The title of today’s sermon comes from the graffiti spray painted on the base of a highway overpass on the Lansing River Trail bike path. I live in west Lansing and biking to work here in East Lansing is one of my favorite ways to start the day.

I had already ridden past the graffiti more than once before I realized that it didn’t say “Love one another,” Rather it said “Love one and other.” My guess is that it was a mistake, that the graffiti-ist actually meant “Love one another.” But what a blessed error.

Because surely it is true that the deepest, holiest way to love is to recognize in the other a “one”: one created, one gifted, one loved completely by God. One: not reducible to a label or a category. Not Muslim, or gay, or Latino, or female, or elderly. But one precious, unique, beloved human being, who may also be Muslim or gay or Latino or female or elderly or any number of descriptors that seem to encourage us to lump people together as “them,” “not us,” “the others.”

In our Scripture passage this morning, Jesus has crossed over into the land of the “the others.” Luke says that Jesus is in Gerasa, about 35 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee.  Gerasa is a Gentile city, and you don’t need to know anything about geography to know that, because the story also tells us that swine are kept in this city. So you know it’s not a Jewish town.

Jesus has crossed to the other side, the side of the Others, where he meets a man possessed by demons. We might describe him differently now. There is probably a name for his condition in medical textbooks.  Schizophrenia? Epilepsy? In those days, he was known as one possessed by demons, and indeed his life was a living hell. He lives in the graveyard, among the tombs. “For a long time,” the text says, he had worn no clothes.” “He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles” from which he would occasionally break free, only to be brought back and bound up again.

This graveyard man is the very definition of “Other.” He is kept away from the community, in torturous conditions, isolated and alone. Keeping him in the graveyard allows the people of Gerasa to think of evil and chaos and disease as something they have under control. It’s over there, in a designated location, away from them. He is sick and crazy and bad; which means that they are healthy and sane and good. He is “Other,” they are “Normal.”

Jesus commands the unclean spirits who live in the man to leave.  Actually, he doesn’t command them as much as he gives them permission. They beg Jesus to send them out of the man and into a nearby herd of pigs. He gives them what they ask for, and they’re finished off for good when the pigs rush down the steep bank and into the lake.

With that, Luke tells us, the man is restored to “his right mind.”  The townsfolk find him sitting at Jesus’ feet. Their reaction tells us how important the man’s role as the Other – the locus of evil and dis-ease - was to them. They neither rejoice at his healing nor celebrate Jesus as the healer. No indeed. Instead, Scripture says, “they were afraid.”

For years – decades perhaps – the people of this town knew where evil lived: it lived in the crazy graveyard man. For years, evil had been kept in its place, more or less successfully. Time and expense were spent guarding and controlling him, bringing him back to his proper place when he escaped.

Then Jesus showed up. And all the neat dividing lines between “us” and “him,” between “normal” and “other,” between “sick” and “healthy, were destroyed.  Now there is no “other,” which means that now there is no “normal.” If the graveyard man is not himself anymore, who are we?

No wonder they were afraid! The power of God had shown up without even being invited. It changed forever a way of life they had all come to accept. Power like that cannot be calculated or managed…and that is frightening.

Besides, pigs aren’t cheap, y’know.  And this Jesus fellow just sent a whole herd into the lake. God only knows what else he might do.

The people of Gerasa counted the cost and found it too high. Jesus had to go.

The healed man, naturally, wants to go with him. But what the man has experienced is exactly what his community still needs: healing, wholeness. Jesus tells him he is to go back home, to tell the story of what God had done for him.

Jesus’ mission of healing is not merely a matter of curing one person at a time, it is also a mission of healing: healing the communities that insist on regarding some people as sick or evil or “other,” so that they can see themselves as well and whole and “normal.”  The demons that Jesus conquers are not only those of disease and death, but also those of isolation and exclusion.

Many of us have only recently learned that Alexander Hamilton, one of our nation’s founding fathers, was also an “other.” I don’t know about you, but all I knew about Alexander Hamilton was that he fought a duel with Aaron Burr and that his portrait graces the $20 bill. Now, thanks to the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical called “Hamilton,” I know that there is more to the story. Who would have guessed that a hip-hop musical about the country’s first Secretary of the Treasure would be successful at all, much less win 11 Tonys?

I didn’t know, for instance, that Alexander Hamilton was born to an unmarried mother in the West Indies. From this beginning as an outsider – a true “other” –he became an American war hero, George Washington’s right hand man and a political master mind who shaped the political and financial systems of our nation.

Perhaps some of you have seen the actual show?  I know these things not because I have seen it, but because of the press surrounding it. Someday “Hamilton” will come to the Wharton Center and I’ll drive over from the west side of the state to see it. Until then I’ll have to satisfy myself with YouTube clips, especially the clips of the Tony Awards acceptance speech of the show’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Accepting his second Tony of the night last Sunday, Mr. Miranda came to the microphone and pulled a folded piece of paper out of the breast pocket of his jacket. “I’m not freestyling,” he said “I’m too old. I wrote you a sonnet instead.”

