First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Stop the Madness (Ps. 42; Gal. 3:28-29; Lk. 8:26-39)

Although we only read the 42nd Psalm today, the 42nd and 43rd Psalms belong together as songs of God’s people in times of trouble. These two were probably originally one song, and it’s really anybody’s guess how or why they became two. They are united by the same refrain that describes what the Psalmist was feeling. And, maybe, we are feeling it too today. It begins: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me”? From time to time, the Hebrew word that is translated as “disquieted” (or “in an uproar”) is used to describe a noisy multitude, and, indeed, there is a related word that does mean “throng, multitude.” Perhaps the psalmist’s insides are a mass of competing voices, as if from an unruly mob.

Last week when we met to worship, and I rose to preach, I did not know anything about the tragedy that had already taken place in Orlando, Florida. None of the rest of you must have known either, because no one said a word. Of course, we know now what a horrendous day it was. Again. Alas, we have all been in this situation so many times before, too many, and we have spoken about it here and elsewhere, many times before. Too many! In some ways, all of us (no matter who we are, from the President, to congressional leaders, to other political leaders, to plain folks like us), seem to say just about the same things every time. We express shock and dismay and anger. And of course we sincere, they’re genuine feelings. But it’s all become too predictable. The speeches from the two sides of the political aisle and from the candidates for political office are predictable in their sameness. The problem is that, after the speeches, nothing happens, nothing changes, and a few days, weeks, or months down the line, we all will say it again. I heard one person on television say that it’s almost like we all are reading from a script in which we all have assigned lines that we dutifully read, again and again. And, after we read them, and emote a bit, nothing happens, nothing changes because we seem to be unwilling to move out of our accustomed postures and treasured convictions, and have come to accept the script as an unchangeable representation of life.

I have no ability to say much about all this that hasn’t been said and said and said. Yet nothing has changed to make it less likely that it will happen again. I don’t think it is my place to use my role as a minister to tell you my political opinions, though I have them, and sometimes would like to scream them out. But that would only alienate and, still, would change nothing.
This much I will say. It seems to me as if some are getting ready to sacrifice the first amendment for the second. Big money talks and is vested in seeing to it that no real change comes about. Can we live with this madness?

I am to the point that I’m not satisfied just to live with the madness, because too many die with things the way they are. I am not satisfied to do nothing or say nothing about the way we have become as a people, a nation, and a world where terror encourages us to stick to our predictable scripts. So I cannot approach these texts, or, indeed any texts in the Bible unaffected by what happened, not only to a group of, for the most part, young gay folk in Orlando, but to all of us. Although I haven’t the ability to offer a deep analysis of any of the madness or the cure, I hope what I say will not seem like script reading. Indeed, I reject just reading the script because to do so suggests that we cannot change it, and do something about it. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me”?

Long ago a story was told about Jesus, a country rabbi from the village of Nazareth, who went across the Lake of Galilee, upon which he stilled a storm, into a place called the land of the Gerasenes, or the Gadarenes, or the Gergasenes (it doesn’t matter), it’s to a place he did not “belong,” a place where people where people of Jesus’ day considered the inhabitants unclean and “different.” And despised. And there Jesus caused his own storm when he met a man who had driven himself out from the town where he belonged and was living in the border-line space between town and tomb, in a state of mental and spiritual furor that arose, in the thought of Jesus’ culture, by his being possessed by a gaggle of demons with the corporate name of Legion, which is a Latin word for a group of about 5,000 soldiers, and so, a name for an aggressively shattering and scattering and slaughtering disease leading to an aggressively shattered, scattered and slaughtered personality. He was massively disturbed. He couldn’t navigate life because he was inhabited by too many voices that told him to be violent to himself and others, they made him to be out of control. Jesus, as he had done on the lake, at first, stilled a storm in the man’s spirit by expelling Legion. He, then, yet again, caused a storm in the culture when he sent the demons into a herd of pigs who, infested with Legion’s bent for destruction, charged down a hill and drowned themselves in the Lake of Galilee. Jesus, then, sent the man from the tombs back to the town where he belonged so that he could be restored to normal and useful life.

As you hear this story, in the light of our most recent tragedy that comes at the crossing point of hatred of what is different, and, so, considered dangerous, and the ready availability of assault weapons, of what do you think? With whom in the story do you identify? I doubt that many of us want to identify with mad man, but are we as a culture, like him, so inflicted by multiple unhealthy inputs that teach us aggression and violence that some of us, rather unpredictably sometimes, snap and act it out? Do we receive so many messages that even encourage us to count the rapid change of our society that leaves us all rather breathless, as a great evil against which we must push back? Does it not sometimes wear us out? Is our society not like Legion, the so-called Gerasene demoniac?

