|Today’s scripture readings:
Last Sunday morning, when a gunman massacred 49 people and injured dozens more at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the Jewish people were celebrating Shavuot. The two-day holiday, which commemorates God’s giving of the Torah, began at sundown the night before the shooting and ended at sundown two nights later. Orthodox Jews don’t travel or use the internet on the Sabbath or on holidays. But at 9:17pm on Monday night, as the sun set and the festival came to an end, members of one Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., met up and walked together to a gay bar as an act of solidarity and support. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfelt said he hadn’t been to a bar in more than 20 years, and he’d certainly never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told him about a bar called the Fireplace, so he announced that would be their destination. Afterward, they found out this bar was frequented predominantly by gay African Americans.
When they arrived at the bar, one of the members of the synagogue approached the bouncer and explained why they were there. The bouncer immediately broke down in tears, explaining that one of his cousins had been killed in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando. He embraced them, thanked them for coming, and invited them inside.
“It turned out that we had so much in common,” the rabbi said. “We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my business card so his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. We shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar. Everyone there embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.”
The rabbi described it as a tremendous learning experience. “I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into an African American gay bar, it is not the opening line of a joke. It’s an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”
At a time when fear and suspicion, or grief and pain, might tempt us to turn in on ourselves and close ourselves off from those who are different from us, I’m grateful that today’s readings are about crossing boundaries and breaking down barriers.
Most of the cities and countries named in the Bible are unfamiliar to modern readers who don’t have a firm grasp of Middle Eastern geography, so you would be forgiven if you missed the significance of the setting of today’s Gospel lesson. We read that Jesus and his disciples went to the “country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.” This was Gentile country, the home of foreigners who were shunned by the Jews. It’s a place where no good Jew was supposed to go, and certainly no good Jewish rabbi like Jesus.
It gets worse. The first person Jesus meets is a man possessed by many demons. Let’s not get too hung up on the demon-possession aspect of this story. In a pre-modern culture like ancient Israel, any number of maladies were presumed to be caused by unclean spirits who entered into a person and wreaked havoc on their life. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of forces beyond our control invading our lives and tormenting us. That’s how I would think about the demon-possessed man in today’s story. In any event, this man who was consumed by these evil spirits would have been considered unclean by ancient Jews. And on top of all that, we are told that the man has no house of his own but lives among the tombs. He sleeps in the graveyard, among the dead—who, by the way, were also considered unclean in Jesus’ day. So let’s put this all together: As today’s gospel lesson begins, Jesus and his disciples have arrived in an unclean land, where they have met a man possessed by an unclean spirit, and the man is living in an unclean place. This is the last place Jesus should be.
But there he is. Jesus goes on to cast the demons out of the man into a herd of swine, who then run off a cliff into a lake and drown. When the dust settles, we find the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, at peace and in his right mind. And then there’s the townspeople. Rather than celebrating with this man that he has been freed from the demons that had plagued him for so long, the residents of the town are afraid and ask Jesus to leave. After all, those swine that jumped off the cliff belonged to someone, and now there’s at least one farmer whose business has been ruined. Jesus has barely been in town 20 minutes and he’s already destroying the local economy. The people want him gone. Jesus tells the man to share with everyone how God has rescued him, and then he and his disciples return to Galilee.
Think about what happens in this story. Jesus takes his disciples on a long and arduous journey across the Sea of Galilee to go someplace they shouldn’t even be going. While he is there, Jesus has a turbulent run-in with the townspeople and is chased out of town, and then he and the disciples go back home. The entire purpose of this tumultuous trip seems to have been to heal this one man who was being terrorized by demons and had been consigned to life on the margins. What’s the point? I think we’re supposed to understand that there is no place God is unwilling to go to comfort, console, and heal those who are broken or despairing.
Part of what makes the Orlando attack so tragic is that it happened at a place where people living on the margins came together to find comfort in community. The night the shooting happened was Latin Night at Pulse nightclub and nearly all the people who were murdered there were Latino. About half those who lost their lives that night were of Puerto Rican descent. Earlier this week I read a reflection by Javier Morillo, a gay acquaintance from Puerto Rico who now lives and works here in the Twin Cities. He reflected that his culture is less accepting and that many young gay Puerto Ricans are forced to keep their sexuality under wraps. “My folks and the Puerto Rican community as a whole have a dramatically different relationship to gayness and out-ness,” he said. “There is so much more space than when I was growing up, but still, I can’t help but wonder if any of those 49 dead are being outed to family and friends in the most public and violent manner imaginable.” Those who died last Sunday were people who desperately needed the sanctuary provided by Pulse nightclub, because too many of them lived the rest of their lives on the margins.
Our call as Christians is to follow Jesus to the margins, to break down barriers, build relationships, and offer comfort and healing. I wonder, if we were better at that, would we have fewer “lone wolves” who feel so disconnected from their humanity that they can perpetrate a mass murder? Too often our impulse in times of crisis or distress is to build walls, close borders, and keep others out. We find people or groups to scapegoat and double down on an “us-them” way of seeing the world. Jesus challenges us to resist turning in on ourselves and instead to build bridges across difference and cultivate community. That’s where we will find healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.
Last Sunday evening, just 18 hours after the shooting in Orlando, around two thousand people showed up for a vigil in Loring Park in Minneapolis. A couple dozen elected officials and candidates for political office were there that night, and each took a moment to introduce themselves. At one point, two young women—both candidates for the state legislature, one from the south metro and one from inner city Minneapolis—approached the microphone together, holding hands. One of them introduced herself as a gay woman; the other introduced herself as a Muslim. The crowd roared. “Hand in hand, we move forward together,” one of them said, and then the other chimed in: “This is what our country is all about. Love prevails.” Love prevails.
Schmuel Herzfeld, “What happened when an Orthodox Jewish congregation went to a gay bar to mourn Orlando,” in The Washington Post, June 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/06/15/what-happened-when-an-orthodox-jewish-congregation-went-to-a-gay-bar-to-mourn-orlando/.
David J. Lose, “Pentecost 5C: God in the Shadow Lands,” on …In the Meantime, June 14, 2016, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/06/pentecost-5-c-god-in-the-shadow-lands/.
Javier Morillo, “Recordando Orlando,” on Thug in Pastels, June 15, 2016, https://thuginpastels.com/2016/06/15/recordando-orlando/.