Sermon: The Gerasene demoniac and the bag lady
Preached on 20th June 2010
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Everybody on Washington Ave knew the woman by sight, but nobody knew her.
A diminutive figure: always in a plastic raincoat, always carrying a shopping bag and with her battered handbag over her shoulder and across her chest like a child's satchel in the days before that was fashionable.
Walking up and down.
Of indeterminate age, but prematurely elderly with blotchy skin and straggly grey hair tied in a pony tail that stuck out on one side close to the top of her head.
She had a flat in the Eleanor Roosevelt building, but really lived outside from dawn to dusk, and for her outside meant the main street of the run-down former steel town in the rust belt of Western Pennsylvania.
A man of the city who had demons met Jesus. He did not live in a house but in the tombs.
She started coming to church, slipping in at the back five minutes after service started, head down to avoid eye contact with anyone, leaving at the start of the last hymn.
Talking to no-one.
Thou cam'st to us in lowliness of thought
By thee the outcast and the poor were sought.
Be not thou far from me, O Lord; thou art my succour, haste thee to help me.
One Lent she slipped and broke her hip. The caretaker at church lived in same flats and told the church. Penny visited her in the hospital and sat with her, but Mrs Morris didn't want to talk.
That Easter a member of the congregation was seriously ill so after church a dozen people went to his home to sing Easter hymns for him and his wife. Then someone said "Why don't we go and visit Mrs Morris?"
She was in a twin bedded room in hospital and we filled it. We asked if we could sing to her and her room-mate. Her room mate took it in her stride and joined in. Mrs Morris was silent at first, but then she began to speak as we introduced ourselves.
She asked the two children Rachel and Lucy to come closer. "Rachel, that's my name." Then, when I introduced myself, she said "Ah! Miss Brown - you are the one who taught the children to knit"
The previous summer some of the children at church had asked me to teach them to knit, and we spent some evenings sitting in the back garden, a little knitting school of ten year olds trying not to drop or add too many stitches. The mother of two of the children edited the newsletter and put a passing reference in it to the children's summer activity. No-one knew Mrs Morris had read it or retained the information.
We sang some more Easter songs. Jesus Christ is risen today. Jesus lives! To him the throne over all the earth is given. Then we said good-bye and left. Rachel Morris said thank you and shook all our hands.
There were problems as they changed her drugs and psychiatric problems re-emerged. She was taken to the secure win of the hospital.
Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.
Only family were allowed to visit in the secure wing but she had no family because she was estranged from them. That was part of the problem, something traumatic had happened when her children were young. But Penny insisted on visiting and being registered with the hospital as a member of her church family. She took her outside in the hospital grounds, telling the nurses, "She's an outdoor person"
When Mrs Morris was getting better, Penny negotiated for her discharge and agreed to check her daily back in her flat.
Rachel Morris came back to come to church. We persuaded her to use first names, but there was always something of the Mrs Morris about her.
People came to see what had happened and when they came to Jesus they found the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
In that church, the congregation moved forward at offertory into the chancel to gather around the altar. When that happened, Rachel moved from the back pew to the front pew, and once everyone else had returned to their seat she crept forward to receive communion.
Most weeks she stayed to the end of the service. Sometimes she even came into the hall for coffee afterwards and sat saying nothing, watching, taking it all in.
On her birthday, a family from church gave a tea party for her. I took her flowers. Someone else gave her lace handkerchiefs and two of the children dressed a doll for her. "Such pretty things, all for me. Thank you." And there was a birthday cake with candles. I had never seen her smile so much as she sat in the arm chair surrounded by people and presents - and the cake.
It didn't work being at home, so she had to move into a nursing home half a mile from church.
The church sang carols there that Christmas and she introduced us to all the residents, "These are my friends" and she took pride in showing us her seat in the dining room.
Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Someone from church brought her to church, "Mr James, you know he always comes. ... I hope he doesn't forget to take me home."
