This Man is Scary: Social Location, Sin & Healing

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Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker, Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
June 20, 2010
Available online at:

Texts: Jeremiah 29:4-7; Luke 8:26-39

This man is scary.  To others, probably also to himself.  He lived among the tombs.  There was no place else to live.  He wore no clothes, the text says, and had no home.  Does that mean no family too?  The diagnosis of the time: He was possessed by demons.  We guess today a psychological disorder, but let’s not be armchair psychiatrists, two thousand years away.


But we might see him as a mirror of the self.  Chained, he broke chains.  No method of control worked.  In Mark’s original gospel telling he howled and slashed his skin with rocks.  We today practice our own forms of self-laceration.  Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book decades ago: Man Against Himself.  A toxic spirituality may promote a form of “sacred violence” against others, but also against ourselves, self-destruction as purification.  Marney used to say: The only hate some people will let themselves feel is self-hate.

In modern self-psychology we identify a myriad of conditions.  The divided self.  A split self where we have an idealized self and a disinherited self which has all the parts the idealized self cannot claim, while the real self, the true self, is nowhere to be found.  Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray writes of the “dissolved self,” especially the dissolved woman who gives herself so completely to the needs of others and the duties of life that she lacks a sure sense of self.  She needs a skin, a container in order to discover her true selfhood.

Merton and Nouwen speak of the “false self” fabricated by the world around us and our response to the world, a self which can become the compulsive self, the addicted self, the hyper-defended self, and the hyper-righteous self.  We could go on and on.  “Legion” are their names.

All these selfs are in need of healing.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Jeremiah cried.  “Is there no physician here?”

So Jesus the healer comes into our lives.  What does he have to work with in us?  More than pathology.  We are children of God, created in the divine image.  There is somewhere the true self God created and calls us to be.  Merton wrote, “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity… a hidden wholeness.”  Somewhere the river flows!  And somewhere your true self yearns to be born.  Believe this.

In today’s text Jesus heads into a land opposite Galilee, opposite in more ways than geographic, and comes to the realm of the dead, as he comes to us in our deadness. The man has nothing but shame, guilt and fear to feel before Jesus.  Which is sometimes our condition too.  So he cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me!”  He can only imagine God as his judge, his tormentor.  Some of us have been fleeing this kind of religion for a long time.  Some of us have transferred this religion inward and become our own judges and tormentors.  And we cannot find our way out of the judge’s chambers.

Jesus addressed the demons and asked their name.  “Legion,” the demon replied, “for we are many.”  A Roman legion had six thousand soldiers.  One translation goes: “My name is Mob.”  Even felt like there was a mob inside?

Then Jesus cast the demons out, healed this man.  We get this beautiful picture of healing: The man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  I think we can think of the deliverance miracles and exorcisms in the New Testament as healings of the self.


But now I want to move to the healing that the countryside and city of Gerasa needed!  They did not want the man healed if it meant his living among them.  Let him stay in the graveyard.  They did not want him healed if it adversely affected the pork business.

Upon hearing of the healing, people came from countryside and city to observe the healed man.  First they were filled with fear, then anger.  Then they ask Jesus to leave!  Sometimes today we invite Jesus and what he stands for to leave and escort him oh so politely, or not so politely, to the county line.”  “Stick to love, Jesus, and the Heavenly Home with streets of gold.”  We all know what finally happened to Jesus.

So let’s talk about a major issue facing our city today: mixed housing, affordable housing, and what in policy language is called “locational policy.”  Mayor Foxx is bringing a new “locational policy” to the City Council in September.  It appears to be a modest and good change to me, but it will be sure to stir up rancorous debate?  Can the faith community help provide a context for more civil debate.  I hope so.  Such is the hope of this sermon.

There is one major empirically provable point of agreement across our city and county: Nobody, but nobody wants affordable housing or mixed housing near them!  Not the poor, not the middle class, not the rich.  North, east, south, west we are all opposed.  Perhaps this common antipathy, and our shared fears and angers, can be a beginning point of an honest and just set of solutions.

You may know the statistics: 17,000 units are needed not just for the poor but for those who have jobs that pay $40,000 a year and less.  There are 8,000 homeless persons in our city, 3,237 homeless children in our public schools.  (I need to check the figure with our Carol Rodd, who is in charge of education of homeless children in CMS.)  The city now creates 470 units per year.  Obviously, we cannot build ourselves out the problem.  We need a multi-pronged approach, private, public, non-profit and religious communitites working together – and addressing many levels of help, economic, spiritual, family, community, including jobs.

Now I want you to study the map on the backside of the scripture lessons which depicts the concentration of poverty in Charlotte/Mecklenburg.  In the color edition, the colors go from dark brown to bright yellow.  You see in it tones black to white.  What you see is a Crescent of Poverty curving from the west, up over Uptown Charlotte and then curving down to the west.  Most of us here today live in the light white areas or in the original bright yellow areas.  This concentration of poverty affects everything in our community: schools, economic development, crime and the depletion of what is called social capital where we know each other across racial and class lines.

I call this map the Social Location of Sin.  By sin I do not mean the sin of those who live in the darker areas.  By sin I mean the social sin which has over years, decades, generations created and maintained concentrated areas of poverty.  By sin I mean public policy, real estate and loan policies, racial  and social bigotry – and need I mention the churches’ sad role, where 11:00 am is still the most segregated hour in American life.  These have together created and reinforced this Crescent of Poverty, the graveyard where we are content for some to live.

But this map may also become for us the Social Location of Healing.  It locates the challenge.  It shows us the work God is calling us to.  It involves public policy and private development, and it involves the best heart, mind, soul and strength of the faith community.

