Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 19th June 2016
Reading Luke 8.26-39
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The scene in Luke’s gospel is in an area that - in Jesus’ day as in ours - is occupied territory. We know it as the Golan Heights. Back then, some Jews live there but it is basically gentile country, as we see from the herd of pigs, which are non-kosher animals for Jews. One thing these Jews and gentiles have in common is that they are run by Rome - wherever you live the legions are never far away.
There Jesus meets a man in a bad place. He is homeless, unclothed, in the graveyard on the edge of town, living among the dead. There is the suggestion of a history of violence, and certainly of mental anguish - Luke talks about demons. ‘What’s your name?’ asks Jesus. ‘Legion,’ he says, as though the forces that have invaded his country have led to an invasion of his mind.
When the magistrate addressed the man charged with the murder of Jo Cox MP and asked his name, he too gave a riddling reply - ‘My name is, Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.’ Again, there are suggestions of mental illness, and a history if not of violence then of interest in those who advocate it - but in private: he lived within his town, where others found him a good if solitary citizen. So what do his words mean? Had he become so obsessed by what he thought was happening to his country that it had invaded his mind?
Here is the temptation, as we seek a motive, to go in for what the columnist Jonathan Freedland has called ‘ventriloquising the killers’: putting words into the silent mouths of those who die as they kill; or taking the deranged or posturing words of one who does speak and pronouncing on what he is ‘really’ saying. And, whether it is the perpetrator of the mass killing of gay people in the Pulse club in Orlando or the killer of a British public servant in Yorkshire, it is a dangerous thing to do, especially with its further temptation to make the event grist to the mill of my cause.
By contrast, we know exactly what the victim on Thursday was really saying. Jo Cox’ calling was to speak and she did it wonderfully. I am sad to say that I knew nothing of her work and wish I had paid attention to what this brave and compassionate newcomer to Parliament was achieving. Here was a person who spoke and wrote with understanding about the anxieties of her constituents over immigration and about how immigration was enhancing the life of the communities she represented. Here was an eloquent campaigner for the Remain cause who confined herself to telling the truth, and who had no illusions about the EU’s failings, not least in its reaction to the greatest refugee crisis since 1945. And Jo Cox knew about refugees.
This morning, many preachers and congregations will be thinking - and thinking aloud - about her death, not just what her killer said but the rhetoric of the deed itself: what is it saying? It occurred in the middle of the nastiest political campaign most of us can remember, so is it a sign - albeit an extreme one - of what we are becoming, or might become? Or is it an isolated horror, a ghastly aberration?
That is a subject for something more democratic than a sermon, but we can say that it should make every one of us more vigilant and unaccepting about the routine vilification of politicians, from the abuse and threats on social media to that smug coffee mug slogan - ‘Don’t vote - it only encourages them.’ The Twitter initiative #ThankYourMP is a positive way to do that.
And it should indeed make us pause as we approach the vote itself. If violence is the most extreme form of communication, this murderous violence should make us determined to communicate in better ways. Here in the Cathedral last Wednesday we did a good thing, gathering speakers who approached the referendum from the perspectives of Christian faith. What I took from that evening was that a vote in either direction can be a legitimate working out of Christian faith if it is made on the basis of what will further God’s purposes of justice and neighbourliness - and our neighbours are not just in Belgium or Greece but in Africa and in the dispossessed neighbourhoods of our own nation.
As I look back at my continent’s history - over a thousand years of repetitive bloodshed until the birth of what would become the EU nearly seven decades ago - and as I look forward to a world increasingly distressed by a changing climate that knows no borders, I will vote to Remain, and then do my tiny part to see if we can make the EU more of a moral project. And I know a thoughtful Christian who for the same reasons of justice and neighbourliness will vote the other way. If we meet in the next four days we will talk, but not snarl or sneer. Now - if each of us here can have a couple of such conversations in the next four days we shall have done another good thing.
Soon we shall go to the polling station for the most significant vote in over seventy years. Then will come the day after. Either way, it looks like half the population will be dismayed and angry. One or perhaps both of our two biggest political parties will have dangerous, perhaps unrepairable cracks. What will be required of us then? Let’s go back to the man in the tombs.
Jesus restores him to his true self, but it is at a cost. It leads to a destructive chain reaction: until the man meets Jesus, he is an outcast; for him to be restored, the demons must be outcast; to contain the demons' destructiveness, the pigs must be outcast; and to calm the fears of the dispossessed swineherds and their neighbours, Jesus must be outcast. The disordered man's isolation finally comes to rest on Jesus. He bears the cost, the ostracism. He bears the disorder himself. And before long Jesus himself will be found on the edge of town, stripped of his clothes, among the dead.
There is something about Jesus that makes him able to accept, absorb, take on himself the gonewrongness of life that can’t be sorted out by common sense and goodwill. He is the Agnus Dei we sing about in this service, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
When Luke describes the death of Jesus he goes out of his way to show it as a martyrdom, the public death of a righteous man. The word martyr is overused and sometimes abused, but essentially it means bearing witness to something at a cost - even a fatal cost - to yourself. So when Parliament is recalled tomorrow to pay tribute to the Member for Batley and Spen it will be honouring a martyr of democracy and an open, civil society.
But bearing witness is not just for the exceptional. It is a common calling, and for those who worship the Lamb of God there is a particular kind of witness that Jesus calls them to bear in times like these. Forgive, he says; turn the other cheek; pray for those who attack you. Let the chain of hurting and being hurt be broken in you. Be the place where the disorder ends.
And here, as we take in the scriptures and break bread at his table, he gives us grace and strength to do it.
Chain reaction - see John D Davies & John J Vincent Mark at Work, Bible Reading Fellowship, 1986, and its discussion of Mark’s version of the story, Mark 5.1-20.
Jo Cox and martyrdom - Archbishop John Sentamu, Sunday Programme, BBC Radio 4, 19th June 2016, 39.06.