She started to sit in the middle of the church rather than at the back, and then she started to come forward to the chancel with everyone else. At first she kept on the edge, then she stood in the middle of everybody.
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God, through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
She asked me how my theological studies were going - it turned out she had been a teacher once so she understood about me being away at seminary to train for ordination. She always grinned when she saw me when I was back at the church, and I made sure I greeted her as I walked into church. Whenever I gave her the chalice at communion she would look me straight in the eye, grin broadly, and only when she had heard me say the words "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation" would she take the cup and drink the wine. Then she always said say "Thank you" before turning to go back to her seat.
Here would I feed upon the Bread of God
Here drink with thee the royal wine of heaven;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
One summer Sunday there was no priest available to celebrate the Eucharist so I was asked to lead Morning Prayer. I was greeted at the end by a disgruntled Rachel: "Why didn't we have the bread and wine today? I like that bit." I explained there was no ordained person to celebrate. "But why can't you do it." I tried to explain ordination in simple terms.
That Christmas she had a new woollen hat. I was aware of her watching me during the Eucharistic prayer, trying to catch my eye and breaking out into the familiar, delighted grin when she did so.
I will declare thy Name unto my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. O praise the Lord, ye that fear him.
She died just before Easter five years after we sang to her in hospital. Apparently she had cancer and died very quickly. I was still at seminary and had not known she was ill. I just got a phone call from a friend.
I missed her next time I was home.
She was a gift to our struggling little parish, a reminder of unexpected new life in our midst.
Years later, as I tell you about her (although I have changed her name and those of the other people) I give thanks for having known her and been the recipient so many times of her impish, child-like grin, I can imagine her doing it in heaven.
I saw God's new life in Rachel, and she found new life among the people of All Saints.
O praise the Lord, ye that fear him. For he hath not despised, nor abhorred, the low estate of the poor, he hath not hid his face from them, but when he called unto him he heard him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied, they that seek after the Lord shall praise him; your heart shall live for ever.
Why do I tell you about Rachel? What God did for the troubled man in the gospel story through Jesus, what God did for Rachel through the people of All Saints, God still does today. This week the budget will hit the people of the north east hard. This week, according to the radio today, many women around the world will suffer domestic violence because of the World Cup. This week people we know, perhaps we ourselves, will face situations that feel hopeless and too much to handle. Will we be there for them like the people of All Saints were for Rachel, like the people of Jesus' time who knew the man and did their best for him, keeping him under guard and trying to protect him from himself?
God brings peace and wholeness to troubled lives in and through this Cathedral, this holy and prayed-in place which has been a place of refuge and hope for over 900 years. We know that from the stories we hear back from our visitors or from the chaplains. We are determined to keep this Cathedral free of admission charge and the pews at the west end are as important as those at the front because they are the first seats available for people who, like Rachel, might need to slip in and just to sit near the door of this church.
In a few minutes, we will be invited to receive the bread and wine, the gifts of our Lord's body and blood, in the Eucharist. Every time I place the bread I people's hands, I notice the enormous variety of hands that we in this congregation bring to God. Hands that on Monday morning will be in all sorts of other places, hands that will be God's presence for people, hands that, to paraphrase an old advertising slogan, can reach the places that other hands cannot reach. As you hold out your hands to receive the bread this morning have a look at them yourself, the hands that tell the unique story of your life, and offer them to God to be his hands in the world this week.
Thine arm, O Lord, in days of old
Was strong to heal and save;
It triumphed o'er disease and death,
O'er darkness and the grave.
Be though our great deliverer still,
Thou Lord of life and death;
Restore and quicken, soothe and bless
With thine almighty breath;
To hands that work and eyes that see,
Give wisdom's heavenly lore,
That whole and sick, and weak and strong,
May praise thee evermore.
We are called to be part of that healing work, to use our hands for God. Amen.
Galatians 3:23-29, Psalm 22:19-28, Luke 8:26-39