Harrowing Of Hell
June 19, 2022

Stories to Live By

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick

It is a profoundly human impulse.
We want to know how the big story, the meta story, touches our story,
How the global becomes local becomes personal.
We want to know how the story is our story.

It was three years ago,
It was Monday in Holy Week,
When some of us and
scores of people around the world
sat transfixed
watching pictures coming from Paris
as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned.

It didn’t take long before
Facebook feeds were filled with picture after picture
Of newlyweds and the newly retired,
Vacationers, and students studying abroad
All standing, all smiling
In front of that gothic wonder.
In one-on-one conversations,
we heard and told stories of travels —
Stories of the pungent smell of incense
or the flicker of candlelight
Or when we were in that cafe across the Seine
and snapped that one picture.

Even those of us who had never been to Paris
Told our own stories —
Of high school French class,
Or watching Disney movies with our kids or grandkids,
Or we told of our lifelong dreams to go.

Three years ago, on Monday in Holy Week,
As Notre Dame burned,
And in the days that followed,
We found ways that that story met our story.
Somehow, a cathedral ablaze
was about our honeymoon,
was about our study abroad,
our vacation, our retirement,
Our school reading lists,
our lifelong dreams.
There was something in us
That made us cross miles and moments
To make this faraway tragedy ours.
We want to know how the big story touches our story,
It’s a profoundly human impulse.
It’s something.
Three years on,
and I remember that Monday like it was yesterday.
Maybe you can, too.

We do it with Scripture, too, of course.
Those of us who teach Bible studies
or contemplative meditation
Sometimes even invite this —
Where do you find yourself in this story? we ask.
We encourage people to inhabit the story,
Move within it, embody it
With voice and gesture,
To get inside the biblical story.
Tell the story but make it yours.

Which works great until we find ourselves
With a story like our Gospel today.

There are few of us in this room, I imagine
Who would eagerly raise our hands
To say that our story
Is really the story of a naked man in the tombs.
There are few of us in this room
Who would readily want to admit
That we can relate to a community
That drives Jesus away.
There are few of us here
That would say publicly
That we spend our days
taking on other people’s demons
And casting them into the sea.

And yet, at this moment, in this time,
Perhaps we need to find ourselves in Luke’s story.
Perhaps we need to acknowledge
that this story may well be our own.
Because it is my suspicion
That most of us know more about
Living in the tombs or in this Gerasene town
Than we care to confess.

Some of us have done real time in the tombs, after all;
We’ve made a life for ourselves there, in fact.
We have lived there with our own legions of demons —
Those voices in our heads
The ones that keep us up at night
Or stalk us in the morning.
You know their names —
Grief and guilt,
Regret and hurt.
Addiction, anxiety,
Shame and sorrow,
All. of. them.
They’ve been our demons.
And we have been so afraid that anyone would see us —
That anyone could see us — in all our naked vulnerability,
That we have hidden behind tombstones
And kept company with those
who will never judge us
Who will never shame us
Who can never hurt us.

But — and here’s the rub —
While we have avoided judgment and shame and hurt,
The company we have found can never love us either.
They can never forgive us.
Never free us. Never heal us.
Some of us have made our homes in the tombs —
Either by self-banishment or by exile. 
So, we hide with our demons.

But then Jesus comes.
And as only Jesus can do,
He sees new life in every tomb.
Because it turns out
that the demons which plague us
are familiar to him.
They kept him awake at night.
Stalked him during the day.
And if we risk being seen by Christ,
Then the God who created us
By love and in love and for love
Will face down those demons with us.
So that where there has been
Regret and remorse
There can be forgiveness and freedom.
Where there has been sorrow and grief
There can be healing and hope.
Where there’s addiction
There can be liberation
Where there has been shame
And anxiety and failure
There can be grace and love abundant.
Where we feel most alone,
Jesus comes with the simple, steady promise
That we are, in fact, never alone –
That the demons of our past
Or the shadows of our present
Do not have to define us anymore.

Tell me the story but make it mine.
Some of us know something about life in the tombs,
But St Luke tells us that Jesus comes —
Goes out of his way in fact —
So that our tombs might be places of new life.
Like the man whose demons had kept him
Distanced from love and community,
But whose healing had brought reconciliation and welcome,
We can find ourselves embraced.

Of course, not all of us find our story
with the man in the tombs.
Some of us know a great deal more
About life in the Gerasene town.
This is pervasive in our country now.
We have heard
That the person whose shadow scared us yesterday
Now wants a place with us today.
And we are confronted with so many awkward questions:
How expansive, how encompassing is our vision of community?
Is there room for anybody? everybody? Nobody?
What if they — whoever they may be —
make demands of us or need something from us?
What if they show up
As real, complex, complicated human beings
That ‘they’ are because we all are?
What if this idea of community
That can so easily be idolized or sentimentalized
is actually harder than any of us ever imagined?
What if it asks more of us than we ever thought it would?
Is there still room at the table then?

Some of us know about life in this Gerasene town.
We know these questions,
We live these questions
at the ballot box
Or around our dinner tables
Sometimes even in the pews of our church.
And it is easier to ask Jesus to leave than
It is easier to stay in ideological enclaves
With everyone who agrees with us.
It is easy to draw the circle small and say, “just us.”

But Jesus still comes,
And as only Jesus can really do
He invites us to make a different kind of community,
One where we see each other in different ways.
To see each other not as strangers but as siblings —
Not as threats but as friends — as a single human family,
Where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free.
But people from every language and people and nation and race
Gathered together, bound together by the love of God.
Jesus invites us into this family,
And this is what the Spirit is up to in the church.
It’s why we as Episcopalians say that the mission of the church
Is to restore all people to unity with each other and with God in Jesus Christ.
It’s what we’re about; it’s what we’re always about.

It’s a profoundly human instinct
to tell THE story through OUR story —
even the story of a man who lives in the tombs
or a town that drove Jesus away —
this is practice for us to tell our stories anew
through the frame of grace and hope,
so that we might find grace and hope.

And you see the divine alchemy here, right?
When we start to tell our stories
through the frame of the Scriptures,
and when we tell the Scriptures
through the frame of our stories,
what happens is that
lives — our lives — are transformed
that somehow our demons are cast into swine
and thrown into the sea,
somehow we find new community,
and our communities move closer
to that ideal of the human family of God.
Now there’s a story to live by. Amen.