He may not have been “freestyling,” or improvising – as much of hip-hop is – but he could only have written his sonnet that day, since he used it to declare his love and gratitude for his wife, Vanessa Nadal, and to address the shooting massacre in Orlando, Florida, that had just taken place early that morning.

 

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And    love is    love is    love is    love is    love is    love is    love is   love   cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

 

As Miranda finished reading, he was crying, and the audience was cheering him on. It was a poignant and meaningful gesture in response to the shooting at the LGBT club, the full horror of which was still only just becoming known that evening.

But the poem is also, as you might expect from such a gifted writer as Miranda, a remarkable piece of writing. It isn't just any sonnet. You might remember from high school English that sonnets are identified by their standard structure, and their regular rhythm and rhyme scheme: 14 lines, iambic pentameter. (Ta da, ta da, ta da, ta da, ta da.)

But Miranda breaks the rules: his sonnet is 16 lines long, and has some moments of unusual rhythm. His poem reaches its climax in the second-to-last couplet, in which the first line has three too many stressed syllables: And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.

The next line has one too few stressed syllables: cannot be killed or swept aside.

In other words, write Charlotte Runcie, a writer for the The Telegraph, that last line needs the extra syllables from the line before it to balance the rhythm within the poem. It needs that extra love to become whole.

On a day of unspeakable tragedy resulting from a hate crime against people just beginning to be considered “us” rather than “other,” Miranda challenged us to resist the evil of violence, to cross over the boundaries that keep us separated, to love One and Other in defiance of hate and fear.

Jesus crossed boundaries. Traveling to Gentile territory, he took the healing, liberating love of God to the isolated, despairing life of one man shut out from his community.

·   Crossing the boundary of gender, he spoke to women as if they were people, not property.

·   Crossing the boundary of politics, he praised the faith of Roman soldiers.

·   Crossing the boundary of age, he treated children as if they were worthy of his time.

·   Crossing the boundary of life, he broke the hold of death, helping us to see that it is but a part of eternal life.

We, his followers, are charged to do the same – to cross the boundaries that exist in our world, recognizing the “other” among us as one of us.

After the tragedy of Orlando, my fear is not only that our nation will continue to act as if greater access to guns will somehow solve this epidemic of violence, but also that our Muslim neighbors will be increasingly isolated and viewed as less than fully human.

The man who perpetrated this senseless act is as Muslim as, say, the Oklahoma City bombers, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were Christian. But because they are already “other,” Muslims all over our nation are vulnerable to being painted with the same brush.

I know how capable you are, University Church members and friends. I know how committed you are to including the excluded, to enlarging the circle, to sharing God’s love with those typically seen as “other.” My charge to you on this last Sunday together comes from the letter sent to us by Imam Sohail Chaudry, spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of East Lansing, our neighbor to the north:

Dear friends and spiritual leaders (he wrote to us and other Christians and Jews in East Lansing):

The indiscriminate loss of innocent human lives has become an ugly reality of our times. The demonizing and dehumanizing of others has taken over the hearts of some and led to bloodshed and corruption.

Islam is a religion that promotes peace and justice and in no uncertain terms declares the importance of human life. The life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a living example of mercy and love towards others, even towards those who hated him.

In this difficult time, when our nation grapples with issues of gun violence and the world at large faces the demons of intolerance, it is important that we continue to be voices of love, tolerance and peace. It is important that we continue to stand by the victims of terrorism regardless of their faith, ethnicity, race or way of life. It is important that we continue to be the loudest and firmest of voices against hatred, injustice and violence.

In other words, friends, let us love One and Other.
 

With the Imam’s words, let us pray…

God, the Almighty, you are the Guardian of all the innocent. Give comfort and patience to the families of those who are victims of the senseless violence in Orlando last week. Guide and heal the sick minds that perpetrate terror in your name. Bring peace and justice on Earth. Replace hatred with love, ignorance with knowledge and violence with peace. Amen!

 

References

Personal email from Imam Sohail Chaudhry, Islamic Center of East Lansing. June 13, 2016

Synopsis of “Hamilton” from http://stageagent.com/shows/musical/4417/hamilton

Ned Ehrbar. “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Sonnet From the Tony Awards.” THE NEW YORK TIMES. JUNE 12, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/theater/lin-manuel-mirandas-sonnet-from-the-tony-awards.html?_r=0

Charlotte Runcie. “The English poet who inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tonys speech - and why it's a literary masterstroke.” The Telegraph.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/playwrights/the-english-poet-who-inspired-lin-manuel-mirandas-tonys-sonnet/