And again, the refrain echoes, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me”? These words, obviously, originally came out of some specific historical context, but we don’t know what or when it was – and although we can guess, it really doesn’t matter that much, since these words have been sung by many discouraged, disheartened, confused folk through the millennia to express the restlessness and “un-shalom” that has come upon them (and us) because things aren’t like we remember, and we don’t feel good about them. It makes the psalmist (and maybe us) feel as if we can’t even find God anymore, the world is so strange and different. The psalmist imagines this as like a kind of physical thirst for God’s presence. “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me, “Where is your God”? Who hasn’t wondered where God is in a world where we keep killing one another in great numbers because of hate? Why doesn’t God stop it. God has given us the means. We just don’t seem to have the will.

The psalmist wants to remember when things were better, when things seemed right. So do we. We all retreat to some version of the “good old days.” Our world is one of rapid change. Things happen so quickly that many of us find it difficult to accept. Behaviours, and, yes, groups of people, who once were considered “inappropriate,” are, with what seems like the wave of a hand, now pronounced just another way of being. We live in a world where “normal” is defined in ways that some folks have found difficult. And still do. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me”?

Yet the psalmist was not satisfied with the script of being cast down and disquieted in spirit. The refrain continues as a statement of determination: “Hope in God. I shall again praise the Holy One who is my help and my God.” Jesus was not satisfied with the script of exorcising demons. The psalmist calls out for hope, or more literally, for “waiting” for God. This is one of the many Hebrew words for wait, this one meaning “to wait visibly,” to give every sign of one who is waiting for God. I don’t understand it all now, but I am waiting, I am committing to God. It takes effort to wait, to hope, to vest one’s faith in the future. It also takes action and living into the new world by doing things to hope in God. By doing things to hope in God.

In the Gospel story, the shattered personality brought to shalom by Jesus, wanted, naturally, to remain with him and serve him, but Jesus did not want to be served, but wanted to unleash that restored child of God to give witness to God’s work back at home where people could not help but notice that his life was completely different than it had been before. Where he had been a force for violence and scatteredness, he was to be a voice for wholeness and unity.

If we are unwilling simply to continue reading the script of our outrage and sadness, in what kinds of ways might we give a visible sign that we have vested our hope in God for the future, in spite of all the changes that continue to happen in our world, whether we approve of them or not? Let’s bring this to a close by giving consideration to those two little sentences from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 3.

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.

These lines come out of a time of deep struggle that was occurring toward the middle of the first century as Christians were attempting, in the churches of Galatia (in Asia Minor), to decide what it was that made them the same and what made them different from their parent group in Judaism. Paul’s answer for the whole of Galatians chapters 3 and 4 is summed up in one word, “freedom.” Christian people are not bound to do everything that Jews do. This works out in a variety of ways, and, in the paragraph of which this is the climax, Paul has been saying that Christians do not even need to be Jews first in order to be truly the heirs of the faith of Abraham. That was controversial in Paul’s day. It is not now. Neither Judaism nor Christianity are the same as they were in Paul’s day. They could not be living expressions of faith and stay the same for two millennia. There is no reason for Christians today to have a kind of combatant attitude to Judaism that we find here, it’s an anachronism. Indeed, if that’s the meaning we find in Galatians, it’s a dead letter. This is a huge subject that I simply mention in order to make the point that we cannot be trapped with or limited to the exact historical meaning that Paul was using here.

As I see it, the nub of what he is saying to us is that, from the Christian point of view old social, political, economic, gender divisions that used to make a difference don’t anymore. We’re all about taking down walls, not putting them up (not to try to be political). The actions that contemporary Christians take in order to show that we hope in God, and that we are vested in God’s future are about making ways to find wholeness among various groups of people – whether we approve of their stances or not. Who says that people are asking for our approval in today’s world? They are asking to live. One lesson that these verses may teach us in this shattered world of madness today is that we do not have to agree with other people’s opinions, or, in fact, even approve of them and the way they have chosen to do things in order to treat them with humanity and kindness, love and respect as those made in God’s image. If we do we will find that we are all more alike than different, and we will open more doors than we close.

Might not this kind of action, carried out by individuals and groups of people who bear the name of Christ, even if in small ways, go toward saying we don’t believe the script of violence and hate cannot be changed because we have a master and a teacher, and a God who says different?

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.