Birds of a Feather; One Flock

June 23rd, 2019

To listen to the sermon, click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:

If you’ve listened to a couple of my sermons, you just might recollect that I grew up in a small town in Montana. But what you might not know is that my hometown is the home of the Golden Eagles, the collective name for our athletic teams. And we not only have hometown pride galore, but we also have a pretty decent school song too; “Scream Eagles Scream.”  I know the song by heart as I not only sang it a bunch, but I played it at a lot of games and rallies and while marching with the Pep Band down Main Street in parades. As an adult, however, I find our team song funny for couple of  reasons– number one while golden eagles do hang out in pairs for life, they are actually solitary creatures who do not tolerate others outside of this bond AND while golden eagles are one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors in North America they  don’t actually have fierce and commanding screams– their actual calls ,when they call at all, are more reminiscent of a song bird than a raptor. In fact, that sound you might have in your mind right now that you think comes from an Eagle – well that cry is probably that of a red-tailed hawk—which film makers usually dub over the real call of the eagle.  Anyway, for our next episode of all the things you never wanted to know about eagles….

What started me thinking about this today is our scripture readings which, to my mind, fly in the face of an old saying – which has been traced back to Plato’s Republic –“Birds of a Feather flock together.” My mother was a fan of this saying and I used to hear it a lot in high school in the way of a warning. She would say it in terms of why I shouldn’t hang out with kids who were in ‘trouble.’ Because in a small town —everybody knows everyone’s business. So, if your friends were ‘in trouble’ at school or with the law, folks would assume you were wrong-doing too.  Guilt by association. Birds of a feather. This was made worse by the fact that, as my mother would often point out, mine was the only dark head in the group so that if I got in with the wrong crowd or I did something wrong – well I would be the one that no one would forget. To this day, I still walk around with the feeling that if I do something wrong, even if everyone else is doing it, I will be the one who is caught.

But in today’s scriptures, as smart as my mother was, Jesus and Paul would both suggest that she wasn’t necessarily right. Because both of them hung out with the ‘wrong crowd.’ Paul, who had zealously fought to preserve the purity of the Jewish faith, after his conversion spent the rest of his life and ministry with the very Gentiles he had railed against. And Jesus, well, when we meet him today—he has already done a whole string of miraculous healings for the wrong sort of folks– including healing a centurion’s servant and forgiving the sins of a woman who anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair and her tears. This gospel also reminds us that Jesus and the twelve did not travel alone. We read at the beginning of chapter 8, “…He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna…who provided for themout of their resources.” So, Jesus was not only healing folks with whom others wouldn’t have associated – he was also travelling them. In fact, his ministry was being supported and enabled by strong and financially independent women who would not have fit easily into the social expectations and mores of Jesus’ time. And in Luke, Jesus went so far as to say that the only thing that mattered was folks’ faith. We read, “…his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” I would guess that Mary, like my mother, would not have been happy hearing Jesus’ words ….because as this story is told in another gospel his mother is worried about his safety and is trying to get him to straighten up and fly right – birds of a feather and all that.

But Jesus doesn’t stop hanging out with the wrong people. In fact, a few days later he says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” The lake that he is referring to is the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and it is not a small lake. As some of our pilgrims probably know the lake is eight miles wide and 13 miles long and the other side is a whole different world than they are used to – in fact, it is a community of Gentiles. In Luke’s gospel this is the only time in which Jesus would travel to a Gentile community but while he was there, he does what he did – he heals. And in this case, it happens right away because just as they reach the shore he is met by a man of that city – a man who is possessed by demons. We read of the man, “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesushad commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.’

Of course, Jesus knows that it isn’t that man, himself, who is speaking to him. But he still asks him, “What is your name?” And the man gives his name as “Legion” because we are told many demons had entered him. And they beg Jesus not to order them back into the abyss.

 Now I want to pause here for a moment to talk about demons and pigs because we don’t really know what to do with demons do we? And we aren’t sure we approve of pigs being drowned. With demons, we have either trivialized them or we have written them off as a myth. And although quite a few of us might love bacon, we still can’t condone Jesus letting the pigs rush to their death in this manner. I am not trying to belittle these points-of-view. In fact, we could have quite a spirited and interesting discussion about them.  But I wonder if those discussions might lead us away from really thinking about the point of this story. Because you don’t need to believe in ancient demons to understand the point. If you feel more comfortable thinking of the “demons” as things like alcoholism, drug addiction, struggles or anything that keeps someone from being part of their community, the story still works. If you wish think to think of demons in terms of how we “demonize” our fellow human beings, that works too. And we can feel sorry for the pigs AND still be overjoyed for the man who is healed and returned to his community. Because in any of these readings of Jesus’ healing of the Gentile man, we can clearly see what being Christians – what spreading God’s good news looks like. And this is ultimately what the Lukan author is trying to get his contemporaries—to get us– to recognize.

For just as Luke knew that his contemporary audience would make a connection between the name of the demon, Legion, and the 10th legion of the Strait – a Roman military Legion that had power over of Judea and all Israel and whose emblem was a boar, ie pig, we probably can make links between the demons and legions of societal, physical and substance issues that often seem to take over a person’s life and separate them from our society too. And while we probably would not describe these issues as demonic, isn’t it interesting that the ways in which we isolate, talk about, and try to distance ourselves from the people who suffer from these issues, has not changed much in two thousand years.

How many times do we see those who are ‘other’ separated and living apart from the community?  Sometimes these separations take the form of physical walls or barriers, but often there are societal forces that hold them apart and in their ‘place.’ We see this in our own families and in our own towns to greater and lesser degrees. We all have a roles given to us. We use these roles as identifiers – some like mother, father or sibling, while not inclusive of all that a person is, are benign but others like foreigner or illegal alien or enemy can rob our fellow human beings of their humanity and even demonize them. We are asked to help and heal those who are not like us and to see them the children of God they are regardless of the labels by which others refer to them. We are called to believe in the possibility of every human life and remember that Christ came to save us all. As Paul would remind us, “… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” This Good News that Paul shares with believers in Galatia is his way of saying, “Friends every one of you belongs and don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t.”

At our confirmation retreat, I asked our young people to articulate what they prayed for the church in the future and how the church might best support them. And one of the things they voiced was their hope that the church would clearly live into our beliefs and work for positive change in our world. This year, I strive to live into their hope because that is the work of the Church. Whether we do this work going across the lake, marching in the streets, coming together here at church or congregating at a game – we are called to the work of healing and caring for those who struggle against both personal and societal demons. We are called to speak about and spread God’s good news that all are loved by God because in God’s estimation there isn’t a wrong crowd. While birds of feather might, indeed, flock together—in God’s eyes we are all one flock. In today’s world, we may feel like only loudest, angriest voices can be heard. But voices of love and hope are just as powerful. As the mighty golden eagle shows us when we rest securely in the dignity of our humanity there is no need for loud proclamations – there is no need to scream.  We just call upon God and we will be empowered to do the work given us.