The faith community has been at work on this problem for years.  Think of Habitat for Humanity, think of the Urban Ministry Center’s Room In the Inn.  Last year churches housed 1,437 homeless persons in our churches Dec. – March.  And this for over a decade.  We housed 239.  And there’s the Emergency Women’s Shelter program in churches, and Family Promise where churches like ours invite two-four families to live in our church for a week.  These are families with children which are one step away from housing.  Our next week is coming up soon!  July 4-11.

These are ways we begin to invite the homeless poor into our church home and into our lives, our hearts, thus creating spaces of biblical hospitality, and thus beginning to open the boundaries of concentrated poverty in Charlotte.

But there is more we must do, must be about if we are to address Charlotte’s Crescent of Poverty with all its debilitating consequences.

First we need to help our city address it at a policy level.  We must not demonize people of Ballantyne or Ayrsley or the City Council.  They are us.  Abraham Lincoln called slavery a moral evil, but he was careful not to demonize the white Southern slave owner.  He did not engage in the “moral splitting” which locates all the evil in others and all the good in ourselves.  We all share the same fears and angers.  Can we rise above them?    Can we move from the part of the brain where fear and anger reside, the Amygdala, to the cerebral cortex where we think, imagine, empathize?  From the lesser angels to the better angels of our nature?  Can we move from short-term self-interest to long-term self-interest, which is a form of the love of neighbor as ourselves.  Can we adopt a shared sense of sacrifice for the common good of our community, the “common-wealth” of Charlotte/Mecklenburg?  Public policy is only one arm of justice, it often can only set a minimum standard, but it is an important part of social morality.

A scholar from the University of Chicago came to speak to the Foundation For the Carolinas eight or nine years ago.  I’ve not forgotten what she said.  She said the social fabric of a community is built upon the sacrifice of its citizens for the common good, but the problem with most communities is that the same people are asked to do the sacrificing over and over.  Over time they become the sacrificed!

Can we in Charlotte/Mecklenburg create an attitude and a policy of shared sacrifice which can alter the concentration of poverty patterns which bedevil us today?

Toward this end I have been at work lately with Mecklenburg Ministries and Foundation For the Carolinas and other clergy leaders around Charlotte to talk honestly about what is facing us and asking the policy question.  Do we have a constructive role to play here?  We met with Mayor Foxx two weeks ago.  Mecklenburg Ministries is sponsoring two Community Discussion sessions on June 24 and 30.  There will be public hearings during the summer on the new “locational policy” coming up in September.

Secondly, I have gathered Myers Park area clergy to see if we can work together and provide some affordable housing in our own Myers Park area, to go beyond public policy to biblical hospitality.  We met last week with some real estate and developer types, like our own David Furman, to see if we can do something modest now, bigger later; to see if we can provide housing for some families and connect them to services we are already providing through programs like Wish and Family Promise.  I’m excited about the energy and unanimity we are experiencing around this.  Almost all of our church is involved in affordable housing in other parts of town.  Take our work in Lakewood for example: Our Low Income Loan Fund provided from our Cornwell Endowment Capital Campaign has loaned Lakewood $211,000, which has resulted in:

  • purchase of twenty-eight parcels of land; Habitat has purchased five of these and has built six houses on four of these
  • $597,000 grant from City (HUD funds)
  • purchase of ten additional parcels of land
  • Habitat obtaining nine sites and constructing eight new homes
  • sale of building and leasing of two lots for future small businesses
  • sale of lot for future commercial development
  • sale of two parcels and pending sale of one more parcel to Faith Memorial for church campus expansion
  • pending sale of five parcels to Mecklenburg County for future park/trails
  • nine parcels available for potential mixed-use development to include special-needs affordable rental properties.  (We are currently planning and have applied for funding for our first phase of this mixed-use development to include nine units of rental in partnership with The Affordable Housing Group)
  • four parcels available for either high density affordable rental housing or affordable single-family ownership housing.  (We are currently discussing with Habitat for Humanity a partnership to create ten town-home units to be for sale with a lease-to-own option)
  • eight parcels available for afforable single-family ownership housing.  (We have agreement with Self-Help Community Development Corporation to develop five of these eight parcels for families earning less that 80% of area’s median income)
  • grant funding remaining for purchase of several additional parcels for affordable single-family ownership housing

Physical development in Lakewood since 1991:

  • 93 new homes (57 Habitat, 23 CMHP, 3 city, 10 private)
  • 46 rehabbed homes (21 CMHP, 6 LCDC, 2 city, 17 private)
  • 125 demolitions
  • over 50% of all Lakewood housing units (265 units) are new or rehabbed

But we’ve not done much together as Myers Park churches and we’ve not done something in our zip code.
There are great success stories few people know about, like McCreesh Place, which David Furman designed and our churches built.  It has a six-year track record of remarkable success.

What I want to voice and witness is what we’ve experienced at MPBC in all our ministries to the “least of these.”  We received as much as given.  In the kingdom of God we pour from our fulness into another’s emptiness and discover they pour from their fullness into our emptiness.

In Fosdick’s great hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” we sing one line confessionally:
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.

What we’ve discovered is that our neighbor to whom we minister can be poor in things and rich in soul!
In Hebrews the writer says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  How many could say this day, “Yes, that’s happened to me!”

There is a group of churches – we are one – who have joined together for over a decade to help the least of these, called the Jeremiah Group.  They take their name from Jeremiah 29:7.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, [that city being Babylon] and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

God calls us to the healing of the city.  “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician here?”  Yes, Christ is the great physician, and the kingdom of God he preached is the community of God made up of all people who work for the welfare of the city.  Praise the Holy One of us all,

The God of cities and countryside
neighborhoods, parks, houses and homes,
of children and parents and schools
of friends who are family
and family who are friends!

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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